May 5 – Sunday
We negotiated a taxi ride from Mungyeong to Danyang, rationalizing that it would take us a couple of changes on the bus, plus possibly a taxi ride, to get there otherwise. This is one of those calculations you do when weighing transportation time against time you could spend doing other things.
Evidently, there is a big mountain, or maybe a couple of them, between Mungyeong to Danyang, and we went up switchbacks, and around bends with nothing between you and lots of empty air but a railing. It was a good road, though, and with our ears popping and a few white knuckle turns, we made it to Danyang in good time. We were there by 9:30 a.m., sitting in front of the local 7-11 with cans of coffee, watching hang gliders sail from the mountaintops to a small landing area next to the river below.
Around the corner was the Sketch Motel, aptly named in terms of the apparent clientele. The building seemed to be a bronze and black shiny box of a place, with large photos of bedrooms out front, similarly furnished with black and white tile floors and fluorescent plastic furniture. Instead, we opted for a little place next to the Sketch called Destination of Coffee. It was apparently the former Rivertel, which appeared in our guidebook from a few years ago. When we got our key, it said “Rivertel” on the tag. The hosts were English speakers, and they had a really fun coffee shop on the first floor, with designer textile items, like shoes and hats, made from interesting traditional cotton fabric.
We dumped our stuff and headed for the Guinsa Temple, which reportedly served a vegetarian lunch to anyone who shows up. The bus went up one mountain and down another, and eventually dropped us off at a bus station at the foot of the mountain area that is Guinsa. It was green all around us. The mountains all have sharp peaks, all are heavily forested. There was a large pagoda building on one side and restaurants on the other, and for a moment I thought “is this the temple?” I was in for a surprise. Getting to the actual temple required another long walk up a steep road with a sidewalk on one side.
We began to see people really in their climbing gear, some with hats, sunglasses, jackets, pants, gloves and walking sticks, looking quite serious and purposeful. It gave us pause about what might be ahead. Guinsa is built on a mountainside. The only level places are terraces and floors of buildings. The place seems to connect via various stairways and walkways in a confusion that reminds me of Hogwarts. Maybe the stairs even move around from one place to another with Buddha power.
We first noticed our friend Mr. Yu when we first got off the bus and were asking about the times of the buses back. We also asked about the lunch served daily, and he indicated to us that it we needed to climb up further on foot. He set off at an energetic pace, but instead of leading us to the lunch, or to a sign to the lunch, or an English language info center, or some other obvious clue, we went directly to one of the main temples of the complex. Along the way, Mr. Yuh was stopped by a car coming back down, driven by one of the monks (su-nims) of Guinsa. He told me “that was one of the monks,” when the car continued to drive down, and “I also work here,” along with a lot of other explanation in Korean I didn’t understand.
We never understood whether he only volunteered at Guinsa or if he was actually employed there, but his help in this giant place was certainly appreciated, as there was apparently no information in English about what we were looking at or how to get around.
He also had us go to each temple on the way up, bowing three times at each of the statues, which I’ve never done before (with the exception of North Korea, I guess. Everybody who goes there has to bow to Kim Il Sung’s statue). Mr. Yuh was clearly very serious about his faith, and wished to do “in-sa” or homage, to every temple he passed.
In this place, one really understands (especially after a half hour or so of straight mountain climbing with a few breaks of stair climbing) how the mountain, and the act of climbing up and up to the temple, is part of the spiritual experience. The arduousness of it makes the goal sweeter, and the idea of climbing to heaven (or nirvana, as the case may be) is obvious. The fabulous spring weather, and bright azaleas and flowering trees everywhere, enhanced the effect. With the grand old buildings and beautiful foliage, it was hard to take a bad picture in this place. The wind blew in gusts and all the hundreds of Buddha birthday lanterns clinked merrily in the breeze.
In the cafeteria, we were served rice and beans, bean sprouts, kimchi and soup in gray plastic trays. I gave one of our cold waters to him – the only thing I had to say thanks. And he took a photo of us and told us we looked beautiful together. Awww.
We thought our tour was over then, but no! Mr. Yu continued to lead us up and up, to the top terrace of the temple, where there is a statue of the founder of the Cheontae order. Part of the temple was clearly built at the order’s founding after World War II, and part is much older. The place is cleverly and interestingly put together. All of the exteriors look old, but in some, like the large seven-story building near the top, there is an elevator to take the faithful up to the terrace level. It is a nice break. At the founder’s temple, Mr. Yuh asked one of the volunteers or su-nims in training to bring us coffee. We then had coffee overlooking the best view in Korea.
From there, Mr. Yuh invited us to visit the very top of the mountain, where one su-nim lives at a shrine. We decided to go for it, a trek that included about 50 flights of stairs, which switched back and forth against the steep slope, ending in a small grassy area with a small terrace, one tiny building, and a shrine with various obelisks built into the slope. Unfortunately, there is no information here in English about what you are looking at. There was a woman there with her daughter or granddaughter. She must have been 80 years old. I could not believe she made it up to this place. We also were not sure whether it was a Buddhist or a shamanistic shrine. At one point, we thought we heard him describe it as “the place where the mudang lives,” but later said one su-nim lives there.
It was probably the highest point we had been to thus far. Soon we went to a last overlook, a place that seemed to look out over the entire world. We found out later that it is referred to as the “lotus mountains” because the sharp peaks seem to overlap one another like lotus petals. Mr. Yuh also referred to it as the “seven peaks” which we didn’t see in the guidebook, but perhaps he was referring to the view from that particular point.
Halfway back down in the temple, we persuaded Mr. Yu that he could leave us, and he said he had to go to work. He did give us his name and address (no email!) which I saved so that I can send him a word of thanks and Korean, as well as a photo of our meeting at the tallest spot. We took some more photos of him, and he gave me one of his Buddha bracelets, which is a really nice keepsake of a special day.
After he left, we decided we never would have seen most of the stuff we saw without such a fabulous guide. We also discovered the temple through the perspective of someone who really worships there, which was unique. We really felt like we had a special experience because of one person who, for whatever reason, decided to help us.
We also asked at the information desk about some English language information, and soon an English-speaking su-nim was summoned to talk to us. He said he had spent time in Los Angeles, and told us a little more about the order. The English language information says the order was founded to bring Buddhism to the common people and emphasizes Buddhism in daily life.
After taking the bus back and getting dropped right at our corner, we had a regular “jongshik” dinner that included a mushroom broth soup, and super-healthy black and white mixed rice (looks purple) with special local garlic steamed into the top. After eating the rice from the stone bowl, you pour in hot water and scrape all the bits (nooroongi) from the stone. The baked-on rice flavor in a broth is what you are going for at the end of this dish. In addition to the soup and rice, the dinner included tons of side dishes, baked fish, and all sorts of fun kimchi.
We finally managed an electric hook-up in the yogwan consisting of three different plugs from our motley collection. Hoping the jury-rig wouldn’t start a fire or blow out the computer, we just plugged it in and let it go. It seemed to be charging. However, then we noticed that the “hot” water was barely tepid (plus there was no bathtub, just a shower) and the internet connection was not operational. Internet – especially since we don’t have a phone – we decided was necessary. A hot bath, after all this mountain climbing, is really a necessity for me. My bones won’t move without a bath after all this abuse! So we decided to change yogwans, despite the fact that we liked the people at Destination of Coffee aka Rivertel.