As the weather cools down, so begins the annual reddening of the leaves. Busan is a very warm part of Korea and our trees were still mostly green going into November, so my other two musketeers and I joined the Enjoy Korea group once more to head to the northernmost regions of South Korea, known best for the Demilitarized Zone and the most beautiful Fall Foliage. It seemed like an odd conjunction of activities: the DMZ and a temple in a mountainous national park, but when you live at the southern tip of the peninsula it pays to combine the northern activities.
A little history
I hope that most of my readers are aware at least in outline of the Korean War and the resultant division of North and South Korea. For those who would like a refresher, here’s a very brief recap:
Japan had been controlling Korea for a while, but was forced to give it back at the end of WWII. Unfortunately, the Allies couldn’t agree on who would replace Japan as the dominant colonial power, so a line was drawn at the 38th parallel and Russia got the North while America got the South. Yeah, they sort of had thier own governments, but it was heavily infulenced by communist and capitalist ideas (and money). In 1950, the North swept over the border in huge numbers and descimated the South… flattened… destroyed and took over nearly everything in only a few days. A few DAYS. The UN decided to get involved and America sent the majority of troops into a war no one was prepared for. It dragged on for 3 years (which seems so fast and efficient nowadays, right?) and finally the Northern armies were pushed back behind the 38th. The DMZ was established as a boundary between North and South to protect the South from further surprise attacks and it is heavily guarded at all times.
Our group was not heading to the Joint Security Area (JSA) where official government buildings and occasional meetings between the two countries exist, but rather to a less well developed part of the border that was only recently opened to the public. It’s one of the least developed areas in South Korea; apparently sometimes there are even deer. The Korean Board of Tourism refers to the area of Yanggu as “the natural side of the DMZ.
It was a long drive from Busan all the way to Yanggu. We left at 5 o’clock in the morning, but I did manage to get to bed early the night before so it wasn’t too bad. When we arrived in Yanggu, we first stopped off in town for a late breakfast. It was surreal walking through a town so close to the Northern border. There were far more military personel around than in other Korean cities, and it seemed somehow more subdued, although there were still cute street decorations and a wide variety of bakeries and cafes to choose from. We had some delicious waffles made with a Belgian style resting dough recipe.
After eating and stretching our legs, the buses moved on to Dutayeon. The area of Dutayeon is beyond the Civilian Control Line, was closed to civilians after the Korean War and was only recently reopened to the public in 2006. It’s still necessary for us to register ahead of time with the government in order to visit the area, and for some of our group to wear GPS tracking necklaces around while in the park. Of course I volunteered to wear one for our group. Are you kidding? The Dutayeon Park area also includes the warning: “Not all landmines have been found, so stay within the permitted areas.” It’s not your average hike in the woods.
That being said, it is a beautiful area. The river that runs through it ends in a small but powerful waterfall that is the crown jewel of the park, visible across from the pond and from viewing platforms on both sides. There is a loop trail around the park, so it doesn’t matter which way you go from the pond. We headed right and passed by quite a large number of unexploded mine signs on our way toward an outdoor exhibit of mines used in the war, as well as other security measures and a mock explosion that demonstrated the sensitivity of the mines by blowing foam bits around in a ball while playing a low volume explosion sound whenever hikers came too close. There were also many happier decorations including party banners between trees, wooden deer and pigs, and a whole wall of paper prayers and wishes.
As the path veered toward the river, we came to a suspension bridge which the Koreans took great delight in bouncing and swaying on as we crossed. Our group of westerners was several hundred from all over Korea, and there were many more busloads of Korean tourists visiting the park that day as well. I know that normally you can get away from the crowds here by taking a side trail or going to a less popular part of the park/beach/etc. However, given the security issues at the DMZ, it simply wasn’t an option. The good news is that everyone was polite and took turns at all the best photo spots.
