Take a weekend adventure that reveals how each trek up a mountain holds a secret treasure
Sunrise in Gyeongju
It’s 6 a.m. The first rays of sunlight break over the horizon as a load of sleepy-eyed westerners stumble out of a bus to greet the dawn at the top of Mount Toham, in Korea’s historical Gyeongju region in the south of the country.
The sky is an impressive blush of salmon pinks and golden yellows but the wind splashes over the lookout like ice water. The road-weary westerners stand rigid with cold, knowing that they are in the midst of an amazing experience but secretly wishing they could be under the covers of a warm bed.
Undaunted by the frigid air and seemingly unaffected by a night of cramped sleep on a bus is Park Seok Jin, founder of Adventure Korea travel club and organizer of this weekend trip to Gyeongju.
Athletically built and wearing little more than a windbreaker, Park stands beside the motley crew of Canadians, Americans, Aussies and Brits, patiently letting them soak in the scenery and adjust to the temperatures of a late fall morning.
Members of Adventure Korea enjoy the late fall colors.
Park’s laid-back style, speaks to his experience as a tour leader. Four years ago, Park was an average salaryman working for Samsung. On the weekends he would tour his American friends around Korea, hitting must-see tourist sites as well as the lesser-known gems of Korea’s beautiful countryside.
In the past three years, Park’s hobby has turned into a full-blown enterprise that organizes day trips, weekend adventures and extended vacations for foreigners living in Korea.
Sokkat’ap Pagoda (Pagoda Without Reflection) is on the Korean 10 won coin.
Like many tour groups before them, Park knows that this Gyeongju group will be grateful for their nightlong bus ride and the early rise once they see the amazing historical and natural sites that are to come.
Park’s mandate for any trip he plans is simple.
“I want to organize trips that give people the opportunity to see a nice view,” he says, and a mountaintop sunrise in one of Korea’s most historical regions certainly lives up to that objective.
Dawn quickly turns to morning and Park led his group up the mountain to a second breathtaking site.
(Top) Seokguram Grotto, (below) a small shrine
High up on Mount Toham, is one of Korea’s most prized historical treasures — the Seokguram Grotto.
A masterpiece of the Silla Dynasty (668 – 935), the grotto is a testimony to the ingenuity and artistry of this ancient Korean culture.
Carefully preserved behind a wall of glass, the 1,500-year-old man-made cave is a myriad of intricate carvings of ancient Buddhist imagery, including the sacheonwang or “Four Heavenly Kings.” The brave warrior kings stand proudly along the wall, framing the main chamber of the cavern, which houses a magnificent Buddha carved of pure white stone.
Sitting in a posture of peace and contemplation, the gigantic Buddha’s serene stature inspires a sense of tranquil awe. Disregarding the “No Photography” sign, a number of tourists sneak a couple of choice shots of this artistic treasure. The Buddhist nun selling postcards in the corner of the tiny cave makes no protest.
“This is fantastic!” says a young Canadian woman as she steps out from the shadowy cavern. “If this is what’s left, I can only imagine what has been lost.”
Having endured time, weather, war and foreign occupation, sites like the grotto, while magnificent, is a mere shadow of the mighty Silla Dynasty, which was advanced in the facets of science, art and architecture.
The perfect marriage between artistry and the beauty of nature, Tohamsan Temple becomes even more spectacular in the fall when the colors are at their most vibrant.
The sun is now shining brightly and, as Park expected, the brisk fall air invigorates the Adventure Korea group. They are grateful for their early wake-up and the crowd-free exploration of this unique Buddhist monument.
It is not yet 9 a.m. and Park leads his enthusiastic adventurers to the third site of the day — the grounds of Pulguksa Temple. Built in 528 A.D, the temple endured a number of attacks by the Japanese. It underwent a full restoration in the late 1960’s.
Maintaining its historical integrity, the temple is a stunning example of Silla masonry and woodwork. The elaborate murals and colorful designs that decorate every beam, door and windowsill of this phenomenal structure have a uniquely Korean flair.
The grandeur of the temple’s architecture is pleasantly offset by its rustic, mountainside setting. It’s an especially lovely sight in late fall, when the leaves of the maples are their richest colors of ruby red and rustic orange.
Park lets his group freely roam around the grounds of this magical place, letting them explore at their own pace. Park is available to answer any questions or to highlight the less noticeable points of interest, like the line of 1,500-year-old toilets, located just outside of the temples main courtyard.
