Busan, South Korea

After a very lazy Sunday afternoon following our temple stay at Golgulsa, Therese and I were up in good time Monday morning to catch a bus to Busan.

We had just received confirmation that we would be climing Mt. Kinabalu in Borneo, Malaysia at the end of February so we wanted to start doing more hiking in preparation. In Busan there are many hiking trails so it was the perfect opportunity to start training for the climb and see another part of South Korea.

Busan is located in Gyeongsangnam-Do province, just South of Pohang. A coastal city, it is known as one of the more metropolitan cities in South Korea with mountains dividing the city into sections along the South Sea coast. I was eager to visit as my dear friend Jen had just spent a year living and teaching in Busan and I wanted to get a taste of her life during that period.

Arriving in Busan, Therese and I followed street signs to a path leading up to Beomeosa Temple. The temple is one of the northern starting points for trails across Geumjeongsan, the mountain range Therese and I were going to hike along.

It was about a five kilometer walk up hill to the temple where we took in some of the traditional architecture before figuring out which path to take to get to the North Gate, part of the Geumjeong  Fortress built on the mountain. We would then hike from the North Gate to the South Gate, a 10 kilometer trail following the fortress wall passing the East Gate and various restored watch towers along the way.

We spent five hours on the trail, winding through the mountains stopping to take in the beautiful view of the ocean and Busan along the way.

A highlight was standing on the wall at Wonhyabong Peak, the highest part of the mountain range with a 700 meter elevation. This put our climb of Mt. Kinabalu in perspective as that mountain’s elevation is over 4000 meters.

By the time we arrived at the South Gate the sun was setting over the park and we opted to take the cable car down. With the sun low in the sky and our body temperature’s dropping we both were shivering as we rode down the mountain, grabbing a cup of tea before boarding a bus back to Pohang.

We took countless photos of the beautiful scenery along the way so I’ve included a small slideshow of images.

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It is now Sunday, February 5 and I leave for Beijing tomorrow morning. I am excited but also nervous to start the solo portion of my Asian adventure.



One minute or less (Pt. I)

We have been taking a few videos of our adventures so far and while I have access to a computer I’m going to post a couple in a series called “One minute or less” to provide a snap shot of a particular experience.

This video was taken at 4:30 a.m. during our morning chanting service at Golgulsa Temple in Gyeongju, South Korea.

This video is of me recounting the morning’s events sitting outside the dining room in the dark as the sun had not yet risen.

Gyeongju, South Korea

Last Saturday, Therese and I packed overnight bags and made our way to the inner city bus terminal in Pohang to take a forty minute ride to Gyeongju.

6th C. Indian Buddha carving.

The nearby city is known as a religious hub in South Korea, with the largest collection of historical temples and ruins in the country. Therese and I were on a mission to find one temple in particular, Golgulsa, where we would spend the night and experience the daily routines of buddhist monks.

When we arrived at the temple we were greeted by a friendly fellow named Scott. Originally from California he had come to Golgulsa for a temple stay and enjoyed it so much he signed on as a volunteer.

Enjoying the breezy pants of our temple stay uniform at Golgulsa.

He was in his fifth month at the temple and helped us sign in, assigned us a room and gave us our uniforms for the weekend – brown Thai fishermen style pants that are quite baggy but fitted around the ankles and a yellow tunic vest.

The temple is located in the hills of Gyeongju with buildings placed along a winding path up a mountain. At the top  stands a massive Buddha that was carved into the rock face in the 6th century by Indian monks. Although there are many temples in the city we made Golgulsa our destination partly because of the statue and partly because it specializes in Sunmudo training. Sunmudo is a buddhist martial art that combines elements of yoga and meditation. To be a monk at Golgulsa you must also be a master of Sunmudo, teaching and training others.

As soon as we were checked in we started up the hill to one of the buildings for archery practice. We were greeted by about 10 other temple stay guests including some young Korean boys staying at the temple with their fathers over their winter holidays. One of the Sunmudo masters was leading the archery course, and with some help of one of the Korean guests who spoke English, managed to tell Therese and I how to stand, position our bows and aim. I think we were both surprised when our first arrows hit the target 30 metres away and were even a little smug by the time the session concluded.

The knife dance is part of Golgulsa's Sunmudo demonstration.

Following our archery lesson we had some free time to explore so we walked to the top of the hill, past statues, dormitories, the dining hall and various shrines to Buddha on the way. We arrived at the top in time to join other tourists for a Sunmudo display, an hour-long demonstration of the martial art.

Three male masters and one female performed different aspects of Sunmudo, from the yoga-inspired stretching, to traditional Korean-style dance to acrobatic high kicks and back flips. I was particularly taken by the beauty of a knife dance that was performed, the bright colours of the hanbok (traditional Korean dress) and the sharp edge of the knives contrasting with the natural setting of the stage that overlooked the neighboring mountains.

