Exploring Gyeongju, a City Rich in History and Culture

I have set some goals for myself during my tenure as Ambassador to Korea.  A key priority, of course, is to continue to strengthen and deepen the U.S. – Korea people to people and cultural ties.  Accordingly, a goal of mine is to visit and experience every UNESCO World Heritage site and activity in Korea during my time here.  It’s a tremendous opportunity to highlight the rich Korean culture to Americans, learn about the history of this great nation, and have fun exploring this fantastic country! 

Recently I visited the city of Gyeongju, home to several of Korea’s UNESCO World Heritage sites.  It was truly impressive.  I saw several historic landmarks and got a sense of what life was like during the Silla Dynasty.  Two spectacular sites I visited were the Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple, two of Korea’s most important Buddhist sites.  I loved seeing the Buddha statue seated in the main chamber at Seokguram Grotto.  The artwork inside the grotto is a spectacular, timeless  masterpiece – a truly unique part of history. 

On a side note, I am also looking forward to seeing how Buddha’s birthday is celebrated in Korea.  I can already see some decorations along the main plaza in Gwanghwamun and am very much looking forward to participating in the celebrations with Robyn and Sejun.  This will be a very interesting experience for all of us.

A Kind Welcome at Seokguram Grotto

At Bulguksa Temple, I was amazed to learn that the temple is home to seven officially-designated National Treasures.  I learned a lot about the cultural heritage of this site listening to Chief Monk Jong-Woo, who was full of valuable insights and counsel. 

Chief Monk Jong-Woo tells us about Bulguksa Temple

Another unique place was ‘Poseokjeong,’ one of Gyeongju’s historic sites.  The pond at my residence in Seoul, Habib House, is a replica of the pond found here.  I find the replica pond at Habib House a great place for quiet reflection, learning and relaxation.

 Two Poseokjeongs
– the original in Gyeongju (large photo) and at Habib House (insert)

It happened to be school trip season in Gyeongju so I also had the chance to interact with schoolchildren from many parts of the country.  They were kind enough to ask me how I am feeling and wished me a quick recovery.  We shook hands, exchanged smiles, slapped high-fives, and took photos together.  I was surprised that young children recognized me, and we had great fun together chatting about everything from school to baseball to their summer plans.  They were full of energy and enthusiasm!

 Making new friends with Korean schoolchildren

I particularly enjoyed meeting Master Choi, the maker of Gyeongju’s Gyodong Beopju, a renowned traditional liquor and an important intangible cultural property.  The Choi clan has been brewing this special libation for over 300 years with a secret recipe. They are making it, not to earn money, but to maintain this long tradition – a very special part of Korean heritage.  I was so impressed by the history of this delicate craft – as well as its delicious and smooth taste – that I brought back a few bottles of Beopju for Sejun’s 100th day party for our guests to enjoy (they certainly did!)

With Choi clan of Gyodong Beopju

The last stop was Dongguk University where I had a great discussion with students about their studies and how they are preparing for their future.  They even gave me a very cool jacket and a student ID.  It was a very vigorous exchange.  One of the best parts of my job is meeting young adults like these who are the future leaders of Korea and making them aware of opportunities to work and study in the United States.  You can learn about some of these opportunities here http://www.ggi.go.kr/.  I also got to meet some of the very dedicated faculty and staff, including some Korean language teachers in the picture below – I was lucky they didn’t give me a pop quiz on the spot! 

Had a great time at Dongguk University’s Gyeongju campus

I want to express my gratitude to everyone who helped make this such a wonderful trip.  Please check out my interactive travel map and UNESCO checklist at the following link: http://goo.gl/irDTPg.  I hope I can meet you on the road in the near future since I really enjoy meeting new Korean friends!

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