After everyone takes advantage of the amusing photo opportunity in front of an ancient squatter, Park leads his group back down the mountain once again, letting his group amble down the mountain at their own pace.
A quick bus ride and Park brings the Adventure Korea group to the base of Mount Nam. Not to be confused with the mountain of the same name in central Seoul, this mountain in greater Gyeongju provides a rigorous hike to several ancient sites of Buddhist worship.
Beheaded Buddhas are a clear example of Korea’s turbulent past.
Close to the base of the mountain is a large Buddha statue that was beheaded by the Japanese during their occupation in the first half of the 20th century.
Park explains that by beheading the Buddha, the Japanese were negating every prayer that had ever been made to it, thereby destroying the spirits of those who had worshipped it. Not to be mistaken for a symbolic violation, the beheading of Buddha statues were direct attacks on the Korean people and their faith.
A Buddhist engraving at the top of Mt. Nam.
Standing there, in the glorious sun of mid-morning, a group of Westerners are made painfully aware of Korea’s tumultuous past. Yet, having Park lead them up the mountain with such energy and spirit reminds these Westerners of the Korean people’s remarkable resilience and amazing national pride.
Further up the mountain are many more Buddhist carvings, fashioned from the natural grooves of the mountainside. Close to the peak, a 10-foot-tall Buddha rests against the wall of the mount, basking in the rays of an easterly sun, looking over a fantastic panorama of Gyeongju’s countryside.
And this is what makes Gyeongju such a great weekend trip — a perfect mix of outdoor adventure and historical study. Each trek up a mountain holds a secret treasure. It’s where natural beauty meets human artistry, casting light on an ancient culture and giving insight into the roots of present-day Korean society.
Such a full day and it is not yet lunchtime! Park and the Adventure Korea group trek back down the mountain and head off to a much needed rice and veggie mix lunch called bibimbap. After a leisurely lunch and some much needed rest, Park packs his group up again and hits the road to Tumuli Park, in the heart of Gyeongju city.
Home to 23 tombs dating back to the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C. – 668 A.D), these gigantic, grassy mounds are the burial sites of the kings and queens that ruled this region up to 2,000 years ago.
A surrealistic landscape in honor of an ancient dynasty, these mounds exemplify marriage between human ingenuity and the simplistic beauty of nature. The hills are perfectly symmetrical and covered with the rich velvety green of closely shorn grass. Young families meander through the grounds, careful to keep their children from treading on the sacred monuments.
Excavation of the mounds has gone on in recent years, and while the preservation of this historical area and respect for its sanctity is of the utmost importance to Korean scholars, some of the burial sites hold open exhibits for the public, showing off some of the amazing gold and jade treasures that lie buried beneath the surface of these mammoth structures.
The author reaches for some fresh mountain water.
The mounds begin to obscure the sun, evening falls and a group of tired foreigners jump back on the bus, heading to their night’s lodging. It’s only the end of day one and Park has yet another full day of hiking planned for Sunday.
Eight a.m. on Sunday morning and Park rallies his group to set off for a jaunt through Mount Juwang National Park. The air is warmer and the so-called hike is more like a rigorous walk.
The ease of this trek allows the Adventure Korea group to chat and get to know one another better. Mostly comprised of English teachers, Adventure Korea attracts a lot of people who are interested in exploring as much of Korea during their relatively short stays in the country.
“I’ve met so many friends through Adventure Korea,” says one American, who has been working in Korea for nearly a year. “It’s a group of like-minded people, who would rather spend their time and money learning about this country and do a little physical activity”
Adventure Korea offers a variety of trips, ranging from jam-packed weekends to noted tourist destinations like Gyeongju, to white water rafting trips, mountain climbing adventures and wilderness camping.
Park organizes most of these trips and is always looking for the lesser-known hotspots that the young adventurer would enjoy. Spending 10 days out of every month touring around Korea looking for perfect places, Park plans trips that he thinks will cultivate unique experiences for his participants.
Park hopes that his one-of-a-kind adventures will promote membership amongst both foreigners and Koreans. “In addition to being a travel club, I want to make Adventure Korea a place for cultural exchange,” he explained, and with the success like this trip to Gyeongju, that objective is certain to be achieved.
On a late Sunday afternoon Park packs up his crew and heads back to Seoul. Spirits high and energy low, this adventuresome bunch doze off to sleep, as the sets on this fantastic weekend.
‘It’s a group of like-minded people who would rather spend their time and money learning about this country.’
For more information on Adventure Korea, check their Web site.
Kelly MacDonald is a Canadian teacher in Seoul.