Some of the best days are the ones where you wake up and have absolutely no idea what you’re doing. I’ve gone through these phases. I used to plan nothing for trips, then I planned everything, and now I’m back to planning almost nothing. Busan was the early days. It was Korea, that was enough for me. So we scheduled nothing in advance.
We wake up one day and the rest of the group doesn’t want to do much of anything. Probably because they were hungover. I’m sure I was too, but I was young then and didn’t need to lay around suffering. So Tim and I decide we’re just going to leave everyone and go, somewhere. I think we just picked some random temple off a map in the suburbs north of downtown Busan. It was December, but not a completely freezing typical Korean winter just yet. So we bundle up and roll out.
We had to take the train and then the bus to get there. Neither of us spoke anything above bare bones Korean. We quickly got lost and are just standing there on some random suburban street corner trying to figure out what bus to get on. Then this middle aged woman walks up and in halting English asks us where we want to go. We show her the temple on the map and she agrees to help us.
But she refused to give us directions. Instead, in one of the most generous things I’ve ever seen in my life she decides to ride the buses and escort us to this temple. Then she says she knows a good place for lunch next door to the temple. So she walks us there and explains to the owner in staccato Korean probably how these two American idiots didn’t know what they were doing.
The two women essentially shrug and our kind escort wishes us luck and carried on with her day. We couldn’t thank her enough but she treated it all very matter of fact, smiled, and was gone. The lunch was incredible. In the Korean style we each had the ten or so little bowls of various meats, vegetables, and sauces. It’s probably in my lifetime top ten of meals.
I think this is the temple, I’m not so sure. The shot is logged wrong by how my memory remembers this trip. So who knows. But I’m pretty sure this was it.
We walked around the temple for a bit and then Tim being the far more adventurous of the us simply states we should stroll up the nearby mountain. So we point ourselves toward the hill and just start walking. As we got higher we realized we’d stumbled upon a routed hiking trail and so we continued to follow it on up the mountain and across the peaks.
It’s hard to describe how mountainous a good chunk of Korea is. Cities are perched precariously along the coast with ribbons of suburbs rolling out in the valleys. The inclines of the hills are quite steep and it’s rather sobering to think that when Busan was the last holdout against the Communist siege in 1950 that these mountains held hundreds-of-thousands of young men who would decide the fate of Korea.
Looking back toward Busan from the hills.
Ribbons of suburbs and the Nakdong River.
We walked for miles and miles, probably at least over ten miles. It’s a blast, the weather cooperates, the trails are dotted with other friendly hikers, and oh, ah, it’s getting into the late afternoon. We’re in trouble. There’s no way we can go back the way we came in time. We have no desire to hike back on the trail in the dark lest we fall off the darn mountain. Fortunately we happened upon a temple nestled up there that’s near the trail. We figure if nothing else we can call a cab from there to take us back downtown.
I walk around a while admiring the temple while Tim somehow strikes up a conversation with a monk who speaks immaculate English. Decked in pristine Buddhist orange and thick glasses he says there’s no need to call a cab because he’s driving downtown anyways and he’s glad to give us a ride. He asks us to wait for a bit while he gets ready and he’ll go get the car.
I’m raised in the Catholic Church, and so I have this idea of poor Trappist monks on a farm like my Dad used to visit. I expect this to be a hair raising ride through twisting mountain roads in a Yugoslavian knockoff beater. Instead, the monk rolls up in a pristine black BMW that easily cost north of $50K. Tim and I were just cracking up.
It was nearly dark as we set off for downtown. Tim sat up front with the monk while I dozed in the back. Tim and him chatted away about everything. I wish I remembered more of their conversation but I was exhausted. I do recall the monk was headed downtown to party with his friends. I never did catch the reasoning for the dichotomy between the wealth, partying, and religious lifestyle of the monk. In retrospect I just find it hilarious.
Back downtown, we managed to link up with our friends again. I don’t remember the rest, probably for valid reasons. But I do remember the hills well, and that monk and his crazy car. It was quite the day not worth planning.