Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain

Korean Father phoned my girlfriend Saturday afternoon and announced we were going up Geumjeong Mountain (Geumjeongsan) the next day. Clearly, it wasn't really a choice. There was some subsequent negotiation and it was agreed that perhaps Korean Family would go to the top of the mountain while myself and my girlfriend hung around the Beomeo Temple (Beomeosa) half-way up.

After a 45 minute subway journey
from one end of Busan to the other, I discovered if there was one thing worse than a Korean taxi ride, it was a Korean taxi ride up a twisty mountain road with big drops on each side. I was ready to throw up by the time I got out.

I have to say that the temple was not quite what I expected. There were thousands of people there as clearly it's a very popular tourist destination, but the modern world had invaded it too much. The otherwise beautifully decorated building housing the temple drum for example, had a couple of blue KT Telecom boxes installed right underneath it (you can see them in this picture). Temple lanterns surrounded by detailed small Buddhas statuettes (made in China) were lit by 60 watt light bulbs. Aircon units poked out of the side of one of the buildings and the monks hung around their Daewoo cars and darted around the temple complex in their trainers.

I have to say though, that the most inexplicable thing I noticed was that inside each of the temple buildings where it seemed the more pious Buddhists offered up their prayers, was a cheap and very modern looking clock on the wall. Isn't the concept of there being a clock on the wall of a Buddhist temple somehow completely contradictory? It all felt a little too false in the end and it tarnished my view of Buddhism a little. I suppose you could argue it's a working, functional temple, but it still doesn't excuse the phone boxes.

We picnicked nearby on the mountain and then discovered we were going to be hiking up it after all. I don't know when our arrangement changed.

Saw a few more Westerners today - after my first week of total isolation I'm getting used to it
again. Korean Mother got excited when one passed us in close proximity while we were resting. "Migug" (America) she cried - or asked - depending on your perspective. Whatever his nationality (and having overheard him momentarily earlier we thought he might be English) he didn't let on. After all, aside from probably being quite sick of Koreans shouting things at him, if he were American he might not admit it, and if he was British, he's probably sick of people taking him for an American. Still, he must have seen that I was there and this just confirmed my growing feeling that a lot of the foreigners here seem to be a pretty miserable lot when out amongst Koreans. Anyway, sorry whoever you are - Korean Mother has been told not to harass Westerners again.

At the summit - or at least the top of the part of the mountain we had hiked up, there was no view because like the slopes it was too heavily wooded. So, no beauty shot of Busan miles below us. There was too much heat haze anyway to take great long-distance shots. A monk sat at the top painting peoples fortunes in cartoon form as the spirit moved him. I also discovered an excellent Korean sweet made out of pumpkin which I have to introduce people in the UK to.

We decided not to climb to the summit of Geumjeongsan in the end because Korean Family was getting tired. Strangely enough I was fine, but since my home city is quite hilly maybe I'm more used to it than I appreciated. Before today I thought I was going to have real fitness problems because basically I've spent most of the last two years sat on my ass.

Karma. On leaving the temple a South-Asian said something to me and with the Migug incident
fresh in my mind I stopped to smile and say hello. I was quickly shown some pictures of what was allegedly a Nepali school which desperately needed funding for all the good work it was doing. It wasn't clear whether they wanted an immediate contribution or my name and address for something presumably more substantial later. I don't know if they were genuine or not - and I'm sorry if they are - but to his apparent surprise I told him with an apologetic smile that I couldn't help him - and my girlfriend and wished him good luck with the project - whatever that was.

We walked back into the city through the same mountainous country roads that the taxi driver had brought us up, and it was nice to feel like I was in a more rural area for once - almost everything I've experienced so far has been endless cityscape. Unfortunately there were also increasingly regular stops as Korean Father had me read Korean signs back to him. My newly learned ability to read Korean (though not understand it) is proving a source of great amusement to him. It's good practice for me I know, but I feel like a contestant on a quiz-show sometimes.

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