Ulsan Bawi


Ulsan Bawi (bawi is a Korean term used to denote a particularly interesting or grand rock) is basically a wall of granite that juts practically straight up, over 800 meters from the ground, at the foot of Seoraksan, South Korea’s most popular mountain. Just over the border in North Korea are the Diamond Mountains, some of the most beautiful mountains in all of Asia.

The myth tells it that the Mountain Grandfather gathered all the mountains in the area to witness the creation of the Diamond Mountains, but Ulsan Bawi (Ulsan is a city about 300 km to the south) made it just a little too late and missed the spectacle. Too ashamed to go home (he must have been late for the  Buddhist gathering, as well), Ulsan Bawi spent the night sulking nearby. In the morning, he was so impressed by the beauty of Seorak Mountain that he decided to never go home.

The first time I visited the park, I’d only been in Korea for a few months. As far as my hiking experience, on a scale of 1-10 I was about 0.001. If I’d had any idea about what I was getting myself into, I would have headed the other way, but I turned right at the temple instead of left, away from the main trail and straight for the granite cliffs.

I passed a small temple with a cave and giant boulder that’s balance in just such a way that even children can rock it a little. People love to play Superman and pose for pictures in front of it. A bit further into the forest, up a few flights of rubber stairs in the tree and I found myself in a clearing with nothing but a tower of stone and a tiny steel staircase before me.

“Stairs??” I almost got disappointed with how easy it was going to be but then I got half way up… The farther from the ground I got, the thinner and more rickety they seemed to be. A strong updraft tingled my spine. My sweaty palms and jittery knees made each step more agitating. Then I looked back. The stairs disappeared behind the curve of the rock, all I could see was a wall of trees behind me and a I felt like a magnetic force was trying to pull me off the stairs. All I wanted to do was reach in my bag and take out my camera but every joint in my body seized. I was only able to hang on to the rail in the crook of my arm and I stared at the wall of stone between the thin steel stairs. A few calming breaths and I pulled my Yankees cap down over my brow so all I could see were my feet and I kept on. I wasn’t sure how I would make it back down alive but I might as well see the top before I die! On the way I passed a girl in high-heels, clinging to the rail much the same way I had done, crying. Her boyfriend had her by the other arm trying to haul her up (which probably wasn’t helping at all!). I had to let go of the rail to get by, but I was starting to gather my wits by then.

Just a bit further and I was at the top. The view was not worth dying for, but it was well worth suffering the prospects of a sudden death! I was still a bit too shaky to do much and though the way down was suddenly easy, I still couldn’t find the equilibrium to take out my camera. So, I returned a year later and did it again!

It's hard to relate steepness through a computer screen, but this was scary!

Temple by the cave where, it turns out, WonHyo and Uisang, two prominent Zen Masters, both spent time.

photos from the second trip:


3 responses »

  1. I was just back from ordination training, with my legs fully strengthened by all the bows, and as I was slowly making my way up this staircase, I was being passed by the occasional old lady in her 70’s! I couldn’t believe how tough some of those ladies were. And as I think about it, I do remember a fashionable young lady crying, while being pursued by a boyfriend! That must happen a lot there!

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