Do you remember the time when spam was a kind of processed meat? Well, in Korea, that’s still true. We’ve noticed it in the supermarkets but Edward spotted an interesting link on the BBC website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-24140705) that has prompted me to write something on my blog about it.
We had the annual Chuseok (mid-Autumn) national holiday last week, and according to the BBC, gifts of Spam are quite common at Chuseok. So, here’s a photo I took in the bus station in the small town of Haenam as we passed through: for travellers who need a present for their relatives, gift packs of Spam. It seems to be a legacy of the Korean War – another US cultural export which is still going strong 60 years on.
For those who subscribe to my blog, I hope the e-mail about this post doesn’t end up in your trash folder…
We spent a day walking in the Duryunsan Provincial Park, a couple of short bus rides away from Mihwangsa. There’s a temple near the entrance to the park, where we sat in a tea house before we started the climb into the hills. As we’ve seen elsewhere, piling rocks into cairns in and around temples, or onto ledges of statues, seems to be the thing to do.
The climb takes you through the trees. It’s near the end of September but it’s still very hot and there are plenty of mosquitos around, making any stop a mixed blessing. Our first objective is the Bukmireukam Hermitage high above the main temple complex, and with a big Buddha statue carved into the rock as the focus.
A few minutes after reaching Bukmireukam, we’re standing on a huge rock and taking in the view. Above us on one side there’s a ridge with outcrops of rock sticking above the trees. In the other direction, the land falls away to the rice paddies and then the sea. It’s a real treat: Here we are in Jeollanam Province in the very south-west of Korea, in a place I didn’t know existed until very recently, and it’s glorious.
Some of the best travel experiences are unexpected. A Korean family joined us on the rock and asked us to join them for lunch. So, we sit down and the family start to unpack a feast from their backpacks. There’s rice, kimchi, chilli pastes, vegetables, garlic, dried fish and lots more. It tastes great and is far more substantial than the rather inadequate convenience-store cake we’d packed. The only English speaker in the family says it’s a Korean tradition to share food with others. We’re very grateful.
Well fed, we climbed up to the peak, looking down to the coast line to the east and the west. The higher part of the climb is over big boulders, and there are ropes, chains and metal plates fixed to the rocks to help the climber. It’s only 700 metres at the top, but it’s a challenge. It would have been much more so had it not been for the meal provided by complete strangers.
We stayed in a Buddhist temple on Wednesday night, set on the wooded slopes of Dharma Mountain. The setting was spectacular, with the jagged peaks of the mountains to the east and views down to the sea and scattered islands to the west. The atmosphere was one of quiet calmness. Big black and yellow butterflies flapped around bold red flowers in the hot sunshine. It did seem like an idyll set apart from the rest of the world.
We were taught what to do in the temple, how to do a half bow (from the waist) and a full bow (kneeling with foreheads on the ground). We were taught how to sit for meditation – crossed legs, a straight back, fingers making an ‘O’ in front of abdomens, looking at a point on the floor in front of us – and how to breath in order to help forget all distracting thoughts, but I knew that when the time came the discomfort of sitting on the floor with crossed legs wasn’t going to allow me to take any steps towards enlightenment.
It being Chuseok, we joined the other temple guests and the monks and made songpyeon, traditional rice cakes with sweet fillings. They were then steamed and served covered with the pine needles we’d prepared earlier.
We were woken at 4:00AM the next morning for chanting and meditation. I can appreciate some aspects of Buddhism – putting aside of the cares of the world in order to find some inner peace – but other aspects make me suspicious. Why is it necessary to attribute all sorts of supernatural capabilities to various god-like figures? Why does it seem to attract such superstitions? Indeed, some of the precepts seem like an attempt to deny our humanity, throwing out the good with the bad.
After breakfast, we walked to the top of the mountain, with clear views across the hills to the sea to east and west. The lady who showed us how to start the climb told us to keep to the path – there are snakes and other creatures that bite in the forest.
Of course there are snakes, even in Paradise.