After a chilly night of what I think was slightly below freezing temperatures, I awoke slightly disoriented on a stream bank. The sun had just come up and was reaching through leaves in full foliage colors. I hadn’t been able to see the trees in the dark and did not realize that we had arrived in the mountains in peak Fall season.
Wesley and I ate a breakfast of bread and water, and looked around. There turned out to be a legitimate campsite across the road that was completely vacant. There wasn’t even a sign of a caretaker. The occasional car rushed past on the road on some errand. We wandered the rest of the way down the mountain through Haeinsa town and and started making our way to the temple. There were a few town residents out eating breakfast or getting their shop ready for the day. They gave a friendly and slightly confused smile and stared as we walked down the road.
We got to the base of the temple and found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a flea market. The temple rush hadn’t started yet so all the merchants very enthusiastically pushed free samples our way. We tried a variety of foods including rice vinegar and homemade green tea. A group of Korean temple goers wanted their picture taken with us so we humored them. Eventually we pushed on past the mecca of commerce and up a path lined with colorful lanterns. Things got quieter as we neared the temple and the people thinned out. This quiet would soon be shattered by busloads of tourists and pilgrims. But for now it was peaceful. I walked down a path past a mirrored pyramid and looked at some buildings. Wesley said it was like Rivendale. I turned around and saw the first big group of the day leading droves of companions making their way to the entrance. We decided to hurry up before it got more crowded.
We found the entrance – a long straight path up a few stairs and through a few sets of arches. The second arch led into a courtyard where people peddled around. To the left was a giant drum under a roof where a monk performed a fast-paced routine with arms tracing patterns around the drumhead. The ground was all dirt and had countless footprints.
We saw a sign for Templestay and followed it down some stairs eventually coming to a room where we checked in for the night. We followed a lady who spoke no Korean who brought us to our room and then immediately brought us to lunch. We had a silent meal of soup and rice and kimchi and a few other vegetarian side dishes. At four, our Templestay program started. We met the monk who would be working with us and practiced bowing and then had dinner. There were about 10 of us total and the men and women slept in different rooms. Our sleeping room was a giant hall with sauna climate and mats to put down on the floor.
Following dinner, we had some down time. When the sun started to set we made our way to the courtyard. The tourists had left for the day and peace had returned to Haeinsa. We walked to the giant drum and stood quietly in a line. Monks took turns performing quick-handed solos on the drums with wooden sticks that seemed effortless. To switch performers, a monk would approach the drum and sync up with the beat before the other monk stepped off and sat down. From there we went to a shrine with three enormous golden statues of the Buddha. We did three bows and then listened as one monk began chanting with the accompaniment of a woodblock. The chant erupted as the other monks joined in creating a thunderous chorus. Outside the night was completely quiet. It was hypnotizing and was the most moving experience during my time in the temple.
From there we marched in a line to a room where we sat on cushions on the floor. They served us tea and we talked with the monk who taught us to bow. He spoke no English but we had a few translators. People asked him mostly about specific problems and the monk pointed out that the conversation was becoming cyclical, that people needed to become aware of their inner-mind. Most of the specifics of the conversation were lost in translation.
After an hour and a half of tea, we went to our room and went to sleep on our mats anticipating a three in the morning wake-up.
Last week I took a trip to a temple called Haeinsa with a fellow boarding assistant named Wesley. We had a flight booked to Busan on the southern coast of the country and vague plans of getting to the mountains in the middle. We were drawn to search for a section of the Baekdu-daegan, , a mountain range that runs up almost the entirety of the Korean peninsula and is often referred to as the “tiger spine.”
Upon arrival in Busan, we grabbed a Korean lunch of bibimbap and Coca-Cola and looked around a bit in the area of Busan station. We encountered a strange strip of bars that took their names mostly from American states and cities that sported banners welcoming the US Navy. (As we found out later in our journey this area transforms at night into a creepy ghost town populated by women of the night.)
From there we got onto the speed train called the KTX and were a quarter of the way up the country in a city called Gyeongju in a mere 15 minutes. After about 30 minutes of discussion we decided that Gyeongju was not, in fact, where we needed to be so we got back onto the speed train and found ourselves in Daegu. In Daegu, we hopped onto the subway to a bus station and got onto a bus going north. One of our fellow passengers was a monk on a cell phone. As the sun set I saw mountains in the distance who’s shadows got closer as we wound our way farther and farther into the dark landscape.
