I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my year in Korea. I lived in a small town called Boryeong. It had a population of 1 million, but for Asia that’s small. It was most famous for its Mud Festival every Summer. Most of my local expat friends worked the opposite schedule from mine. My friends from orientation worked the same schedule, but lived far away. I was alone a lot. But when the weekends came, I would pack all the fun in that I could find. Sometimes that meant drinking with the boys in town and sometimes that meant hopping a train to a far-away forest with a temple on a mountain. Sometimes, it meant both! I was only 23 then so it was feasible. Sometimes no one wanted to play so I would go out all on my own.
In the month of February, the school told me week of “work-off days” unexpectedly. The students weren’t coming and in at the last moment they decided they didn’t need me either. I was thrilled. I grabbed my tour book to look for a spontaneous adventure for my spontaneous break. I read about a big Buddha on a hill in Cheonan at 각원사 Gakwonsa Temple at the base of Mt. Taejosan. It wasn’t a far away city and I could get to the temple on a bus- the bus number was in my book and everything. It sounded easy. I got up early and got a bus from the local bus station to Cheonan. When I arrived, I waited on a corner for the bus for a long time and I noticed that my bus wasn’t coming. I asked someone who said they didn’t know. I asked someone else and they read the name of the temple, pointed into the distance and then also said they didn’t know how to get there. After a few more people, I learned that the buses had recently all been re-numbered. No one knew how I should get there. I even asked some bus drivers when they pulled up but they just shrugged.
I made an executive decision and hailed a tak-shi, hoping it wouldn’t be too far or tooo expensive. The driver knew right where to go—straight up a small mountain. At the top, there was snow! We wound our way up the road and into some trees further and further from civilization. When the driver stopped, I could see a colorful temple complex and some steps I was ready to climb. I handed over my money and hopped out, my gaze fixated on the steps. I pushed the door closed and as it slammed, I was awakened from my reverie. Then it suddenly hit me: Wait a minute! I just got myself dropped off at the top of a snowy mountain with no way to get down! I had a brief urge to chase the taxi and go back down to certain safety, but I stayed put. I turned back to the temple and made my way up the steps to a massive temple hall. On its sides were two smaller halls. I looked inside and bowed my head to the Buddha. Then I made my way up toward a snowy bank. I’d read the real treasure was behind the main temple. I walked up more steps and there he was: a 15-meter tall bronze Buddha. He was glistening form the melting frost. I walked around him in many directions, trying to capture his magnificence with my camera. Then I just stood and admired him for a while, taking in the scene.
A small group of people with walking sticks and bright gear popped out of the trees. They asked me to take their photo and I lingered near them. I made my way to the parking lot just behind them. My hope came true when they offered me a ride at least to the bottom of the mountain. Nearby, I found Krispy Kreme (a treat I was still allowed in those days).
I had better luck with the bus toward the Cheonan Independence Hall, a museum about Korean History. From what I remember, some of the exhibits were fairly graphic but were also very historically significant. Korea had some tough times in the past being between Japan and China as well as fighting with North Korea.
After the museum, I was pretty beat. I felt like I’d had a pretty complete day as I reflected on the bus ride home to Boryeong.