An average meal at the temple.

At five o’clock we headed toward the dining hall for dinner, joining the other temple stay guests and sunmudo masters for the meal.

The food was vegan fare, some potatoes, rice, kimchi, pickled bean sprouts and radish, a muddy soup with chunks of soggy tofu and a sugared rice cake. Guests sit on the floor around raised platforms and are supposed to eat in silence as a form of meditation. The men and women sit on separate sides of the narrow dining room and everyone must eat everything they are given.

Following dinner we bundled up for a walk back down the mountain for our official orientation. During this time we were taught about the temple’s history and hierarchy as well as how to meditate, bow and follow along during chanting services held throughout the day.

By 6:30 our orientation gave way to our first chanting service lead by one of the temple’s monks. All the guests knelt in rows on small brown cushions facing a shrine to Buddha while the monk pounded a gong and a wooden block signaling the different portions of the chant. Whenever we heard multiple hits of the woodblock in concession we knew it was time to do a formal bow which involves a half bow standing followed by three full bows from standing to kneeling with your forehead touching the floor then back up to standing.

The evening chanting lasted about half and hour. I struggled for 27 of the 30 minutes to find my place on the printed Korean chanting words while Therese tried not to giggle whenever we got lost.

Practicing Sunmudo in one of temple's halls.

We spent the rest of the evening in our Sunmudo training, working up a sweat stretching, doing ab work, kicking and punch the air. For the training the temple stay guests were joined by Sunmudo masters and trainees who counted out our movements and assisted with our form.

I found my regular yoga practice aided in my flexibility and balance for Sunmudo, but I struggled with some of the fighting movements, loosing rhythm and timing for the multiple punches with threw. At the time I didn’t feel worked to hard but the next day both Therese and I were surprised to find our core quite sore.

Entering our room where we each had a cubby, a pillow and a blanket.

After Sunmudo we called it a night turning into our cozy little room in time for lights out at 10 o’clock. I was surprised to find Therese and I had our own room at the temple, rather than dormitory style sleeping like I had anticipated. Instead we had a small bathroom and heat bedroom to ourselves with blankets laid on the heated floor.

The next morning we awoke at 4 a.m. to the sound of a woodblock and chanting outside our window. Each morning one of the monks started at the massive Buddha carving at the top of the mountain winding his way down the hill chanting and hitting the wood block rhythmically signalling the start of the day. We knew we had to be at morning chanting at the top of the mountain at 4:30 a.m. or face the punishment of completing 3000 bows so we rolled out of bed, put on as many layers as we could and started the trek up the hill.

Despite the early hour I think the morning chanting and meditation was my favourite part of the Golgulsa experience. Walking up the mountain by moon light and entering the small temple area with its colourful altar was a unique experience I will recall for years to come.

Morning chanting.

All the temple’s monks (there are only 5 or 6), the Sunmudo masters and temple stay guests attend the morning chanting followed by half an hour of sitting meditation and half and hour of walking meditation outside. I had much more luck with my chanting the second time, following along with my lyric sheet and getting most of the bows in the right places without having to look around for confirmation.

Walking meditation at 5:30 a.m.

During the siting meditation Therese and I both struggled to stay awake, but we were both engaged during the walking meditation which had almost a trance like vibe as we followed a monk in circles around one of the many statues on the temple grounds.

By 6 a.m. we had already done three forms of worship and we were ready for Baru Gong Yang, a special Buddhist Dharma meal practice in which we all sit on the floor and receive our food in four different bowls, keeping each part of the meal separate and eating in complete silence, cleaning our bowls with warm water then drinking the water so as not to waste a single morsel.

Therese and I were quite nervous for this portion of the temple stay as it is quite religious and a sign of disrespect to make a mistake in the very regimented order of events. You have to receive clean water first in your largest bowl, which you use to rinse each bowl pouring the water from one to another without making a sound.

Saying a prayer before Baru Gong Yang.

Next you receive rice in your largest bowl, soup in the second, and side dishes (like kimchi and sprouts) in the third leaving the fourth with the remaining cold water. You then eat your food with your bowl held up against your face so no one can see your mouth or your chewing, eating in a limited amount of time before the head monk signals the end of the meal and hot water is passed around to wash out the bowls that MUST be empty.

Luckily we both managed to make it through the meal without making any mistakes and had accomplished more by 7 a.m. than I do most days by noon.

At 8 a.m. we  returned to the dining hall to participate in a tea ceremony and lecture from the temple’s head monk. During this time we were invited to ask him any questions we had about Buddhism, the temple, the culture – it seemed no topics were off-limits.

Tea and conversation with a monk.

