Dong Dong Journey

It’s Chusok week. This is the holiday equivalent of Thanksgiving in the U.S. in every way. It is the family holiday. From Saturday through Wednesday there is a mass exodus in all directions as Koreans go to feast and spend time with relatives. Many businesses and restaurants are closed and people are dressed in their nicest clothes, carrying packages of cakes and other sweets on their way home.

We kicked things off here with a night out gorging on food and drink with friends. Soju, makali, maekju, tequila, beef intenstines, bul-go-gi… a bit of everything.

While foreigners are in some ways left out of the Chusok festivities, there are a couple nice benefits for us waygooks. On the one hand, it’s one of the few times that hard-working English teachers get some extended time off; at the same time, places like temples and parks are completely deserted. The guitarist in my band invited me to join him and some other foreigners to visit Jirisan National Park. One of my Korean colleagues had offered to have me come spend the time with his family in Jeju-do, but flights were impossible. So I had no plans and agreed to go. I’m glad I did.

There’s a joke here in our little corner of Busan. We call the three kilometer or so radius around our university “The Shire.” It’s safe, comfortable, familiar, and of course, teeming with hobbits. If our uni is The Shire, Jirisan is Rivendell, plain and simple. It’s an impossibly magical, beautiful place, the kind of thing you imagine when you think of mystical, ancient Asia.

I woke up early and took the subway to the bus station leading out of Busan. I met a couple of people there and we booked a ticket to Hadong, the transfer point for Jirisan. When we arrived in Hadong, we saw a couple of foreigner girls I’d never met. We invited them to join us. Because of the traffic, we arrived in Jirisan late, around 2 pm or so. The drive was beautiful, with green rolling hills feathered with whisps of low clouds. Eventually we entered a vast valley cut by a wide river. The bus dropped us off at a random grocery store and we walked on foot up a hill leading to some guest houses.

We dropped off our things at our guest house and then walked one kilometer or so to Ssanggyesa temple. I’ve been to about four or five temple complexes since I’ve been in Korea, and I thought nothing could top Beomosa, but this one did easily. Like Beomosa, it’s nestled in with the surrounding hills. But here, the natural environment and the temple buildings seemed to form a perfect synergy, as if the buildings were the product of nature itself. Maybe it’s that it’s older, maybe it had something to do with the river running through it, I’m not quite sure. Something also with the colors – the pinks, greens, blues and grays of the temple buildings seemed to be an extension of the flora around them.

We met two other foreigners there, bringing our party to seven total (strangely enough, all Americans). We wandered around mostly in silence, having the temple almost entirely to ourselves, except for a couple of random Koreans. Koreans love to take their families to temples and they usually arrive in droves, so experiencing peace and quiet in a setting like this is a rare thing. Adding to the atmosphere, it was raining almost continuously but only in sparse drops, as if the whole day was one long aftermath of what was once a big rain storm.

At the back of the temple grounds, we found a trail heading up alongside another river on the right. We passed through tall pink and white flowers up to a roaring, rock-covered cascade. There were a few well-tilled farms the monks maintain and some stellar views of the surrounding hills. It was getting toward dusk and the temple was closing up so we made our way back down.

The “town” is nothing more than a small village, with a couple of restaurants, tea shops, ceramics shops, and grocery stores. We ate bi-bim-bap, fried sardines, potato pajon, vegetable soup, and various banchan, and drank the thickest dong-dong-ju I’ve ever had. After dinner, we loaded up with beer and headed back to our guest house.

Back at the guest house, we met four other foreigners who had made their journey by motorcycle. This meant there were now 11 total sharing 4 rooms. The party divided into two camps: the “dudes” playing poker, and the more, eh, sensitive conversational types who spent the night talking about life. (I was in the second group.) We sat out on the patio talking against the backdrop of a hillside dotted with tiny lights – quite an atmosphere. Around midnight half the party, including me, crashed out on the floor. I never think I’m going to be able to sleep Korean-style, but for some reason I’m always able to get a good rest on a hardwood floor.

The next morning everyone pitched in to cook a massive American-style breakfast of potatoes, eggs, bacon, fruit, cheese, and good Seattle coffee. For most of the morning it rained hard, so we sat and waited it out, some playing chess, some playing guitar, others reading books, others talking. Eventually the sky opened up, so around 1 pm we made our way toward the trailhead going to Buril Pokpo waterfall, roughly a three-hour round trip. The trail extends out the back and left side of the temple complex. It’s a steep journey up stone steps. I came to the realization that any time you decide to hike to a waterfall, chances are that at various points along the way you actually are climbing a waterfall, or at least similar terrain. It was exhausting, but well worth the trip.

About two-thirds of the way up, we saw a genuine hermit. He lives up there in a simple home with a covered patio. He sells sodas and candy, plays relaxing music, has a hammock to rest in, a natural spring for filling water bottles, and a remarkable collection of stone towers that were built by someone who clearly has a huge amount of time on his hands.

From this point on the path got very steep, occasionally muddy, and slippery. At the apex of the trail, there was a side path that led to a fantastic single-building temple. A monk walked past me when I entered and I bowed. I looked back and the view was breathtaking.

Just two tenths of a kilometer later I arrived at the waterfall. It was modest in size, probably 40 meters tall, and the surrounding rocks and foliage created a nice atmosphere. We stayed for a while, but it was getting late. I wanted to be in time for the 5 o’clock bus so I said my goodbyes there. They were all staying an extra night or two, but I needed to head back. I arrived back in the village, had some bi-bim-bap, bought a ticket, got on an empty bus, put on my iPod (Kings of Convenience, mostly), watched out the window as the sun went down in the valley, and eventually fell asleep.

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2 Responses to “Dong Dong Journey”

  1. You’re measuring in metres now. And I see a lot more Korean language. It sounds beautiful. What a nice holiday.

  2. […] wasn’t my first trip there. I went during Chuseok last year and visited Ssanggyesa temple. This time we went to Hwaeomsa, intending to take a nice hike. But as […]

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