Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Traveling to the historic city of Gyeongju - Cherry Blossoms take 2

After our failed attempt at seeing the elusive Korean cherry blossoms a few weeks before and the discovery of our new hobby, we decided to give Seoul Hiking Group a try and signed up for their upcoming Gyeongju trip.  And boy are we glad we did!  Just like Adventure Korea and WINK, Seoul Hiking Group provides all sorts of weekend trips around Korea.  Unlike the other groups, however, they offer them at unbeatable prices.  Warren is not only the founder of SHG but he also organizes and goes on every single trip.  Equipped with a passion for hiking, traveling, and socializing he offers a unique opportunity for foreigners and Koreans alike to enjoy every aspect of Korea, with a special emphasis on hiking of course (as its name infers)!  Warren is also immensely friendly and flexible, accommodating guests needs on every voyage with tailor-made precision!  Unlike the other groups, I also discovered that SHG has its very own loyal base of travelers who swear by it and who will only travel with Warren and the SHG.  Obviously, I can't speak highly enough of both Warren and SHG, so I recommend that you discover how awesome they are by yourself and sign up for one of their upcoming trips (check out the link above).

Traditional Hanok houses
Another upside to the SHG is that they pick us up directly in Jukjeon, so there is no need to travel to Seoul to take the bus.  Instead, a short 10 minute walk takes us to the bus stop where we get picked up!  For this particular trip, we would get picked up at 11:45pm en route to Gyeongsang province, where the former capital of the Shilla dynasty (Gyeongju) is located.  At about 3am, we arrived at the YangDong village (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) where we had a few hours to "try" and get some shut eye in a Hanok or Korean traditional house.  I said "try" because by 4am, the neighborhood cock (or rooster) was already up and crowing away at the first morning light.  Needless to say, sleep did not come easy!  By 8am, I was up and about, enjoying the breathtaking scenery the village had to offer.  Already, we could spot a few cherry blossom trees that were in full blossom.  The day was definitely promising!

Jen concentrated on the steep part of the hike!
After a nice breakfast, which included hard boiled eggs, sandwiches and cereals, provided by Warren, we were off to discover and explore the historic city of Gyeongju.  Our first stop was Mt. Namsan, which we hiked to its 468m peak in a little over an hour.  The weather was absolutely gorgeous and we met some really nice people along the way!  The hiking trail was packed with Buddhist statues and pagodas as well as people and was definitely a very popular spot.  The peak also gave commanding views of the Gyeongju area, which was clearly more rural than the Seoul metropolitan area.
One of many statues along the way
At the Peak (468m)

One of the many tombs we visited

After the hike, we penetrated the luscious city and rented bikes to explore it more thoroughly.  Along with our little group of newly-made friends, we visited many prominent tombs of the Shilla dynasty (which looked essentially like huge hills of grass), the Cheomseongdae observatory (which is the oldest astronomical observatory of East Asia), a barley field, and of course, an abundance of Cherry blossoms.  In the late afternoon, we headed over to Bomun Lake, which was a lot farther than the map had led us to believe.  By the time we got there, the sun was setting and it was already time to head back.  We only catched a glimpse of the lake before getting back on our saddles (yes, our butts were starting to hurt by this time as well) and going back into town.  Before returning our bikes, we stopped at the Anapji Pond to see it all lit up at night and for some famous red-bean paste bread, which we collectively devoured in no time.  By 9pm, everyone was back at the bus, ready to head over to our Minbak for the night, where Jen passed out almost immediately of exhaustion.  I managed to go grab a bite to eat with some our new friends at a traditional Korean restaurant before crashing and calling it a night just before midnight.  I think everyone felt the weight of the day ushering them to their room for some well deserved sleep.
Cheomseongdae Observatory
Yay! Cherry Blossoms
Jen in the barley field
Beautiful Cherry blossoms
Anapji Pond at night
Bulguksa Temple
On Sunday, some were up before dawn to go see the sunrise over the East sea and spy from afar an islet tomb of King Munmu, who according to Warren "unified the three kingdoms and became the 30th ruler of the Silla Kingdom.  The King gave specific instructions to be buried in the East Sea after his death so that he would become a dragon and protect Silla from Japanese intruders."  Although it sounded quite interesting, our pillows won us over and we skipped that part of the excursion.  Instead, we awoke a few hours later refreshed and ready to go!  After breakfast, we visited the Bulguksa Temple, which is over 1,000 years old. We followed that up by spending half an hour in Cherry Blossom "heaven" at the base of the temple.  The grove of cherry blossom was in full bloom and produced some of the most amazing compositions my eyes have ever seen.  Pictures could simply not capture the enchanting beauty of this place.  It literally felt like we were floating in a dream (possibly an anime dream :) where heaven and earth met.  Simply wonderful!

Cherry Blossom heaven
Up close and personal
Our last attraction was the Seokguram grotto, which in midday was an excruciating short hike to see a preserved nature-made grotto with a Buddha statue in it.  A lot of hype for nothing, unless you count the ice-cream bar we consumed exciting!  Then, it was back on the bus for the slow, loooong ride back home.  However, we were extremely satisfied of our weekend expedition with Seoul Hiking Group.  We finally got to admire the elusive Cherry blossoms at their peak performance, met some incredible people to spend the weekend with and had a joyous good ol' time hiking, walking and biking around the history-filled city of Gyeongju.  Cross off another thing from our bucket list! Thanks Warren and SHG! We will definitely see you again in the near future...


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