Songnisan 2 days

Tour Highlights

Oeammaeul Village Songnisan National Park Beopjusa Silleuksa Yeongneung Tomb Hwaseong Fortress

Day 1 Seoul - Asan - Songnisan (B) 200km
Today, your road leads you to Songnisan national park. En route stop off at Oeammaeul Village and explore one of the traditional clan villages exuding old and rustic charm. The village entrance is marked by stone bridge, pine forest and totem poles. This village with more than 400 years of history has about 70 traditional houses, and is highlighted by 6km-long stonewall paths ringing the village and the amazing artificial water system that goes through the entire village for gardens and agriculture. As you stroll along the pathway, you will see thatched cottages and tile roof houses representing typical village layout of central Korea and at the same time feel the rural ambience and peaceful atmosphere.

Then journey onward to the Songnisan national park. The Songni literally means an "escape from vulgar". The tour passes through Maltijae, a 12 hairpin turn, and shortly thereafter leads you to a 600-year-old pine tree. Shaped like an open umbrella, it is 15 meters high with a girth of 4.5 meters. This tree was granted a ministerial title when it reportedly lifted its branches in order to let king's palanquin pass in the mid 15th century. In recent years several branches were damaged by wind and snow, though what remains is still beautiful.

See Beopjusa temple. Founded in AD 553, the temple boasts of three national treasures and numerous cultural assets. Palsangjeon that houses eight paintings of different stages of the Buddha's life is the five story wooden pagoda constructed in early 17th century, and is a very rare and unique Buddhist architectural structure. Gazing down at the Palsangjeon is a 33 meter high and 160 ton Maitreya Buddha, the Buddha of the Future. The giant iron pot whose diameter is 2.7 meters that may well had been used to feed 3,000 priests in the early 12th century is on display in the temple courtyard. A stone carved lantern supported by twin lions standing face to face is a rare example of the magnificent Silla sculptures. A stone water cistern shaped like an open lotus flower is considered unique for beauty and design. This stone lotus blossom from the 8th century is supported by a round short stone carved like a mushroom. Nearby are two stone pillars which once held the temple banner pole. An excellent carved relief called Maaebul also can be seen.

Hiking is recommendable as many scenic trails available leading to numerous hermitages and eventually the peak of Songnisan. The temple holds a Dharma bell striking ceremony at sunset. The bell, which almost all Korean temples are equipped with, is one of the four Dharma instruments together with Dharma drum, wooden fish, and cloud-shaped gong. Hearing it reverberating through the universe, you will reflect upon the profound symbolism of the instruments. It is a great vow to save, or enlighten, the creatures in the universe including those on land, in the sea, in the air and in hell.

Day 2 Songnisan - Yeoju - Suwon - Seoul (B) 290km
Today, you will explore Silleuksa temple from the Silla dynasty (BC 57-AD 935). Most Korean temples were built high in the mountains to avoid worldly noise and trouble. But, it is a rare temple that is perched on a riverbank amid an attractive waterfront whose cove forms a snug and cozy enclosure for this ancient sanctuary. Incense burning in the temple and sights and smells mixed offer visitors a really magical experience. The temple houses Amitabha Buddha, Samantavhadra, the Boddhisattva of Practice, and Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Enshrined in the Judgement hall are Ksitigarbha and the ten kings of the Hell. Attending the kings are various servants and behind them are the pictures of the different hells with their tortures. To the east of the monastery is a hill on which a seven-story brick pagoda stands. It is a 9.4 meters high and is the only existing Goryeo brick pagoda (918-1392).

Then on to Yeongneung to see one of 119 royal tombs of Joseon dynasty. The tombs have different names of 42 Neung, 13 Won and 64 Myo, which were given based on the status of their owner. Yeongneung is a tomb of royal couple of King Sejong, who promulgated Korean Alphabet in the 15th century. This tomb is the first one to have separated rooms for each coffin inside. First, you will enjoy seeing the celestial globes, equilibrium sundial, armillary sphere, water clock, gnomon, rain gauge, and many other inventions by the king including a fascinating museum that features his life. The entrance to this tomb is phenomenal. You enter through an avenue of trees and climb up to the tomb. Near the tomb and all around it are life-sized statues of warriors and horses, put here to protect the King. UNESCO bestowed the honor to the 40 Joseon Dynasty Royal Tombs in Korea as World Heritage sites.

