The best part about discovering a new place is the feeling of breathlessness that comes from seeing something spectacular. I’m usually drawn to crazy, out of this world, possibly supernatural attractions, like Stonehenge (the grandiosity blows me away) or bioluminescent bays (it’s like swimming with fireflies!).
When I was invited to climb Mt. Palgongsan to Gatbawi this past week, I honestly didn’t do enough research to know what to expect. I suppose I imagined hiking through a forest, or to see some South Korean mountains…
That right there is the face of pure oblivion.
Even as we got there and began the trek, I was completely unprepared. To be honest, 10 minutes in I was DONE. I carried way too much weight in my backpack, and the steep paths were not making me a happy camper. We stopped a few times to relax, snap pictures, and take in the slow stream of water flowing down the edge of the hill. Still, most of us huffed and puffed the entire way up. We stopped at one particular statue of a Buddha surrounded by mini Buddhas, and what I can only assume to be offerings. We looked, and we pondered, and then looked some more.
And then, something amazing happened…
Out from the temple appeared a small woman with a shaved head. She wore thin rimmed glasses, and a huge smile that encompassed her entire face.
She greeted us, and with the warmth of her heart invited us to have Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) lunch with her. Now, I’ve heard since this day that this may be common practice in Buddhist temples, but the action does not cease to humble me. We must have looked quite out of place as she brought us in to the Temple to greet Buddha, or in other words, show us how to pray.
Picture this: a group of 15 foreigners, all from different places and backgrounds, shoes off, sweating like pigs, paying respects to this great statue. We placed our pillows below our knees, and took three hearty bows, trying to keep up with this bullet of a woman who giggled with us the entire way through.
Quickly thereafter, she ushered us out to the next room where we were fed Bibimbap, a signature Korean dish consisting of white rice, seasoned vegetables, and chili paste. She told us stories of her days studying Buddhism in the United States, and her calling to return to her native Korea and continue her practice. She urged us to finish the entirety of our plates, as there are too many starving souls in this world and it’s a Buddhist custom to finish all you are served. I can assure you we were all close to tears from the generosity we experienced.
Today, I can tell the story of how I dined with a Buddhist Monk, and I love to tell it! She gave us beads, showed us how to bless them, and sent us on our way with full stomachs and happy hearts.
…Until we realized another 10 minutes later how full we really were, and yet we had to keep on climbing.
If you decide to take the never ending stairs challenge on your way to Gatbawi:
- Be prepared with lots of water and possibly a hiking stick, because you are about to climb 850-metres (2,790 ft) straight up into the sky.
- Along the way you’ll see Wonhyosa Temple, Cheonseongsa Temple and Bulguksa Temple as you make your way to the top. Each area has its own charm, and it’s definitely worth stopping to take a picture and even a little rest.
- Fountains flowing with fresh, drinkable water are scattered throughout the area to help keep you cool and hydrated, so take advantage.
- Prepare to be wowed by the view, but definitely don’t take pictures of anyone selling food or any of the monks in the surrounding area; they don’t like it, learn from my mistakes!
Once you reach the top, you will see Gatbawi Buddha, resting 13+ ft above your head, wearing a 15-cm think stone Korean hat. The most picturesque part of this journey was experiencing the rituals so many Korean hikers climb this mountain to perform. They say that if you ask, Gatbawi helps makes one wish come true. You can only ask one thing of him, though, so be sure it’s truly something you’ve thought about and desire.
If you look up you’ll see a beautiful lantern display, helping to shade those bowing and praying. The lanterns are used as decoration depending on the time of year, and you’ll often see the colors change if you are a frequent visitor.
If you’re coming from Seoul:
Take the bus from Dong Seoul Terminal to Daegu, then hop on another bus to Hayang, and a third bus (it should be No. 311) to Gatbawi Park.
If you’re already in Daegu:
Take the subway (Red, line 1, towards Ansim) to Ayanggyo.
Go right outside and find bus No. 1 (Dongdaegu-Gatbawi) all the way to the end!
Have you ever climbed up Mt. Palgongsan? Am I just truly out of shape? Tell the truth! What is your favorite mountain to climb?