Muddling through the misty alleys of Wonju, I was aware that there were no skyscrapers in sight. The street that held our motel, some convenience shops, and a few blue collar shops reached a height of maybe 7 stories. Little houses with yards stood their ground between parking lots and industrial buildings. Ajummas swept the front steps of their coffee shops and HOF restaurants (a late-night joint that serves beer & liquor along with fast food).
Welcome back to part 2 of our vacation story! Read part one here.
We were looking for a place to eat around 2pm. The weather had turned from crisp and clear to a light mist making it’s way over the mountains that surrounded the town. We find a run-down Korean bbq joint where two younger women sat and had tea in between serving us – their only customers.
After warming up with the usual – some galbi on the grill, bibimbap for the kids, and kimchi jiggae for Jay and I – we felt a little more adventurous.
Our motel room had a nice fridge and so we decide to flag down a taxi and ask him to take us to the nearest market to procure some snacks and drinks. A quick conversation with our driver helps me know there is a HomePlus in town – a nice department store/supermarket. I ask him to take us there. It’s nice – 3 stories with a large grocery section in the basement. We pick up enough snacks for the next couple days of sightseeing and some items for supper back in the room.
The girls both enjoy using the desktop computer to play a few games when we get back. As the evening winds down, we make plans to go hiking up Chiak mountain the next day. One of the reasons we chose Wonju as our alternative destination is because it was the most inward area of the penninsula. The weather calls for rain, but only 1/4 inch over the entire day.
As we wind down to go to sleep, Jay and I notice quite a bit of activity in the alleyway behind our motel. We can see flashing neon lights and ladies on the 2nd floor outside our window. We looked at each other and wondered – did we happen to get a motel in the red-light district?
Wonju happens to be the home to one of the largest ROK (Republic of Korea) Army installations and where there are soldiers . . .
There really wasn’t any noise or anything scary about the area. From our taxi ride, we could tell that our motel was located in one of the older and less kept-up parts of the town. But it wasn’t dirty or spooky at all. Besides, we live in Itaewon near some of the same stuff (but far enough away that the kids have never seen/heard it).
Climb, climb up Chiak mountain
Pending rain motivates us to grab a taxi at sunrise and stop at the Daiso that I saw on our ride around town the day before. After procuring rain coats and a spare umbrella (we only brought one), we instruct another taxi driver to take us to Chiaksan National Park.
The ride takes about 30 minutes – much farther than I had anticipated. But the driver knows where he is going, and takes us right to the front walking gate for the main park area. At the base of the park there are numerous theme resorts and yogwans (youth hostels) for tourists, along with little cafeteria-style restaurants that cater to the many hikers. Up inside the park we walk by several more little food shops and decide to get some kimbap rolls for a picnic lunch on our hike.
We pay our fee to get into the hiking trail ($7 even though the ranger scared me by saying $70 – he got confused between won and dollars) and start on our way.
Just around the corner – Buddhist temple
The trail is quiet. A river babbles as it passes under the bridge decorated with ornate turtles who have dragon heads. The drizzle of rain wets the path enough to soil our shoes with the brown clay mud.
We walk for about 30 minutes along the path, enjoying the serenity of the pines, and then suddenly we see a cluster of buildings through the trees up ahead.
At first, we think it must be a ranger station or a site for camping. But as we approach the bend in the trail, the buildings feel larger and more delicate.
The closer we trod, the more magnificent the structures become. There is a sense of excitement mixed with reverence as we realize it is a Buddhist temple – and that there are people going up into it!
Fog rolls over the clearing as we step carefully past the looming wonder. The rain slows, as if to indicate our arrival. The fresh, modern sign placed near the road reads Guryongsa – 구룡사 – Nine Dragons Temple.
It’s not immediately clear to us if tourists can enter the compound, or just worshipers; so we keep our distance. There is an octagon-shaped restaurant just past the temple and even though it is closed, it has a large porch spanning the circumference. We decide to stop there and partake of our picnic.
We just finish our meal and two ajushiis ask if we speak English. They give us a gorgeous map of the park in English and we thank them. They then proceed to tell us that they are cultural representatives and they will be in the temple today.
Our curiosity at this point is unquenchable.
Peering from the outside up at the structures, we first come across a stone Buddha outside the compound – complete with offerings of flowers and coin won. Then, as we make our way to the front entrance, my sharp gasp brings everyone slopping over to observe.
Inside the front entrance are the largest, most colorfully carved creatures I have ever seen. They stand 12-14 feet high (Raven’s head met the top of the wooden fence in front of them). Four stately creatures holding various items (musical instrument, dragon, sword, pagoda) tower over anyone passing through – and they show their power by the demons crushed and subdued at their feet.
Clean, smooth stone stairs with manja 만자 stenciled along the base lead up to the main courtyard. We find our ajusshi friends once again in the stage/open structure immediately at the top. They explain that the creatures in the entrance are the four heavenly kings that protect Buddhism.
Monks in light brown cloth skitter to and fro carrying large metal pans filled with grapes, bananas, and other food.
Patrons of the main prayer hall bring offerings to the three golden Buddhas inside and it is eaten the next day. I instruct the kids to be quiet as we can see people inside the main prayer hall bowing and praying to the buddhas. We don’t go in any other structures besides the stage because we are unsure and want to avoid offense.
As we make our way through the temple, peering through the various open doorways, we are taken aback at the scene from the highest point. I am having a hard time believing my eyes – the setting is too serene and like something out of a movie!
3 hours of walking and only half way
We make our way back down to the path and continue on our hike – our senses fully dazed and amazed. The rest of the hike is just as beautiful with waterfalls, flaming chestnuts dashed along the path by birds to reveal their nut-meat, and changing leaves.
We hike for about 3 hours, taking a side path that is absent of people. After we reach the rare and endangered plant species area and take a restroom break, we decide that the next leg of the hike is too steep and dangerous for the kids. I would love to get to the famous waterfall but the map we received indicates the hike to be difficult.
So we make our way back down the main path, meeting hikers along the way who stop to admire the kids and the scenery.
The mountains know that we are departing. The drizzle of rain thickens and our raincoats have little effect against the deepening cold. From the temple, we hurry our way down the path, hoping a ride awaits us back to Wonju.
By this time, our feet are sore and we are praying that there is a bus to take us back into town. I think I remember reading or seeing that one stops here, but at this point I am unsure.
We make it back to the ranger station and see a blue bus idling just past the gate. Geu-bosu Wonju-ae kayo? I ask the ranger. Does that bus go to Wonju? He nods enthusiastically and my heart skips a little. We hustle to load everyone on, pay our fare (a measly $4.00 compared to the $25 I paid the taxi out here) and relax in the warm, dry back seats.
The bus is loud, and we each listen to our respective mp3 players. Gaius falls asleep on Jay’s lap. When we get into town, I have to ask a local to help us get to Wonju keycha-yuk (the Wonju train station – see how easy it is to find our motel!?) and she flags us when we need to get off.
Getting on and off a bus, subway, and train here in Korea is a tricky spectacle – especially when you have kids. I think the doors stay open for about 30 seconds while everyone pushes and shoves to get on/off in time. And then you have to fly to a seat because the train/bus will NOT wait for you to sit down before it rears and takes off.