The hike to Yeon Ju Dae started off just the way I enjoy a good hike. After only about ten minutes in, there were already amazing views of the city presenting themselves over the large boulders. There was still a long ways to go, but the surroundings helped push on. Gwanaksan is a very stony mountain with many small pines and bare granite crags.
It wasn’t long before I was hiking along the ridge of the mountain, following the signs to Yeon Ju Dae. I was under the false impression that it was only a 2km hike, but from the first sign on the trail saying 3.7 km, I realized it was going to be further than I anticipated. As I ascended the third peek I began expecting the temple I was headed to come into sight. But each time I got there, there was no temple to be seen.
Finally, drenched in sweat and the light rain, I stopped on a large, open space, to sit for a minute, rehydrate and breathe. I could see that the ridge curved sharply just head, then stretched out another kilometer, or so. I could hear the sounds of a mokteok and temple chants echoing across the valley, but still couldn’t see anything, just a broadcasting tower and a strange-looking dome. As I headed further up the trail, I stopped to take a few photos of the odd structures, and through the zoom lens, I got my first glimpse of the small hermitage I was looking for… directly underneath the large dome. My thought pattern went something like this… “That’s not what the picture on the website looked like. Photoshop? Maybe whoever designed it didn’t think very much of Buddhism… maybe they really liked Buddhism but had a bit of misguided enthusiasm…”
I chuckled to myself and decided, “I’d made it this far, I might as well keep going.” The only peak in the way, before the final one, was a rather steep pyramid-like hill that I hoped the trail somehow wrapped around, but also secretly wanted to climb. As I approached it, the angle of the trail shifted just enough that I could see the dome was actually on another spot, beside the temple, but through the 300mm lens, and a good deal of moisture in the air, the illusion of it being right on top of the tiled roof was convincing. With renewed faith in human-kind, I sped up my step a little and glided right up the steepest part of the journey, yet, not even noticing the side-trail that forked off to the left, just before the ascent.
Towards the top, there were ropes and chains to help you along, and finally, for the first time on the trail, I had to let go of my camera to grab on to the rope with two hands and haul myself through a gap in the stone, marked as “GwanAk Gate”. Once through, the view stretched out over the long, pine green valley. I could see Seoul Grand Park, and the Seoul Horse Track that I’ve never been to but thought I should have brought my father to while he was here. I hoped to myself that he will someday visit again, and we could go.
As I continued, end in sight, “end” disappeared once more behind a huge, jagged piece of rock, going straight up, that I knew I didn’t have any business on as soon as I got about twice my height up it. I have a strange fear of heights that I don’t understand very deeply. I love hiking, and I’m drawn to the summit, but as soon as I’m in a position with rock on one side and open space (along with a vertical drop) on the other, my body stops working. I get shaky, my joints feel brittle, like they’ll snap if I attempt to bend them, my palms get sweaty, my eyes start darting around, my heart beat would probably accelerate, but it’s already beating from the strain of getting there, only, now, my heightened sense of hearing becomes aware of it. A part of me knows not to look down, but a stronger part of me wants to see what down looks like!
Moments before, I’d called EunBong to see how they were doing back in the tent. I’d woken her up, and she seemed more eager to get back to sleep than anything else, so I told her I’d be back soon. I just hoped that was a promise I was going to keep. At 632 m (2,073 ft), GwanAk San is by no means a very big mountain, but 632 meters is still about 631 meters more than I care to fall on any given day! I took a few deep breaths, focusing my eyes on the wall of stone that I held myself against, and thought back to the Shrine of the Mountain Spirit, and I our little conversation. I gave the mountain a few solid but affectionate pats and said to it, “You know, I am you and you are me, you gotta help me out now…”
I knew the smartest thing to do was to go back down, but if there’s one thing I know about me and climbing is that as bad as I am at going up, I’m even worse at going down, and this was almost entirely learned from trees, only one other time had I ever climbed a rock, when I was 18 and my friend and I got stuck against a cliff when the rising tide cut us off from the path we’d come down on. As I realized I wasn’t sure how I was going to get myself up or down, a voice, kind and aged, with a strong Korean accent called up to me, “Hey, you’re doing good, you made it this far!” I looked behind me to see the kindest face I’ve seen in a long time smiling up at me. I answered back in Korean, “But it’s really scary!” and displayed my trembling hand. “Don’t worry,” he said, “just go slowly. You can do it.” From the moment I heard his voice, I already knew he was the Mountain Spirit. He disguised himself as a temporarily out-of-business real-estate agent, but gave himself away a little when he talked of his involvement with the Seoul Hiking Group. With deep gratitude in my heart, and better confidence in the rest of me, I let him guide me up the rock, along a last set of ropes and chains, I listened as he told me where to place my feet as I grabbed onto the large bolts placed in the rock. Many times, he repeated, “just go slowly,” something you don’t hear often in Korea. When, at last, I pulled myself to the top, I let out a huge sigh of relief and took in the view. He laughed a little at my exaltation and told me that path was designed by the Seoul Hiking Group for advanced hikers, and told me, next time, take the easy path, which he then pointed out below. I showed him a picture on my phone of Fina and EunBong, and, with palms together, thanked him for his help. He told me to follow him a bit further as he walked across and down the other side of the boulder. Finally, there was Yeon Ju Dae, tucked beneath the boulder on the edge of a very steep crag.
I was surprised by the the gathering there, many of them doing 108 bows. I asked him to wait a moment so I could bow three times. He told me next time, I should do 108, that’s it’s a really good place to do them. I told him I’d already done 108 bows at 4am yebul and he started laughing, at which point a woman came out and gave us a cross look, fingers pressed against pursed lips, and we kept on our way. He brought me down the other side for a short way, until we arrived a Yeon Ju Am (hermitage) but seemed as much like a temple to me as any other I’d been to. Actually, I couldn’t believe the number of people there, on top of the mountain at 8:30 in the morning. I had to keep reminding myself that I still was on the mountain, not at the foothills. It really felt like small village bustling about in the morning. We went into the meal room and ate bibimbap with fermented soy and dried cabbage soup. It was a very nice mountain meal.
After our rest, he showed me the way to the easier path back to GwanEumSa, and he continued on in the opposite direction. I stayed around to enjoy the atmosphere a little longer, and take a few more pictures, admire the spectacular view of Yeon Ju Dae once more, then began the long trek back to EunBong and Fina, still asleep in the tent. About half way down, the bus loads of hikers started coming in, and hiking in Korean returned to the contact sport I’ve come to know it as, but with today’s rain, the umbrellas were a new obstacle I wasn’t yet accustomed to. I made it down, anyway, with both eyes somehow intact. I collapsed in the tent and waited a good twenty minutes for my legs to arrive behind me, then we all made our way into Gangnam for burritos and a big plate of nachos!