Jim’s grandfather was stationed in South Korea in the late 1940s, right before the outbreak of the Korean War. He was stationed in Yeosu, a then almost nonexistent, and now still small coastal town on the south end of Korea. I learned from a friend that Jeju Island was a stronghold of communist support, sandwiching the mainland between themselves and what is now North Korea. This may be a possible reason for why so many folks were stationed along the southern coast.
We had a long weekend away from the hagwon, and decided to take a trip south. Not just any trip, no, no, we ventured on Jim’s motorcycle all the way from Incheon. Well Jim, did anyway. He left on Friday morning, and as I had to teach Friday, I caught a bus to Gwangju.
Since I don’t work for a public school, and have almost no vacation time for this entire year, the unexpected opportunity to take a long weekend was too much to pass up. Being the kind of adventurer I am though, I always try to fit in too much. My original plan to meet a couple of friends in Dangjin for drinks was foiled by the fact that a huge percentage of the country also had this weekend off, which left me with no train or bus tickets to anywhere I needed to go. I was at the bus station, wondering what the hell to do, when I finally got in touch with Jim, who had been riding his motorcycle all day. He was close to Gwangju, and wonders abound, it was the only bus with any spots left that night at the terminal. I bought a ticket, checked with the guidebook since I really had no idea where Gwangju was, and settled in for a four hour bus ride that started at 11pm.
Since there was no way Jim and I were going to find each other, when I got to Gwanju, I just found a motel and passed out. When Jim called the next morning, it turned out he wasn’t that close to Gwanju, and I needed to entertain myself for a few hours. See, this is where I get myself in trouble. Open the guide book, see what there is in the area – ah, Mudeungsan Mountain, that sounds like fun. I hopped a bus in the right direction, keep an eye out for the Wonhyosa temple entrance, and I’m off.
The bus took a long route up a winding mountain, and it turned out I didn’t need to watch too closely as the Wonhyosa temple was the last stop on the bus line.
Jim called, and was still a while away, so I decided to take a walk up the mountain trail. This is where I really got in trouble. Not wearing good shoes, with a shoulder bag full of books and clothes, but the never ending desire to get a few good pics and a decent hike in, I struck out on a path that said it was headed to another temple, where supposedly I could catch another bus. All would have been well and good, except that I fell twice on my already fragile knees, making for slow hiking, and when I got 9/10ths of the way to the temple – straight downhill almost 3 miles, the trail was washed out and a giant fence was put up to prevent people from trying to scramble around. I looked up the mountain, it was physically impossible for me to get back up that mountain at this point. My knees were a mess, I had no water, and the really crappy Chinese I had for breakfast was long burned up. There was a little path to the right that was my only bet, but I didn’t have the slightest idea where it went.
Jim calls again, “I’m in Gwangju.” Well, that’s great, but I’m lost in the woods.
After much walking, slipping once again and getting chastised by an old Korean man for my poor choice in hiking foot attire, I found my way to an entrance to the park and another bus stop. As is pretty common, none of the bus stop signs were in English, so I just had to get on a bus and hope it was headed toward Gwangju. Luckily it was, and although I couldn’t figure out how to get back to the station, I was able to get into town and then take a taxi to the bus station.
On the bike, 22 to 17 south.
Yeosu is nothing like what it was fifty years ago. Although it is still a fishing town surrounded by rice fields and farms, it has fallen into the concrete pattern of the rest of the country. One thing that strikes me here are some of the places that food is grown. You will see corn plants right up the road, with no break or ditch like there would be at home. Squash and melon plants are spilling onto the streets and hanging off roofs where they are grown on sheets of plastic lined with dirt.
There are several islands off of Yeosu, and a road that connects them all. Well, almost. When we passed over the first bridge, I was thinking it looked suspiciously new. Sure enough, half way through the first island, and the road ends in a corn field. Development is so fast here that roads that are still “to be built” are labeled as real roads on the map, because it would be pointless to update maps every time a chunk of asphalt is put in. The geography of Korea changes constantly. A country that was once completely leveled and deforested is now 90% re-forested and covered in amazingly lush mountains top to bottom.
We turned back around and decided to try and take the road around the islands from the other direction and see if we could get any further. We pulled off onto a road that said it had a temple on it. A long, winding, partially paved, hole-filled road. At the end, it just looked like a row of dilapidated buildings. Just as we were about to pull away, a very excited woman calls out in English, “Oh please come up!!” She saw Jim’s Ohio State t-shirt and was immediately ecstatic over seeing a couple of fellow Americans. She is a Korean woman who emigrated to New York over thirty years ago, and had come back to Korea to reconnect with family and her roots.
As we came up the stairs, we could see what we couldn’t see from the road. This was indeed a giant temple, complete with retreat cabins, giant statues, and a huge temple shrine. Twenty years ago a lone monk decided he wanted to start a temple in this gorgeous location, and set out raising money on his own.
What struck me was how much the area looked like the Maine coast. Pine trees and mountains that come right up to the ocean. Some of the pics here could be confused for pics I took living in Bar Harbor.
Chong, our new Korean-American friend, went out of her way to ask the resident monk if he would mind meeting us. He invited us in for tea. This is why I came to Korea, to meet monks and hang out in temples. He was wonderfully gracious and talked to us for a couple of hours. He even gave us a meditation lesson, and gave me homework. Chong said he gave me homework because he wants to see me again. I asked if I could come back to do a retreat and he told me if I practice, I can come anytime, but if I don’t practice meditation, he will know. It was great, and one of the most beautiful places I have seen. Chong said she wasn’t even planning to come to this temple when she first came, she did like we did and just visited on a whim – and then never left. She’s been studying there for a year and plans to stay for two more.
The monk also said that if any foreigners are interested in coming as a group for a retreat, he would be really interested in teaching it, so if you are interested, we can coordinate, and I will contact them about having a group receive a teaching.
The hardest part of the trip was getting back. We made it the entire length of the country in a few hours, and then spent the same amount of time just getting from Seoul to Bucheon. It made me wish we lived somewhere like Gongju where we would be close enough to Seoul to bus in, but far enough away to enjoy the country.
The bike getting a rest from our butts, or our butts getting a rest from the bike. I’m not sure which.
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