We awoke early, determined to catch the first ferry out. It was clear, and a little warmer than the previous day, but still pretty windy. I was just a little concerned that maybe I was going to be spending this whole day on Wido, too. (Don’t get me wrong, Wido was awesome, one of the highlights of my trip, but I was kind of hoping not to spend half my time in Korea on one tiny island in the middle of nowhere…)
We went over to Mrs. Kim’s apartment (which appeared to be so clogged with stuff she could barely open the door), to check out and pay her for what we hoped was the final time. This time, though, Mrs. Kim had a novel idea—she called to see if the ferry was running before we walked all the way there. When they said it was, she also called to see if the bus was running, which it also was. She went down to the bus stop and waited with us for the bus. A neighbor stopped by and chatted for a while as well.
We were nearly the only people on the bus, so we took seats near the front, though as more and more people piled on, I started to feel as though I probably should let one of the ancient old ladies have my seat. They were obviously talking about us, but David said it seemed to mostly be positive, with one old lady commenting on how good looking we were, so I didn’t feel quite as guilty.
We got off near the ferry terminal. Imagine my horror when as we approached I spy the ferry, steaming out of port. There was a moment of panic, but we quickly figured out what was happening: Luckily, it was merely heading to the neighboring island of Shikdo, before return to Wido to pick up passengers (we guessed this was the result of the need to load and unload cars in the right order).
We bought our tickets, and I purchased one of the cloth maps of Wido like the one David had from his earlier trip. I will likely never need a map of Wido, cloth or otherwise, but it made a pretty cool souvenir, one of very few I brought back. When the ferry really did arrive to pick us up, I was so excited I took a whole series of pictures, really more than a simple ferry likely deserved.
The trip back was windy, but clear and sunny. We could see the mainland the whole way, as well as a couple of uninhabited islands we’d missed on the way out. These included “The Brothers”, a pair we had spied from one of the mountaintops. Is it just me, or does it seem like “The Brothers” is a common name for groups of islands? (The group near Socotra springs immediately to mind, but there are others).
We got back to Gyeokpo and hopped the next bus to Jeonju. I faded in and out much of the way back, but David got a call from some friends, wondering if we wanted to get together for dinner.
By the time we arrived back in town, these friends had already gone to dinner, so we met them at the restaurant. I forget what the sort of restaurant was called (if I recall it was sort of a fondue deal), but this one featured little enclosed rooms which reminded me vaguely of something out of a ninja movie. Inside were two couples: Allen and Miriam, Americans who actually once lived quite near me, and Andrew and Cheryl, Canadians who as far as I know have never lived near me. I have to admit it was a bit of a relief to hang out with other English speakers, rather than having David be my sole communications link to the world. They were already eating when we got there, so David and I caught up with the eating while they relaxed and we discussed possible things to do after dinner.
After consulting with each other and a dog-eared copy of the Lonely Planet that some one had with them, we settled on Maisan, the Horse-ear Mountains, in nearby Jinan. (Coincidentally where the boring English-teacher guy I met at Gyeongijjeon was headed a few days earlier.) We hopped a bus, wound our way through the mountainous countryside (it’s funny, Korea isn’t one of those countries that automatically make people think of mountains, like Switzerland, Perú, or Nepal, but it really should be.) Anyway, after a trip that I remember as most uneventful (though fun, having a whole group of us to travel together), we arrived in Jinan’s rather bleak and grubby looking bus station (“bleak and grubby” would seem to describe many Korean bus stations, although in Seoul and Suwon, for example, they were sparkling, shiny new buildings.) We looked to see if there was another bus to Maisan, which was outside of town, but we didn’t seem to find one, and talked about a cab, but there were too many of us to do that conveniently, so we decided to just walk. David stopped in a police station to ask for directions, and then we stopped in a grocery store to buy snacks. We got a few oranges, and I got bought a bottle of bokbunja, the wild blackberry wine.
As we approached the edge of town, we caught sight of Maisan, which it turns out actually does look like a pair of horse’s ears. They really are striking—that sort of steep, rounded mountain that seems to only occur in Asia (I can’t imagine this is strictly true, but it seems like it.)
After making our way up the road, up to the big parking lot featuring ginseng shops at the foot of the mountains, and then up the long, steep staircase between the two peaks. After spending most of three days (and really, most of those before that, too) walking around, this climb was more than a little taxing.
