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Korea: Mountain Temple Stay

November 10, 2011

We started off on this sunny, unseasonably warm day with a tasty, inexpensive Korean breakfast of bibimbap. A dish of rice, vegetables, and egg or tofu that you stir together with a red pepper sauce. It’s a good thing it’s tasty because it’s one of the only vegetarian meals that isn’t really spicy. Next it was time to pack up and get on with our travels to a buddhist temple on a mountain.

Prior to our bus ride of under three hours to the base of Mt. Sorak (Soraksan), James had purchased some interesting lunch items: banana milk, roasted eggs, apple yogurt and a steamed bun. The milk was surprisingly delicious (tasted like a banana milkshake), the brown, rubbery roasted eggs were edible, although less than delicious, especially for James. During the bus ride I saw many uniformed young men. Military life is the norm for most Korean men, due to the armistice with North Korea and the mandatory service after high school.

We arrived at our destination (ish) because we didn’t know how exactly to get to the foot of the mountain. After a 10 min walk (with our heavy bags), we arrived at the shuttle stop. The bus ride was fairly short (7km) but on a winding and narrow road. Memories of some sketchy trips in India came flooding back. At the mountain base we were helped by some very kind people. Two workers in the gift shop and two fellow hikers. Although it took some convincing that we’d be OK to hike so late (leaving after 3PM for a supposed 5 hour hike), we were off at a rapid pace, having to make it to the top before sundown.

We made it our mission to get there on time, even running on some of the flat bits. We didn’t take the leisurely option but were able to appreciate the rich orange and deep green hues in the rock faces and water pools that flanked the trail. We were also entertained by the pictures of cartoon bears and squirrels that cautioned hikers about the dangers of rock slides and cliffs.

After passing a few fellow late hikers, we arrived at our destination by 6PM, as we proclaimed we would. We were just in time for dinner, but were sadly too late for the roasted chestnuts. We “feasted” on seaweed soup, rice and spicy cucumber… good thing we were hungry! James asked about the chestnuts. I think they could see how excited I was about them. They pulled out about five and handed them to us. We asked a couple of times if we could eat them and were told “yes”. So, after a disappointing main course, I pried open the shell and took a huge bite of the very crunchy flesh. It was during the second bite that I realized it was raw. I couldn’t swallow that 2nd bite. It went into the bowl with the remains of the seaweed soup. Turns out they gave us raw chestnuts thinking we just wanted them for souvenirs.

Normally women and men sleep separately but luckily, because we were foreigners, they gave us our own room to share. The floor was heated so the temperature was comfortable, despite the cool mountain air outside. We slept on mats with blankets on top of us. It wasn’t the most comfortable sleep and the call to prayer at 3:30AM didn’t help.

Friday, November 4th

The atmosphere was tranquil and the company very friendly but when we were served seaweed soup, rice & spicy cucumber again for breakfast, I knew I wanted to make it to the base of the mountain for lunch. So, we climbed to the peak (the total climb was 12km from base to peak), took pictures at the summit (unfortunately with a foggy, viewless background), and then began our descent.

I’ve never greeted so many people in a foreign language before. I tried using the Korean niceties that James had taught me- “Annyeong haseyo” and “Ban Gap Sumnida”; the second which was often met with a strong response because it was a less known greeting to foreigners. I was lucky to have James’ inside scoop.

On the trip down, we took a bit more time to notice the rock faces, cobblestone paths, friendly squirrels, waterfalls, pristine water pools, and rock-stack offerings along the way. Still, we made it down in just over three hours, with a small stop for congee and kimchi, on the invitation from monks at another temple.

Once at the bottom, the friendly gift shop women welcomed us back again. One of them hustled us into a building behind the centre of the activity where the BEST buddhist meal was being served: mild mushroom curry, moist rice bread and veggies, with red bean paste sweets for dessert. We filled our bellies with this feast before strapping on our large travelling back packs to shuttle, walk, hitchhike, bus, metro and walk back to our Seoul hotel.

Several hours later and we found our hotel. It was one that James had found online and its first impression didn’t let us down. There were bright lights and pastel cartoon drawings everywhere. Overstuffed teddybears sat in the chairs in the lobby. When we entered our room, the bright pinks, yellows, and surreal visions were compounded. It felt like Alice in Wonderland. An electric pink table and chair set were beside the window that overlooked the city. A walk- in shower with two shower heads was speckled with vibrant pink and orange shiny tiles. The heated bidet bathroom seat topped off the experience.

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