Last summer when I took the bike tour to the southern coast, I passed through a town that I thought was Gonju. It was this gorgeous mountain town with little mushroom houses and an amazing view. I know now that it wasn’t actually Gonju, but one of the national park towns on the outskirts. Gonju itself is a pretty typical city, but seemed a bit more rundown.
In Gonju I took the 7 bus to Magoksa temple. More than half of the buildings are under renovation, so now isn’t the best time to see it, although the Pagoda is a Tibetan style and is supposed to be one of three left in the world.
I wasn’t that impressed with Gonju on the whole, but I had a bus driver who made my day. It’s funny how one interaction with someone can change the perspective. I was ready to hightail it out of town and head to my next destination, but this guy was so helpful and kind that I stuck around to have some more adventures.
From there, my guidebook, said I could use the same bus #7 to get off at Seonggoksa, but was very vague about the bus stop, and how far away the temple was. The driver helped me figure out where to get off, but warned me that it was a hike. Here is the bus stop for anyone wanting to do the same:
From there it’s a 4km hike down the road and up a mountain. It really wasn’t that bad, and it was a gorgeous day. The temple isn’t so much a temple, but a shrine/statue park. It’s quite beautiful and peaceful with a few waterfalls. There was almost no one there on a weekday, and the views were great. Sometimes I really can’t help but wonder how much money went into all these statues though, and how many people that money could feed out of Buddhist generosity. But maybe the statues inspire people to donate more that can be used for those purposes?
Again, I was warned about the walking involved in getting to Tapsa, a temple made by a monk who stacked huge piles of rocks into carns around the temple. I just wanted a lift to the entrance, but the cab driver took me around to the back of the park, and right to the entrance of Tapsa. This made my job easy, but I think I would have been more satisfied if I had done the hike around and had to work for it. There are supposed to be buses that go the front entrance, but early on a weekday morning, I didn’t find such a thing.
From there I hiked back over the mountain to the front entrance. The long hike everyone was warning me about is a mere 1km. The stairs are steep and many, but it doesn’t take long. At the front entrance at this time of the morning there wasn’t a shop open, a bus to be seen, or a taxi to be found. I ended up walking back to Jinan, which was really close. Maybe a 30-40 minute walk. If you like walking, you could do the whole trip without taking transportation at all.
Well, mostly bussing it, but walking quite a bit as well. Not quite as much as Simon Winchester did though. He started in Jeju Island and walked the entire length of South Korea, and then part of North Korea (highly supervised of course). Bybee reminded me how much the western male falling prey to the wiles of Korean women came into that book. I had completely forgotten about it, but now that she read it recently and brought it up, examples from the book keep seeping into my mind. Winchester epitomizes the different experiences that men and women have living in Korea. Living in Asia has taught me nothing if not that the vast majority of western men prefer having a relationship where they don’t actually have to talk to their partner as long as she looks hot and is the right amount of needy. Simon Winchester is normally an extremely intelligent and insightful travel writer, but even he was reduced to drooling in his beer and going on long winded rants that had nothing to do with the rest of the story when offered the attention of a gorgeous lady. Korea is a place where men get distracted to the point of losing their minds.
Somehow I avoided going to PC rooms the entire time I’ve been in Korea until today. They are every bit as disgusting and sleezy as I thought they were. My first attempt was foiled when I walked into what was labeled as a PC Resting room – which actually meant private booths with I’m not sure what all going on behind closed doors.
While the rest of Korea is getting hit by a monsoon, I’m in a sunny haven in Jeonju. But inside the PC room, there is nothing but cigarrette smoke, dark lighting, and games. I thought I’d take a minute to share a little travel tale while I checked to see if my flight to Jeju is cancelled. So far it’s not, but I’m not sure it’s worth going to typhoon island this weekend.
I started the weekend at bookclub in Seoul, which got an invite that I took full advantage of to go to Sinchang and stay with Bybee for a couple of days. She lives in an apartment complex in the middle of nowhere that is crawling with foreigners and we had a great night watching TV and eating western food at her friend’s house.
From there I went to Gongju, which overall is not what it says it is. It was the same, albeit dingier, as the rest of Korea, and except for the fortress doesn’t have much to show for itself. The map the info booth hands out shows a quaint, pretty town with a gorgeous river flowing through it. Really it is a dirty, run down place, with a trickle of water down the middle lined by the seediest of love motels. I did do some interesting things here, but since this PC bang has let me think it is uploading pics for the last hour, when really it hasn’t, I’ll have to save the walking stories for another day.
