By Tony MacGregor
MT. KUMGANG - An unexpected side trip to a Buddhist temple near my hotel in the Mt. Kumgang (diamond mountain) area turned out to be the highlight of my trip to North Korea, and gave me a little insight into the enigmatic Communist country I visited for two days this month.
Kuryong Waterfall in Mt. Kumgang, North Korea
When I asked our pretty South Korean tour guide, Choi Mina, if I could visit the temple _ something not on the itinerary of our group tour and off the beaten track _ she readily agreed and helped me meet “Chejong Sunim,” the 44-year-old abbot of the Singyesa temple, who was in the resort at the time.
I had read about the temple earlier. About 1,500 years old, the temple is being restored by North and South Korea as a cultural, religious and historic symbol of Korea’s unity.
Chejong Sunim gave me and my friend, Darren Natemeyer a warm welcome, a delicious typical Korean lunch and personal tour of the temple now emerging to new life. I was able to meditate in the already-restored main hall.
While touring, I watched two North Korean workmen carve a new stone section for a stupa (Buddhist shrine) that had been damaged by American bombing during the Korean War (1950-53) and saw the stubs of about 20 ancient pillars dating back to the Silla Kingdom emerging from the earth.
The temple now being reborn is well placed. If a nation can be considered to have a spiritual heart, the breath-taking Mt. Kumgang area would be Korea’s. The area is reputed to have 12,000 peaks and 80,009 temples. Singyesa temple is the first one slated for restoration. It should be completed in 2008. Four more are on the list for renovation and renewal.
On the first day in North Korea we took a four-hour hike to Kuryong waterfall. I was with about 85 mostly young, high-spirited foreigners, many of them English teachers working in Korea. Organized by Adventure Korea (www.adventurekorea.com) an organization that specializes in off-the-beaten-track trips for foreigners, the two-day tour included a night in North Korea, two hikes, an acrobatic show and a visit to hot springs.
I was hoping for peace and tranquility similar to what I would have found in the mountains of British Columbia, Canada, my home. But it was not to be. South Koreans are flocking to the country’s historic heartland and the course was as crowded as if had been in park near Seoul.
What was different was Mt. Kumgang’s unsurpassed beauty, famous in Asia since antiquity. Known as one of the most beautiful places in East Asia, the area is rich in chaotic, tumbling rivers and streams, deep pools and waterfalls. It has been painted so often _ and I have seen so many of the paintings _ that I had an erie feeling of being there before.
Chejong Sunim of the Chogye Order, who is in charge of the restoration of the Singyesa temple, studies a photograph of the temple taken during the Japanese occupation of Korea.
Twisted pine, fir and oak trees sprouted from cracks and crevices, their deep green leaves contrasting with the light and dark gray granite and lava rock, weathered and transformed by erosion into tortured and exotic crevaces and pillars.
The hiking trail by and large snaked beside a stream that filled the air with the sound of water rushing over stones and rocks. Occasionally the trail crossed the stream on shaky suspension bridges. Sometimes young men jumped from side to side on the bridges, eliciting screams and laughter from young women.
Like many of the people on the Adventure Korea tour, I came alone. But the spectacular scenery, the demands of the hike and the taking of photographs quickly broke down barriers and friendships developed. Our guides told us the water from the mountain streams cut ten years off your age, restoring youth and vigor. I can’t vouch for that but the cold clean water had a delicious taste and refreshed me deeply as did the honey-tasting North Korean beer that waited for us at the base of the trail.
The North Korean staff at our hotel were exceptionally polite and helpful, bowing as we entered and left our hotel that was as modern and comfortable as anything you would find in Canada or South Korea. On a personal level, the North Koreans were shyer than their southern cousins and usually didn’t speak English as well. When I complimented one North Korean girl in the convenience store on her English she beamed red with embarrassment and pleasure.
The Mt. Kumgang Hot spa was reason enough to visit the area. Sitting outside in the pool breathing in the clean mountain air as the mineral-rich waters soothed my aching muscles after the hike was an experience I’ll remember for some time. The performance of the Pyongyang Moranbong Troupe in the evening was also something I’ll remember. With a live orchestra playing in the right side of the hall, acrobats in brightly colored sequined costumes and slap-stick humor, the show had a 1920s, Charlie Chaplin-movie feel to it. The juggling and acrobatic feats were almost unbelievable. One performer placed a tray full of drinks on the hilt of one sword, took the hilt of a second sword in her mouth, balanced the two swords point-to-point and then did acrobatic tricks without spilling the drinks.
Despite the beauty of the area and the friendliness of the North Korea staff _ when we left they lined up outside the hotel and waved to us _ we caught glimpses of another world that we didn’t really see in full.
Every few hundred yards along the road leading into the tourist enclave soldiers stood in olive/gray uniforms holding red flags. Our guides explained to us that if we took photographs the soldier would raise his flag, the bus would be stopped and boarded, the photograph destroyed and the photo-taker fined.
The soldiers at the border were polite enough. One even gave me a big smile as I came out of customs but there was a feeling of heavy control that you don’t feel in western countries or in South Korea. On the way out an American was fined because his identification slip had been damaged.
But those glimpses into another world stirred curiosity and did not dampen the high spirits of the group of young foreigners I was with on the visit to this peculiar enclave set in Korea’s spiritual heartland of mountains and temples.