Sancheong, Gyeongsangnam-do, Thursday 29 March 2012. The road through Jungsan-ri stops in a car park beyond which are the Jirisan National Park office and a barrier across the road. Jungsan-ri is the start of the shortest (but not necessarily the gentlest) trail to Cheonwanbong, Jirisan’s highest peak.
We are permitted to proceed through the barrier, shaving a boring 3km, on a winding and steep metalled road, from our hike. I was told that you could catch a bus to do what we were doing, but when we get to the start of the trail it seems several other cars have been given the same privileges.
We park on the roadside, get out of the car, and prepare ourselves for the assault.
I’d been told in London that in Korea you don’t climb a mountain, you enter it. It’s as if you are there only with permission of the mountain spirits. So, before you start your walk, it’s best to have the right frame of mind: a spirit of gratitude. I found out later that somewhere in Jungsan-ri there’s a little shrine to the mountain god, and it’s traditional, according to David Mason, to pay the shrine a visit and say a little prayer before entering the mountain. We had missed it, so I have to say a little prayer silently as we start on the trail.
It’s a pleasant day, and while the initial ascent is quite steep for an unfit office-worker like me, it’s not too bad. Yes, it’s hard work, but mainly because of the unplanned extra weight I’m carrying in my backpack, which often threatens to overbalance me.
We are walking mainly through forest. The trail is well-travelled and well-maintained: before we have proceeded far we come across a group of workmen repairing part of the trail. On parts of the track, wooden stairs have been constructed, while elsewhere a suspension bridge crosses the trickier parts of the river.
“Be careful of the bears,” a Seoul-based friend had advised, when she heard I was going trekking on Jirisan. Apparently, 2004 marked the start of a programme to reintroduce the Asiatic Black Bear (반달가슴곰) into the Jirisan region. It was proving remarkably successful, and according to Brian Deutsch two bear cubs had been born in the wild back in 2010.
My main worry was whether I was fit enough to get to the top, and I reckoned bears weren’t going to be that much of a bother, but maybe I was being too cavalier in my attitude: signs along the trail warned you of the dangers of straying from the path, but even staying on the path was no protection, as we narrowly avoided putting our foot in some bear droppings.
We carefully continued our ascent, Mr Yoon racing ahead (in between answering his cellphone, which seemed to ring every five minutes), me plodding behind at a steadier pace, and Ms Baek bringing up the rear. The path was never straightforward. When it wasn’t climbing steeply, it was flat and muddy; or it followed the course of a stream. Occasionally the thoughtful national parks folks had provided ropes to help pull yourself up some of the trickier bits.
The most difficult parts were where there was ice on the trail, sometimes with a covering of soggy leaves which made things additionally treacherous underfoot. This was not something I had been expecting, and made me nervous for the climb beyond our overnight stop at Beopgyesa.
We battled onwards, making steady progress, occasionally meeting much fitter-looking people making their way down. Some of them were complaining of pain in their knees. I was grateful now for the orthopaedics I had with me.
After two and a half hours we finally arrive at a hiking station where plenty of walkers are milling around. We are given a cup of sweet, milky coffee which despite my usual preference for unsugared espresso was just what was needed.
Stopping to take a breather, I realise how much I’d been sweating, and suddenly the temperature seems to drop as the wind increases. Maybe I needed that strange scarf-towel after all, but instead I settle for the goretex to keep out the wind.
A hundred yards further on, as the trail turns to the left, straight ahead is the entrance to Beopgyesa, the highest temple in Sancheong and at least the third highest in South Korea (though the good people of Sancheong claim it’s the highest of them all).1
We pass through the gate, and are shown to the guest quarters – a separate building situiated half way up the temple precinct – above the administrative and eating area, but before you get to the main shrine. Rocky steps alongside a stream take you up to the shrine at the top of the temple. The guest accommodation is spacious – a large room to the left of the entrance lobby containing a low-level table for serving tea; and a smaller room to the right of the lobby. In between, a large wardrobe contained bedding enough for a group much bigger than ours.2 Almost immediately we are summoned to share dinner in the kitchen. Mr Yoon looked disappointed. I then discovered that he’d brought with him a portable gas cooker so that we could fix up some ramyeon. Neither the cooker nor the ramyeon were needed, unless we were going to be marooned at some point.
A table of tasty seasoned vegetables, roots and leaves was waiting for us in the kitchen, together with red bean rice and doenjang jjigae. Halfway through our meal, the senior monk entered the kitchen. He had been out foraging in the woods, and presented the ajummas with a large bag of herbs and other leaves, which they started sorting through approvingly and washing in the sink. These would provide the side dishes for the next few days.
I have never been to a temple where the monks can’t talk to you for hours. Beopgyesa was no exception, and after dinner one of the monks prepared tea for us, launching into a monologue about I’m not sure what. After an hour of what I’m sure was enlightened conversation we visit the somewhat Spartan washing facilities (knee-level cold water taps in a wet-room) and turn in for the night. We’re told that next time we come there will be slightly more modern facilities – and indeed there was another building being constructed while we were there, many of the materials brought up by helicopter.
Our room is very cosy and the wind outside doesn’t bother us. Mr Yoon and I lay out mattresses and quilts on the floor while Ms Baek retires to a separate room the other side of the entrance. But it’s going to be a wet and windy night.
- See Sanshin.net for a list of Korea’s highest temples
- We did in fact pre-book our stay – I’m not sure whether you can just turn up and expect accommodation.