Journey onward to Suwon to explore Hwaseong Fortress which was built in the 18th century and has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its architectural and historical significance. It encloses both flatland and hilly terrain with well over 30 buildings including gates, watchtowers, command posts, arrow-launchers, fire bastions and beacon tower. A temporary palace where the king sought refuge during war and found rest during times of peace sits inside the wall. The fortress is parapeted with crenels and merlons and highlighted by four main gates. Seobuk Gongsimdon watch tower is the most distinctive structures among all facilities of the fortress. It is a 3-story stone brick structure built on the side of the fortress wall. The holes in the wall allowed sentries to keep an eye out for the events outside the walls and, also, to shoot guns from. A walk through the whole fortress could take several hours but it is well worth making a short walking tour to enjoy the splendor of the fortress.

Overall one hour walking tour starts at Paldalmun Gate, which is located in the middle of the main road through the complex. Just past the sentry post perched on the edge of the turret sits the beacon tower, which possesses five chimneys to create different smoke signals. The smoke from one chimney indicates that all is well, while the smoke from two chimneys indicates that the enemy has been spotted. Three chimneys are used when the enemy is approaching, and a fourth fire is stoked if the enemy has made their way into the city. The fifth fire is lit when active combat with the enemy has begun. The tour covers sentry posts, a crossbow platform, a gate guard platform, an observation tower and secret gates leading down to the dark labyrinths. An exquisite pavilion is located on a hill that overlooks a lotus pond surrounded by beautiful willow trees. Below the pavilion sits northern floodgate, a stone bridge with seven arched sluices topped by an elegant open pavilion and brick-built parapet.

Seoraksan 3 days

Tour Highlights

Unification Observatory Kim Ilsung Villa Geojin Fishing Village Seoraksan National Park Woljeongsa Yeongneung Tomb

Day 1 Seoul - Goseong - Hwajinpo - Geojin - Seoraksan (- - -) 310km

Depart Seoul early to arrve in Seoraksan. Today, you will enjoy a pleasant journey across the picturesque countryside to Goseong. Less convenient to get to, the route offers much more pleasant countryside scenery and remote tranquility. Once there in Ganseong, you'll find the scenic road along the edge of the coast to be one of courses to drive in the country.

At the northern tip of the east coast sits Unification Observatory. It was established in 1983 to console pains of division, nostalgia and inscribe unification will. With the entry permit and sign to place in the vehicle window ready, continue towards the north, driving past lots of tank traps comprising large lumps of concrete set on either side of the road, all a strange and eerie reminder of the tensions that exist between the two Koreas and the stark reality of the divided country. These structures will interlock and create a road block to prevent an advance of the North's tanks and artillery vehicles into the South. Once there, you will get a glimpse of the much talked about border dividing the two Koreas and see the road and train track stretched side by side ahead across the North Korea, and soldiers patrolling the beach as well as some nearby islands.

Next up is Hwajinpo, a charming coastal town located near the military demarcation line and by the scenic lagoon edged by sweetbriers and reeds. Stop at Kim Ilsung villa. Situated at the foot of a small mountain by the beach, it is where Kim Ilsung and his family spent their summer holidays until 1950. When the Korean War ended in 1953, the border between the Koreas was redrawn, and the Hwajinpo wound up in the South. The villa displays photos of Kim Ilsung and documents chronicling his life and modern Korean history. The museum is not to glorify him but to show Korea's complicated modern history.

Head to Geojin to explore fishing village. where the quaint charm of this coastal town captivates every visitor. As you stroll down the fishing port, you will take in the view of boats sailing in and off, drying fishes in the sun, fishermen tending their nets and, on the sleepy roadsides off the dock, elderly women selling fishes - a delightful treat to a rural lifestyle.

Then journey onward to Seoraksan national park. The rugged peaks, fantastic cliffs, numerous waterfalls, unique rock formations, and scenic valleys altogether make this park and surrounding area some of the best scenery on the Korean peninsula, and give this area an unparalleled popularity around the year. The spring brings full of blooms and the summer creates lush green slopes and crystal clear streams tumbling over the cataracts. Fall changes foliage into brilliant colors and even in the winter, the snow blankets the hushed landscape, bringing serenity and a quiet beauty.

