Thursday, December 16, 2010

Mountains and Temples and Bears, Oh My!

On Sunday I went to check out Naesosa Temple and Jikso Falls, two of Buan's "tourist attractions". It's about an hour by bus to Naesosa, and (according to the internet) an hour walk from there to the falls. I was worried about finding the right bus, but thanks to my mad hangeul (Korean alphabet) reading skills I able to find the one that said 내소사 (Naesosa). The road from the bus stop to the temple entrance was lined with a surprisingly large number of gift shops and restaurants with bottles of makgeoli on the tables out the front to lure customers. There was even a small motel.

The temple itself is at the base of a huge mountain, which I really hoped wasn't between me and the falls. The path from the ticket office to the temple was an avenue of tall trees. To one side of this was a river. This was clearly a work in progress - lots of concrete and no water - but it did offer a spectacular view of the mountain.

As I wandered back to the main path I had my first encounter with the cartoon bear that seems to serve as mascot for the park. There was something about this bear that made me laugh, and I was a little embarrassed looking through my photos from the temple to see how many of them were of those stupid signs.

The entrance to the temple was a small gate building with four huge statues in it. They were pretty impressive, if a little menacing.

The temple had some similarities to other traditional Korean buildings that we've seen, but I think it had enough different going on to be worth the visit. I walked up a small hill to a shrine, but when I got there I discovered a Korean woman having some sort of religious experience so I left her to it.

After I finished looking around the temple I for Jikso falls. The sign said it was 3.2 Kms away, which didn't seem too bad, and although the path led uphill it seemed to be heading over the lowest point of the ridge rather than towards the peak. It was a very steep climb, and the quality of the path was pretty variable; in places it had proper flat steps, but in others it was really just a steep rocky hillside. I was beginning to understand why all the Koreans in their brightly coloured hiking gear carry special walking sticks. It was quite beautiful though, I imagine it would be stunning in autumn with the leaves changing colour. The bear - who I'd named Chuckles - was there too.

I got to the ridge. Still 2.9 Kms to go, but at least the hard part was over. The sign for the falls pointed along the ridgeline, but I figured the path just followed the ridge for a bit and then headed back down the other side. In the meantime I was treated to some spectacular views.

After walking for about a hundred metres I realised I wasn't just walking along the ridge for a bit. I was climbing the mountain. But I wasn't going back after climbing that far. And the views kept getting better. The day was a bit hazy - and my photography skills leave a fair bit to be desired - so I don't think you can see it too well in the pictures, but I could see for miles.

After a while I started to worry about it getting dark. And bears. The slight change in light level took me from relaxed and groovy to terrified of being eaten by a bear. I don't even know if there are any bears in Korea (aside from the sad ones in the zoos). But the park's mascot was a bear, right? I kept going, but I did start to wonder what all the signs in Korean were saying.

Caution: Bears.

I know that the English part of that sign is just the scientific name of the tree, but I've had too many ten minute conversations "translated" into a few words to assume that the Korean part says the same thing.

Finally I reached the top. Uh. . . or not. Another junction, and Jikso Falls still 2.3 Kms away. At this stage I was an hour of serious hiking into my one hour walk and I'd covered less than half the distance. I didn't fancy any more climbing, and the path to Jikso was near vertical down. Looking down it was like being at the top of a roller coaster. I could cope with going down it but there was no way I was climbing back up.

I think there's was another way out from the falls, but I didn't know if the buses went there. With the light getting lower I decided to leave Jikso for another day. I'd forgotten how far up I'd gone, and the walk down took ages. In the fading light on the way down the hill my concerns about the hundreds of bears in the woods just waiting to eat my delicious face only got worse.

"What do mean running out of hot sauce to dip this human in isn't a 'real' emergency?"

Eventually I made it down the hill uneaten. I had been worried (in between bouts of bear panic) that I would miss the last bus, but it was there waiting for me when I got to the stop. Turns out I was right to leave when I did, just as the last of the daylight faded away the bus rumbled to life and we set off on the long slow journey back to Buan.

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