Hiking, Korea, Mountains
Comments 8

Temple #1 & a Mountainful of Buddhas

What on earth had I been thinking?

My half-baked intention when I checked into the love hotel had been to walk out of town in the morning and all the way to Bulguksa, most famed temple in all of Korea, way out in the hills south of town. Luckily some good sense had seeped into my head with my morning iced coffee — that taxi ride took 20 minutes or more, and they don’t drive slowly over here without good reason.

We swerved around dozens of bends, climbing the flank of sacred Mt Toham, before he pulled into the empty lot and deposited me with my pack at the gates of Historic & Scenic Site # 1 (Koreans, like the Japanese, love Lists). It was barely 7:00 when I paid my entrance fee; I was the first customer. I mean, visitor.

(But that hotel? you ask. Did it meet your rock-bottom expectations? Met and exceeded them, I’m proud to say. It was a crumbling, concrete-crenellated edifice of the Mock Castle school, grimy inside and out, but especially in, with barely functioning taps, little hot water, decor apparently snatched up at a John Waters garage sale circa 1972, “adult entertainment” that would make the Disney Channel look risque — and, dare I add, no love whatsoever, which is flagrant false advertising. The night manager — owner? — was already stretched out sleeping on the floor behind the desk when I went out to the 7-11 for dinner…)

The temple was fabulous, however. I won’t bore you with too many pictures or details, since you’ve had to sit through a swathe of temple accounts already and I haven’t even got to my Buddha’s Birthday long-weekend report yet (three days; three temples) but in the cool and quiet of early morning, virtually alone, I was one happy pilgrim, even if I had cheated in a cab.

Bulguksa dates from 751 and was restored a thousand years later, around the time they were decorating that love hotel back in town. It has UNESCO protection and according to my brochure, Every single hall and Buddha’s image as well as the pagodas, stupas and decorations hold significance in representing the Pure Land of Buddha.

There are some lovely stone staircases and pagodas and images, but the real beauty of temples for me lies in the simple, human touches, like the miniature pebble-cairns so beloved in Korea…

..and these medieval brooms, excellent for stirring up dust clouds so they can settle somewhere a metre or two away:

The Japanese with their standard efficiency razed all the wooden buildings during their first foray into Korea in the late 16th century; I must have read a similar sentence on just about every information board I’ve seen in Korea.

A few hundred pictures later, with other tourists drifting in, I was sufficiently spiritually sated to do some real walking. Down that winding road I went, with a quick visit to a bamboo grove for a far more mundane but no less necessary purpose, and at last, leaving the woods, was among the rice-paddy plains bordering Gyeongju, with Namsan — South Mountain — that dark ridge beyond the little peak:

Now the real fun began. It was Namsan — say it, it’s beautiful — that had intrigued me most when I read about Gyeongju. Those hills are positively loaded with Silla-era Buddhist rock carvings, statues, temples and hermitages. This was the cultural and religious centre of the whole nation — up there on that little ridge that just happens to be webbed with walking trails.

But even before that, I was in walking heaven. I just plain love this kind of walking: real, functional, agricultural land. They’ve been growing rice here for many, many centuries.

The fact that it was just about devoid of human life that morning just added to the eerie thrill.

Believe me, I couldn’t stop squeezing that shutter. The barrenness and the straight lines, and the Namsan ridge slowly rising ahead. I came to more old temple buildings and some villages squeezed between them and the ridge.

There were nice houses abutting ramshackle hovels. Zig-zagged alleys, the muddy road rising, old bent-over farmers shuffling along, male and female. The grunting of pigs, chickens squawking in barns. No signs, a useless map. Not a care in the world.

I ran out of village and livestock, found myself on a real path that climbed up alongside a half-frozen stream.

I was actually hiking now, pleasantly alone, and was startled to encounter this old fellow seated near the path:

Can you believe it? No fences, no signs, no graffiti. I wondered how this gem would fare in a western context. Namsan is full of relics like this, right next to the path. The mountain itself had been a temple and religious home for the people of Silla, says my brochure.

See that cliff behind me? The Pure Land started to feel a tad less perfect right about there.

Great rowdy flocks of young Mountain Jackasses swarmed along the path from the other direction, shouting and whooping it up, barging past me and practically over me without even a hello. Leave No Trace, imbeciles. See, I went from spiritual ecstasy to homicidal rage in seconds. It’s a no-fuss recipe. Just add people.

Okay, focus. Breathe deeply. Let the tide wash over you (and hopefully the cliff). There. That’s better.

The herd had just vanquished this hermitage on their way up. I had it all to myself going down.

It was good to bump into an old friend once more.

A few hours on Namsan wasn’t enough –there are plenty of treasures there still awaiting discovery. But it was getting on towards sunset, and I had an hour of walking back to town — with one quick stop at another tomb complex.

I had a bus to catch. Just an hour more and I’d  swapped the slumbering Pure Land for the bustling, vital impurity of Busan. It’s good to move between worlds on your holidays.

And that’s all the Goat wrote



  1. You can’t really escape people can you? In the end the planet needs to be a little larger. Maybe Jupiter size would help? Then again, it would fill up in no time, but at least having a Jupiter-like red spot eternal cyclone would sort out the real hikers from the day trippers. Lovely photos again, but the obvious question is, what’s the bikes story? Basket and all, which would have come in handy for you to reach the mountains in good time?!

    • Thanks, Greg. Yes, that was the ‘Marie Celeste’ of bikes! I couldn’t see a human anywhere in the vicinity.

      People. All I ask is a little civility and respect. Then again, this is the country where I photographed a Leave No Trace banner hanging in the forest with a pile of orange peels dumped beneath it!

  2. Great post! I’ll forgive you the cab, Goat, though I won’t forgive you the anticlimactic description of that love hotel. I expected lewd and steamy cavortings at the very least. Never mind, your amazing temple almost made up for it. And those barren rice fields! Very haunting, and I can see why you were excited by the photo opportunities. But standing on the edge of space like that . . . Don’t do this to us! It reminded me of an earlier encounter you blogged about involving a bridge and another Very Big Drop. If those rowdy young Koreans had barged into you by accident you’d have been dead meat, and then what would we have done without our regular dose of temple pics?

    • Thanks for your understanding, SW. The minute I do something of noteworthy lewdness and steaminess, you’ll be the first to know.

      Funny about standing on the edges. Korea is no place to be daydreaming while walking — whether on the street, riverbank, or even in a temple. There are hazards EVERYWHERE: unfenced edges, deadly drops, crappy surfaces, loose rocks in the middle of urban footpaths… I often find myself saying — out loud — “Okay, Goat, don’t even put your eye to that viewfinder till you’re out of this section.” So far, so good.

      Temple junkies need have no fear. A Buddhist bonanza approaches…

  3. A classic goat post. Evocative description and great images. I was pleased to see you even managed to include a solitary bicycle and some brooms! Apart from the jackasses, a great day’s walking.

    • Thanks, Rachael. Yeah, love those brooms and riderless bicycles.

      It was indeed a great walk, and my return trip was even better as I knew the layout of the place. No jackasses either, from memory. There must’ve been something good on TV that day.

  4. a strawberry patch says

    I love the frozen river, my favorite is the window in the rock with the candles….am curious though as to why there is a random window with candles in the middle of a mountain?

    • Thanks! It’s a kind of shrine where they’ve chiselled a cavity in the rock and put a glass door on there — I’m sure in more modern times.

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