It was really too hot to be walking around like a mad person trying to see all the sights. I made it to the UN park, which I don’t recommend walking to unless you happen to be in the area, or you are particularly personally interested in the cemetery. The park itself wasn’t that impressive, and was completely uncared for. There were some folks using it to run and walk their dogs. I took advantage of some green grass to take a nap, which I got called out for by another foreigner later, “Hey were you that chick sleeping in the park…..”
The statue park has donated statues from all over the world as a sign of unity. My favorite one was this one from Columbia:
At night I enjoyed some Makali with my friend Val and a real Makali house. Not that disgusting over fermented crap from a bottle. We couldn’t figure out how to order much off the menu, but the waitress was more than accommodating and picked a couple things she thought we’d like, and we did.
Incheon and Seoul don’t really remind me of much. They are their own cities in their own right. But Busan reminded me a lot of Boston. Maybe it’s the ocean, or the feel, but it just felt right at home.
Since I have exactly four weeks of teaching left in Korea, it seemed fitting to take the rare few days off work to travel in the country. I weathered the heat, a little redder and sore, and took a whirlwind tour of Busan, on the southern coast and Gyeongju, one of the historical capitol cities. Sometimes it’s better to travel alone as no one in their right mind would have tried to stuff in all I wanted to see in this kind of heat.
It was pouring rain when I rolled off a five hour bus ride in Busan. In the scheme of life, it’s funny how quickly something can go from disappointing to wanting it back. Although I had to change my plans, for the rest of the weekend, I would have done a rain dance in the street to get a break from the heat and unbearable sun. Winter in Korea is pretty bad. Summer is much, much worse.
Since I was only a few subway stops away, I checked in at Heosimcheong Spa in the Nogshim Hotel (Oncheonjang station exit 1). It claims to be the largest hotspring sauna in Asia. Although it was big, I wouldn’t consider it much more special that most jimjillbangs I’ve been to. It did have a nice outdoor rooftop hottub where you could get steamed, and on this day, rained on at the same time. I got a scrub-down complete with cucumber face treatment.
There were a ton of different pools, some quite large, but I really liked a side room all done in stone that had pools of different medicinal scents. I spent a while in the “philosopher’s pool” with pine and a giant stone carving of an old bearded white man’s face spitting water into the pool.
The rain took a reprieve and I headed to Haeundae Beach, which was gorgeously uncrowded and had huge waves from the storm.
A little jaunt into the aquarium. I don’t remember the last time I’ve been to one. It was worth it, especially the underwater tunnel.
There’s a gorgeous walking trail along the ocean off the western side of the beach.
There is a great train system in Busan. The subway is great, but I had no idea how much I liked trains. For all of 2,500W I took the train from Bukjeon station to Songjeong beach. From there you could take the 181 bus, but, me being the adventurous type, decided it didn’t look too far and walked. The ocean view was great, and then turned into a Korean construction view, and then a, wow, the hill to the temple is steep, why-did-I-decide-to-walk view. It is the only temple in Korea that I know of that is on the ocean, and is stunningly gorgeous and a little crowded and touristy, but well worth it.
Haedong Yonggungsa – Great Seawater Goddess of Mercy – Temple
And that is just the beginning. I’m having a borderline panic attack about how little time I have left, and how much stuff is in the air. I’m considering moving everything into suitcases and living out of them to remind myself how to do it, and also so I know how much stuff I have to get rid of since I need to pare everything down to one suitcase and a guitar once again.
Oh yea, and I also have to read the first third of Watership Down, which I’m not entirely looking forward to. Live of Pi was a challenge for my ESL students, I’m not sure what they’re going to do with this one.
I thought I was leaving Korea for good in September, so I’ve been putting myself under some pressure to see the places in Korea that I hadn’t made it to yet. Moka Buddhist Museum in Yeoju is one of those places that I had circled in the guidebook before I ever came to Korea. After more than year, I finally made the bus trip down there with a new teacher at school who is actually interested in cultural things and not just drinking until they turn into a new form of Asian Cocktail.
My guidebook said Yeoju was forty minutes from Seoul Express Bus Terminal. After the actual two hours it took in the cluster of extraneous status symbol, I mean car, traffic, we finally made it to Yeoju by 2pm after leaving the house at 9am. As much as I love travelling around Korea, some days it’s hard to convince myself to leave the neighborhood knowing that even a simple trip to Seoul is going to take over an hour on either end. Why so many people insist on driving their own cars when the public transportation is arguably one of the best the entire world, I know, but refuse to understand.
Moka Museum is a really cool little place though. Well worth the visit. It’s a bit outside of town, the number 10 bus goes by it, or a taxi ride is about 10,000W.
The museum grounds are a statue park of different religions, mostly buddhist. It was a really gorgeous and relaxing place to be.
The highlight is the actual museum, but of course, you can’t take pictures inside. I did sneak this one of the child of Samsara (the circle of living and dying with attachment) for my travel buddy.