Traditionally, the peaks were considered to be male and female. The male peak, Sut Mai, is the steeper of the two, essentially unclimbable without gear, but we were looking forward to climbing the trail to the top of the female peak, Am Mai. Unfortunately, when we reached the top of the staircase, we found that the trail to the top was closed. David and I compensated, however, by climbing far up a very steep dry creekbed into the female mountain. It was difficult going, with loose rocks buried in deep leaf litter. We climbed up to a little hollow in the rock, where we found a small stack of rock. Clearly we were not the first to make this particular climb. Stacked rocks were kind of becoming a recurring theme for my trip to Korea.
We had left the others behind at the bottom of the hill, and we’d been gone for a while, so we halted our ascent and worked our way back down. This proved a lot more difficult to do than going up, and involved more of a sort of controlled fall, with lots of frantic grappling at little saplings and weeds, interspersed with the occasional chunk of rock sent bouncing down the hill. But eventually we tumbled back out onto the path and rejoined the group.
Not far from the top of the pass between the peaks, as we descended the other side we came to a somewhat level area where the cleft between the mountains opened up, providing a largish flat space. Here there was a complex of small temples, one of them under construction (there was also one of the big temple drums, with the building clearly being built around it, which I thought was pretty cool). There was also a snack shop and some restrooms.
The construction of the temples appeared to be using pretty basic tools, perhaps in an attempt for authenticity matching the rest of the temples. I have no idea how old this particular set of temples is, but I had seen things of a similar style many hundreds of years old, and the crumbling steps in front suggested that some of these had been here a while.
Easily our favorite aspect of the construction site was the giant caveman hammer, which Andrew modeled for us, and then we entertained ourselves for a while with the sign on the bathroom.
We continued our descent down the back side of the mountain. Eventually we got creative and left the path, wandering down a little gully until we came to a fence. Rather than doing the logical thing and simply returning to the trail, David and I scouted around to see if we could find a way around it. Finally, I found a place to climb up, and realized where we were—practically on top of the upper stacks of rock of the temple complex of Tapsa! I’d have felt horrible if we’d knocked these over as we tried to climb down.
So maybe a little history of Tapsa is in order. As far as I know the temples are much much older, but person responsible for Tapsa’s distinctiveness (besides merely it’s location, which is pretty cool in its own right) was the monk Yi Kap-Ryong, who built the piles of rock I’ve mentioned. At the point of his death, at age 98, there were 130 such piles that he had constructed, all without mortar. There are 80 now, so I’m guessing some have bit the dust in the intervening years, but the fact that most of them, some as many as 10 meters high, have survived, despite storms strong enough to have uprooted trees in the area, is pretty impressive.
Yi built the towers alone, and solely at night, although late in life he confessed to his daughter that he had the help of a heavenly spirit (cheater!). He also apparently wrote a Sacred book which no one has yet managed to decipher. Unfortunately, that’s all I can find about the book–I love mysterious books and undeciphered languages (like the Voynich Manuscript or Hamptonese). Between the book, the heavenly spirit, and the 130 stone towers, I figure that probably adds up to either insane or really, really bored, but either way, I’m cool with that.
We descended the stairs into the temple area, accompanied by chanting and the arrhythmic clunking that passes for Buddhist music (generally I like to think of myself as open-minded, but I just don’t get it). In front of one of the statues were a number of worn prayer mats featuring none other than Peter Rabbit. Although maybe Peter Rabbit is a Buddhist icon of some kind (perhaps the “re-birth” of his clothes as a scarecrow in Mr. McGregor’s garden is some sort of reincarnation metaphor?), I thought this odd, and found it odder still when I spotted Peter Rabbit prayer mats elsewhere as well.
We wound our way through the pagodas and temples, pausing here and there to read the creative English captions on various towers or altars. (One interesting translation dubbed one of the towers “The Pharmacist’s Tower”). We headed back uphill, following the stairs to first a small temple building, and then the main one, where the monk we had heard chanting earlier was picking up after concluding his prayers. I was fascinated by the hundreds (maybe thousands) of identical figurines lining the walls. It’s things like that that really drive home just how foreign foreign countries are. I snapped a couple of pictures, but it seemed rude to disturb him with a flash, so I set the camera for a fairly long exposure and leaned it on the door frame to steady it.
Finally we left the temple area, and started to walk up the path. We went past a few temple-esque buildings of indeterminate purpose, and stopped at an area full of tourist souvenirs and snacks. There were lots and lots of framed photos of Maisan and Tapsa (including a pretty cool one of Tapsa buried in snow), as well as a lot of swastika key-chains.
