I’ve been wanting to go out and explore areas around the country since I got here late September. And fore one reason or another, I never left the area. I’ve recently accepted that there will always bee excuses, or obsticles, or timing issues preventing both my boyfriend and I to go out together and if I want to go out and experience the country I have to be willing to go on my own most of the time. It’s sad, I wish he was able to go. To share the experiences and memories as much as for the confidence and assurance that washes over me when he’s around and understands the language and culture.
I must admit, traveling around here is pretty terrifying when you don’t know a thing they are saying or what the signs say. But I won’t let that stop me anymore. It just means I will have to plan better. Thus I began researching what there was to do around South Korea in early November.
Naejangsan is a famous mountain in the Jeolla-do province and has developed the reputation of being the best mountain in South Korea for viewing autumn’s crimson leaves. There are two main Buddhust Temples as well within the park, Baegyangsa Temple and Naejangsa Temple, both of which I had on my list of places I wanted to visit. And the timing was perfect, the trees hit their peak color saturation in the first week of November. Finding photos and information about the park itself was easy. What bothers me is how useless google maps are here. It’s near impossible to get directions anywhere here in Korea, unless you find the hangul name for the place and search that way. But once again it’s a catch 22, you get search results but it is all in Korean and gibberish to me, so it’s a guess and work to try to figure out the correct listing sometimes. I spent a good amount of time figuring out the transportation and making all my plans so that even if there wasn’t any english signs I should be ok for the trip.
A couple days before I planned to head down for my hiking adventure I went into town to see about finding some more appropriate shoes, completely forgetting that it was Tuesday and most of the stores are closed. Instead I found myself in one of my favorite coffee shops, drinking the best almond latte and talking with a random person about traveling and Korea and my plans to go down hiking this week at Naejangsan. Turns out she was the wife of one of the Master Sergeants here visiting and asked if she could go with me. Happy to have some company we started solidifying plans.
Even with the best of plans sometimes things sweep you up like a dried leaf in a wind storm, not sure where your’s going to land but eventually touching down on solid ground again.
We met up at an ungodly hour, took the subway to Pyeongtaek Station where our transfer to Jeonguep Station was, made our way down to the right line, and boarded the Korail train that arrived a few minutes later. The countryside was quiet and beautiful, lots of open farming fields and mountains and a few larger towns. We were about half way to our destination when some young Korean girls showed up claiming that we were in their seats and pulling out their tickets. Indeed we were all assigned the same seats, which led them to look at the train number and try to explain that we were on the wrong train. Too early. Ok, whatever, so we set out an hour earlier than we were supposed to, that just meant we would get there sooner. We were definitely heading the right direction, I had my directions and Daejeon was coming up as expected. So we shuffled over to some other empty seats and settled in for the remaining hour left to our destination.
I’d set my alarm a few minutes before our arrival time and was up carefully listening for our stop. Should be this next one…nope…then surely this next…nope, not it either….hm, must be late…not this next one either. At that point I start to worry and look for a conductor to ask about our station. He doesn’t speak any english and after a few minutes of struggling goes off to the back and draws up a map on a small pad. Line from Pyeongtaek to Daejeon, then a wishbone like split in different directions. He then draws a circle down along the right path, about half way down and is able to let me know that this is us here. Ok. Then he draws a line back up the line to Daejeon and down the other way with an arrow…Crap. I really start to worry now, we were indeed on a very wrong train and half way to Busan. We gather our stuff to get off at the next exit and start making our way back when we are greeted just off the train by the conductor and some other employees from this station. Apparently he had already explained our dilemma to them in Korean because they led us off into a back room and sat us down to try to work out a return rout.
No one spoke English, and we didn’t speak a lick of Korean. Five of them were going back and forth, trying to check the times and communicate with us and figure out exactly what was going on and where we were trying to go. I tried to recall the map and orientation from all my planning and research since arriving, but I just didn’t have enough of a grasp of it. That’s why I printed directions. Then thankfully one of them had the grand Idea of bringing over a map of the train lines that I hadn’t been able to find for the life of me while I was planning this trip. It was all written in Hangul, but it was a damn sight better than nothing. So we marked where we were, marked the transfer station back in Daejeon, and then the station we had to get to by bus or taxi to get on the right line.
