I bury my face in my pillow, in disbelief about the fact that I, after a long evening of heated Uno games and heavy Soju indulgence, decided to get up at 6 am for the great Busan Temple Hike.
It is too fucking early. But it is also my day off, and today I will hike one of the supposedly most beautiful hikes in the area.
The hike starts at Beomeosa Temple, easily accessible by taking the Metro to Beomeosa stop, and then a bus up the hill to the entrance gate. After that, the hike goes along the north, the east and south gate of Geumjeong Fortress south to Seokbul Temple.
The path leads through a virgin forest that must be lush and green during summer (however even at the end of December it was a picturesque, peaceful place) and along the Geumjeong Mountain ridge, with stunning views of Busan and the seaside.
It is still dark outside, as I leave the hostel after a very tired, very sad breakfast of rice porridge and strong coffee. On the metro, some Korean grannies beam curiously at my nose piercing. They giggle shyly as I catch their looks, and finally, a smile creeps across my mouth.
Outside Beomeosa metro station, the air is crisp and freezing. A truck driver comes out of a convenience store with a distinctive green bottle in his hands – a little early for soju, I think to myself, and with a look to the bus plan I realize I got up even to early for the first bus to the Temple.
Waiting in the cold for the bus in 40 minutes? No way. I decide to start the hike right out of the metro station, up the hill to Beomeosa Temple. The paved road is a rather mediocre start, but I enjoy the view of the sun steadily climbing the dark hills in the distance. To my delight, I come across a beautiful green lampion dangling peacefully on a tree branch.
Bright sunlight illuminates the temple as I arrive at the entrance gates.
Three gates lined with colorful lampions dangling in the wind lead to the main temple hall (Beomeosa Daeungjong).
Despite the early hours, I am by no means the only visitor:
a few Korean grannies, all wearing what seems like very comfortable, loose temple pants, arrive shortly after me. They chat and greet each other cheerfully, and everyone streams towards the main hall, where they undress their shoes at the side doors and disappear inside.
Hesitatingly, I wander towards the left door, undress my shoes and open the door.
Inside, the floor is covered with flat pillows, on which the grannies kneel down. Stunned by the atmosphere, I barely dare to utter a breath. Hidden in one of the corners of the room, I watch the grannies bowing their heads to the ground, mumbling prayers, twisting the prayer beads in their hands.
Though I try to stay as imperceptible as possible, one of the grannies indicates me to kneel down on a pillow as well. She shows me how to bow to all three sides three times, and smiles delighted as I follow her instructions.
Sunbeams fall on impressive woods carvings of dragons and buddhas and fainted buddha paintings on the sidewalls, and the air is filled with muffled prayers and the shuffle of feet on the wooden ground.
Despite all the spirituality, I cannot forget about the hike I have ahead and set out a few minutes later. The way to the North Gate is a short, but steep 1.7km up a ‘sea of rocks’.
The path is dotted with information boards about flora and fauna in surprisingly good English, explaining the difference of crows and magpies and why leaves turn yellow in autumn.
A young, merry monk comes nimbly jumping down the rocks towards me, his eyes focused on the steps ahead. As he takes notice of me, he smiles abashed and backs away to another trail downhill to Beomeosa Temple.
The forest clears up as the north gate is in sight. A signpost at the gate shows to the left for the east gate, and to the right for Godangbong peak. As it is just 9:37, I decide to get out of my way a little and take a quick, forced march up to the peak of 801m.
Up there, the howling of a fricking cold wind and the cries of ravens are the only sounds I can hear. The Ravens don’t seem to mind the coldness and glide downhill or float on a spot, seemingly effortless. With watery eyes from the wind, I take a look through binoculars to the north gate that I left a few minutes before.
As I get back to the foot of the mountain, my eyes fall on another signpost: ‘Mireuk Temple 800m’. None of the blogs I read about Busan mentioned this temple, and as it is very close by, I decide to give in to my curiosity.
A small stroll along a deserted path through the forest later, the unmistakable, colorful lampions start to show. The wind carries the soft drumming of damarus (Buddhist hand drums) over to me, and I follow the sound to the temple grounds.
The small temple is nestled into the mountain on a plateau. A dog snoozes in the warm sunlight by the main hall, and a woman disappears into the living rooms beside the temple hall. I hear monks chanting and drumming in the main hall, and suddenly it seems Busan and its lights, noise, and hectic are light-years away.
A few mountain bikers pass through, and then I am completely alone surrounded by sunlight and the chanting coming from the main hall.
This temple is the first one I ever came across that does not seem to be a tourist attraction but an actual home to practicing monks. Absolutely moved by this experience, I get back on my way towards the east gate.
Korean people seem to like hiking, and despite the harsh temperatures I come across a great variety of fellow hikers: couples, solo hikers with insanely big backpacks, old men, girls taking selfies, a female monk with a radiant smile. She looks exactly like a happy buddha statue that has come to life.
Most of the people I meet seem rather shy though, and avoid looking at me. Nevertheless, I greet everyone with a merry ‘Haseyoooo!’ and receive a few amused smiles.
Not only is it very fucking early, but also very fucking cold. My hands are hardly recognizable, swollen and red from the cold and only with great effort, I can bring them to press the release on my camera. As I reach the east gate and stop for lunch, they are are so cold that I cannot hold the chopsticks I brought. To the amusement of the bypassers, I just eat the rice I prepared with my hands.
Hiking on the mountain ridge is a funny thing, cause whenever the forest breaks up I can see the hustle and bustle of the City under me, but I am far away and surrounded by silence.
Though the mountains here are hills compared to what I hiked in Central Asia (with Godangbong Peak being the highest at 801m), the hike is a pleasurable walk through largely untouched forest. I come across a few wild but peaceful dogs and cats and use every patch of sunlight to warm up myself.
From the south gate, it is another 2km to the final destination: Seokbul Temple. I pass through the gate and a small village of canteens for hikers, across a dried-up stream and follow the trail downhill, and that’s where the final enemy awaits me: an incredibly steep road winding up the hill to the temple. At least this will heat me up a little, I think, and start trudging uphill.
Seokbulsa Temple, known for its stone carvings of Buddhas, is bathed in the afternoon light. I let myself down on a bench in the sunlight and close my eyes. This temple is nearly deserted, just a monk with a latter in his hands roams the grounds. I marvel at the Buddhist stone carvings, which are indeed very impressive, and take place on a cushion in the prayer hall. A last moment of silence (in which I nearly fall asleep) before I make my way downhill back into the bustle of the City.
The warmth on the bus back to the hostel makes me pass out immediately. I wake up just in time, as the sun has already sunken and the city lights come on.
If you ever make your way to Busan, I definitely recommend you to spare a day for this hike. It is not hard – I would actually rather call it a prolonged walk, and the path is easy to find, just remember to note down the Korean words for the north gate ( 북문 ) east gate (동문) and south gate (남문) because all the signposts are in Korean.
This hike is incredibly rewarding and I can definitely recommend getting off the road a little as I did – Godangbong peak and Mireuk Temple both are a short detour from the main trail, and both beautiful destinations you shouldn’t miss out on.
There were many more Temples, watchtowers, peaks and so forth along the way but I decided to skip them as I didn’t know how long the hike would take. After all, it was about 6h at a reasonable pace.
Just bring for god’s sake gloves, if you’re doing it in the middle of December, like me.