David bought a cupful of bundagi, boiled silkworm larvae. We had seen these before, and I had chickened out, but I figured my time to try them was fast slipping away, so I tried them. I ate four or five of them, but as much as I wanted to like them, I just could quite pull it off. They weren’t horrible, but they weren’t great, either. They reminded me a little of shrimp that had been boiled in beef bouillon for a long, long time, only with a scent a little like you get from a big container full of hissing cockroaches. None of that really says “yum” to me. Apparently the negative verdict was not just me, though, as David, who normally likes the things, said these were not especially good ones, and in fact failed to finish the cupful, dumping them about halfway through. That made me feel a little better.
We headed further up the road, past some sort of building complex under construction. At some point, I think, somebody went and asked if there was a bus that could take us back to Jinan, because for some reason we started to wait around for the bus. When it finally did arrive, it was already dark out, and I was starting to get a little worried that when it showed up it might plow into us, as we were basically standing around in the middle of the road, waiting for it (it did not, incidentally).
We rode the bus back to town, then caught the inter-city bus back to Jeonju. I was pretty much exhausted at this point, but as much as my body wanted to simply crash, I was determined to make the most of my last night in Korea, and the rest of the group was clearly up for doing more. We were now overdue for dinner (the bundagi most definitely did not cut it), so we went to a Chinese restaurant. The Korean take on Chinese food is very different than what it we get in the U.S., and while I would have assumed it was more authentic (given the geographic proximity) I was assured it was not. Regardless, it was very good, and we all basically gorged ourselves.
After that, we headed to a noraebang, a sort of karaoke with private rooms, so you and your friends can embarrass yourselves in peace, without suffering the disdainful glances of strangers. We got a bunch of snacks, and a few beers (we even cracked open the bokbunja, which was quite good, but also quite strong—despite being shockingly sweet, I’d bet the thing was probably 25% alcohol–fortunately it was a small bottle). It took me a while to warm up to the idea of actually singing (I still haven’t worked up the nerve for regular karaoke), but after joining in on a few songs with other people, and a little beer and bokbunja, I did a pair of Sex Pistols songs, which were sufficiently amelodic to fit my singing voice. For songs which the system did not have videos (which appeared to be every song that wasn’t Korean) they simply played a random Korean video, so ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ was accompanied by romantic images of a young Korean couple frolicking in brightly lit meadows and forests.
After being extended a few times (presumably because they were busy and we kept buying snacks and drinks) we finally ran out of time, and headed out. We were annoyed to discover that the beer was much more expensive than we had realized (or maybe been led to believe). Then we headed out to the street, and found cabs home (or in my case, to my love hotel).
The next morning, I met David early, and headed over to the Core Hotel, a much higher class hotel than the one I was staying in, and where the airport bus headed for Seoul departed. We had breakfast in the hotel restaurant, which was good but a little underwhelming for the price, compared to some previous meals.
Anyway, we ate, enjoyed the view, then said our goodbyes as I boarded the bus north.
Most of the ride was pretty uneventful. Or at least I think it was–I was asleep for most of it. Somewhere about halfway we stopped at a big rest stop, with a huge parking lot, lots of stores, and restaurants. There was some announcement in Korean which probably said how long we were stopping for, but, being in Korean, I had no idea how long it was.
I was really hungry, though, and I really wanted to stretch my legs, so I got out of the bus. I had hoped maybe I could get something to eat at the stands set up in the parking lot, where I could keep sight of the bus, but they turned out not to feature food, but rather a pretty random mix of the cheapest dollar store-filler crap and bootleg porn videos. Actually, shocking amount of the latter (which might not have been bootleg…I’m just going by the quality of the cover art).
So I decided to actually go into the store/restaurant complex. I bought a Ghana bar and a bottle of Coke, but tucked these in my bag, and instead headed over to the Lotteria restaurant (a fast food restaurant run by the omnipresent Lotte company). I hadn’t used Korean at all, the entire trip, but I had my guidebook with me and (I hoped) a little time to kill, so I spent a little time researching what I was going to say, then went to the counter and placed my order (or something vaguely reminiscent of it) in Korean (It wasn’t very complicated–I think it was something along the lines of “I would like meal #4 with a Coke, please”). The result was a blank stare. I started in English—but the girl behind the counter smiled: “I understand it.”
I got my weird pressed shrimp burger and drink, got back on the bus, and rode to Incheon, hopped a plane, and headed home. Singapore Airlines rocked the second time around, too.