Glorious Haeinsa

The highlight of a visit to the temple complex of Haeinsa is undoubtedly the Tripitaka Koreana, the 80,000 strong archive of Buddhist scripts engraved on wooden blocks dating from the 13th Century. To reach it you progress upwards, ascending several terraces as if to enlightenment itself.

The thing is, the Tripitaka is hardly ever open to the public; to catch a glimpse of this extraordinary library you have to peer through slatted windows from several feet away. I’ve seen photos and it’s amazing, but the experience of not really seeing the Tripitaka Koreana was a bit underwhelming.

Luckily the temple complex itself, set on a wooded hillside overlooking the valley below, is wonderful for wandering. The Temple was first constructed in 802 AD, just after Buddhism arrived in Korea from China. It has been renovated or rebuilt following fire damage at various points in time, but the setting feels ancient and timeless, even with a few modern additions poking out from behind buildings. The idea of a continuous line of monks walking these grounds for well over a thousand years is quite staggering.

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Walking to the temple you pass along an avenue and through several gates before clambering up some stairs into the first courtyard. Here was a sight I’d never seen before, a sort of prayer maze of brightly coloured lanterns. People enter the maze and walk through four quarters of different colours undertaking their devotions before exiting again. I’ve been to numerous Buddhist temples but haven’t seen anything similar.

Up more stairs you enter a higher, inner courtyard surrounded by wooden buildings, none of which were open to the public. Yet more stairs – enlightenment comes only with firm leg muscles it would seem – led to a big temple on a terrace above. It was a short walk up, you guessed, more stairs to where the Tripitaka Koreana is located. This is the highest building in the complex, offering beautiful views over the temples and valley below. You can imagine how tranquil it must be for the monks once all the day tripping visitors have left.

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

If you want to experience that tranquility firsthand, you can stay overnight in the temple and participate in the activities of the monks. I gave this some thought, but when I discovered I’d be sleeping on a floor and the morning wake up call was 3am, I demurred. I had plans to go walking the next day and getting some sleep seemed like a good idea. After all, 3am is essentially still night.

I spent several hours wandering around the monastery and nearby trails, before heading back into the village to find food. It’s clear the village survives on tourism, which meant that in a tiny place there were lots of places to eat. Fortified, I headed back to my hotel room and it’s absurdly hot heated floor (I never worked out how to turn the heating down), to get a good night’s sleep.

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

I woke early the following morning in full expectation of spending the morning walking through the surrounding woodland before heading back to Daegu. Throwing back the curtains I discovered that the cloud was so low I could no longer see the woodland, and it was raining. It was raining a lot. Giving up the walking idea, and hoping for better weather out of the hills, I made my way to the bus station and to Daegu, not realising that the rain was here to stay for the next 48 hours.

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Split Buddha, Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Split Buddha, Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

A mountain idyll in Haeinsa

My guidebook said that Haeinsa was a popular day trip from Daegu. This counts as perhaps the greatest understatement ever committed to paper and published as literature, fact or fiction. I arrived by bus at 9am, a journey that took me through a rural landscape of agricultural fields and concrete houses. By the time I’d checked into a hotel and found my way back to the main street there were 17 tour buses in the car park. Every one of them carrying troops of day-trippers clad in outdoor gear.

I should have planned better, it was the weekend and Haeinsa is one of Korea’s most famous temples, containing one of Buddhism’s most treasured items. It was bound to be popular. Sitting majestically on the wooded slopes of Mount Gaya, so called because it’s shaped like a cow’s head, the temple is home to the Tripitaka Koreana, one of the most complete collections of Buddhist texts in the world. There are more than 80,000 of them, all carved into wooden blocks in the first half of the 13th Century.

Haein-sa Temple, Korea

Haein-sa Temple, Korea

Haein-sa Temple, Korea

Haein-sa Temple, Korea

Haein-sa Temple, Korea

Haein-sa Temple, Korea

Fire is an ever present threat, and the authorities don’t often let tourists close to the Tripitaka Koreana, but the blocks can be glimpsed through slatted (for ventilation) windows. If the traditional wooden building that they’re housed in seems a little low tech for such a treasure, that’s because 700 year-old preservation techniques proved to be superior to modern methods. A new storage facility was built in the 1970s, but tests showed that the wood blocks became mildewed, so back they went.

