Gyeongju's Nam-san's famous
Samneung Valley
with many great Buddha-carvings
the Samneung-gol  [Three Tombs Valley] the Sangseon-am [Upper Immortal Hermitage] and its nearby
Buddha-carving on the NW slope of Nam-san

The best-known single valley of Gyeongju’s sacred Mt. Nam-san, within the National Park and part of the
UNESCO World Heritage site, runs from the highway on the west side of the long mountain up towards its
northern peak called Geum-o-san (Golden Crow Mountain, 468m).  It contains a dozen of the nearly 150
historical sites and stone relics found on those slopes.  It is called the Samneung-gol, which means “Three
Tombs Valley” in English.  You should take the chance to go over there and explore it, the first chance that
you get.

At the mouth of the great valley are three large burial-mounds from which it derives its name, the tombs of
three minor kings: Adalla (r. 154-184 CE), Shindeok (912-17) and Gyeongmyeong (917-24).  The middle
mound for King Sindeok is the largest, 5.8m high and 61m in circumference; he and Gyeongmyeong were
near the very end of the once-glorious but by then ill-fated kingdom.  

The tombs are surrounded by a truly beautiful thick forest of curved-trunk red pine trees, regarded by Koreans
as the kings of all plants, and the rest of the lower valley is filled with them – it’s a forest-lover’s paradise!  
Take some time to enjoy this lovely huge grove, beside the tumbling stream of fresh clean water.

Continuing up the trail about 15 minutes, you’ll next come to the statue of Mireuk-bul, the Future Buddha, 1.6m
tall and missing both its head and hands. It was found buried nearby in the 20th century, then erected in its
present location. It was carved about 1200 years ago (like all the rest of the stoneworks in this valley), and
you should notice the finely sculpted details of its robes.  Nearby, uphill to the left, you can find a great carving
of Gwanseeum-bosal the Boddhisattva of Compassion  on a small cliff.  This is 1.5m tall and seems to be
floating above-ground; one hand is raised while the other holds a bottle of holy-water, and he wears a distinct
crown.

200 m further up, back on the main trail, you will next find two Intaglio (line-carved) Buddha Triad images.
They are both about four meters tall and the same or more wide, and show central sitting Buddhas flanked by
standing or kneeling Bodhisattvas.  They are worn, and you have to look carefully to see the intricate designs,
as you imagine the worship-shrine that used to be in front of them.

Another 180 m up the trail is a Seated Stone Buddha statue on an open flat space. This is an image of the
historical Sakyamuni Buddha (Seokgamoni-bul in Korean), shown in the common ‘Touching the Earth’ mudra
(hands-position; su-in) and sitting upon a lotus-flower pedestal.  The lower face was badly damaged but has
now been nicely repaired, and the broken nimbus (body-halo) on its back has been restored.

If you now make your way up 500m of steep stone stairs and trail, hard but occasionally offering good views,
you will arrive at Sangseon-am or Upper-Immortal Hermitage.  This is the only active temple in this valley, and
was rebuilt on the ancient Silla foundations. It has little more than one modest Main Dharma Hall, but it is quite
charming and offers a great view of the whole valley below and dramatic cliffs above.  This hall includes an
interesting painting of Sanshin, the Daoist-Shamanic Mountain-spirit, very appropriate in this setting, along
with all the usual Buddhist deities.

On the upper cliff is the main attraction: a fantastic 7-m relief-carved image of a seated Mireuk Buddha.  It is a
master artwork of Shilla, deliberately looming over the viewer on the platform in front of it, so as to appear
more real and impressive.  It is carved as if manifesting out of the rocky cliff to become a living deity in this
world; many people pray here that it will do-so faster.  It faces north, and you get a beautiful view of the whole
area out to the west.  This is one of the best sights in Gyeongju, and a favorite with photographers (especially
when viewed from further up the rocky trail).   

At the very top of this valley, where the trail meets the main ridge, is a huge boulder-cliff called the Sangsa-am
Crags, about 13m tall and double that across.  This is a Shamanic site at which women have long prayed to
be granted a husband or son, or other earthly benefits.  On the east side can be found another small headless
Buddha statue beside the stone altar.

You can get to Samneung Valley’s entrance by busses #502 or #504 from the main Bus Terminal stop, or else
take a taxi for about 8,000 won.

Excellent photo by Robert Koehler of Seoul Selection