By this time it was nearly noon, we were supposed to have already been hiking on the mountain. Our schedule was booked kinda tight and I started working through the numbers. We had planned to enter at the northern part of the park by Naejangsa Temple, explore that then take the cable car up part of the mountain before continuing on our 7 hour hike to Baegyangsa Temple in the south end of the park. Our hotel was booked just outside Baegyangsa Temple. There was no way we had enough time to get there if we continued as planned, we were looking at an hour back up the line, an hour wait until the transfer train came through, then another hour down to the correct station followed by a 20 minute bus ride to Naejangsa National Park. So without even consulting Mila, my travel partner, I shuffled through my papers till I found our return rout home and pointed out Baegyangsa Station to the workers. We needed to go there, not Jeongeup Station. At least that was easy enough to convey. Not quite the full experience we had planned but at least we could get a little hiking done, see one of the temples, and be able to have a place to sleep. They found Baegyangsa Station on the map and circled it as well then started looking up times, which I wrote down next to my revised directions. We expected to then go buy new tickets, but instead they escorted us to the correct line and told us we didn’t need to pay. When the train arrived the employee that escorted us down to the line explained what was going on and got us on the right train with no problem. We were to sit in any feet, but if someone came through with a ticket to that seat we had to move. No problem at all, I was just grateful to be going the right way. They were all very helpful.
So once again we were headed to Daejeon. At least this time I was able to rest a little bit. We had to move seats twice and then the conductor on the KTX train came by to let us know that the next stop was ours, making sure we didn’t miss it again. The rest of the trip down to Naejangsa was smooth and uneventful. We made it to the transfer, made sure we got on the right train this time (which is harder than it sounds because they don’t have the train number listed anywhere on the train itself) and found the bus station to the park easily.
We arrived to a bustle of people leaving the park and temple, heading home for the evening. It was 4:30 in the evening. We decided not to do any hiking today, instead to just go up and explore the temple area today and we would get up early again tomorrow to go do a bit of hiking before heading home. The walk up to the temple was gorgeous. Oak and Maple trees painted with reds and yellows and greens, vibrant moss covered rocks lining the mountain side of the path, skies clear and numerous other mountains rising up in the distance.
Even though we arrived late the area was still busy with people come to pay their respects and see the temple as well as finishing their hike down the mountain. Baegyangsa is one of the more beautiful temples I’ve seen, and to see it draped in fall leaves was gorgeous. All the stress and time wasted became meaningless. This was worth the trip. And if you are looking for things to do on a budget it isn’t bad at all, the travel was the most expensive costing you somewhere around 15,000 won. Entry to the temple and park area is only 3,000 won. Definitely worth it. But be warned, it can be a bit of a madhouse this time of year with thousands of people flocking to the area every day. This was the main reason I chose to head down on a weekday hoping for a calmer park.
As you walk up the path lined with large Oak and Maple trees you pass several little sights and photo opportunities. Along the left is a small compound of hanok buildings, not sure what they are used for. They have a large statue of a persimmon cut in half with a sign along the flat center cut. Many people were taking pictures there, but I was more interested in the buildings and colors and textures.
Just past the wooden hanok buildings is a stone statue inscribed with the name of the area and national park. Sort of like a greeting sign reflecting the tie to nature. The open space left a clear view of the mountains in the background framed with fall leaves and a blue sky.
Further down on the right is a cobbled path with stone stairs leading up to a small gate. This is the only National Cultural Property in the area, the great priest Soyo’s budo ( a kind of a tomb where sarira, or the monk’s remains, are enshrined.) His budo is shaped like a stone bell and consists of an octagonal platform supported by a stone lotus. It is embellished with the carvings of a snake, a dragon, a monkey, a frog, and a crab, and is topped with a pattern containing four dragons and a cloud.
This is the shot everyone wants to take when they come to Baegyangsa. The pavilion, Ssanggyeru, was first erected in the mid-14th century, although what you see now dates from a 1980 reconstruction. It’s been a favorite scenic spot for quite a while—even famed late Goryeo official and scholar Jeong Mong-ju wrote a poem about it. The harmony of mountain, rock, trees, water and architecture make for a truly stunning sight.My photo, while beautiful, is not quite the perfectly centered scene you will see in many photos around the web. Why is this?
Because in order to take this shot you must walk out along this narrow stone walkway out into the middle of the dam with a decent drop behind you into a stream area. The path is busy with photographers and people trying to make their way across. I wasn’t able to make my way through the throng of people to the center when the lighting was perfect and when the path was clear at other times it was because the scene was white washed with evening and morning fog blocking out the mountain and colors.
