One thing you will notice if you spend any time in Korea is just how proud Koreans are to be Korean. They will extol the virtues of their cuisine. They will explain how healthy Korean life is. They vaunt their work ethic, and where it has gotten the country in the past five decades. They especially delight in their history, from hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, to the besting of the Japanese armada by Yi Sun Shin and his 13 ships, to the creation of their own language by King Sejong.
For their ancient history, however, there is an unfortunate dearth of actual structures. While Korea's history rivals that of Europe, and stretches long centuries past America's, it has suffered some disappointments in its time. Long stretches of time were spent chafing under Japanese control. (The nationalist in every Korean still resents this fact.) During these times, much of Korea's history was lost or wantonly destroyed. This loss was exacerbated by the not-so-distant civil war. Because of this, many of the historical sites you may visit in Korea today are actually reproductions of monuments which no longer exist. Even the Imperial palace in Seoul, Gyeongbokgung, is awkwardly clean and new-seeming.
In a small (for Korea) city on the eastern edge of the country, however, there are still vestiges of Korea's proud past. Gyeongju is a fascinating city located among beautiful green mountains. While it isn't regarded as being incredibly important today - let's be honest, had you heard of it? - over 1000 years ago, this was a city of great significance.
A millennia ago, Korea was coming to the end of a long period of division. Three kingdoms vied for centuries for ultimate control of the peninsula. Gyeongju was the center of power for one of these states: Silla (57 BCE - 935 CE). During this time, the Silla accomplished some amazing things. Their burial mounds are massive enough to be mistaken for natural, if miraculously symmetrical, hills. Nearby these mounds, the oldest surviving astronomical observatory in East Asia (Cheomseongdae) still stands, masquerading as the world's largest chiminea.
A short, beautiful hike from the majestic chiminea lies Anapji Pond. This man-made pond was part of the Silla palace complex. While the original structures were all destroyed, the foundations have been excavated, and are in view for all visitors. The pond itself fell into disrepair with the downfall of its designers, though it was dredged in the 1970's as part of a renovation project. Three of the original structures lining the pond have been replaced with modern replicas, and the entire place is now lined with lights so that it looks beautiful at night. There are some consequences to this beauty.
Unfortunately, as I've said before, the Koreans are fiercely nationalistic, and take their national treasures to heart. While the sun shines, the pond is a wonderful, and relatively quiet place to visit (as far as Korean sight-seeing goes). But as the sun's power wanes, the lanes surrounding the pond begin to flood with tourists. By the time night falls, the extremities of the pond are lined with tripods and expensive DSLRs. Photographers wait in line to shoot from the good spots. Vendors hawking light-up swords, fans, helicopters, and a dozen other overpriced, made-in-China trinkets line the thoroughfares, delighting children and draining their parents pockets.
What wonder I held for the beautiful quickly waned as I was buffeted by my fellow tourists. Soon after I got the shots I wanted, I retreated to the nearby forests for a bit of solitude, and then I began the long walk back to the bus terminal.
Gyeongju is a beautiful city with a wonderful history, but like most tourist areas, it is far too filled with tourists for my liking.
If you would like to visit Anapji Pond, be prepared to pay a few bucks for entry, bring snacks and some drinks, claim your photo spot long before sundown, and be prepared to fight to defend it. And, of course, enjoy. That's what travel is all about.