As my time in China is starting to draw to a close, it’s the right time to start thinking contemplating my next step. Naturally, the geography would dictate I should keep travelling as far East as I can, which would lead me to the highly anticipated nation of Japan. Lest we forget that between these two mighty national powers is nestled a country with an equal amount of history, extraordinary culture and somewhere I’ve already had the pleasure of visiting twice before; South Korea.
My visits had previously been restricted to the country’s biggest cities of Seoul and Busan, both of which were extraordinary experiences, yet I remain unsatisfied. As spectacular as the experiences were, and as much as I’ve truly fallen in love with Korea, I couldn’t tick South Korea off the list just yet. There was still so much more to see. Therefore before heading to Japan, further exploration of Korea is required.
There’s no better way of getting a crash course experience of what a country has to offer than adventuring through a handful of towns and cities in a short amount of time. On this week-long journey, I’ll be catching buses and flights to 4 places across the Southern portion of the Korean peninsula: Daegu, Gyeongju-si, Busan (for the second time) and Jeju island.
With so many places to see and so little time, time is of the essence. That is why upon landing in Daegu at 5 am, I started the trip immediately by heading to the nearby mountain range of Palgong. If anything was missing from my previous South Korean experience it was being able to get deep into the forest blanketed mountain ranges of the country’s centre. This would be my perfect opportunity.
The mountain itself is surrounded by a plethora of temples and shrines dedicated to Buddhism. The mountain itself is considered to be a holy pilgrimage of sorts. Of the many possible routes, I decided to start the trek from the best example of a temple in the area; Donghwa.
Much like any other traveller in Asia, I’ve seen a countless number of temples, some of which become “just another temple”. However, now and again, a certain temple has a unique charm, something that makes it a bit special. In the case of Donghwa Temple, this was seen in the form of a 100 ft Buddha before the godly mountain ranges. Its surrounding decorations were fascinatingly detailed. Finding such examples of faithful dedication in such a secluded area ruled by nature makes it all the more special.
This is where the real adventure began. There were several routes available across the mountain range, each of varying length and difficulty. I chose the one that would end at a very significant sight to Korean Buddhists; Gatbawi. A Buddhist shrine carved out of the very rock of the mountain overlooking the spectacular mountain range.
First things first I had to get there, and it took no less than an agonising 5-hour trek. Visiting Gatbawi is seen as a pilgrimage to many, and there’s little wonder why. Getting to it is hard work, whichever way you choose. Most go for the shorter option provided by a series of steep stairs. From the state of the breathless elders, this route still clearly isn’t a walk in the park.
My route however required some significant forest trekking on barely recognisable routes, indicated only by the occasional sign. This got even harder when the forest expedition would occasionally turn into extended amounts of rock climbing, some of which was genuinely a little risky.
Emphasised by the fact that certain portions of the route had handrails as assistance. Even more adventurous were stages where ropes were provided for some very sketchy repelling. The Koreans themselves realised that some portions were just too risky for people to try to scale. Certain sections had steel staircases set up to breach certain areas. Regardless of the route which you choose, you’re made to earn it, making it the pilgrimage it should be.
At long last, I was greeted with the sight I had for a time regretted I’d wanted to see. As I arrived at the site, I was welcomed with an amplified chorus of chanting and crowds of faithful kneeling and praying before the spectacular figure before them. The site had an enormous stone Buddha wearing a flat stone atop his head. This stone is said to represent the native Korean headdress. I spent a fair bit of time sitting in awe, but mostly out of exhaustion.
The second day began with torrential rainfall, the backpackers’ dream. Despite that, there were a few sites left to tick off the list before leaving the city. The first of which was the Yangnyeongsi Oriental Medicine Museum. This was a museum dedicated to the development of ancient Korean medicine from the actions of the Emperor. He’s the man who decreed that the palace would arrange a meeting place where medicine can be collected and traded.
This also became a significant development as the palace itself would find many supplies from the very market, and would later become vital as the Emperor himself fell ill. It was said that the only cure was a 100-year-old ginseng root. The responsibility of finding it was left to the people of the Yangnyeongsi Market, who had the unenviable task of saving the Emperor’s life.
Through the museum, you get a brief history of Yangnyeongsi and ancient medicines in general. Despite not having English translations for most of the exhibits, it was still pretty informative and interesting. Particularly with the interactive displays, which included a deeper explanation behind the beliefs of oriental medicines and the use of Yin-Yang to achieve a balanced diet for a healthy life. Other displays included different samples of medicines displayed for smelling and touching. For a free museum, there’s no room for complaints.
Conveniently along the entire street of the museum, there are repeated lines of herbal and oriental medicine stores selling the very items that had been conveniently (and unpurposefully) advertised in the museum. The gate at the end of the street demonstrates how this is the ancient medicine district of town.
Following this, I headed for yet another Korean market, this time, Seomun Market. This particular market could be broken down into two categories; food and fabrics. An endless supply of all the recognised brands of clothing, handbags and various items flogged at bargain prices. All of which sold directly next to fish stalls (most of which were dried) and a local speciality of intestines. Between all of which were locals crowded around low tables of freshly cooked noodles coming from a single gas burning stove as they watch life in the market drift along.
The very last thing I saw had no relevance to me but does for many Korean people. This was Kim Kwang Seok Street, dedicated to the man the street is named for. I have no inclination as to why this man deserved a street, and the lack of translations in museum-like sites in Daegu didn’t really educate me. However, from my ignorant point of view, I could work out that he must be the Korean equivalent of John Lennon.
All I could establish was this man was clearly a musician. This was painfully obvious by the sheer number of guitar statues and endless murals of him behind an instrument. As well as dying well before his time, before his 40s. The means of his death I have no idea, but the street itself is enough evidence that it was a tragic event. As well as this dedication is found in the city of Daegu, it’s fair to assume that this was his town.
Daegu complete, next stop; Gyeongju, the ancient capital.