KIA BUZZ: SO-KO ROAD TRIP BLOG #2 – Guest Post by Journalist Jonathan Thompson October 3rd, 2016
The SO-KO Road Trip Blog series is a 5-part guest posting series by UK travel and lifestyle journalist Jonathan Thompson on his 9 day trip through South Korea. Jonathan regularly writes for leading UK media and was recently honored with the ‘Travel Writer of the Year Award’ by the British Guild of Travel Writers. Connect with Jonathan on his social media accounts: Instagram, Twitter
All photography was done by London-based photographer Mark Chivers. Visit his website!
KOREA’S FORGOTTEN CAPITAL
It sounds like the pre-credit sequence of an Indiana Jones film. According to local legend, it was a lost postman who first stumbled across the giant Buddha. Caught in a heavy thunderstorm while crossing these hills in 1909, he sought shelter in the nearest cave. After pulling back fistfuls of moss and vines, one can only imagine his shock as he lit a match and saw an enormous stone face staring back at him.
Forgotten for hundreds of years, the Seokguram Grotto and its colossal granite inhabitant – dating back to 751AD – have finally been restored to their former glory. Today, the grotto’s Buddha once again looks out across the valleys below to the Eastern Sea, protecting the country from unseen foes.
It was a different country back then: almost the entire peninsula (including modern day North Korea) was ruled by the Silla dynasty from their ancient capital, Gyeongju. Today that city – tucked into one of the valleys beneath Seokguram – is our base for the night, the third on our South Korean road trip to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Kia Motors UK.
We left the impressive Soul EV behind us on Jeju island, and are now driving the new Kia Niro, one of the very first off the production line. A parallel hybrid, its petrol and electric power units work seamlessly together (we don’t even notice the change as we drive), meaning far higher fuel economy and lower emissions. It’s also a pleasure to drive: comfortable, smooth and luxurious with plenty of connectivity too. (The wireless smartphone charging facility is a brilliant addition).
After leaving Jeju, our first stop on the mainland was the vibrant southern port of Busan. South Korea’s second largest city after Seoul, Busan is also renowned for its mountains, beaches, hot springs and seafood.
Keen to sample the latter, we visited the town’s sprawling Jagalchi Fish Market, where you can buy pretty much anything imaginable from beneath the waves – and plenty more that isn’t. Grabbing a delicious, steaming selection (including fish kimchi and sea worms – both considerably more tasty than they sound), we sidestepped the hustle and took our factory-fresh Niro to picnic by the ocean’s edge.
An enjoyable 60 minutes’ drive north of bustling Busan, Gyeongju is a completely different experience. With its pretty temples, palaces and gardens, Korea’s ancient capital is all peace and serenity. To fully embrace the historic experience, we decided to park up the Niro at a traditional ‘Hanok’, or guesthouse, where visitors sleep on heated floors with just a ‘yo’ (padded quilt) for comfort. It’s one of the best night’s sleeps of the entire trip.
Some 1,300 years ago, Gyeongju – with its traditional architecture and grand burial mounds – was one of the most powerful cities on the planet, with more than a million inhabitants. Today its population is just a quarter of that, but ‘the museum without walls’ still holds more tombs, temples, rock carvings, pagodas and palace ruins than anywhere else in South Korea. Not to mention, of course, the giant Buddha in that extraordinary hillside grotto above, maintaining his eternal watch over Korea’s ancient capital.
This story is the second of a five part series. Don’t miss out on the other stories about travelling through Korea in the coming weeks!
▶ Read Part 1: KIA BUZZ: SO-KO ROAD TRIP BLOG #1: INTO THE SOUL OF JEJU