An hour and fifteen minutes later the bus reached it’s final destination in Haeinsa and I stepped out into crisp mountain air. There was a small mountain town at the base of the temple with a few restaurants and motels and we grabbed a delicious meal (again of bibimbap but this time with soju and homemade makali so cold it had ice crystals in it.) We had vague plans of camping for the night and inspired by the electricity of the mountains walked our way up a road that wound up and up. We reached what seemed like the top in a few hours. We were surrounded by stars and mountain spines with the occasional bark of a dog in the background and it felt like the roof of the world. We quickly made our way down finally stopping for the night at a makeshift campsite next to a gurgling stream. We unrolled our new Korean sleeping bags (brand: Buck703), sparked a fire, bundled up, and hunkered down for a cold night of sleep.
A few weeks ago some friends and I acting on a tip went to an island off the north of Jeju called Chujado. Knowing nothing about the island I packed some clothes and took off in a cab to catch the daily ferry. The vessel was called “The Pink Dolphin” and looked like a worthy enough boat. I boarded with high spirits not knowing I was getting aboard something akin to Willy Wonka’s chocolate riverboat. Five minutes into the ride the sea began to rock the boat. I tried to walk around but my legs were rubber. I sat down and closed my eyes trying to sleep. Poseidon had other plans. I heard the people around retching violently as their stomachs caved to the ferocious swaying of the boat, but clenched my jaw determined to make it to Chuja with my breakfast intact. This went on for an hour, the Dolphin carving it’s way up and down relentless swells and me staring ahead trying to keep my mind blank as my hopes for arrival slowly dwindled. The boat stopped miraculously and so did the demon in the my stomach. I stepped onto Chujado with relief and a new outlook on life.
The island itself is small. One major town center with a small village a ten minute car ride away. The whole thing is walkable in about seven hours and has an amazing Olle that winds along its coastline over hills and through fields. We found a cheap hotel to stay at along the trail that was right on the ocean and had a spectacular roof.
Our first night we feasted on pork Korean barbecue style where you cook it yourself on a grill built into the table and then did a night hike. On our way back to our hotel we heard noise from a staircase and investigated. Inside we found some friendly Koreans front of a big screen TV singing karaoke. A group of quiet friends watched approvingly from a table. One man in particular took a liking to us (despite speaking barely any English) and immediately began to buy us drinks that were magically replaced when empty. In return we sang them songs. I began with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and all of us closed out the night with a stirring rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
The next morning we took off on a hike around the island and took in the sweeping ocean views. We realized we were running late for the departing ferry and fortuitously flagged down a Bongo who’s driver happened to be going right to the terminal. The ferry ride back was smooth. I even got a nap in.
Up until now I’ve only had posts about my days off, but much of my time has been devoted to working with a group of 38 South Korean boys in the 6-8 grade range split into two families known as Ottawa and Platinum, respectively. On the weekends we have been taking trips to various places around Jeju. Here are some pictures of a trip a few weeks ago along an Olle trail by Jungman Beach.
A few weeks ago my friend Wesley and I decided to trek to a mountain that has been a part of the landscape since I arrived on Jeju Island. The mountain is called Sanbangsan (but we have referred to it as the ice cream scoop) and it looms in the panorama to the southern side of KIS about six miles away. We took off walking mid-morning with packs full of snacks, water, cold weather gear, and with no plan other than to get to the mysterious hump in the distant landscape.
On our way we were sidetracked by a small oreum (something somewhere between a mountain and a hill) that turns out to be called “Dansan.” At the top we met some quiet rockclimbers and got a better view of Sanbangsan. We took off down the mountain after a miraculous recovery of a lost lenscap and after another hour of walking found ourselves at a Buddhist temple at the base of Sanbangsan. The temple turns out to be three temples in one and culminated with a climb to cave that had a statue and an on-duty monk who sat cross-legged in front of an out of place electric fan. Walking past people who bowed on mats I climbed some stairs to a pool where you can drink out of a natural spring from the mountain and a shrine where you can light a stick of incense.
From the temples we looked down and were baffled by what appeared to be an on-land wooden pirate ship. We walked to it and found instead a replica Dutch ship with a museum for a Dutch man named Hamel who had once been stranded on Jeju and was captive for a number of years. Opposing the ship was a bizarre store that offered an eclectic mix of kitschy Dutch goods and out of place Americana items such as Route 66 signs. From there we followed a rock shelf along the coast that took us past vendors selling fresh catches from the sea.
Eventually we ended up on a beach after a full day of walking and decided that we had found ourselves a campsite. It was semi-secluded and around the corner from a city that had restaurants and supplies. At about nine in the evening, however, two loud boats lined with bright lights pulled into the harbor next to us and parked for the evening with lights on providing an obnoxious nightlight.
In the morning we took a bus to a nearby city called Seogwipo and checked out a waterfall and bridge. After lunch at the Loving Hut we took a bus to a city near KIS and hitchhiked back to campus on a Bongo (the Jeju answer to a pick-up truck.)