Biking among the cherry blossoms

Gyeongju's tree-lined streets
After a record-setting winter proved just how cold the month of April can be in Korea, there’s nothing better than seeing a tree, or a street brimming with them, blooming with the signs of spring. If a passerby wasn’t approaching a walk on this street with enough grandeur, the speakers blaring melodramatic classical music were sure to push anyone in that direction.

The timing of our trip to Gyeongju couldn’t have been better. We left on the tail end of the first week of April and a cycling challenge I am participating in called 30 Days of Biking. It was also smack in the middle of cherry blossom season.

Gyeongju Cherry Blossom Season
Gyeongju’s cherry blossoms aren’t a very well kept secret: the area was packed with tourists. Still, the crowds rarely proved so pervasive as to spoil the views or the ability to enjoy the day.

Gyeongju is a city several hours southeast of Seoul and was the Capitol of the Shilla Dynasty back in the day. In recent years the city has developed upon its historic notoriety and along with it made itself into a booming tourist hub, particularly in the early spring when the cherry blossoms that line the streets are in full bloom. As our trips’s organizer told us, it is a city best seen on two wheels.

Tall guy on a little bike.
Tall guy on a little bike. Apparently 6 foot 3 1/2 is not the typical dimension of the bike rental shop’s clientele.

My bike was a little on the small side, which was fine because we weren’t riding very fast anyway. The traffic, both human and motorized, was heavy and densely packed, all of us with the same mission: to enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of a budding springtime season.

Magnolias
Cherry Blossoms don’t steal the whole show of the spring premiere here. Magnolias make a notable appearance too.

The best route to take for cherry blossom vistas is to go around the lake. A longer track runs around the lake-front park following the road, and a shorter yet more scenic route follows the shore and surprisingly high floodwalls encircling the lake. From the moment I entered the lake path my vision field turned to a pink, blue, and green hue, the cool colors of spring are here, and temperate weather to boot.

Members of our biking gang.
Members of our biking gang.

History and heritage fans should stick close to the area around the tower—the oldest astronomical observatory in all of Asia—as this is where the many tombs of Shilla era royalty are easily accessible. It’s about impossible to miss the tombs, enormous mounds of Earth rising out of the ground as if to remind posterity of the Shilla Kingdom’s prominence in shaping the Korea of today.

Cherry Blossoms of Gyeongju
With Asia’s oldest observatory on your left and a hillsides dappled with entombed royalty on your right, a tourist can’t ask for more accessible heritage and history. And if you thought ancient royalty was just a bunch of stuffy aristocrats, those cherry blossomed hillsides hold a few surprises. A short walk brings you to the esteemed ancient site for royal drinking games and the centuries old natural refrigerator.

The Shilla was the dynasty that unified the three kingdoms ruling over the Korean peninsula. They were promptly overtaken by the Koreyo kingdom which ruled the land until the beginning of Choseon. Most of the buildings of note in Gyoengju were constructed in the 700s.

Cherry Blossoms and puppy love
The air was absolutely aromatic with the sweet smell of magnolias, cherry blossoms, and of course, sappy love. A country with a surprising commitment to most things nauseatingly cute, it’s little surprise that couples young and old were out in droves to giggle on tandem bikes and the like. But in a country that enjoys Valentines Day so much they created a holiday for the 14th day of every month, what can you expect?

The area immediately around the tower is one hotbed of historical landmarks—including the stone refrigerator built into the fortress which looks over more than 30 tombs—and just across the road is a park where 25 Shilla kings and queens are buried. This park is also home to a replica mound where one of the kings’s burial affects, coffin, and tomb are on display.

Cheomseongdae Astronomical Tower
Cheomseongdae Astronomical Tower is one of the oldest observatories in Asia. If the ratio of bricks to days was plaguing you, rest assured knowing that the 361 and a half stone slabs used to build this monument are equal to the number of days in a lunar year.

For a truly enchanting experience combining both cherry blossoms and history, a trip to Bulguksa Temple is a must. The temple is a sprawling complex of pagodas, pavillions, living quarters, and various structures for teaching and practicing Buddhism. The entire complex was torched by the Japanese during their ruthless invasion of Korea, and much of it has since been rebuilt.

Bulguksa Temple
Constructed in 751 AD and restored in 1973, Bulguksa Temple is a truly distinctive site. In Korea temples are as common as gothic churches in Europe, and as grand as they often are, they can start to feel as bland and predictable. This temple compound, with expansive views of pagodas and mountains, is far from stale. Structure after structure unfolded one after another, each impressive and distinctive.

The lookouts from various parts of the Bulguksa reveal serenely gorgeous landscapes of mountains and forest. For just under $4 one can scale the temple and gaze into the expansive nature surrounding it, pondering the lives of the kings and monks who practiced Shilla Buddhism from this same summit during ancient times.

Bulguksa Temple
Bulguksa Temple is steeped in history. There’s much to see and learn here, although lacking a personal guide and Korean fluency, I’m sure most of it went over my head.

The local culinary specialty seemed to be Ssambap, a one course meal made up of 30 separate and unique side dishes, or banchan. The place we ate at was nothing to write home about, but there were many places to try the finger-food meal and if banchan is your thing, it’s worth giving it a go. Usually cold and uncooked, banchan often include different varieties of pickled vegetables, raw seafood, and other salty items. If side dishes, aren’t your thing—and you don’t mind paying the premium—there are barbecue beef places in the quaint food village outside the lake.

Pedal on, brave soldier!
Pedal on, brave soldier!

If the scenery doesn’t entice you to stop and take it all in over refreshments, then the smells of meat cooking on an open fire might seal the deal. Barbeque is a hallmark of Korean cuisine and hardly hard to find. The samgyeopsal, a pork dish that is basically uncured bacon, was among the best we have had in Korea thus far. The place we ate at had an amazing side salad along with three other delectable varieties of banchan.

Bomunho Lake
Bomunho Lake offers cyclists and walkers a perfect place to appreciate the spring colors lining the water. But cyclists beware, the closer you get to the resorts and theme park, the more densely packed the crowds. Young children on mini motorized four wheelers may appear cute, but should also be considered dangerous.

A trip anywhere outside of Seoul makes for a relaxing weekend, but Gyeongju was a unique blend of history, culture, and natual beauty rarely found so perfectly balanced and preserved.

Bulguksa Temple
A worn doorway in Bulguksa Temple.

3 thoughts on “Biking among the cherry blossoms

  1. Hi Cathy,
    There are definitely cherry blossom trees around the lake. It’s a gorgeous site, but be warned that on one side there are many resorts and restaurants and when the flowers are in bloom, it can get ridiculously busy. The majority of the lake is not as congested, however. Good luck!

    Like

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