Fresh faced and excited about having four days off school (well, five days for Dan but we don’t talk about this!), we began our Saturday with a coffee at the bakery and bid adieu to our friends as we all went our separate ways for the Lunar New Year holiday. It was then off to the “trusty” 205 bus to take us to Ulsan where our adventures would begin. We hopped off the bus near where we thought the bus terminal was and walked…and walked…and walked…
After a while we still hadn’t stumbled across the bus terminal – though the signs were still pointing in the right direction – but we did accidently come across the gigantic ferris wheel that dominates the Ulsan skyline. In all the times we’re gone to Ulsan, we’ve never quite managed to work out exactly where it is or how to get there, its just taunted us from a distance. Well today was our lucky day as we randomly found ourselves at the bottom of the particular Lotte department store that happens to house this attraction.
Just a note on Ulsan here. Its certainly not known as a tourism mecca or anything but we couldn’t help but laugh when quick google searches led to this same comment on every site we found:
“There are twelve touristic ‘scenic sights’ to see in and around city that range from the natural to man-made. However none are world class or notable sites within Korea itself.”
What a sad sales pitch for a city! But one of these non-world class or even Korea-worthy sites is the ferris wheel. So we can tick one off the list now.
The ferris wheel, or Lotte Wheel as its actually called, is accessed on the 7th floor of the department store. Its incredibly hard to find facts about the wheel so we’ll just give you our best guestimate that the wheel itself is probably the equivelent of another 15 stories high. It certainly is visible from pretty much anywhere in Ulsan so now that we were here there’s no way we weren’t going to go for a ride, even if we weren’t allowed a romp!
The views of Ulsan from the wheel are incredible and it was actually a really useful way to orientate ourselves with the city a bit better.
We also looked down from our car and found…the bus terminal! Yay!
A good 25 minutes later, we had completed our circle of the wheel and hopped off armed with a new found sense of direction and masses of photos. Down through the mall, out the door, round the corner and we were at the bus terminal before we knew it. As was everyone else! This particular public holiday in Korea is the big one and everyone travels back to their families to celebrate so the bus terminal was packed. We duly lined up, bought our tickets and got on a remarkably empty bus headed for Gyeongju!
Gyeongju is the former capital of the kingdom of Silla, which ruled most of Korea in the 7th to the 9th century. Due to a history of more than 1,000 years as the residence of Korean rulers it holds a rich heritage of sights and remains of that period. The city undertakes a lot of effort to preserve that heritage. (Thanks Wiki) – okay, so it sounds great but having seen a bit of Korea and the “fantastic” sights it promotes we take everything with a bit of a grain of salt these days.
The bus wound its way through fields of rice, old style houses and varying degrees of old and new. So far, it was looking promising.
Hopping off the bus mid-afternoon the first thing we noticed was the proliferation of large buildings promoting, by way of many brightly coloured signs, “motel” – AHA! we exclaimed – the district of love motels.
Now staying in a love motel is one of The Things to Do in Korea so first order of the day was to find somewhere to lay our heads for the night.
We walked into pretty much the first place we came across, Time Motel.
We were not disappointed.
A bit of background – love motels reportedly exist to provide couples of differing degree of, shall we say, legitimacy, a place to meet and “hang out”. Its a huge industry here and you will see a district of these motels in every city. They can be recognised by the huge and generally tacky looking signs, large degrees of neon, odd names and odd promises.
Another distinguishing feature of these places is the car parks which have discreet curtains that open to allow cars to enter and exit and then neatly come down again in order to conceal who exactly is visiting. No license plate spotting if you’re suspicious about what your other half is up to, in other words!
They have also become a bit of a go-to place for expats and travellers as compared to other hotels they are remarkably inexpensive, notoriously flash and extremely well equipped. More about that soon. They also don’t advertise on the internet or take bookings – they are available on an ‘as you turn up’ basis. So for an extremely busy public holiday weekend a love motel is actually the perfect solution for a spontaneous and unplanned vacation!
Right, so having selected our target, we walked through the front door (covered in decals etc so nothing is visible from the street) and were greeted by the front counter.
Again, with the utmost discretion in mind, all interactions take place with neither side seeing each others faces. Money is passed through the small gap in the bottom of the window, the key, together with a pack of toothbrushes and toothpaste, is passed back and you’re on your way.
The lift took us up to the 5th floor where we stepped out into a dimly lit corridor where pictures of Avril Lavigne and some other random, sultry-posed creatures adorn all the doors.
We identify our door, crack up laughing, take a photo and then enter.
What we discover is truly breathtaking. Its hard to know whether to start by showing the huge TV screen – with free 24 hour porn…
or the amazing internet set-up with an unbelievable stereo system….
or the attractively made bed…
equipped with red-light ceiling panel above…
the hot tub, big enough for a family…
or the extensive range of products included with the room.
Due to the nature of their particular business, these places are set up in such a way that you don’t need to bring ANYTHING with you. Seriously. Just to give you an idea, use of the following items are included in your room price:
- Hairs brushes, combs, hairspray and a spare hair tie
- Moisturisers in both his and hers varieties, shaving products, facial cleansers, body wash, shampoo, conditioner (the nice Dove stuff too, not cheapy motel crap!)
- Condoms, “de-sensitising” cream for men (we guess men having illicit affairs sometimes get a little excited?!), and a cock ring
- Bath salts, bottles of water and energy drinks, copious boxes of tissues, unlimited internet and TV
The businessman popping out for “lunch” during the day doesn’t really have to worry about anything. There’s even a neatly placed ashtray and lighter for that post-event cigarette.
After having being doubled up with laughter for a good half hour while we took photos of everything, we decided it was probably time to head out and explore some of the more historical sights that Gyeongju had to offer.
