Memories of a pagoda-and-peacock land. Temples and statues in former Korean capital move this pre-Olympics visitor

RAINDROPS falling on lotus leaves, the crunch of monks' sandals on gravel paths, and the deep quiet of misty hills - these images from ancient Korea remain seemingly untouched here in this open-air museum. Far away from the politics and traffic of Seoul and the shipping and auto industries of Pusan, they belong to Kyongju - an area so full of shrines, temples, tombs, gardens, and palaces that UNESCO has designated it one of the world's 10 most important historical sites.

Kyongju will be the prime destination for tourists venturing beyond the capital city's Olympic Games next month. Just about every guidebook calls it the best destination in Korea.

For 1,000 years, it was the capital of the Silla Dynasty, which started here when Julius Caesar was building Rome (57 BC). For nearly 300 years, Kyongju was the capital of the entire peninsula. Overrun by Mongols in the 13th century and then by Japanese in the 16th century, it has been the object of Korea's greatest cultural revival since early in this century.

On a 10-day visit to Korea, my wife and I spent three days wandering the forested mountains, exploring pagodas and temples, locating rock carvings, and deciphering inscriptions with the help of our guide. We came away with great reverence, if not awe, for a history far more vast and complex than America's own.

Besides the natural setting and plethora of historic sites, a national museum caps it all off with art, jewelry, ceramics, and historical exhibits.

One guidebook says you can spend weeks here and never grow tired of it. I would say four days is the minimum time necessary to take in the major sights, and a week might be better.

There is a small provincial town here, Kyongju City, but we stayed at one of the three resort hotels clustered near the Pomun Lake Resort, about five miles northeast of town. Because the area has long been known as a haven for honeymooners, the hotel was opened in 1978 by the Korea National Tourist Corporation, with an extensive network of shops and recreation facilities and a shuttle to the downtown area.

I have mixed feelings about such calculatedly designed oases of touristdom. But their built-in amenities certainly allow foreign visitors to pay more attention to seeing sights than worrying about logistics.

We arrived in late afternoon, tired from the 4-hour drive from Seoul. With light waning, we decided to start visiting the tourist sights the next morning. We discovered that you can pick your own interests from mammoth lists available at all the hotels. But you will definitely be remiss if you miss any of the following:

Pulguk-sa Temple. The crowning glory of Silla temple architecture, the Pulguk-sa is Korea's most famous temple and my favorite memory of the entire country. I love the abundant use of bright greens, blues, oranges, and reds in the painting on the temple's eaves. Not to mention the sheer numbers of buildings, which take on a majesty when seen together in a visual concert of sloping roofs.

Pulguk-sa is built on a series of stone terraces 10 miles from Kyongju City, in the foothills of Toham-san. Some have called the painting of the interior woodwork, eaves, and massive tile roofs one of the wonders of the world. Built in AD 528, during the reign of King Beobhoung, it was enlarged in 751 but destroyed by the Japanese in 1593. It sat in ruins until 1970, when reconstruction began.

Sokkuram Grotto. The grotto's seated image of the Sakayamuni Buddha was considered the shoreline guardian of the Silla kingdom. The carving is among the best of dozens of Buddhas we saw on a month-long trip through Japan, Korea, and China, and it is second in elegance, to my mind, only to the Kamakura Buddha in Japan. After parking at a huge mountainside lot, visitors wend their way about a mile through woods and up a hill. We made the excursion alone, but were soon joined by no fewer than 60 busloads of schoolchildren. The 8th-century grotto that houses the Buddha was made of granite quarried far to the north and transported by mountain path.

National Museum. The grounds are filled with stone remains from the Silla Dynasty, most notably rows and rows of Buddhas, whose heads were broken off during the Japanese occupation.

Trying to photograph ourselves doing the same thing Korean children were doing - placing our heads where the Buddha heads weren't - we were chased away by security guards riding bicycles and blowing shrill whistles. Later, we were virtually attacked by hordes of very young students, who wanted our autographs so they could ogle the funny ``foreign'' writing.

Many of the stones are carved with relief images of horses, lions, monkeys, and peacocks. And much ado is made over the 23-ton Emille Bell, hanging in a small open-air pagoda of its own. The technique of bronze bell casting is said to have reached its height in the 8th century, and this is the largest and most intricate of them all.

The museum itself is a modern building, and the exhibits don't yet have a permanent feel, an indication that the Koreans have only just begun to tap their wealth of history, and archaeology has really been on an upsurge since the Korean war.

Tomb park. Some 152,000 square meters of landscaping, tomb mounds, and tomb sites were restored by the government between 1973 and '75. Most tombs date from between the 1st and 4th centuries. Signs lead to the most famous, the Ch'onma-ch'ong (Heavenly Horse Tomb). Excavated in 1973, the tomb yielded golden jewelry, beads, swords, pottery, gold and silver belts, and bronze shoes.

We enjoyed just walking in the quietude - a somber, if not funereal, atmosphere, punctuated by monks crunching hurriedly down the paths to avoid tourist cameras. Inside one mound, a coffin yielded a painting on birch bark of a flying white horse, considered a great find because of its use as a motif by ancient tribes of northern Asia.

Hiking possibilities abound in and around Kyongju, where the natural scenery is superb. Namsan mountain is considered one of the best hiking areas.

Practical information

For information and guidebooks, contact the Korean National Tourism Corporation, 460 Park Ave., Suite 400, New York, NY 10022; phone (212) 688-7543/4.

Olympic tickets still available

Opening and closing ceremonies and the finals for all competitions are sold out, but tickets for some Seoul Olympics events can still be purchased through the Korean Foreign Exchange Bank (181, Eulgi-ro 2 KA, Seoul, Korea 100-192; telex KOEX BK 23141/5; Fax 02 757-7897/8). Deadline is Aug. 25. Send name, address, and passport number with your request. Written confirmation will be sent, and tickets can be picked up at the bank with passport ID.

As the contests get under way, any remaining tickets can be bought one day before the event at the Olympic Family Town or the booth for the event. Rooms are still available in the smaller hotels, and it may still be possible to buy a tour package that includes airfare, a room in a major hotel, and tickets, by having your travel agent search for it.

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