We asked about how he became a monk and why, we asked what women’s roles are in the Buddhist religion and we asked if he had ever completed 3000 bows (he had – twice!) We also asked about Sunmudo and its significance to Buddhism and to that temple in particular. It was an interesting hour of candid conversation where he asked about us, where we were from and what brought us to Golgulsa, and we in turn to talk about anything with him.

By the time this portion of the temple stay had finished it was 9:30 a.m. and the sun was finally up so we took some time to climb back up the mountain to the massive Buddha carving where we completed our bows and took in the landscape.

Standing outside one of the prayer rooms built into the side of the mountain at Golgulsa.

It was 11 o’clock when we wandered back down the hill toward our room and Therese and I were exhausted. We had planned to visit a nearby city, Busan later that day but instead opted to pack up and take the bus back to Pohang where we spent the afternoon napping, watching Gilmore Girls and drinking tea before calling it an early night.

I know this is a longer post but thank you for hanging in! The experience was so unique I couldn’t resist sharing every aspect with you here.



Pohang, South Korea

I’ve spent the last four days acquainting myself with Pohang, a city in North Gyeongsang  Province that Therese calls home. She’s been living here for the past year teaching English in two near by fishing towns and I was excited to see a snapshot of what her life has been like.

The main room of the apartment, excuse the lumpy bed, Therese is still asleep.

Therese’s apartment is on a little side street in downtown Pohang. It’s a modern, clean building walking distance to the grocery store and local restaurants. The apartment itself is modest but cozy with bamboo floors that are heated. There is a small kitchen with stove top, a laundry room, washroom and main area where she has her bed, a television, a comfy chair and now my  mat on the floor that we use as a couch by day and bed by night.

Pohang’s main industry is steel, manufacturing the metal for companies like Hyundai (who along with Samsung own everything it seems over here.) The city is also fueled by its proximity to the ocean (it is a coastal area) and the fisheries are a major source of revenue as well.

Unloading the catch of the day in Pohang.

Although it has been chilly Therese and I have taken some strolls on the board walk that runs along the Hyeongsan River out to the ocean and a beautiful white-sand beach. Walking this path you pass countless fishing boats of all sizes and if you catch them at the right time on the right day you may see some of their haul from the salty waters.

Pohang is a bustling city of over 400 000 but  it’s easy to get away from the crowds in the nearby foothills. That’s one thing that has struck me about South Korea, particularly compared to Ontario, the landscape is so varied. Whether in the urban or rural centers of the country you are constantly surrounded by mountains or hills

On one of the trials in Pohang's foothills.

in the distance and if you make an effort to get to them you’ll find some solitude on their trails.

Since being in Pohang I have spent a few afternoons wandering and exploring, ending up in the hills on some of the paths. It is peaceful and if you climb to the top provides a beautiful view of the city.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of accompanying Therese to school. It is winter holidays for her students so no children are around but she still needs to be in her classroom planning lessons (or killing time) until they return. Visiting on such a day was a perfect introduction to her school and work environment for the past year although I plan to come back and meet some of the students before we leave for South East Asia.

The school is a bumpy 45 minute bus ride away to a neighbooring town that smells of fish. The streets are narrow and people have the day’s catch stung up in the alleys drying in the sun. The school is made up of four buildings (the gym, the administration building and classrooms.)

Therese's classroom.

Therese has her own wing in one of the buildings with bright new classroom equipped with a massive touch screen television and whiteboards.

While I was visiting she had received a shipment of English books for her students so we had fun flipping through our childhood favourites like Dr. Seus and Roald Dahl as we unpacked the new books.

You're now entering the English Area!

Today we are leaving for the Golgulsa temple in Gyeongiu where we will spend Saturday and Sunday following the teachings and meditations of Buddhist monks.

I’m very excited and will post about the experience when we return.



Seoul, South Korea

As the plane touched down in Seoul my left foot was asleep and I was feeling like I needed a good shower. Twenty-four hours of travel is exciting but it can also be a bit tedious so needless to say I was glad to finally arrive.

After some wandering I came face to face with Therese and so begins our adventure together.

A map of Seoul's subway system.

Therese had only been in Seoul a handful of times so the two of us put our heads together to figure out the complex subway system in the city.

We would be staying in the Hongdae district of the city and would need to take three different trains.  Without too much trouble we managed to figure out where we needed to go and made it to the BeBop House – the hostel we would be calling home for the next five nights.

The hostel was cozy, run by a quirky and kind pair of twenty-something Koreans, MK and Olive. It had two floors with three dorm style rooms and three private rooms, as well as two bathrooms, two common areas and a kitchen, each plastered with world maps, magazine clippings and artwork done by the hosts and the guests.

While in Seoul, Therese and I kept ourselves busy taking in the rich history and beautiful natural landscapes the city has to offer.

Restored details on the palace entrance in Seoul.