Day 2 Seoraksan (B)
The word of the day is hiking of varying lengths and difficulty. Entering park and past one-pillared gate, you will see a huge Unification Buddha that was built to symbolize the Korean people's hope for reunification of the country. The statue sits on a lotus pedestal, which is flanked with 16 inscribed panels describing the entire path of Buddha's enlightenment. A little further on is Sinheungsa which claims as the Korea's oldest Zen temple that sits at a fork in the scenic trails.

Signs are well established and there is a constant flow of people coming and going from the hiking trails. Following the left fork leads you to Cheonbuldong valley, the most impressive valley in the park, leading to Biseondae, Yangpok waterfalls and finally the peak of Seoraksan (1,708m). One hears many legends of the heavenly nymphs who come down to play at Biseondae while taking a bathe in the placid pools of the valleys that are hidden from the human eyes. You will follow the path along this valley which is most well-known for its breathtaking view.

Near Biseondae rises Janggunbong majestically and among the crags of it is Geumgang cave with a tiny temple inside. The trail maintains a relatively gentle slope until reaching the base of this peak, where it immediately turns arduous as it heads up a very steep incline for 600m. Even though there are stairs with guardrail the climb up can still be steep and exhausting. You can scale only by carefully ascending the long, steep, metal stairs bolted onto the sheer cliff face. The hike, although hard, comes with a stunning view of numerous cliffy peaks and mountain valley.

The right fork is Ulsan Bawi trail. At the foot of the Ulsan Bawi sits Gyejoam hermitage from the 7th century in front of which on a spacious stone slab is a huge spherical rock called Heundeul Bawi. This rock is so perfectly balanced that it can be shaken with some effort, but nobody gets further than waggling it. Next, your adventure begins by climbing a steep metal stairs that angle up Ulsan Bawi, a 2.8km-long ridge of naked, gray stone peaks jutting 873m into the sky from the rock's base.

Biryong waterfall trail is relatively easy for anyone to enjoy and you will see a very pretty waterfall at the end that is fairly unusual, long and thin. And for non hikers, there is a cable car that picks you up at the valley floor to the Gwongeumseong while enjoying the panoramic view of the entire valley. The peak is surrounded by cavernous drop-off cliffs, cloaked in more towering rocky summits. Definitely, you stand in awe on the top: sweeping panoramic views of the park around you, the Pacific Ocean, and the small beachside town of Sokcho. Be careful as always as there is not much room to move about and people constantly going up and down and moving around.

Day 3 Seoraksan - Pyeongchang - Yeoju - Seoul (B) 300km
Enjoy a scenic drive along the Jingogae road creating wonderful colors as the season changes - Pink azaleas decorating the valleys, the thick forest and crystal clear stream water cooling off the summer heat, the fantastic autumn foliage putting on a brilliant show of color and the snow creating a sublime scenery.

Enjoy a tour tour of Woljeongsa temple. Enshrined in the Main Hall is a statue of Sakyamuni, but the more important statue is a Bodhisattva, 1.8 meters high, probably a Medicine Bodhisattva. Said to have been found in the Diamond Pond to the south of the temple, the statue is offering something. The head is covered with a hat, the face is long and the ears are slightly hidden by long hair. Around the neck there are three lines which are so beautifully carved hat they look like necklaces. The elbow is resting on the head of a young boy. Next to the Bodhisattva is an octagonal nine-story pagoda which stands 15.2 meters high and is representative of the many-angled, many-storied stupas of the Goryeo Period. Another amazing part of the temple is the 800-meter road arched by 1,700 tall fir trees. You will stroll the path listening to the trickles of stream and smelling the fresh yet musky fir trees.

En route stop at Yeongneung and see one of 119 royal tombs of Joseon dynasty. The tombs have different names of 42 Neung, 13 Won and 64 Myo, which were given based on the status of their owner. Yeongneung is a tomb of royal couple of King Sejong, who promulgated Korean Alphabet in the 15th century. This tomb is the first one to have separated rooms for each coffin inside. First, you will enjoy seeing the celestial globes, equilibrium sundial, armillary sphere, water clock, gnomon, rain gauge, and many other inventions by the king including a fascinating museum that features his life. The entrance to this tomb is phenomenal. You enter through an avenue of trees and climb up to the tomb. Near the tomb and all around it are life-sized statues of warriors and horses, put here to protect the King. UNESCO bestowed the honor to the 40 Joseon Dynasty Royal Tombs in Korea as World Heritage sites.