After crossing the brigde, we followed more winding forest paths through beautiful red trees. We climbed up some stairs to get to a viewing platform just above the falls and then continued on further upriver. When it came time to cross again, there was no bridge, but instead a trail of stones that required us to hop across. Most stones were large enough to allow two people at a time, but not all. Some stones could be easily stepped between and others required jumping. Plus, everyone wanted to stop in midstream for a geourgous photo-op. The end result was a long and patient crossing while trying not to get bumped into the water by people crossing the other way. This was mostly acheivable, except for when the Ajuma needed to pass. These are the ladies who wait for no one and push everyone aside to pass. Behavior that is just rude and annoying on the subway suddenly becomes hazardous when trying to balance on river rocks. Oh, Korea.
Back on the near bank, we followed the trail up to a gazebo/pagoda hybrid that overlooked the waterfall once more, before following a side trail up and over to a sculpure garden that included various works of outdoor art inspired by the war or the peace as well, as a missile and several tanks that were leftovers from the fighting. One of the most fascinating pieces was a painted sculpture that blended 2d and 3d art. The sculpture was the bust of a young woman, but only half of it was painted realistically, the other half had been painted blue. In addition, the depth was unrealisitc as well. The combination created an illusion of a different perspective of portrait from each angle as you walk around it. There was also a kitchy photo frame where we took a group shot, and a copse of giant eyeballs which was meant to show the sourse of all the tears shed for those lost. There were art pieces made from the objects of war, such as the barbed wire dandilion, and other shapes made from reforged metal. All in all, it was a surreal yet emotional tribute to the history and tragedy.
From the park, we wended our way over to a small war memorial. Mostly we stopped here because it was necessary to file more paperwork for the Eulji Observatory. The memorial was very artistic and very sad. There were nine pillars representing the nine big battlefields in the area (Dolosan, Daeusan, Bloody Ridge, Baekseoksan Mountain, Punch Bowl, Gachilbong, Danjang Ridge, 949 Hill, and Christmas Hill), as well as statues of soldiers, displays of weapons and a whole room the floor of which was covered in shell casings from the war. Growing amid the barbed wire and destruction were small and beautiful flowers. There was a poem there ending in the stanza:
The Land of Guardians
A leaf of grass, a flower, don’t look at them as usual
And please don’t forget
Freedom today is stained with blood
Tears of sublime sacrifice underneath the smiling Peace.
When you pass by Yangu, the land of myth,
Stop at the sight of flowers red as blood,
Regard them as souls bloomed,
And please take your hats off, brooding awhile
Slowing down your busy pace.
While reading these lines, I stood over the discarded shell casings, and under the helmets of dead soldiers, my camera filled with photos of beautiful flowers growing around the site. Although small and far less grand than the UN Memorial in Busan, the closeness of things these men had touched or died in amid the natural beauty of wildflowers and creeping red ivy brought the tragedy of war far closer to my heart than a cemetery or a statue ever could.
(I don’t have many photos from the day, but thankfully, the South Korean board of tourism has published a few from the area that show the Northern side and interior of the Observatory so you can see them, too.)
The drive up to Eulji Observatory was interesting because for large parts of the ride, we rode with the border fence directly to our right, staring though it toward North Korea, which looked bleak and empty compared to the Southern side of the border. The day had been partly cloudy but with decent sunshine and fluffy white clouds, but as we drove up the mountain, it became gray and misty. Perhpas it was just the elevation, but it did give an aura of doom, gloom and Mordor to our encounter with the border of violent and secretive North Korea. Armed soldiers came on to the bus several times to count us. The Americans were notably less disturbed by the sight of military weapons close up and it was easy to tell which expats were from countries where such things are still uncommon. We were told that photos at the observatory were somewhat tricky, since we were allowed to photograph South Korea and the outside of the observatory, but *not* North Korea or anything inside the Observatory.
