Taking the red-eye deep into the past

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Taking the red-eye deep into the past

When non-Koreans perceive the political and cultural divisions on the peninsula, they tend to stop at the obvious split between North and South Korea. To gain a deeper knowledge of the rich diversity and history of the South, the best place to go is the far southern area comprising the west-coast Jeolla provinces and east-coast Gyeongsang provinces. For tourists short on time, the Korean National Railroad offers a one-day package, including a red-eye ride south from the capital, taking in some of the more interesting sites in the region. This reporter went to Seoul Station last Saturday to take the first leg of the trip, a 10:50 p.m. train to Yeosu. After a five-and-a-half-hour ride, the train arrived in Jeolla's coastal city, which enjoys spectacular views out toward the South Sea and its numerous islands.

Sunrise From Hyangilam

The first stop on the tour, after an hour-long bus ride west along the winding seashore, is at Hyangilam, a Buddhist temple which means "the hermitage facing the sun," to see the sunrise. The temple was established in 659, during the Baekje Dynasty, by the priest Wonhyo. Though you can climb to higher parts of the complex, the best place from which to enjoy the sunrise is a granite slope just in front of the main temple. Around 7:20 a.m., the tip of the orb appeared, coloring the ocean indigo-gray. With audio provided by sutra chanting - albeit piped in - and the chimes hanging from the eaves of the main building, the solar spectacle did not disappoint. The sun's hues changed in intensity from crimson to red to rosy to fiery over the course of 30 minutes.

Ssanggyesa and Chilbulsa Temples

With the sun well off the horizon, the group got back in the bus for the ride east, across the Jeolla-Gyeongsang border, to Hadong, a city at the foot of Mount Jiri. There's no sign to indicate when you've crossed into Gyeongsang, but our bus driver announced it. The route took us along the Seomjin River, which sparkled with the sunlight. A local dish from the river, jaecheop guk, or Asian clam bouillon, was provided for a refreshing brunch.

To get to the next cultural site, Chilbulsa Temple, you pass by Hwagae Jangteo, or the "flower blossom" traditional market, then a four-kilometer stretch lined with cherry trees, which must be spectacular when they bloom in the spring.

After 20 minutes we arrived at the modest Chilbulsa Temple, which makes up in serenity what it lacks in size. Its name, meaning "the temple of seven Buddhas," came from a legend that seven princes of the king Kim Su-ro reached enlightenment there. Kim Su-ro founded the Gaya Dynasty, which lasted from 42 to 562, and the Kim clan. Inside the temple is a calligraphic sign saying "The First Monastery in the Eastern Country." Korea has historically been called the Eastern Country because of its relation to China.

The monks at the temple have a rigorous training program, which visitors can observe from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Ahjabang, or the room in the shape of the Chinese character ah, where the seven princes practiced self-discipline, is still used as the monks' dormitory and library. One side of the building is all glass, enabling outsiders to see the gray-robed, smiling monks. In the main building are seven Buddha-turned-princes in gold-plated statues. Contrasting with the tranquility outside, the interior is lavishly decorated. If you are as lucky as this reporter, the cook in the adjacent building's kitchen will offer you fresh treats such as persimmons, apples and bananas.

Back about 15 minutes down the same road, Ssanggyesa Temple is bigger and grander than Chilbulsa. Just inside the main gate are two more remarkable gates: one watched over by four Herculean characters and the other by the Four Heavenly Guardians. Inside the compound is a splendid stream that flows from Bulil Waterfall, about three kilometers away on Mount Jiri.

This temple is rich with historic relics, such as the stele composed and inscribed by the Silla Dynasty Confucian scholar Choi Chi-won, and Nahanjeon, a building containing 10 wooden statues of disciples of Buddha with varying gestures and facial expressions. The main building is opulent, with statues in gold leaf and a large Buddha staring ahead sternly with slitted eyes. Outside in the compound is an image of Buddha carved on a rock face, called Mahebul, which has a calming effect on visitors. After the tour, it's nice to sit and indulge in the sublime sounds of the many metal and wooden chimes played by the winds.

The tour then took us to a hot springs center for an hour, but it turned out to be no better than a common bath house.


The final leg of the tour is northwest to Namwon, up in North Jeolla province. The community bills itself as the "city of love," and has a legend to back it up. The myth goes that during the Joseon Dynasty, a young girl, Chunhyang, whose name means "scent of spring," was the talk of the town for her beauty and filial piety. One day, when she was having a swing in a public park called Gwanghanru-won garden, a nobleman's son, Mongryong, espied her from above while walking near the palace tower Gwanghan. Mongryong was smitten, made overtures, and the two pledged everlasting love. But trouble arose when Mongryong was sent off to Hanyang (today's Seoul) to study while Chunhyang was forced to serve the new town magistrate. Chunhyang, after rejecting the magistrate's amorous advances, was imprisoned, tortured and sentenced to death. But soon enough Mongryong returned incognito as an inspector, and loaded with honors after acing the state examination. He went disguised as a beggar to Chunhyang in prison to confirm their love. On the day Chunhyang was to be killed, Mongryong identified himself, saved his loved one and punished the magistrate.

The story is much beloved in the region. The Gwanghanru-won garden is well preserved; visitors can take a swing and visit a shrine devoted to Chunhyang. Though the tower is under repair and closed to sightseers, visitors can reach it by crossing Ojak Bridge. "Ojak" means "groups of crows and magpies," and comes from a legend that a couple, Gyeonwu and Jingnyeo, rendezvous once a year in the Milky Way thanks to a bridge formed by numerous crows and magpies. Locals say that if a couple steps on the earthly bridge once a year, they will live happily ever after.

The whole park is a favorite spot for lovers: At nightfall it becomes a place full of modern Chunhyangs and Mongryongs. Before the lovers take over, the tour takes you to Namwon Station to catch the 5:45 p.m. train back to Seoul.

Though the whirlwind schedule can be tiring, especially after a fitful night spent on the train ride south, this tour is recommended for those who want a quick taste of Korea's other side.

The Korean National Railroad operates the tours every Saturday night. The price per person is 99,000 won ($80). For more information, call the Geomundo Tour Agency at 061-665-4477.

by Chun Su-jin

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