Monthly Archives: November 2011

Haeinsa Part IV: Departure

I woke up the final day at Haeinsa feeling rested and ready to hit the trail. We had made a new friend the previous night who wanted to show us around. Her Buddhist name was Arona and she had been sweeping outside of our door as we came back from dinner the night before. Seeing our cameras she became very excited and insisted that we come see her pictures later. She was a sweet lady who told us about her family and her beliefs and showed us her workbook where she honed her English skills by copying famous speeches. She was all in all very motherly.

So the next day we woke up to rain and walked around seeing the temple with a new sheen. Arona snapped pictures and took us to her favorite spots that we had seen on the previous day but were made better by her excited chatter and picture taking. Before we left she made us go to the gift shop with her where she bought us Buddhist bracelets. The temple was empty due to the rain, so we had time to make small talk and sip instant coffee with the gift shop’s owner. The owner also wanted to give us a gift, and insisted that we take a pack of postcards and a bag of potatoes. Arona walked us to our trailhead and we said our goodbyes before leaving Haeinsa behind.

I made my way up the trail to the peaks of Gayasan quietly listening to the rain lightly smack the leaves. The dampness eventually found its way through my old raincoat and I gave up on keeping dry, taking off my hood and feeling the cold drops on my forehead. The hike to the top seemed brief. We found ourselves on a huge rock enveloped by fog. The first true peak was a silhouetted stone giant about a hundred meters away. A few Nepalese hikers snapped their pictures with us and we continued on to Sangwangbong, one of Gayasan’s two peaks. I looked into the grey fog and thought about the view that it was hiding.

The second peak is called Chilbulbong and is a few meters taller than the first. We reached it in ten minutes and then started making our way back down the other side of the mountain. Near the bottom a few Korean hikers emerged. They were having a picnic and offered us some fried chicken. We refused, but didn’t turn down the apples that they offered instead. We said “Thank you” in Korean and continued on down.

At the bottom we took a rest at a campground under a roof with benches. I used the automatic hand dryer in the bathroom on a few of my things that were especially damp. Following the road we came to a strange terrarium with a museum attached. It was all in Korean but had to do with the ecosystem of the park. The museum was completely empty. A man appeared to take a small entrance fee. I wandered through the museum section and then into the silent terrarium. Attached was a glass room with a woman inside. I went in and she handed me flower tea. She let me smell the different varieties and I bought a glass jar of purple petals.

We walked on the road toward town as occasional cars whizzed past. There was a small chance that two soaking wet vagabonds would be picked up so we resigned ourselves to the long walk. As we came closer to civilization we noticed that a celebration was going on. There were giant beach balls floating in the air and giant expo tents set up. We walked down the hill to the entrance and were greeted by a Korean with an Australian accent named Lucy. She was an English speaking tour guide for the Millenial Anniversary Expo of the Tripitaka Koreana. Amazingly, we had tickets to the event from our Templestay host.

Lucy, who had lived in Australia for a while, showed us around the Expo and then put us on a bus headed for Daegu. We reversed our trip back to Busan. Arriving around nine, we quickly checked into a hotel and ditched our wet gear before walking out on the street to reacquaint ourselves with civilization. We walked to the strange set of bars named after American cities and states excited to see it at night. However, all that greeted us was a depressing ghost town where strange women urged us to come in and drink with them. Feeling dejected by the sad scene, we walked half-heartedly around a few more blocks and then made our way back to hotel.

The next morning we met up with our other boarding assistant friends who were excited about what they had been exploring while we were gone. They took us to a much livelier part of town to the cheap but classy brand-new love motel where they were staying. From there, we went to the largest department store in the word called Shinsegae. It is nine floors of disorienting escalators and commerce that left me feeling dizzy. It even has an ice rink. We walked by the beach and through a strange downtown business district where a protest was happening.

The city was full of restaurants and bars. Many of them had strange allusions to America or were American chains. I picked up some books at a store near our hotel before we made the rounds of a few nightspots in the area. In the evening the street was lit up in neon and there were countless street vendors all selling similar food. We stopped at a few of them they quickly cooked delicious greasy dumplings and Korean pancakes on their carts.