Several people tried to take photos of a memorial pillar against the fence, but even though the fence was blacked out, they were asked to delete the photos. The Korean soldiers guarding the area were very polite and respectful, but did ask to see phones if they spotted anyone pointing a phone toward the Northern side. I put my phone in my pocket and went up to the fence to peer through the cracks and get a glimpse of the forbidden North. The mountains and valleys beyond were bereft of signs of human occupation. Behind me on the South Korean side lay the famous Punch Bowl, once a bloody battlefield and now a well developed agricultural area, the land divided into neat geometric shapes for crop management and dotted with low wide buildings. In front of me, through the narrow slat where the tarp covered wire fence met the concrete base, I could see one winding dirt road, some tires stacked and filled with dirt or sand to create a barrier, and a lone watchtower surrounded by more barbed wire fencing. Beyond these decrepit signs of occupation, the land seemed as wild and untouched as though looking back in time to before humans even arrived. Coming from South Korea, where all the land is so thoroughly occupied that wildlife is all but vanished, it was a stunning contrast.
Inside the observatory, there is an enclosed viewing platform that overlooks the North. A brave soldier who spoke some English decided to read an English presentation to our large group. He was very nervous, but it was a great gesture that he wanted to share information with us, so we filled the small auditorium and listened politiely while staring at the mist shrouded emptiness behind him. He told us about famous battle sites around the observatory including Stalin Hill, where the South lost some land that is now part of North Korea, a radio tower used to block signals traveling into the North, and a distant waterfall called Fairy Waterfall where beautiful North Korean women used to bathe nude to entice South Korean soldiers. He also indicated that North Koreans did use the area nearby for agriculture, although to my eyes it looked completely natural and I cannot imagine that the food they harvested there would be anything more than wild gathering.
I stepped back outside, feeling disoriented from the whole experience, looking back and forth across the narrow fence from a high vantange point where I could easily see North and South at the same time. (hint, the South is on the right, the North is on the left) Large ravens swooped around the peak, effortlessly gliding between the two countries gripped in cold war, alighting on the Northern watchtower, then returning to our parking lot to scavenge for crumbs left by tourists.
Our last stop for the DMZ day was the 4th Tunnel. This sounds fairly ominous, because it also implies there are at least 3 other tunnels, which there are. The North has tried on at least 4 occasions to literally tunnel into South Korea to get troops behind the border for a massive attack. Before heading over to the tunnel entrance, we scooted inside the nearby museum for a quick propaganda film. The film was in Korean, but had English subtitiles. They were long, small and hard to read over the video, as well as not being the most accurate gramatically, but I got the gist: North bad, South good, Threat onging. The idea that the Korean War is over is not something that really exists up near the border. To be honest, it doesn’t really exist in Korea at all, but most of the time Korean citizens can ignore their war with the North the same way Americans don’t let the 7 wars their country is involved in affect them on a daily basis. This film was a little startling however, because it didn’t even make an attempt at looking like an “unbiased documentary” and was more in a tone in keeping with propaganda material from the 1950s-60s during the cold war with Russia, or the modern Chinese government propaganda films. I’m not sure how old the film was, but it certainly felt out of time.
After the film, we filed into a large round tunnel. The tunnel we were walking into was dug with a serious drill by the South Koreans in order to reach the less sophisticated North Korean tunnel. It was a long walk, less than 1km I’m sure, but the tunnel was dim and damp and nearly perfectly circular thanks to the diamond tipped drill the Koreans had used to make it. Hard hats were available at the front, but there were nowhere near enough to accomodate our group size, so we simply left them behind. Inside the tunnel was another no photos zone. Fortunately, the internet provides, so you can see some photos that other people (including authorized tour guides) have taken of the tunnel and equipment.
As we stood in line in the dank underground tube watching water drizzle down through a crack in the rock above, someone in the queue pointed out how much like waiting in line at Disney Land’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride it felt. I couldn’t disagree; it was underground, dark, dripping water, although the armed soldiers were real instead of animatronic pirates. In a moment I can only blame on the sheer absurity of our situation, we decided as a group that the experience would hereafter be known as DMZney Land, where the atrocities of war are wrapped up in neat little display packets for visitors to line up and experience by the busload.