A highlight was visiting Gyeongbokgung, the largest of five royal palaces in Seoul built over 600 years ago.

It was the home to the Joseon dynasty and features what I think of as typical Asian architechture, a pagoda style with ornate painting and beautiful detail.

During our visit we also experienced the traditional changing of the guard. Although the ceremony is strictly tourist in its purpose today, we still enjoyed the bright colours and almost Arabic sounding music that accompanied the procession of royal guards and flags to the palace’s front gate.

Changing of the guard at Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul, South Korea.

Next to the palace is the National Palace Museum, which we then spent some time wandering through. The museum gave some context to what we were seeing and had countless artifacts on display. I was most interested in the display of science artifacts from the Joseon dynasty. The exhibit included sundials and massive stone tablets used to chart the cosmos, as well as early globes and counting tools.

That same day we also made the trip to Namsan Mountain, a small mountain in the heart of Seoul which is best known for being the home to N. Seoul Tower. The tower is primarily a tourist attraction and looks like a smaller version of the CN Tower. To visit the landmark you must first hike up the mountain, a hike our trusty Lonely Planet guide suggested was best done in the evening.

The view from the top of N. Seoul Tower.

Therese and I followed the guide’s advice and we trekked up the hill as the sun set, arriving at the top to a beautiful view of the city lights.

So far my favourite parts of the trip is the time we spend outdoors, walking and wandering the streets and park of South Korea. The best example of this was January 21, when Therese and I spent the day hiking up Bukaksan mountain in Bukaksan National Park. We got an early start, leaving the hostel in good time and riding two subway lines and a bus to the entrance of the park.

We started our ascent on a beautiful, although very landscaped, trail winding its way up to a wall built in the 14th century to protect Seoul during conflict. The wall is sometimes refered to as the great wall of Korea and joins the four mountain peaks of the city: Naksan, Namsan, Inwangsan and Bukaksan.

One thing you should know about Koreans is that appearances and material goods are very important. Women are constantly applying make up on the subway and no matter the time of day stores are packed with people purchasing clothing, cosmetics and accessories. As we got off the bus to walk up to the national park we passed numerous hiking stores and Korean men and women decked to the nines in hiking gear: boots, backacks, poles – you name it, they’ve got it.

Therese climbing the path up Mt. Bukaksan.

Now I must admit I was scoffing at them as we passed in running shoes and jeans, walking up the manecured paths to one of the wall’s gates. I must also admit I was eating my words as my temperature rose, the pitch increased and my breathing grew heavy. I thought I was in shape! Maybe those hiking poles weren’t such a bad idea?

Looking out over the wall that surrounds Seoul.

When we got to the wall Therese and I took a moment to take it all in before becoming quickly distracted by a person off in the distance on the mountain’s peak. It looked rocky, scary and right up our ally.

“I want to go up that,” I said to Therese. She just nodded and started heading off in that direction.

Now this is when our adventure got a little more complicated. The paths were gone and the pitch had increased and I think we (and some of the hikers around us) realized pretty quickly we were a little out of our league.

Therese and our unofficial guide climbing up the moutain ridge.

Luckily a kind fifty-something Korean man who couldn’t speak a word of English took us under his wing and lead up us the mountain’s ridge to its peak.

The view was spectacular and, to be honest, the photos just don’t do it justice. We could see all four mountains from our perch as well as a good chunk of the historic wall. While at the top we celebrated with a rice cake one of the other hikers offered to us, the perfect soy-cinnamon concoction to consume before descending the opposite side of Bukaksan.

That mountain adventure has given Therese and I hiking fever and we’re already planing our next big adventure when we’re in Southeast Asia. We’re working on trying to get permits to climb Mt. Kinabalu in Malaysia.

At the top of Bukaksan and quite pleased with myself.

While in Seoul it was Lunar New Year, a holiday that marks the start of the Korean calendar, much like Chinese New Year. (In fact, it is the same holiday and is celebrated on the first new moon of the year.) This holidays sees Koreans leave the city and flock to their hometowns and much of the city shuts down.

We were nervous at first that not much would be open on the holiday but managed to find some fun activities to occupy our time including a visit to Namsangol Hanok Village. This is a folk village in Seoul that had activities and events for the holiday including traditional mask, flute and kite making, games, song and dance.

Therese and I took advantage of everything carving our own bamboo flutes and making prints of the new year’s tailsman, a Korean symbol for very good luck.

Now we have taken a bus ride four hours South of Seoul to Pohang, Therese’s hometown. We’ve settled into a comfortable routine in her cozy apartment as I plan for my next adventure in China and she finishes up the final 16 days of her contract to teach English.

Stay tuned to hear about life in Pohang- until then I hope you’re all well and keeping warm. I imagine the weather we’re having here (-5 and sunny) is pretty similar to what you’re experiencing at home.