Archive for October, 2011

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Mt. Maisan Provincial Park is located in Jinan-gun, Jeollabuk-do. It contains some good hiking trails and various temple complexes, the most interesting of which is Tapsa. If you are well organised you could do a day trip from Seoul, but it would be much easier from an overnight stay in Jeonju. For anyone who lives in Jeonju I think it is a ‘must see’ destination, for anyone who lives in Korea I’d say it’s a ‘should see’ destination.

Many landmarks and mountains are named after what they are supposed to look like. In the Far East everything seems to look like a dragon, in the Andes everything seems to look like a puma or a jaguar, and Indian landmarks usually look like elephants. The sceptic would say that natural features look like whatever their inhabitants deem sacred or familiar. This doesn’t just apply to distant exotic places. Manchester takes its name from Mam or Mammary, because seen from a distance the moors to the east look like mammary glands, add the word for castle and you have Manchester.

I expected Maisan not to look anything, especially a  horse’s ears, but the geology is so strange that the two gigantic outcrops of rock really do look like a horse’s ears. How did these huge rocky ears come into being? I guess you can believe the Geologists, or the people who passed their stories on through the passage of time. The people forced to sit together round a fire in the cold dry Korean winters after successful hunting trips. As you would expect, I’m going to ignore the geological explanation on this occasion. So, here goes:

…two gods came down from heaven, had a child and lived on Earth for an unspecified amount of time, when they eventually returned to their heavenly home a village woman saw them ascending, and they were subsequently trapped on Earth and  transformed in to a rock mountain.You can see the father peak and the child peak, and the mother peak on the other side. The two peaks are seperated into male and female horse ears with only 6 metres difference in altitude. The female peak to the west  is 673m, and the male  peak is 667m. I wonder if they knew the female peak was higher when they named them?

The most interesting thing aside from the ear shaped peaks is the Tapsa temple (actually -sa 사 means temple). This temple is nestled next to a vertical rockface which  sits eerily amongst the otherwise ordinary rocks and forests. Within the narrow complex of rock gardens and steps are around 80 dry-stone  pagodas. These are of varying height and reach right round  the back of the main temple building. It is said that they are impervious to the elements, although it is also said that there used to be 120 pagodas. I suspect 40 or so pagodas may have fallen victim to the very same elements they are impervious to.  The water is also supposed to freeze upwards into inverted icicles or stalagmites during the winter, the shape would suggest the water (or elements) are mimicking the pagodas. Why are the pagodas there? A hermit arrived in the late 19th century, although he was probably a proto-hermit* on arrival. His name was Yi Gap Yong (1860–1957) and he spent the next 30 years building his stone pagodas without the use of mortar. The highest reach about 9m and they are pretty impressive to look at, not because of the construction but because of the sheer strangeness. Yi Gap Yong was not even a monk, he was just a man who wanted to get closer to enlightenment through spiritual cultivation. His picture adorns much of the publicity around the Tapsa temple, he looks like a typical mystic with a long white beard and shiny spiritual eyes.

Despite my flippant tone I find the whole area extremely spiritual and otherworldly. It’s sometimes hard to appreciate such spiritual tranquillity with the legions of ajummas* marching up and down the path to find the best picnic spots. The place is very touristy and the two car parks have the usual trinkets and snacks on sale like all the temples and mountains in Korea. I would love to visit Maisan and Tapsa when there is nobody around because although I am no buddhist I believe there is something special in this place, something I have felt very rarely in other parts of the World. It’s also a beautiful setting with small streams and steep wooded hills. I have been on a damp spring day and a clear autumn day, the colours are spectacular. From the various trails I would recommend going from a totally different angle, that is not the North or South car park. You would be rewarded with a more vigorous hike and less crowded paths, although some of the signage is not great on these outer paths.

How to get there:

From Jeonju you can get an intercity bus to Jinan which is a short distance from the park. From Jinan Bus Terminal take a bus heading North Maisan. First bus runs at 7:30a.m., and from 8 a.m. arrives at 40 minute intervals. Last bus arrives at 6p.m.(5 minute ride), Get off at Maisan. Five minute ride by taxi. Taxis from the bus terminal at Maisan should be around 5000 won.

Directions to the Maisan bus from Jeonju train station.

Directions to the Maisan bus from Jeonju train station.

Although there is not much publicity, I took a city bus from opposite Jeonju Train Station. The bus stop is a city bus stop over the main road from the station. Bus number 105 runs from the same stop. If you are unsure go to the tourist desk inside the station as there is a map and timetable. This local bus takes a more scenic route through the mountains and costs 3,600 won (pay on the bus). I would recommend this service because it goes directly to the South Car Park where you can walk the 20 mins to Tapsa or start one of the trails. I took the 09.35 a.m bus and returned on the 14.20 bus. Within that time frame I was able to do a decent hike, have a good look round the temples and get something to eat.

* Proto Hermit = a person who looks like they need to spend a long time in a cave to recover from the insanity of the ‘real’ world.

*Ajumma = the most noticeable demographic in Korea. Older ladies wearing colourful and often floral hiking gear, visors, surgical masks and anything else that prevents the elements aging them. Looking at the amount of exercise they do I imagine they will outlive everyone. They can be found squatting over vegetables during the week and fighting for picnic space on the weekend.

