Hwangnyongsa History and Culture Center, Gyeongju
Every year, the city of Gyeongju attracts millions of tourists with its numerous cultural attractions, from traditional hanok houses and elaborate sculptures to magnificent Buddhist temples.
Singyeongju Station, Gyeongju
A mere two hours south of Seoul on the KTX bullet train, the former capital of the Silla Kingdom is known as a "museum without walls."
"In recent years, however, the city has ventured beyond its traditional tourist hotspots to develop new and sustainable attractions. And that's what I'm here to see today."
Hwangnyongsa Temple Site, Gyeongju
Just a five-minute drive from the city center, lies the remains of the biggest Buddhist temple built in the Silla Dynasty.
Hwangnyongsa Temple was built in 569 AD, during the apex of the dynasty.
The nine-story pagoda beside it, at 80 meters high,
was the tallest structure in Asia at the time -- a testimony to the kingdom's unity and strength.
However, the entire site was burned to the ground during the Mongolian invasion in the mid 12-hundreds, leaving only a few stones remaining.
Efforts to restore the temple site began in the late 1970s and continue to this date.
"Considering the sheer size of Hwangnyongsa Temple, we will begin by restoring the southern gate starting next year. Once we acquire enough historical evidence, we will restore the nine-story tower and the main hall."
A stone's throw away, there's a recently opened cultural center to promote these restoration efforts.
A scale model of the nine-story pagoda stands in the hall.
It's a tenth of the actual size, but the details are remarkably meticulous.
"Over eight years, based on historical records of the tower and other relics, the model restored the original's details to the fullest."
The center exhibits key artifacts from more than 40-thousand relics dug up from the site.
Among them is the Challjubongi, a historical text that gives account of how the temple was built and maintained.
And this piece played an important role in the restoration efforts.
A digital display offers a view from the balcony 13 centuries ago, featuring rows of quaint hanok houses against a serene mountainous backdrop.
More than a flashback of the past, it is rather a vision of what could be, once the site is restored to its former glory.
"Sociocultural sustainability also includes restoring what existed only in old texts and materializing such relics for future generations. Being able to touch and experience something is a completely different experience than just seeing it through text. So restoration work through historical research ultimately helps Gyeongju further instill its cultural identity."
Gyeongju East Palace Garden, Gyeongju
West of the city center, huge hanok houses made of glass impose their presence.
It's a modern-day take on the East Palace and Wolji Pond, where rare plants, birds and animals were raised for the first time in Korea, according to historical records.
Inside the botanical gardens, there is a jungle of more than 4-hundred plant types from all over the world.
Eccentric flowers and plants from tropical countries put an exotic spin on the otherwise traditional setting.
There are traces of history everywhere, like a mini palatial pond and lotus engravings on the paths.
Crossing over to the Bird Park, visitors can find more than 200 types of birds, from ducks and parrots to flamingos and toucans.
Snakes, badgers and other creatures can also be spotted.
The complex is the first and biggest experiential zoo and garden in the country, a place to enjoy and interact with nature's finest as our ancestors did for the first time in this city.
"Two years and five months into our opening in September 2013, we hit one million visitors, so that's around 400-thousand a year. Because of its popularity, a second botanical and zoo complex will be built."
"Diverse and authentic cultural experiences bring more tourists to a region, which spurs local spending and, eventually, invigorates the local economy. So restoration projects with a modern twist, like the Gyeongju East Palace Garden, play a vital role in that sense."
Reviving its glorious past, the city of Gyeongju is building up new landmarks to further enhance its role as the capital of Korea's cultural heritage.
Oh Soo-young, Arirang News.