Tripitaka Koreana building, Haein-sa, Korea

Tripitaka Koreana building, Haein-sa, Korea

Tripitaka Koreana building, Haein-sa, Korea

Tripitaka Koreana building, Haein-sa, Korea

Haein-sa Temple, Korea

Haein-sa Temple, Korea

Graves, Haein-sa, Korea

Graves, Haein-sa, Korea

Still, it is something of a miracle that the Tripitaka has survived this long, the main building was burned during the Japanese invasion of 1592, and again in 1817. All the blocks survived, only to narrowly avoid being bombed by Allied planes during the Korean War. They escaped this fate because, even though North Korean troops were in the area, the pilot was Korean and refused to do it.

This bit of information made me look again at my map. Haeinsa is a long way south, only about about 50km from the coast. I had no idea that North Korea came so close to taking control of the whole country, but in September 1950 they controlled 90 percent of the peninsula before being driven back by Allied troops.

Haein-sa Temple, Korea

Haein-sa Temple, Korea

Haein-sa Temple, Korea

Haein-sa Temple, Korea

Graves, Haein-sa, Korea

Graves, Haein-sa, Korea

En route to Haein-sa, Korea

En route to Haein-sa, Korea

En route to Haein-sa, Korea

En route to Haein-sa, Korea

The Tripitaka Koreana is now on the UNESCO World Heritage list, and while I’m sure it’s impressive, the great joy of Haeinsa is to wander around its old buildings while observing Korean families at worship and play. The whole temple site is quite small, but despite the number of people it attracts you can still find corners of calm and tranquility.

En route to Haein-sa, Korea

En route to Haein-sa, Korea

En route to Haein-sa, Korea

En route to Haein-sa, Korea

En route to Haein-sa, Korea

En route to Haein-sa, Korea

En route to Haein-sa, Korea

En route to Haein-sa, Korea

The monastery is in the middle of the beautiful Gayasan National Park, and a lot of people had come equipped (perhaps over-equipped) for hiking – Korean’s seem to take the outdoors very seriously. I followed a group of people up the track towards the temple feeling decidedly underdressed, and wondering if I was going to have to hire some crampons and ropes to complete the journey. Despite the harsh gradient it turned out that it was possible to make the trip wearing jeans, even if the majority of people on the route were dressed for an ascent of Mt. Everest.

A Korean adventure

Other than a passing understanding of the Korean War, a little knowledge of Korean food, and a biased Western media view of Kim Jong Un (who I’m sure is charming when he’s not eating burgers while watching peasants starve to death), I didn’t really know very much about Korea, north or south. Two weeks of working and travelling in South Korea taught me a lot, but also led me to the conclusion that it may be impossible to truly understand Korea.

This feeling began at Seoul airport, where I spent an unpleasant 4 hour transfer watching what I can only describe as a K-pop choir perform. I went to find food only to discover the extensive food court was hidden in the bowels of the airport. There wasn’t a single window. Assuming these were quirks of Seoul airport I boarded my connecting flight for Daegu…I had a lot to learn.

Gyeongju, South Korea

Gyeongju, South Korea

Spring tree, Daegu, South Korea

Spring tree, Daegu, South Korea

Haein-sa, South Korea

Haein-sa, South Korea

Despite the fact that English is used in all sorts of advertising and on road signs, it seems to be  spoken only rarely. This makes eating, travel and using the toilet an adventure. I like adventure, but sometimes predictable can also be good. Call me old fashioned, but a toilet shouldn’t have its own power supply, come with a control panel with more options than a TV remote, or have a sticker warning you not to get water on the electrics. Nor should a visit to the ‘smallest room’ finish with your rear end receiving a shampoo (no pun intended) and blow-dry. I’m surprised there aren’t more fatalities.