Where the modern and sleek South Korean tunnel ended, there were clear toolmarks in the rock, concentric circles left by the drill. Intersecting our tunnel was a much smaller one, no more than 2 sqare meteres, and rough hewn, carved out with picks and dynamite. A small train awaited us, one seat behind the next as the tunnel was too narrow for two abreast. The seats were low and a transparent panel protected us from the threat of falling rocks above, but the sides remained open. We climbed in, feeling even more like boarding a ride in a theme park, expecting a trek through the rugged rock. After a mere 100 meters, the train came to a stop. We could see tool marks, and holes that had been prepared for the next round of dynamite. I forgot for a moment about the photo ban, but when I snapped a few, the soldiers only politely reminded me not to and I put my phone away again.
After a few minutes, the train moved us backward along the rail to our point of embarkation. I wasn’t sure what had happened, so I asked one of our guides to find out why the trip had been so short. Once the next trainful of tourists was on its way, she was able to ask the guard there more about the tunnel and the train. It turns out the reason we stopped is because we had gone right up to the border underground. I don’t think it was actually the border of North Korea, I think it was more likely the border of the non-civillian section of the DMZ, but it was still chilling to realize how close we’d come, or rather, how close the North had come to succeeding in their infiltration plan.
Outside the tunnel is a memorial statue to a military dog named Hunt who died while helping to rid the area of landmines. The tunnel was only discovered in 1990, and although North Korea claims it was for coal mining, there is no sign of any coal in the granite through which the tunnel was dug. American and South Korean forces are maintaining a look out for possible 5th or even 6th tunnels to this day.
Hotel in Sokcho
By the time we emerged from the tunnel, the sun had set, and the mountains were wreathed in the last glimmer of twilight. We boarded our buses in the dark and headed over to our hotels for the night. The only real reason this is of any blogworthy interest is because our hotel had both indoor and outdoor spas and pools. My experience at the jimjilbang in Jeju was great, but highly segregated. Here, we got the chance to sit around in our swimsuits in mixed company with some cans of beer and feel the contrast of the warm spa water and the cold mountain night air. The whole experience started like a jimjilbang, and we had to clean off in the showers before heading outside. The pools closest to the door were cooler, and by the time we got all the way to the upper levels and warmest pools, I was shivering intensely, but it was worth it to enjoy the wonderful outdoor spa.
I try not to dwell on the sleeping arrangements for these trips, because we go in for economy. This time we ended up on the floor again, and I gather no one slept terribly well, all of us relying on our excitement of travel to keep us going one more day.
Early in the morning, after a buffet breakfast, we headed out to the famous national park for some hiking and autumn leaf viewing. The weather was still rather damp, but that just made the colors of the trees and rocks around us stand out more. Seoraksan is quite famous among Koreans for it’s natural beauty, it’s giant bronze Buddha, and it’s fall foliage. Even wih the drizzly weather, the park was still packed to the gills when we arrived. I’m so used to hiking in the woods being a quiet escape from humanity, so this was a very big contrast. Even when climbing the famous Mt. Hua and Mt. Tai in China, I didn’t feel this crowded.
The parking lot had more tour buses than Disney Land, and when we passed through the main entrance, we were greeted with a wide stone road lined with restaurants, cafes and other businesses catering to park-goers. There are several trails that can take over 12 hours, but we didn’t have that much time. After doing some research, my companions and I decided we would see the big Buddha, then walk the short (2 hr) waterfall trail, and finally take the cable car up to the highest peak for a look around.
Our very first task was to buy cable car tickets, since the tickets are sold by time and sell out early in the day. In fact, even though we;d decided to do the cable car last, nearly all the tickets before 1pm were already sold out by the time we found the ticket office. I gather that most of the year the cars run every 15 minutes, but during the weekend we were there, they had cars running every 5, holding 50 people each, and all of them were sold out by the end of the day. That’s 600 people an hour or about 4,000 people in a single day. And that’s just for the cable car. I really have no idea how many were in the park, but when I say it was full, I’m not joking.
