Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Hiking High Above Pusan

As we prepared for this trip last Spring, Jeff scoured the Seattle and King County library systems for reasonably current guidebooks. Researching Pusan (also sometimes spelled Busan), our one stop in S. Korea, one book said exciting things about an ancient Korean temple, Beomeo-sa, calling it "perhaps Busan's best sight . . . a world away from the urban jungle, with beautiful architecture neatly set against an extraordinary mountain setting." Sounded pretty good, but there was more -- it was right next to Geumjeong Fortress, not a fort but rather a wall built in 1703, behind which the city hoped to protect its people if the Japanese or Chinese invaded again, as the former did in 1592 and the latter in 1636. Can't tell you why the delay in building the thing, but we can advise you that the guidebook's statements that we would find some of the city's best hiking, and that it would be "a comfortable hike with a few steep stretches" were both serious understatements.

Before arriving we had roped another game couple into joining us, David and Katherine. At dawn we stood on deck and watched Pusan come into focus as the Diamond Princess made its way to our dock. Through the morning mist we saw a group of skyscrapers come into view, the newly-risen sun glinting off the tops of the tallest ones, and thought it was the city, only to discover it was merely a distant suburb. Then we passed a starkly beautiful apartment or condo development looking out over the rocky shoreline, also miles from downtown.

At last we entered the main part of the port and saw some of the cranes for handling containers that make Pusan Korea's busiest port city (and 5th busiest container port in the world, roughly equal to the entire U.S. West Coast combined). Our berth was across from those cranes, both us and the cranes about a dozen miles from anything that could be called "downtown." As we disembarked, a local bank had parked a bus at the dock that had been converted into a mobile bank. With swift efficiency we exchanged a few dozen dollars for a few thousand "won," the local currency, and headed with David and Katherine for the taxi stand. For about $30 split between us we were whisked on surprisingly unjammed expressways through downtwn and at least a dozen miles beyond into the hills, and deposited at the doorstep of Beomeo-sa. We had come 25-30 miles and a world away, halfway up a mountain and deep into the forest. Quiet enveloped us, broken by an occasional bird chirping.

Beomeo-sa indeed had beautiful architecture, some of it recently repainted in exuberant Korean designs. But the memory that will remain long after the architectural details have merged with those of many other temples, is the chanting. As we approached the first building, we began to hear a monk intersperse minute-long verses chanted with his congregants with pauses of a similar length, when he would sound out a haunting and irregular beat using a baton on a hollow piece of wood, ending with a single high-pitched "ting" on a small brass bell. And then another verse came floating, ethereally, out the temple doors.

A second building looked quiet, a place of worship no longer needed in this busy world of ours, a quaint relic of history. But as we walked up the stone steps to the veranda we discovered that it was broken up into three separate rooms, and each one was filled with 1-2 dozen folks quietly murmuring prayers. So too a third building! Between us we have seen many, many temples in the Far East, and never one so active as a religious site, not just a tourist one.

After taking a photo of one of a series of paintings that told religious stories in ways that are remarkably similar to what one would find in a medieval European church, we headed out to explore Geumjeong Fortress. Lucky for us, we came upon a map that was far better than the minimalist one Jeff had copied from that guidebook. Taking photos of maps encountered on hikes is a trick we learned a ways back. Yes, they're teeny-tiny on a digital camera screen, but you can enlarge a portion of almost any map enough to read a relevant portion of it. Well, yes, this one was in Korean, but at least we could see where the trails were and where they went to.

Having a map was one thing, doing the hike another. This was a steep bugger! At least the temperature was comfortable, the air clean, the forest attractive. But boy, was it vertical! After 45 minutes of heavy going we reached the North Gate, one of only 4 in the 17 km-long wall. The wall itself wasn't at all tall, generally only 5 to 9 feet. Like so many grandiose defensive works, such as the forts that ring Seattle or the Maginot Line in France, it was irrelevant in the next war, the invasion and subjugation of Korea by Japan in 1910.

The trail now turned and followed the wall. The wall went up and down hills, so we did too! Big time! But check out those views -- we were now about 1200' to 1600' feet above Pusan as we climbed and descended, climbed and descended.

At about mile 7.5 David established with sign language, goodness knows how, that a short walk through one of those four gates that we had now reached would bring us to a road with bus service. In 150 yards, there was the road. In 5 more minutes, there was the bus! It was a memorable schuss off the mountain through enough hairpin turns to qualify it for a Tour de France stage. With help from a college student on the bus who spoke some English, we found out where to get off the bus to catch the subway, and there we were, soon after, riding it to downtown where there was a pickup stop at a certain hotel for a shuttle bus out to our boat. An odd thing happened on the subway. A fellow got on one stop after us and, the moment the train got moving again, started a sales pitch for a sock-like shoe, or perhaps it was a shoe-like sock. Whatever it was, he made two sales and had his apparatus all folded up again by the time we reached the next stop!

We can't say much about Pusan as a city, but what we did see from our taxi and buses was very reminiscent of Japan. Fairly modern, quite densely packed. We had a half hour before the last shuttle bus to wander up and down a shopping street, and if you didn't notice the Korean lettering on signs or hear the shopkeepers and customers speaking Korean, you'd swear you were on a similar street in Japan.

We have one more day at sea and then we are in China, with three port calls in a row: Qingdao, Dalian and Tianjin. We'll start the China portion of our journey in our next blog entry.

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