I have a talent for suffering.
Who is this lonesome fool trudging up the road in this miserable weather, away from the highway, deeper into the quiet woods…
..scarf pulled up high, snow and snarling wind fighting over their spoils?
And why is he smiling, out there in the wind and snow, his hands turning blue, ice nestling in his eyelashes?
Because the poor bastard is deranged, and he’s thinking with detached and hilarious horror about the tarp in his backpack, and his decision to leave the tent at home, along with his stove, to save a few precious grams! And is that really a smile, or is his face frozen?
The cars had petered out, and many of those that did pass rattled along, their tyres enmeshed in snow chains. I felt pretty good despite the weather, full of calories, my legs strong after all that hiking back in Gyeongnam. I passed a roadside grave, its occupant sleeping soundly under a warm winter quilt:
Now and then the views would open up and this little isle looked a lot bigger and wilder than it seemed from the highway:
Before long I rounded a bend, looked up and…
This was Gwaneum Temple — Gwaneumsa in Korean — and nothing could have prepared me for its beauty and tranquility. Even without the snow, that giant Buddha would make quite a statement. Now I bent into the icy wind and passed through the outer gate…
..and then up a long, straight avenue to the main temple buildings, my feet crunching in the snow.
This must be one of the most dramatic entranceways to any temple or shrine I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a lot, though mostly in Japan). Double-rows of evergreens (cypresses?) lined the avenue…
..and at their feet, dozens of half-buried stone Buddhas sitting side by side, stoic despite the snow accumulating upon their hemispherical stone headwear:
Above the Buddhas, paper lanterns and banners fluttering in the breeze…
I forgot my tourist predicaments completely while I was at Gwaneumsa — at least an hour — except when I had to remove my gloves (two on each hand) to take one of dozens of pictures. And I suppose that’s one of the points of a temple, isn’t it?
A friend asked me, bemused by an atheist’s peculiar fondness for temples, if I’d enjoy an old church as much. I said I would — and had. I don’t have to believe, just to feel. And apart from my hands, which were numb, I felt a lot at Gwaneumsa. Serenity, quiet, classic design, ancient trees, beautiful gardens, the grandeur of stone and wood of great age, a link with an ancient past, refuge from the grinding commercial ugliness of the main drag — it’s all there:
And there was a glimpse, through the swirling snow, of something beautiful and very proud at the heart of Korean culture that’s hard to find in the shabby functionalism of the urban centres I’ve seen. It was the tail end of the Lunar New Year holiday, and while I skulked around trying to be unobtrusive, families filed in to do their temple visit:
Everyone seemed relaxed and happy. Kids threw snowballs beneath the Buddha, slid in the snow. There were also a few groups of older visitors, one emerging from some kind of meeting indoors, distinguished in immaculate formal-western attire.
“This is the Korean…Thanksgiving,” one explained, struggling to find the right words.
Many smiled at me, and I relaxed when a few pulled out a camera to take a snap of the incredible temple buildings:
But I couldn’t linger too long. For one thing, my peculiar reaction to extreme cold, which I have self-diagnosed to be a mild form of Raynaud’s Phenomenon, was kicking in: removing my camera’s lens cap requires a pincer grip with thumb and forefinger, an action that’s almost impossible when my fingers are frozen. Basic functions (doing up a button; untying a knot; pulling out a tent stake; finding my zipper in emergencies!) become feats of concentration and effort when I’m cold.
For another thing, I needed to arrange some kind of accommodation.
Departing. Note the icicles creeping down from the inner gate:
Things were not always so placid here:
Gwaneumsa Campground: a vast, bleak expanse of snow, some tents among the trees. I noted with conflicting distaste and intense desire a small 7-11 across from the entrance. High comedy as I tried to communicate my needs to the two youths manning the gate:
“You want camping?”
“Yes. But I don’t have a tent. I have a…well, I don’t have a floor. So I need NO SNOW. Are there any spaces under trees with NO SNOW?”
“We have much snow here. But it’s OK. Special places. Just PUSH the snow! 3,ooo won, please.”
“Oh, and a shower costs 600 won?”
“No shower. Sorry.”
Well, of course. The pipes were all frozen. To think I’d fantasised about there being cabins here!
Here’s one of the $3 tenting platforms:
I commenced pushing.
I don’t know what kind of person takes his family camping in this kind of weather, but my neighbours were the archetypal happy campers. And no wonder, in their palatial maxi-tents and…tipis?
Anyone for a barbecue?
After half an hour of kicking, cajoling and pleading with the snow, I reached the dirt base of my platform — which was rock hard. Driving tent stakes into frozen ground is my idea of fun. A crowd gathered, fascinated, kids and parents alike touching and testing my workmanship as I assembled my rather less ostentatious shelter.
At last, the show’s finale: I began inflating my mattress. It took about 28 lungsful, double the usual. I lay it out on the little strip of blue plastic and thought it didn’t look too bad at all. I had my down bag and bivy sack. I’d survive.
Twilight descended. Snow gathered on the sil-nylon. The beginning of a night of Great Wretchedness…
GALAXIE 500, Listen, the Snow is Falling:
~ And that’s all the Goat Wrote
- Bayon, Siem Reap Cambodia (fhotofinish.wordpress.com)