Our tickets in had, we followed the signs toward the temple, passing more and more restaurants, cafes and other buildings of unknown purpose. We rounded a corner and spotted the giant statue from a distance and made a bee line straight for it. The first thing that struck me was how similar it was to the Buddha at Kamakura I’d seen last year (and totally forgot to write about but follow the link for pics). Both large metal stautes had hidden entrances as well. We took our photos and wandered around the area, watching as other visitors engaged in prayer or selfies or some combination of the two. For me, visiting famous temples is more often an act of tourism even though I call call myself a Buddhist. I imagine it’s the same way that many Christians visit Notre Dame or other famous churches to appreciate the art and history rather than to attend service. I did take a moment to find my center and become mindful of my experience, and my friend made a votive candle offering as well, so we weren’t total gawkers.
The Sinheungsa Temple was burned down in 699 and rebuilt in 710, and many believe it to be the oldest standing Seon (Zen / Chan) Temple in the world. The statue (built in 1992) is 16.9m tall (not counting the nimbus around/above his head) and contains within some pieces of the Buddha’s sari recovered after cremation, and a copy of the Tripitika (the Buddhist “bible”). The Kamakura Buddha is a bit shorter at only 13.5m, but much older, having been around since 1252, and represents a different branch of Buddhism, being a statue of Amida Buddha from the Pure Land sect, while the Seoraksan Buddha or Tongil Daebul (Great Unification Buddha) is from the Seon school and represents the sincere desire for Korean reunification.
Biryong Falls Course
Trying to keep ourselves on a decent timeline, we said our farewells to the stunning statue and set off in search of the trail-head to Biryong Falls. We soon joined a stream of Koreans dressed to the nines in their special hiking clothes. For many Koreans, espeically the older ones, outdoor activities are a serious glamour show. All the clothes are brightly colored and brand new looking. Meanwhile, my friends and I were dressed in jeans and hoodies because that’s usually how we walk in the woods at home.
The path involved some beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. Unlike the Busan mountains which are low and covered in a softening green layer of trees, the Seoraksan mountains burst from the treeline with jagged teeth of bare rock, and this day, the whole thing was wreathed in clouds and mist making it even more haunting. We took a wide bridge over a river and ambled joyfully along the forest path, stopping to admire the trees on a regular basis. The Koreans around us took some pictures, but only at designated picturesque spots. The rest of the time they were in a hurry to get moving. So much of a hurry that we were jostled, bumped and even shoved if we were deemed to not be going fast enough. It was like being in the subway… for several km. We tried to walk on the side of the path, or even just step OFF the path when the hordes of ajuma came barrelling down on us, but it didn’t always work.
Eventually the trail thinned out and it became harder to get out of the way. The ground left soil behind and became a wet and slippery ascent of natural stones that were precarious and challenging to hike up. The Koreans all had special hiking shoes and one or two walking poles apiece for balance and had zero patience with us for hiking in only trainers and not having sticks to balance with. More than once, I was worried that one of the shovers was going to knock me down or even knock me off the edge! It was a big contrast to the DMZ park where everyone had been patient and taken turns on the river rocks. At one point I moved as far off the path as was safe to stop and take my coat off. I got bumped into by people coming from behind 4 times. More than once they looked at me as though it were my fault for not getting out of the way. Heaven forfend we should want to stop on a bridge to admire the view or take a photo. There’s nothing so nerve wracking as having ajuma shove you while you’re balanced on a thin rail of metal over a pounding white water river below.
However, despite the nerve jangling crowds, the hike was absolutely stunning. There were still quite a few trees dressed in green, but that only served as a better backdrop for the fiery reds and golds that permeated the woods. As our path ascended beside the river, we were treated to the kind of views normally reserved for high class calendars and natural beauty screen savers. My computer randomly shows me stunning nature pics every time I log in, and I swear that one of them was actually from Seoraksan. We climbed up the slippery rocks, clinging to the railing and nearby trees until we reached two more bridges crossing the lower Yukdam Falls. The maps and pamphlets all say it’s just a 40 minute hike from the main entrance to these falls, but it had taken us close to 90, proving that 40 minutes was measured by ajuma walking standards rather than beautiful day in the woods standards. I understand that Biryong Falls was only a little farther up the mountain, but in order to make our cable car time, we had to turn back early.
