Saturday, October 29, 2005

Got bawi?

So I was going to go to Seoul today, but I climbed a mountain near Daegu instead.

Of course it's very dramatic to say that one climbed a mountain, but I assure you, this was no easy little paved hike. I was sweating! It was similar to a, say, Squaw Peak (yeah, Piestewa, whatever) in that it had a wider cement-laid path at first but you end up scrambling between rock crevices and sweating through the switchbacks, swearing you'll quit but somehow finding the strength to keep going. It was definitely a higher mountain than the peak formerly known as Squaw, though. And it was a 2 km trail, so that is about the same length, right? Translation: some of it was really steep.
(apologies to those of you who don't hail from Phoenix and are wondering just what exactly is a Squaw and/or Piestewa Peak. it's just a really good frame of reference for a bunch of people in my life.)

I climbed the mountain to see Gatbawi, described by Lonely Planet as "a national treasure some 850 m above sea level." You do the math. What is this treasure, you ask, this Gatbawi (pronounced got-bah-we)? Well it's a medicine Buddha sculpted out of stone on top of a peak and it is very famous in these parts if for nothing else than for the flat stone "hat" that seems to hover above his head. There is now a stone plaza in front of this huge rock sculpture where believers do their thing in droves. They climb and climb and walk up a bunch of stone steps to pray and it is quite a sight to behold.

The Koreans do love their mountains! Many of them hike every weekend. They all have walking sticks and killer hiking boots. I had neither. A lot of them also wore gloves, sparking in me fears that there are all manner of weird diseases to be picked up. This was not exactly off the beaten path though. There were oodles of people, refreshments and restaurants and a youth hostel at the bottom, benches, and so on. The Palgonsan Provincial Park is supposedly a fifty-minute bus ride from Daegu, but my long-past-intrepid-and-pushing-crazy bus driver took those curves at some speed that got us there in just under thirty.

I caught the bus near Dongdaegu Station, a big bus and train gateway, where I arrived my first day. Which was actually my second day, or even my third, depending on how you look at it, but you know what I mean. Anyway, I felt much more knowledgeable wandering around Dongdaegu Station this time (it means East Daegu, by the way) but not quite knowledgeable enough to figure out where the bus was, amid many choices: the Express Bus Terminal, the Intercity Bus Terminal, the train station bus stop, the nearby street bus stops, and none seemed to have the bus number I needed. Luckily, I spotted a "Tourist Information" (in English!) sign, where a very nice woman told me all about catching bus #104 across the way, to the right, down the stairs. She also said, "You know if you go to Gatbawi you are climbing one hour?" I nodded eagerly. Well, I mean, the Lonely Planet guidebook had said 45 minutes, but you know. Give or take.

I was at Dongdaegu because I had vaguely planned to catch a train to Seoul, but here's why I didn't: number one, I sort of frittered away the morning and I didn't get over to the train station until about 1:30 p.m., so I decided it might be better to go to Seoul tomorrow and have the whole day there. Two, I was somehow feeling a pull to check out Palgonsan Provincial Park, which I'd heard so much about, so when I got off the subway I checked the guidebook to discover that the buses to said park leave from Dongdaegu station (or thereabouts) and I took it as a cosmic sign. Three, I will also admit, a large part of my motivation for going to Seoul this weekend - larger than it should be anyway - is that I read rave reviews on-line about a Mexican restaurant there.

Can you believe it? Real live good Mexican food, in Korea! Now, I've been planning to sightsee in Seoul anyway, obviously, it being a huge city full of adventures-in-waiting, but now that I know of this Mexican eatery I may have moved my Seoul trip up a few weeks in my mental schedule. Yes, I may have done that. But I decided to be a tiny bit more practical today than going all the way to Seoul just for dinner, and at least take the trip on a day when I can see a Buddhist temple or two there as well.

Which brings me back to our good friend the Buddha.

The bus dropped us at the bottom of the mountain in the Gatbawi tourist village. I followed the stream of people onto a wide path that got progressively narrower as it led me up the mountainside, but not before passing by a stage performance of some traditional dance and drumming. I was struck by how much in look and feel and sound-of-drum it sounded like Navajo music. Interesting, what with ancient peoples crossing land bridges and whatnot.

After a few minutes I had already gone from signs that said "Gatbawi 2km" (mostly in Korean but I can read "Gatbawi" now) to "Gatbawi 900 m" so I thought, oh, man, I've totally licked this. Even if I am carrying just a few more things in my backpack -- in case I decided to stay the night in Seoul I'd brought extra socks, contact lens solution, and the like -- than I'd reasonably like to be lugging up this trail, but no sweat, I've totally got this.

That's when I passed the first temple terrace. There were a couple of buildings to peer into to see golden buddhas, candles, and so on, and a big water fountain at which people were drinking like racehorses. That should have been my first clue. I climbed the steps and headed on down the path and then my thigh muscles started asking, now, Linda, just what have you roped us into here? Luckily I had brought water in my bag o' tricks.