We wandered around the streets pretty stoked at having a new and so far very interesting place to discover. The market there was huge so we spent a while meandering through the winding alleyways, pausing only to stuff our faces with some mandu.
There are information kiosks all over the place so we availed ourselves of a map and got some great tips from the staff enabling us to suss the places that top of our list to see on our rather limited budget and timeframe. We made an executive decision that we would spend the rest of the evening cruising around the streets of the downtown area, having some dinner and then head out to see the big sights (a little way out of the city area) the following morning. And then we realised we were standing right bang-smack in front of some pretty impressive looking mounds – housing nothing less than the tombs of ancient Silla royalty.
Its always mind-blowing when you are innocently going about your business in a town and stumble unknowingly across something so cool and significant. These burial mounds are absolutely beautiful in a really strange way.
Our stomachs were by now rumbling ferociously so we stopped off for a quick dinner and then went for more wandering, this time discovering the very busy and very flash high street end of the city. We were particularly taken with this shop which, we’re guessing, probably sells clothes for Westerners.
We carried on winding our way through the very busy and very brightly lit streets soaking up the atmosphere and also keeping a cheeky eye out for a bar that might sell something other than soju and beer (which is pretty much the standard establishment). What we found first though was a Kopi Luwak cafe – being utter coffee snobs and always keen to try a new cafe we stopped there and drank some espressos.
When we left we realised that it was in a line of no less than four cafes, all in a row. Something that really impressed us about Gyeongju was the incredible number of independent coffee houses. Most towns in Korea have the standard chain cafes – The Starbucks, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, bakeries etc – but Gyeongju for some reason has many great non-chain places. We’re definitely keen to spend more time there checking out the great coffee the place has to offer.
Feeling caffienated and ready for action, we headed back over the road from the cafe to have another wander around the tombs, by this time in the dark. The light was really cool and eerie and yet again we were overwhelmed by the sense of awesomeness and the proximity of this history.
On a completely different note, the other attraction that looked absolutely amazing by this time of night was the love motels.
By now, we were ready for that drink and the only place we had seen all day that wasn’t a Hof was a dark and dingy looking doorway with a sign saying Juliet. Beggars can’t be choosers so in we went.
And what should we find but a gorgeous looking bar, with gorgeous looking bar staff, a great selection of spirits and…K-pop playing. We had the bar pretty much to ourselves and after a few Jack & cokes for Dan and a few very strong cocktails for H-J, the K-pop was actually kind of enjoyable.
So enjoyable, in fact, that slightly tiddly, we headed back to our motel to play our new favourite tracks at top volume on the incredible sound system. Dan danced around like he was at a gig while H-J decided that she might take advantage of the huge hot tub. Turning on what she though was the bathroom light, she made yet another amazing accidental discovery…
Oh yes, a colour change lighting system.
And the discoveries didn’t stop there. She poured in the bath salts…which turned the water into lovely scented purple coloured porn water.
Could this place get any better? We think not.
Day two saw us wake up refreshed and exhilarated by everything we had encountered so far. This somehow led to an argument about whose family gave the best horse bites. But we digress.
We sampled another one of the cities cafes before catching a bus out to see Bulguksa Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage sight and home to no less than seven of the National Treasures of South Korea. Hearing what we thought was an announcement for the temple, we hopped off the bus and discovered fairly quickly that we were in the middle of nowhere and many, many kilometres away from where we meant to be. We walked around and saw some pretty sights but then decided in earnest to get back on track.
To cut a long story short, we eventually managed to get on another bus and headed up to the temple area. The area is also home to another UNESCO attraction, the Seokguram Grotto so we decided to head there first and see the temple on the way back down.
Now the Grotto is one of the best known cultural destinations in Korea, so we were pretty amped.
The guide books talk about this fantastic UNESCO protected sight, they speak of how the paths are lined with dancing chipmunks and about the stunning views at the top of the mountain all the way out to the East Sea.
Accordingly, we walked the pretty mountain path, lined with paper lanterns, full of anticipation.
We arrived some ten minutes later to the site, climbed some stairs and then went into a small building…where the Grotto with the famous Buddha statue within is ENCASED WITHIN, behind a glass partition, with “no photo” signs everywhere and security guards around.
Seeing as we can’t show you the grotto, here is the building.
This was a huge disappointment. Nowhere – not in Lonely Planet, not on websites, not in the tomes of tourist information – does it say that you can’t actually go into the grotto, or even get really close enough to see anything through the grotty wall of glass.
The view to the East Sea was ever so slightly underwhelming too…
Oh well, at least the lanterns are pretty.
We walked back down the hill bitching and moaning about what a gip it was and decided rather than getting back on the bus to take the mountain path a couple of kilometres down back to Bulguksa Temple.
On the way, we pass a huge Buddhist bell, which for the paltry fee of 1000 won you are allowed to ring for mercy. Dan couldn’t resist.
For the record, we also didn’t see a SINGLE chipmunk, dancing or otherwise.
The Temple complex, however, is gorgeous and more than made up for the Grotto disappointment.
By now we had spent most of the day adventuring around and not being able to justify the expenditure of staying another night this time round, we found that the train station at Bulguksa could take us directly back to Namchang, the village next to where we live! In a short but action packed trip of many random discoveries, this was one of the best as it means that we can just pop up to Gyeongju any weekend we fancy to explore the bits we ran out of time for! We’re already thinking about our next sojourn as we fell in love with the place AND haven’t even scratched the surface of the sights there.
We got back to our village in the early evening, with just enough time to pop up to the supermarket and stock up for the next few days as EVERYTHING will be closed. Midnight came and thus so did the Lunar New Year.
So Happy New Year to all!
새해 복 많이 받으세요
(sae hae bok manhi bah doo seh yo – please receive lots of good luck in the coming year).