With no concrete plans for a weekend in the fist time in ages, I set out to do what ruby does best. Pick a subway stop or two and explore. On Saturday, I barely made it out of the front door before the first adventure began. There is a particularly seedy looking building in our neighborhood that, although it appears to have a Buddhist temple on top, I was a little hesitant to explore. The building itself is one of the more ranshackle in our area. There is a billiards hall on the second floor, and on my walk home from work, it’s one of the places that always has particularly drunk men loitering around outside.
But since I was in exploring mode, camera in hand, daring wits about me, I decided to brave it past the filthy stairwell to see what it really is.
On the third floor is a beautiful shrine room. Even though part of the reason I came to back to Asia was to re-immerse myself in Buddhist culture, it doesn’t feel like part of everyday life here. Consumerism and an extreme materialism to the point of being disgusting has taken over, leaving the less than a third of the population that still even considers itself Buddhist on a shelf somewhere behind last years’ cellphones. There are still some great cultural holidays, and the occasional monk on the subway, but it doesn’t “feel” like a Buddhist country the way other places I’ve travelled do.
With no one around I did a few prostrations and sat for a few minutes, and then nosed around trying to find the rooftop shrine that I was pretty sure existed. On my way through the door to the rooftop I literally ran into a monk. He was at first shocked, and then pretty happy to see me. He even gave me a zucchini from their rooftop garden. I speak almost no Korean, and he speaks almost no English, but I did glean that he was in the Korean war from pictures he showed me and was quite happy to meet a young American.
We had tea together and a gorgeous little girl full of smiles came in. As far as I could tell, she said the monk is her uncle, and it seems like she almost lives at the temple. I got to thinking how different my life in Korea would be if I had become involved with these people earlier in the year.
The rest of my subway hopping weekend paled in comparison to hanging out with the monk and his niece. Even with such promising names as Imhak, Beagun, and Dong Incheon, it’s a little bit of a disappointment to get off at any subway station and just see more of the same. I know this is going to happen already, but still, there’s usually one little gem that was worth finding. The Mexican restaurant in Songnea for example, or the acupuncturist I want to try again when they are open in Imhak.
After a second day of rambling and going to the grocery store, I was on the final stretch home carrying a bag full of exotic cheeses from Home Plus, when a little tiny hand grabbed my arm. It was the girl from the temple. It appears what I’ve been looking for in Korea has been on my street all along.
mmmm, blackberries. Adventure Korea took a trip to Jeollabuk-do provence this weekend for a mish-mash of activities centered around a Blackberry Festival. Although Adventure Korea is a fantastic group that does a great job organizing field trips for locals and foreigners, this one was a bit on the odd side. I don’t think AK realized that we were invited the festival as a kind of foreign dog and pony show. We were followed constantly by local camera crews, photos snapped, interviewed, and English practiced upon.
Gochang is a pretty remote town, with some awesome geologic features. As can be found often down south, there seemed to be an obsession with statue penises. There was a giant statue of a 7 foot tall penis with a woman’s face looking at it admiringly on our drive in. I didn’t manage to get a photo of that one, but it might be safer for you that way. Not everyone is ready for the public display of affection for the male member.
Next to the festival was a nice temple – Seonunsa. The majority of temples in Korea are extremely similar, and even myself, the eternal temple hopper, is finding my interest in them waning. This is a gorgeous spot in the mountains, and the original structure was built somewhere around 574, it has been reconstructed at least twice. I kind of like the look of the new, unpainted buildings, so simple and pretty.
The night concluded with a free for all wine “tasting.” We were duped into thinking we were going to a private costume party, where instead we were placed front and center at a giant event surrounded by at least half of the village and video taped every second. What made it worse is that a few of the group of people immediately set to getting hammered and giving the locals a prime example of every terrible stereotype in the book. Although I have nothing against having a few glasses of the local brew and dancing a bit, this was a small town where most people’s opinions of foreigners are based a lot more on stereotypes then on real experience, and unfortunately I think some of those stereotypes were concretely reiterated. All in all, it was a good time, but there were more than a couple of us who were embarrassed to be associated with a few of the folks in our party. Blackberry wine would have been Bacchus’ drink of choice.
The next morning we headed to the beach. It’s always great to hear the ocean. Stranded jellyfish littered the sand. I didn’t attempt to find out if they stung or not.
While the larger group was playing soccer and digging for clams in the mud flats. I took a stroll with a delightful S. African couple through the tiny town we stopped in on the way home. Great, old traditional houses, bags upon bags of empty clam shells, and rice paddies between every house. I spent too many years doing archaeology work to go play in the mud if I’m not getting paid. 😉