Sometimes, on the back side of the slope, when things got really hairy, it was hard to tell exactly which way the trail went amid the scattered stones and layer of fallen leaves. But it was definitely well-traveled and I never went more than two minutes without seeing someone I could follow at the fork in the road. I also didn't mind stopping to enjoy the breathtaking views of the autumn mountainside, a coating of green on which it looked like someone had thrown handfuls of amber and goldenrod leaves like you would toss grains of sand.

As my heaving lungs and pulsing veins got closer to the top, I heard the familiar sounds of chanting and I was able to follow it like a little guide to the still-hidden-from-view Gatbawi. At the very end, when you're basically scurrying up a slab of rock, there are ropes to guide you. The chanting was getting louder. A smell decidedly like nail polish washed over me. I rounded the corner and there were a building, stairs, and a vendor or two. And suddenly there was the promised stone plaza, covered by people on prayer mats mid-prostration, ringed by hikers along the railing enjoying the view.

The medicine Buddha was up high, so I gazed at him for a while, stepping carefully around the faithful. There was so much incense burning up at the front, below him, that it nearly gagged me. I'm not entirely sure what the nail polish-esque smell was; there were some construction workers mixing cement off to the side who seemed to be repairing part of the plaza's foundation (a simultaneously comforting and disturbing thought), so maybe that had something to do with it.

I found a plaque in Korean and English, and it informed me, among other things, of the following: "It is said the image was sculptured from natural rock in 638...Its hair style and treatment of two hands reflect fashionable Buddhist image in the 8th century...The serious expression of face and lines of robe prove a masterpiece of Buddhist images sculptured in the 9th century." Oh well, seventh, eighth, ninth, who's counting?

Bizarrely, I saw someone I know. And I don't know that many people! I'm pretty much used to Koreans, especially middle-aged and older (perhaps I should say "those past the MTV generation"), staring at me like I have three heads. It happens to us foreigners all of the time. So it took me a minute to realize that someone making eye contact and holding my gaze was actually greeting me and I should stop ignoring her. It was one of the administrative directors at Ding Ding Dang! How fun, to chat with her on top of a mountain. She said, "Did you come by yourself?" Sure. I think maybe she was on a date, so I didn't keep her long. We saw each other a couple more times on the way down, too; she passed me while I stopped to tie my shoes, and I then passed them while she rested on a bench. She seemed happy to see me there. "This place is very famous in Daegu!" she said. I'd noticed.

As I went down the most treacherous, never-ending, jagged stone portion, I thought, wow. This was really hard to come up! I kind of felt like Spider-Man, crouching and slinking my way down the path. Only without any suction cups or webbing to hold me. It was just easier to crouch and then straighten my leg a lot of the time than to take the giant steps down. I was worried about my trick knee (you know, the ol' bookshelving injury...) and it did feel a little on fire when I got to the bottom.

Luckily, right there was a woman making some sort of pancake concoction outside a restaurant. I eyed them carefully and then asked (in Korean!) "Vegetables?" Affirmative. "No seaweed?" Right, no seaweed, and a raised eyebrow, as if to say why on earth would there be seaweed? But you can never be too careful. So I bought one and I must say, it was the first food I have had in three weeks that I would actually describe as "delicious." HOW'S THAT for irony? I was ready to indulge in the express train to Seoul's Casa Loca, and a last-minute inspiration to climb to the stone Buddha led me to wonderful Korean food! It was something like a potato pancake in texture, but not potato. It looked like corn, or corn meal, but didn't really seem to be corn. It could have been, though. There were carrots and a couple types of onions involved. All I know is it and its accompanying red sauce got my enthusiastic thumbs up.

There was still daylight but the sun was below the mountain, so it was not shining on me and the canyon anymore, and I swear the smattering of red leaves seemed to have multiplied a thousandfold in the time I was hiking.

I wanted to write in my journal on the way back to Daegu, but the Gat-out-of-bawi bus driver made me carsick when I tried to do so (and I don't ever get air/car/sea sick). So I just enjoyed looking out the window and musing about all things Buddha and about how downright fun it is to go galavanting around southern Korea each weekend. I watched night fall as we approached the city lights of Daegu, and I discovered that there is an IKEA store right by the Daegu airport. IKEA! Wow, I loved the delightful things I discovered today.

1 comment:

Ken said...

Greetings from the big city of Pocatello, Idaho! This is your cousin, twice, no, maybe thrice removed... I enjoyed your diary entries. They will certainly be something to look back on when you get back home. I thought you might be interested in knowing that my son, Brian, served a mission in Korea some years ago. After his mission, marriage and one child he returned to Korea with his small family to do basically the same activity you are involved in. He was teaching English (I'm not sure who for or where) but he had the advantage of being able to speak Korean so that helped him. He made a LOT of money in the 6 months he was there but his wife got a little homesick (understandably so) and they came back home. It was an experience for sure but they don't have any desire to return! Enough already!I wish you good steps in your journey through that strange land.