The five of us left our motel early the next morning, got some coffee and made our way to the airport, leaving behind the mainland and heading back to our island.

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Haeinsa Part III: A Full Day

Waking up at three AM was something that I’ve never attempted. I’ve experienced it from the other angle and stayed up until three to see the most quiet part of the night. I’ve woken up at four to catch airplanes or buses. I’ve driven through the night in the middle of America watching the lines on the highway. However, waking up at three for the sake of starting my day was something foreign.

I was not groggy as I awoke – there was more of a pensiveness to the atmosphere as we all began to stir and roll up our mats and take turns in the bathroom and make for the door. Outside the moon still dominated the sky and as we convened in a courtyard we couldn’t help but stare up at it. We made our way in line to the drum and watched the monks and then went to the temple and listened to the monks chanting. The rituals were repeated but took on a whole new meaning in darkness of the very early morning. The routine had kicked in and I had come as close to immersion in temple life as I would during my stay there.

So we made our way to the tea room where we laid down mats in lines and faced forward at our guide and she put on a CD that took us through 108 bows. Backing a man’s voice was music that could have served as the soundtrack to Braveheart. The music wove it’s way through moments of intense adventure and tranquil lulls. After a while I stopped counting the bows and tried to focus only on the movements I was making. The bowing process becomes somewhat strenuous when repeated, and a few people had to stop and rest. After the bowing we meditated. I might have fallen asleep if it weren’t for the intense pain in my legs unused to being crossed for extended periods of time.

We had a delicious yet simple breakfast of rice, kimchi, and soup and pickled things and then went on a tour of the temple. We were shown a building that houses the Tripitaka Koreana. The building is carefully planned to provide the right conditions for almost thousand year old wooden printing blocks of the Buddhist scriptures.

After our tour the silence lifted and the Templestayers dispersed. Wesley and I were the only ones staying another night so I nodded goodbyes to the people I had not really spoken to. By this time it was mid-morning and I had been up for seven hours. I decided to take a nice long nap before lunch, unfolding my mat.

After lunch, Wesley and I took off toward town. We made our on the path and witnessed the full degree of tourism that occurs at the foot of Haeinsa. The flea market that had been empty the previous morning was bustling with school children and tour groups and people in costumes. It was a shock after spending nearly 24 hours in almost complete silence. We quickly made our way through saying hello to curious school children eager to try out their English on us.

After a little searching we found the trail head that we were looking for and began to make up way up toward the summit of Namsan Jeilbong. There were a few hikers who smiled or tried a little English. The path was well marked and maintained and took us fairly quickly to the summit using metal stairs where the rocks became too steep to be safe. We took in the view and continued on a steep descent down the other side not quite knowing where it would end up.

The trail meandered to a small temple at the base of the mountain with a garden full of greenery. I smiled at a lady as she made her way past us to do some harvesting. The path continued to a town with distant noises of cows and dogs and the occasional car. We saw a festival in the distance and walked in its direction hoping it would bring us to a road that would loop back to Haeinsa. We had slightly misjudged time and distance and the day was wearing on.

A van sped around the corner and came to an abrupt stop. “Haeinsa?” the driver said. We nodded and he motioned for us to get in. The man drove with a confidence a person can only have in their hometown roads. He cut the s-shapes right down the middle and honked at anything or anyone that was encroaching on his path. His foot slammed on the gas for straightaways and flexed precisely on the brake for corners. We soon found ourselves in Haeinsa town. The driver handed us a card for a nearby hotel, smiled, and took off up the road probably rushing to get back for dinner.

We trudged up the hill, set our packs down in our room, caught dinner and made our way outside to view the temple at night. The lanterns that lined the path had been illuminated and the atmosphere was one of quiet festivity. I heard the drumming and chanting from a distance – this time slightly muffled and enchanting, and night had returned to Haeinsa.

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