Cable Car & Tiny Temple
Our last adventure for the day was to take the cable car up to Gwongeumseong. This particular peak is only accesible by cable car and can’t be hiked up to. We’d gotten our tickets as soon as we arrived at the park, so all we had to do was wait for the sign to show our boarding time and file on. These are decently large cable cars, and hold 50 passengers at a go, all standing and no personal space. My friend decided to play elbows for us and wrangled some spaces right along the rear window so we could watch the ground disappearing beneath us as we ascended into the clouds. We were able to see the main park entrance laid out below us, including the giant Buddha off to one side.
As we rose, the clouds soon fell below us, covering the view of the ground and the sea became visible off to one side. I had known Seoraksan was near the coast, but I had not realized how close to the ocean we actually were until that moment. The cable car stand at the top had more amenities, food and restrooms and coffee shops, but we swept past them and onto the viewing platform. I had read ahead of time that one could walk all the way to the tippy top from here and see an old castle, but after my experience on the waterfall path earlier, I was reticent to follow another stream of hundreds of hikers. We walked around the viewing area and found a distant waterfall, a long streak of white amid the green and brown of the mountains, visible even at this distance it must have been enormous up close.
While searching for more and better angles to take majestic photos of the panorama around us, we stumbled upon a small path leading downward that no one else was on. The small sign indicated there was a temple (templ-ette? I’m not honestly sure how to translate this word in English) about 70m downward. We carefully balanced on uneven, wet and slippery rocks, clinging at times to the chain along one side of the path. 70m isn’t far on flat ground, but it took us a while to cover it on the mountainside. We also stopped to admire the views often. When the path leveled out, we were greeted with a tiny hut, decorated in Buddhist style. We doffed our shoes and went inside. The warm interior was a welcome contrast to the chilly outside air. The ceiling was covered with lotus lanterns and small candles burned on the altar. The air was so still, I had to stare at the candles for a few minutes before I decided they were flame and not electric.
Our whole day had been so hectic and crowded, it was bliss to sit on the plush carpet and just enjoy the calming music playing on the sound system. While we were meditating, the monk came back inside and seemed a bit surprised to see us there. I don’t know if I want to go too far into what I experienced internally, but I definitely received the answer to a question that had been bothering me. My friend also found some answers in her meditation that helped her to find her way again after some troubling times. Buddha isn’t a god, he doesn’t answer prayers or give us things, but quiet reflection is hard to come by and can make a space for us to hear the answers we already knew. This temple, however small and remote, had a sense of peace and purpose. Even it’s name reflected this, translating in English as the “love and happiness temple”.
When I stood to offer a respectful bow to the altar, the priest caught my eye as I straightened up and smiled broadly, bowing to me and greeting me in Korean. My friend was still meditating, so we were quiet and did not speak much beyond greetings, but I could tell he was happy that we had come in with intent and respect.
Once both of us completed our meditations, we headed back up to the cable car feeling cleansed and refreshed. Some other expat tourists asked us what was down the path and I told them. Then they asked if it was “worth it” and we had a small discussion on what that meant. The temple-ette was tiny and not very architecturally or artistically stunning, but spiritually, mentally, emotionally, the peace we found there was priceless to us.
As the fall moves on, I treasure the memory of this temple most from the weekend experience. Things are not getting calmer or easier for me as an American or for everyone living in Korea dealing with the political uncertainty here. Religion and spirituality are tricky topics, and I’m not out to preach or convert, but the core Buddhist tenant of loving-kindness is something I think we can all use a little more of in our lives.
I met with some other Americans after the election and someone reminded me that one of the most important roles of the expat is “soft diplomacy”. We go out and show the face of the people, instead of the government, and when we come back, we can tell stories of the people and places we’ve seen, sharing things the news and the movies miss out on. I hope that my travels, stories and experiences can serve to help show the value in diversity, in natural preservation, and in open-mindedness. Thanks for reading, and please be sure to see all the photos from the DMZ and Seoraksan over on Facebook! ❤