금 = Gold 산 = Mountain 사 = Temple                 … I love it when Korean is this easy!

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I went to Geumsansa today after a gruelling 2 hour hike up Moaksan and back down on the Geumsansa side. It was gruelling because I don’t think you are supposed to do it in that short amount of time. Actually, walking time may have been even less than that because I took in the view for a while at the top. I read somewhere that if you are athletic you can do it in one hour; I did it in 51 minutes so I must be an athlete. That makes me sound pretty vain but I am genuinely competitive when it comes to hiking times. On a quiet morning with fewer people I believe it could be scaled in 45 minutes without stopping for a break, but you would miss all the fun if you just race to the top.

You can take a 970 city bus from opposite Starbucks in Gaeksa directly to Moaksan Car Park. If you don’t get buses much, the bus stop has all the numbers on and the electronic screen displays the ETA.  There are two distinct sides to Mt Moak, the Moaksan side and the Geumsansa side. It’s quicker and easier from the Moak side but there are many people on the paths who may drive you nuts after a while. As Moak is so close to Jeonju city there are more casual day trippers than serious hikers, I even saw a guy in a suit half way up the peak. I tried to get up as quickly as possible in the hope of escaping from the crowds, easy signage and limited trails make it quite simple to get up. The crowds continue all the way to the top.  The peak affords great views of Jeonju and all the surrounding mountains, even though it was hazy I could have stayed up there all day looking at the view. I guess I am a view collector though, view collecting is a great hobby because it’s virtually free and if you keep your mind reasonably clear from pointless information like phone numbers, story lines to boring tv shows and lyrics to poorly crafted pop songs, you should have plenty of memory to store views. The peak of Moaksan itself is a bit of an anticlimax because it’s basically a military looking antennae place. However, there are a few smaller peaks spiralling out from the real one, so you could still find a place for a picnic of makgeolri and beondegi.

I mooched round the peak, then laughed at the woefully inadequate safety measures of the steeple jacks who were  repairing a tv mast. After this I began the descent down the other side of the ridge to Geumsansa. The contrast between the two sides could not have been sharper. The crowds of multicolored hikers jostling for surefooting was soon replaced by genuine tranquility. I don’t know why there were so few people on the other side, after all, it’s downhill and only about 4.5 km from the peak. I’m guessing most people come in cars so they go back the same way they came up. Anyway, I wasn’t complaining, I was happy to have the rubber matted descent stairs to myself for most of the way down. I only came across about 5 people before I got to the temple. There was a woman looking intently at a tree, a couple having a picnic, a man and his son, then a buddhist monk who clasped his hands and greeted me in English as we passed one another. After a small cable car building the path widens out into a concrete lane suitable for vehicles. It’s impossible to get lost because you follow the course of the small stream which meanders down to the foot of the temple and beyond. The water in the stream was pleasant company for me on a fairly mundane trail. Without the company of birds, chipmunks and trees I was happy to have the constant noise of the water as it raced down the hill to find the temple.

As I neared the temple there were more and more people milling about. The end of the path fans out into parkland and some institutional buddhist places. I arrived at the side gate of the temple and an old man gesticulated to me to get some food. There was lots of activity and beyond the old women washing pots and cooking were an army of coaches and an actual army. There must have been hundreds of military personnel. Something was going on at the temple and there were thousands of paper lanterns crisscrossing the large courtyard, there were also countless garden chairs and a growing number of people taking seats. I heard the chanting and wooden clicks typical of buddhist worship. Nothing sounds more alien to me than the strange chants, especially when you are so used to church bells and hymns. I circumnavigated the crowd of worshippers to have a look and take some pictures. I spent quite a long time looking round the temple. I have been before but this time was totally different. Autumn was moving in with a nice breeze, the same breeze was blowing all the lanterns and sounding the small bells which hang on the corners of some of the temple roof tops.

Geumsansa is an important temple by all accounts, it’s a head temple of the Jogye Order which goes way back. The order came about in the unified Shilla dynasty who were into their buddhism much more than the later Joseon dynsasty. If you’re making parallels, the Shilla were like the Anglo Saxons of Wessex who unified the English into one group. They also came about at a similar time, about 1,200 years ago. Geumsansa itself is definitely ancient, despite some of the recent restoration work. Some people believe it was founded in 600 AD when King Beop was on the scene. The scale and the buildings are very impressive. I think it’s the only 3 story pre modern structure in Korea and they also have the tallest indoor Buddha in the World, sorry, the biggest ‘standing’ buddha. I have seen the reclining Buddha in Bangkok and that was bigger than the Geumsansa Buddha. After seeing all the cultural assets and taking things in I realised something quite striking – I know almost nothing about Buddhism. I have read things about the Buddha and Zen but in terms of the everyday realities of Buddhism I have no clue. It seems mysterious and alien, but sometimes it seems shallow and commercial. I think I will write another post when I actually know something, for the moment I will hide my ignorance under the numerous photographs I took.

If anyone is interested in getting back from Geumsansa (something I wouldn’t recommend) you can take the 79 bus from the entrance to the car park, they leave sporadically but you’ll be back in Jeonju within 40 minutes.

For people who want to avoid Moak all together the 79 bus leaves from Jeonju station so it’s an easy trip if you come early from Seoul. If there are 3 or 4 people you could probably get the taxi, but that’s no fun is it?