Gyeongju 3 days

Tour Highlights

Tomb of Kim Yusin Tomb of King Muyeol Yangdongmaeul Village Seokguram Bulguksa Gyeongju National Museum Anapji Pond Banwolseong Fortress Seokbinggo Cheomseongdae Tumuli Park Gwaereung Tomb Poseokjeong Bower

Day 1 Seoul - Gyeongju (- - -) 420km

Enjoy a pleasant two hours journey on a speed train across the picturesque countryside to Gyeongju, an ancient capital of the Silla dynasty (BC57-AD935), often dubbed as Museum without Walls. As leisurely make your way to Gyeongju, you will see Korea's fertile farmland, glistening brooks, sheltered ginseng farms, apple plantations and lovely rice paddies that together forming a patchwork of colors and ever-changing textures of the rural Korean life. Today, you are treated to one of the ten most historically significant sites in the world with ancient temples, weathered stone pagodas, royal tombs, Buddhist bas-reliefs, and fortress ruins.

Your tour will begin with such highlight as Tomb of Kim Yusin (595-673), who served as general under King Muyeol. Dressed in civilian garb, the stone carved zodiac images surrounding the mound are the most well preserved of all the remains. A little further on is Tomb of King Muyeol (603-661). Presided over the golden age of Silla expansion, King Muyeol forged an alliance with Tang China and defeated the rival Baekje kingdom with the help of Kim Yusin. The tomb is a circular ground mound made of piled-up soil with a bottom girth of 116m, and a height of 8.8m. Near the base of the mound are ring of stones which were possibly used in protecting an underground structure, but most have disappeared over the centuries while only the larger stones remain. Behind the king's tomb are four giant mounds that are believed to hold the remains of relatives of the king. A famous turtle base with tablet cap-stone that dates from the original construction is on display and you will not miss it.

Then journey leads you to the UNESCO site of Yangdongmaeul, a traditional clan village which embraces simple, unadorned natural beauty. Sheltered by forested mountains and facing calm rivers and open fields, the rustic tile and thatch-roofed homes of this village are in perfect harmony with the natural topography. During the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), this village housed mostly middle upper-class families and contained over 150 homes as well as two shrines. These homes and shrines were built according to the harmonious theory of Yin and Yang and have been handed down from generation to generation in their original elegant forms.

Day 2 Gyeongju (B)
This morning, explore two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Seokguram grotto and Bulguksa temple which were both built during the glorious period of the Silla kingdom (BC57-AD935). After taking a twisting ride up around eastern side of Tohamsan and about 10 minute walk through a lovely wood brings you to Seokguram grotto, the home of the serene stone Buddha of the eighth century. The basic layout of the grotto includes an arched entrance which leads into a rectangular antechamber and then a narrow corridor, which is lined with bas-reliefs, and finally leads into the main rotunda. Inside, a white statue of a seated Buddha, in a sublime state of enlightenment, is surrounded by 37 relief figures of Bodhisattvas, disciples, devas, and guardian kings. The Buddha image is sculptured in perfect proportion with stark simplicity while the garments were accomplished by shallow cuts. Curled knots of the head and the sacred jeweled spot on the forehead are evident but not conspicuous. The face is full and round with a comparatively small nose and clearly defined mouth. The eyes are half closed under long arching eyebrows while there is no hint of smile. The ears are long and stretching out. The hand mudra symbolizes witnessing the enlightenment. The grotto represents the magnificent harmony of religion, science and the arts of Buddhism, symbolizing the pure land in which Buddha resides.

A short ride from the grotto is Bulguksa temple. Following the one-pillared gate and the four guardian's gate, you will reach two double level arched stone staircases - the symbolic bridges, leaving the world of sufferings behind and to enter Buddha's land. Up from the bridges on the terraced main courtyard stands the Hall of Great Enlightenment. The hall houses Sakyamuni Buddha who is flanked on the right by Kasyapa and Maitreya Bodhisattva and on the left by Dipankara and Ananda. Before this hall stands a stone carved lantern and two stone pagodas. Three-storied Seokgatap with its calm simplicity of lines and minimal decoration and Dabotap with highly ornate and the noted complexity of the universe stands blending well into the architectural harmony.

