Most often, I try to keep these articles impersonal. When writing, I want to give as much room as possible for the reader to enter and explore the space presented in the proffered lines. Lately however, I find myself in a mood too reflective to detach myself from the work that I do, unable to create an unpopulated scene without that sense of looking at an image through someone else’s gaze. There is a world outside us all, but it is witnessed through the lens of consciousness and I can’t avoid noticing the reflection in the glass of that rich world within populated by the people who have defined the experiences that influence the man behind the monitor. Because of this and what turned out to be a fortuitous disappointment, I decided it was time to step outside and take a stroll.
When people think of mountains in Gwangju, the first words that follow immediately almost invariably are about Mudeungsan. Being the pioneering individual that I am, I have purposely spent almost the entirety of the past two years avoiding it more because I felt it had been explored so fully by others than out of any sense of pride (though to say pride was not a factor at all would be an outright lie). For my first trek into this grand protuberance in the Gwangju horizon, I wanted to keep it simple and decided to limit my goal to reaching Jeungsim Temple rather than scaling the entirety right off. Besides, it’s rude to enter a new acquaintance’s home and immediately rummage through their closet: mystery is a healthy element in any budding friendship.
Upon arriving at the bus stop for Mudeungsan and Jeungsimsa, it was obvious that this was not an isolated space like so many mountain parks around Korea. In fact, after my climbing partner and I arrived at the gate, one of the very friendly caretakers explained in perfect English that Mudeung Mountain holds a Guinness World Record for being the tallest mountain within the limits of a city with a population of over a million people (which I have been unable to confirm independently but he didn’t seem like the sort prone to fabrication and it would be rather a shame to discolour such a beautiful place with a sense of suspicion towards a well-meaning stranger). Though the number of shops, restaurants, and cafes at the base was impressive, it was in no way overwhelming or able to take away from the verdant scenery that embraced the surrounding space. After a further chat about NBA teams with the caretaker and the receipt of a trail map, we began our ascent of the path to Jeungsimsa.
With a pedestrian road wide enough for two large trucks, it was nice for a change to have some room to stretch out a bit. This along with the gradual slope of the lane gave a sense less of an arduous hike and more of a slow paced stroll. Couple that with the creek flowing by in which many hikers cooled their feet and children splashed about and there is an instant sense of serenity and release that comes through almost imperceptibly at first but gradually fills every motion and word while in this place. After the stresses of an arduous (though admittedly short) work week, I didn’t so much need adventure as the chance to walk in open air and take in a more sublime environment.
When the temple appeared, a variation on an old adage came to mind: you can never leave a place with more than you bring. To a certain degree, this is often true. Out of the many temples I have seen across Korea, which is around a couple dozen at this point, Jeungsimsa doesn’t stand out as being particularly unique, though it is quite beautiful. I came to the temple with an idea of what temples in Korea are and walked away with that idea untouched by some novel invention. Something happened after wandering the temple proper that unfortunately is all too infrequent for a host of reasons: I sat. Instead of determining as is often the case to immediately begin our descent, my fellow hiker and I found a small boulder, about as wide and half as tall as a family dinner table, and simply sat. Under the shade of a tree, being just out of range of the brunt of the afternoon pilgrims, on the edge of a narrow cataract down which cool waters spilled, the scene became almost idyllic, something suited more to dinnerware neatly hung on red brick walls in country kitchens than to the outskirts of a near metropolis. It is rare to have the presence of mind to converse and contemplate the world beyond the reflections in our minds but that simple fleeting peace is worth the occasional uphill struggle.
As the afternoon began to wane and some few clouds began to penetrate the once clear day, it was time to wander down the mountainside. After what felt like barely a hop down, we again met the friendly gatekeeper and shared a short chat about the genuine pastoral beauty Jeungsimsa and the surrounding area offered. Before leaving, a quick beverage stop was in order to recharge for the short bus ride back into town, a place that seemed hours away from the mountainside so recently retired. Sadly, while in the café, a mild shower began outside that went almost unnoticed. By the time we decided to leave, a great pounding deluge had replaced the refreshing sprinkle and the minimal stroll to the bus stop became a harried series of maneuvers between awnings and shop tents trying to maintain some semblance of dryness. Totally didn’t work so pride gave way to buying an umbrella.
If you’re looking to go on a hike but not wander too far off the beaten path, check out the walk to Jeungsimsa near the base of Mudeungsan. A number of buses terminate their routes here including the 9, 12, 35, 49, 50, 51, 54, and 76 so getting to this area is surprisingly convenient. This scenic walk only takes about 20 or 30 minutes for even the more psychologically or physically inert folks. With a town in itself of shops and eateries nearby, you don’t need to plan in advance for heading out; just stop at the base and stock up on provisions before you go.
Even being a place so many know about, I can say from personal experience that however much Mudeungsan may be ‘done’ it is more than possible to make the experience entirely your own if you leave your mind open to it. Though I don’t know when I’ll find the time to return to that place, I look forward with the knowledge that those ancient stones are still there, still waiting to carry me and any who would climb those sweeping trails even if only for a few moments at a time. Life can get hectic sometimes and it’s easy to forget that taking a minute to look around can be as much a remedy for the overwhelmed as any other panacea or stress relief regimen on the market. Now is as good a time as any to find a little perspective on the banks of the water that flows beside the crooked trail.