There are, at least, toilets. In Europe if you want a public toilet you look for the nearest McDonalds. In Korea, there are toilets everywhere. The last time I came across a place with this many public toilets was China…Korean public toilets are superior on every level.

Fish stall, Seomun Market, Daegu, South Korea

Fish stall, Seomun Market, Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Food is one of the great joys of travel, although I find this works better if you have a basic understanding of what you’re eating. In the absence of a common language, or pictorial menu, I was forced to wander restaurants checking out other people’s food before ordering. Dumb luck had it that I didn’t have many bad food experiences, but that pre-supposes that you’re a fan of kimchi. If you’re not, Korea may not be for you.

No one can hear you scream in space, but after a week of eating Kimchi I’ll bet they can smell you in the furthest corners of the cosmos. Eating here also requires you to know your way around a pair of chopsticks, not the ordinary sturdy wooden chopsticks that I’m used to, but a devilishly tricky Korean version: needle thin metal chopsticks designed to make the novice look like an idiot. In one bar they took no chances, my spring rolls came with a pair of scissors and some ice tongs. Let’s just say I provided a lot of people with entertainment.

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Of course, to eat it’s necessary to have the means to pay. This is not as easy as it may seem. Not many places take cards, certainly not outside the city. This leaves you firmly in a cash economy. Sadly, the Korean banking system has yet to join the 21st Century; in a highly developed economy ATMs don’t often accept foreign cards. This is not to say that Korean ATMs aren’t sophisticated. They regularly double as entertainment centres – playing music videos and showing TV clips – less regularly they dispense cash.

One day, after trying a dozen or more ATMs, I thought I was going to have to throw myself on the mercy of the British embassy. I’ve met British diplomats, mercy is not in their nature. I finally found an ATM that worked, to celebrate I took a taxi to the bus station for a trip into the countryside.

Daegu, South Korea

Daegu, South Korea

Haein-sa, South Korea

Haein-sa, South Korea

Daegu, South Korea

Daegu, South Korea

Taxis are a litmus test of a nation’s psyche. Taxi drivers in Korea universally wear driving gloves, in my experience this is rarely a good sign. Some are ‘professional’ leather gloves; others are clearly home made, possibly knitted by their moms. 97% of all taxi drivers approach their job as if they’re not just competing in NASCA, but have a shot at the title. None of them understand the English for, “Please, I’m begging, slow down before we all die. Look out for the school children. Arrrgghh!” Coincidentally, 97% is also the the number of Koreans who own and operate a selfie stick.

I did reach the countryside, unfortunately it was the weekend so I was joined there by several million other outdoor enthusiasts. The people of Korea take the countryside seriously. Most dress as if they are attempting an ascent of K2 – from the Chinese side. I have never seen so much technical walking gear, deployed for a short stroll on well maintained tracks guiding you around a temple complex. I’m not even going to mention the disproportionate number of couples who wear matching shoes.

Gyeongju, South Korea

Gyeongju, South Korea

Haein-sa, South Korea

Haein-sa, South Korea

Yangdong Village, South Korea

Yangdong Village, South Korea

One final piece of insider advice – every tourist map I was given was woefully inaccurate. Why bother drawing a map to scale, where physical features accurately relate to other physical features, when you can draw a map with nice pictures of trees, flowers and mountains? Even if there isn’t a mountain within 100km? Maps are far less helpful, but much prettier this way. I spent my first few days thinking I’d been given a map for a different city.

Bulguk-sa, Gyeongju, South Korea

Bulguk-sa, Gyeongju, South Korea

Yangdong Village, South Korea

Yangdong Village, South Korea

This is what I’ve learned about Korea. Not everything, just the important stuff. If doing battle with toilets and taxi drivers, navigating by maps that may not be for where you happen to be, or taking your chances with food, doesn’t discourage you from visiting, I’d say just go. You’ll have a lot of fun, or others will have a lot of fun at your expense. Either way someone is having fun and that’s the important thing.