Gyeongju

We drove north from Busan to Gyeongju, a coastal city described to us as a "museum without walls." Rife with royal tombs, burial mounds, dense mountains, and ancient ruins, Gyeongju is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a popular tourist spot for both Koreans and foreigners. When we told a new Busan friend that we were headed there, he winced at us. Boring. We didn't really know what to expect.

I was looking forward to the quiet, though, to seeing all trees and mountains and blank roads instead of crowded alleys and fluorescent lights. I love the chaos of urban life, the sense of infinite possibility that arises when thousands of strangers are constantly thrown together, but it's easy to get overstimulated. And lately I am impatient with the unavoidable consumption of crap that comes with living in a big city, the constant barrage of marketing, fashion and misguided ambition; there's so much minutia to navigate—the subway commute, the quickest paths crosstown, infinite tiny interactions and the resultant small talk, hours wasted on electronics and shopping. I wanted to whittle my time down to the real stuff, to purposeful activity. We got a little taste of it in Busan but in Gyeongju we'd be more isolated. Walking around pagodas and then sitting quietly under the night sky, contending only with my thoughts, sounded perfect to me.

Lulled by a repetitive stream of mountains and hills flitting by our windows, we drove fifty miles on major highways and then finally turned down a small path leading up into the mountain. We were headed to Gyeongju JY Pension, a remote guesthouse located on the slopes of Mount Toham. As we traveled deeper into the mountain, our path narrowed to a sliver of dirt running precipitously alongside cliffs. We drove slowly, first passing a few food tents and other pensions, and then it was nothing but hermetic mountain life. Beautifully combed rice fields, hot pepper patches, orange trees,  farmhouses burrowed in brush, mountain dogs howling into the autumn air. Hardly a person in sight.

The road ended in a valley and abruptly became a walking trail leading into the mountain. Our pension was below, a trio of wooden buildings resembling alpine cottages, all lit up in a tawny sunlight. We stayed alone in the pension for four days but could have stayed much longer. Early in the morning, heat streamed up through the floor boards and we looked out into the mountains right from our bed. We cooked dumplings and noodles in our modest kitchen, had mate and Kyoho berries out on the balcony. Huddled in our coats in the cool damp morning air, we watched smoke dance above the rice fields and listened to birds ring out like little bright bells. Later, we hiked through the mountain to a grotto and temple. Went into town and walked along a river.  Visited the crowded temples and floated above the city in a hot air balloon. Drove around, trying to match music to the landscape (some of the music we were listening to). We cooked barbecue with the grounds manager, ate roasted chestnuts fresh from the oven, still wrapped in tin foil, and drank Soju into the night, watching our wild landscape disintegrate into a deep black mass. It was a beautiful, romantic and quiet place. The more I try to describe it, the more I reduce it. Here's the landscape to speak for itself.

House in the mountains

Farm

Gyeongju

Brush

Gyeongju YJ Pension

Gyeongju YJ Pension

Gyeongju YJ Pension

Temple

Around the lake

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