Currently, the Seokgatap pagoda is closed to the public as is under restoration. Unlike partial restorations that were carried out in 1024 and 1038, and more recently in 1966, it is the first full disassembly since the construction of the 8.2m pagoda in 742. Having started in September 2012, the restoration project will be completed by the end of 2014.

While here, it is worth noting the carved wood fish and cloud shaped gong hanging from the beams and a large dharma drum resting on the back of a turtle. Behind the main hall stands lecture hall, Museoljeon literally Hall of No Words. The hall gets its name from the belief that Buddha's teachings cannot be taught by mere words alone. At the back of this hall is a steep flight of steps leading you up to the Gwaneumjeon housing an image of the Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of perfect compassion, and stands at the highest point of the complex. Below the Gwaneumjeon sits Birojeon and houses a gilded statue of Vairocana with the gesture of the first wisdom, a combined hand mudra formed with both hands positioned in front of the heart, with the raised forefinger of the clenched or vajra-fist' right hand encircled by the closed vajra-fist' of the left hand. Enshrined in the Nahanjeon hall is Sakyamuni attended by two bodhisattvas, and sixteen figures of Buddha's disciples sitting in deep meditation. Hall of Supreme Bliss, standing near the main compound, houses the gilt-bronze Amitabha Buddha, the ruler of the Western Paradise Sukhavati. You can hardly miss the boar in front of this hall where many are encouraged to hug and rub it. All sorts of pigs, for that matter, stand for good luck in Korean culture, as the chubbiness of the pig stood for prosperity. After all, only the rich could afford to eat and idle enough to get fat. The architectural design of Bulguksa is one of constrained dignity, peace, and harmony and the temple still remains one of the most remarkable achievements of the ancient Far East.

Next, you will marvel at the priceless archaeological and historical artifacts including splendid gold crowns, earrings, belts, ornaments, glassware, potteries, and clay figures as well as a royal barge in Gyeongju National Museum. A gigantic Emille Bell from the eighth century is on display and you must certainly stand in awe before the bell with such artistic beauty of design.

Enjoy a tour of Anapji, a pleasure garden built to commemorate the victory of Silla, and later used as the recreational area for the Silla's royal family. Then followed by a relaxed walking tour exploring the ruins of Banwolseong or half-moon fortress where Silla palace and eight fortress gates stood. There is a Seokbinggo, a freezer made of stones. Half of the structure is underground while the other half is above ground with three air vents on top. You can feel the cold oozing out of this simple structure.

Then head to the world's oldest existing astronomical observatory, Cheomseongdae. Each stone used in the observatory bears symbolic meaning; the same number of the days of the year by lunar calendar, the number of the major stars, the months of the year and the numbers of the seasonal divisions. Nearby Tumuli Park encompasses 23 huge tomb mounds where Silla rulers were buried. One of the tombs, Cheonmachong, is opened to the public and you can go inside and see how the tombs were made and replicas of the treasures excavated in 1973.

Day 3 Gyeongju - Seoul (B) 390km
With leisurely time to pack, visit Gwaereung, the tomb of the King Wonseong, which dates 798. The tomb is a 7.7m high circular ground mound made of piled-up soil with a bottom diameter of 21.9m. The stone fence and 12 animals of the zodiac carved around its base are excellent condition. What makes this tomb really significant and unique are the statues carved from granite along the promenades leading up to it - a two sets of lions, a couple of scholars, and a pair of military guards who in particular is a favorite among visitors because it appears to be a person of Arabic or Persian descent, much like the merchants who came to Silla in ancient times.

You will make a stop at Poseokjeong. It was a summer pavilion where the later kings of Silla often forgot their loyal duties and spent most of their time banqueting. All that can be seen now is the abalone-shaped stone channel through which at one time a cool stream of water was directed into the palace. The elm, in large trunk and gnarled with age that may have witnessed the final day of Silla. With time to visit, return on a speed train to Seoul.

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