This is the view of Ssanggyeru from the side of the path as you enter the temple area. Still stunningly gorgeous, but you get tree limbs in the way. It’s nice to take shots of the reflections though. This pavilion marks the entrance to Baegyangsa.
And this is the front of Ssanggyeru, as seen from within the temple area.
If you don’t visit temples while touring South Korea, it would be a straight miss. These beautiful temples display architectural splendor, the epitome of zen spirituality and calmness, and envelop you in the heritage and cultural richness of the Korean society. Baegyangsa (sometimes also spelled Baekyangsa) is one of the most popular temples in the country. Situated at the base of Mt. Baekam in the southern part of Naejangsan National Park, the temple was called Baekam-sa when it was built in 632 during the reign of King Mu of the Baekje Kingdom. Later, in 1034 during the Koryo period, a monk named Chungyonsonsa changed the name to Chongto-sa after the temple was remodeled. The name was changed again during the reign of King Sonjo of the Choson Kingdom. According to legend, one day when one of the temple’s monks, Hwanyangsonsa, was delivering a sermon during a three-day ceremony, a white sheep came down from Mt. Baekam to listen. On the last day of the ceremony, the sheep appeared again, this time in the monk’s dream. “I was turned into a sheep after committing a crime in heaven,” the sheep said, “but I can return to heaven now having listened to your sermon.” The next day, a white sheep was found dead in the temple. Afterwards, the name of the temple was changed to Baegyang-sa (meaning White Sheep Temple), where even a sheep can perceive the truth.
This is the main altar with the golden Buddha, surrounded by candles and incense. The rest of the interior was also gorgeously decorated and lined with smaller statues and silk screens.
I loved all the different textures and colors and all the detail that goes into the architecture of all the buildings.
Don’t forget to stop in at the tea house right at the entrance to the temple. Outside they sell small sweets and snacks to grab and take with you. I got the mixed honey candies for 6,000 won then headed inside for a nice warm mug of tea. They had a good variety, probably 6 different teas. I got one with ginger, jujube fruit, and pine nuts. It was delicious! Sweet and spicy, not overpowering with the ginger.
That night we walked down to Gain Village and ate at one of the several traditional Korean restaurants for dinner. It was an interesting experience and far too much food for 2 people to finish (if you liked the food that is). Once again we were stuck with nobody able to speak English and only a few pictures on the menu. We asked after the Korean foods we knew we liked, but they didn’t offer Bulgogi at all. So instead we got an order of beebimbap and one of the meals. They came out with a tray of about 30 different banchan. I didn’t like most of the banchan. There were dried seasoned anchovies with sesame seeds, beets, fermented bean sprouts and leaves, seaweed, a couple different kinds of kimchi, fat rice noodles in the spicy chili sauce, whole cooked fish, fermented string beans, some sweet wheels I think were a fruit or something but very firm and candied all the way through, an egg sufle thing, some miso broth soup, sticky rice, some pickled fresh cucumber, some clams with a bit of red pepper, and some other white fish steaks that were dried. I probably would have enjoyed the fish more if they deboned them.
I was pretty quick to fall asleep that night after the long day of travel. The next morning we were rewarded by being the only people up on the hiking trails behind Baegyangsa. It was a little chill and overcast, but that was burning off quickly. It was so quiet and beautiful up on the mountain. We didn’t have much time so we just hiked up to Yaksaam Hermitage and back down to Baegyangsa. The trails were wide and well maintained with clear trail markers and signs (though only the main ones were in English as well.)
It was a gorgeous trip filled with lots of Korean culture. I highly recommend it if you are traveling to the area at the end of October/early November. When I was there it was primarily local Koreans visiting, not your typical tourist trap.
To Get There:
From the Mugunghwa Korail line exit Baegyangsa Station. It’s a slower train but gegts you the closest to Baegyangsa. Go straight down the street one block to find the local Bus Station across from the corner market where the big parking lot is. You can either go inside to buy your ticket, use your T-money card, or pay in won. Cost was 1050 won off my T-money. Bus comes every half hour I believe, there is a sign posted with the times listed so you shouldn’t have a problem at all. You can also take a taxi directly there, there is a taxi line along the street you walk up from the station, but be prepared to pay around 12,000 won for a ride up to the temple.
From the KTX line you will have to exit in Jangseong. This is at the point where the Honam Line splits with one fork going to Mokpo and the other to Gwangju. Trains to Jangseong depart from Seoul’s Yongsan Station, and take about 2 hrs, 30 min. From Jangseong, you’ll need to take a local bus to the temple, another half hour to get up to the temple.