We have all we need of heaven here on earth ~ Edward Abbey
I’m definitely an off-season beach-goer. Songjeong Beach in the last gasps of Autumn was the quietest I’d seen it — and heard it. Except for the half-hearted thumps from a late-night mattress rodeo in the room next door, the Kuhn Motel was pleasingly silent.
I still woke at 3:30am — excitement, probably. And 3:30 was extreme even for me, at least in late Autumn. I rose again around 5:00 and hit the road, aiming at the crisply outlined fingernail moon hanging over the ocean, then northwards again up the coast road, Yonggung Temple bound.
I’ve talked about Yonggungsa on TGTW before: the ancient temple perched on the rocks at the ocean’s edge. I must have made the two-mile walk from Songjeong four or five times over the last two years, not counting the time I bypassed it (time constraints) on my big walk up the coast.
I’ve seen a couple of sunsets from Yonggung, both of them at lantern festivals for the Buddha’s birthday…
..and a few of the dazzling sunrises for which the place is famed.
The temple dawns are best, since the view is eastward, and early in the morning you have the advantages of solitude and choice of vantage points.
Another bonus of cold-season sunrise-stalking: time. Dawn was due around 7:15, and still a ways off when I reached the temple gates. An old man was sweeping some steps in the dark with one of those medieval twig-brooms favoured in Korea. And this was where I broke from the script.
I’d always wondered about those bell-shaped cairns on the far side of the cove (see the picture above). Wouldn’t it be better to wander about them? I’d seen a couple of photographers scurrying around over there last time, but the only apparent path was blocked and I’d assumed they were off limits. Hell, this would be my last chance, so I bounded up the steps when the old man wasn’t looking, found my way along a vague track by feel, reached a dirt road and climbed it to the headland.
A little rock-hopping and…voila:
It was perfect — just one of the greatest front-row seats ever. From below and to the north, the rhythmic chugging of a fishing boat as it puttered between seaweed nets — I’d watched men and women running seaweedy ropes through simple cleaning machines yesterday. The sea was calm and glassy and the pre-dawn light glimmered on the nets. I couldn’t believe I had this amazing spot to myself.
After I’d concluded slapping myself on the back, which made a pleasing sound in my goatskin showboarding mitts and goose-down parka, I got down to business. As fellow sunrise/-set groupies know, you only get a 10- or 15-minute window, so time and preparation are crucial. I bounded across the clifftop getting organised — and most important of all, going through the checklist of potential hazards.
After nearly walking off a cliff in Switzerland one time, this is especially important to me! I’ve slowly trained myself to detach my eye from the viewfinder before any step, and I’m always giving myself the heebie-jeebies, intentionally, by imagining the unpleasantness of a bad fall or slip from the local deathtraps.
It was chilly and crisp, but not too breezy; the light and stillness and enveloping silence, as the boat chugged north, were breathtaking — altogether one of the most beautiful mornings I’ve experienced anywhere.
Just south, on a little promontory, another barbed-wired army post. While I waited, a few soldiers strolled out for a look, but (bizarrely) didn’t linger:
A flock of cormorants shot northwards above one of the ubiquitous seaweed fields:
I did have some company out there — fortunately the silent and still type:
These cairns appear to be Buddhist stupa — although I’m no expert. The other possibility is that they’re just very elaborate, mortared adornments positioned for visual impact: smoother, more elaborate versions of the trail-side assemblages so common on Korean trails.
When I peered through the gaps between them, I saw photographers with an arsenal of big guns gathering on the rocks on the far side, back where I used to await the dawn. I kept my head down. With me, the Stone Men and the dozens of tiny Buddhas clustered on and around them, it was crowded enough up there.
Here she comes now:
It was the most fun I’ve had in the dark for a long while. I especially enjoyed the shimmery effect of the light on the seaweed nets — and the (I’ll admit) crucifix-like shape the nets made intersecting with the rippling reflection of the sun:
I doubt I’ll ever be back, but if I am it’ll be with Kate and a little “sunrise enhancer” of some kind.
And that was it. The show was just about over, and as always the real miracles had gone down outside the temple gates.
It felt so remote up there, but I could have actually walked all the way back to my home in Jangyu in one (long) day of road-trudging. Korea is tiny, but back when the temple was built, this coastline must have seemed vast, wild and mysterious.
But the day’s entertainment was just beginning. The coastal path I’d lucked onto continued southward. I decided to try to skip the unpleasant road walk (where a massive theme park construction project was blighting yet another quiet corner of Korea), and walk a new path back to Songjeong.
Sometimes my unplanned adventures come together rather nicely…
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote