Want to See Red? Then This Train Journey's for You

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Want to See Red? Then This Train Journey's for You

JEONGEUP - "A mountain that hides a number of secret things inside." That's what Mount Naejang means in Chinese characters.

Mount Naejang in North Jeolla province is often considered one of the most beautiful sites in South Korea during the autumn. And these days, with the many special day-trip packages available from Korean National Rail road, I decided to check out the famous peak for myself.

The trip to Mount Naejang from Seoul Station takes three and a half hours by train, then another half-hour by bus. I left at 8:05 a.m., bound for Jeongeup Station in North Jeolla province. In order to get to that station, I took a Mugunghwa train, the second-tier type of train service. The seats on the Mugunghwa train are not bad, but you should pay attention to your stops because, unlike the first-class Saemaeul trains that provide service in four different lan- guages, the Mugung- hwa has only Korean service.

I knew I would be a little early for the real leaf-changing, but I did see from my train window tips of fall rainbows. When I wasn't looking for colors, I was studying up on history. Mount Naejang was first called Mount Yeongeun, in A.D. 636, when a Buddhist monk named Yeongeun built a temple on the side of the mountain. Another monk later changed the name to Naejang, but using dif- ferent Chinese characters which mean "intestines" - it seems he felt that the curved shape of the mountain "swallowed up" people walking its slopes. An ancient joke? Maybe you had to be there. In the end, the name stuck, but people changed the Chinese characters to a couple with a more refined meaning.

At 11:35 a.m., the train arrived at Jeongeup Station, where the tour bus, which is included in the program, was waiting. If you are not in a group tour, you can take a bus leaving every 20 minutes in front of the station that costs you 750 won (60 cents). Once my tour bus finally arrived at the mountain after 30 minutes, the first sight that I encountered was not the spectacular autumn leaves, but street vendors selling a variety of shabby goods. Fortunately, they also were selling per- simmons, which were quite delicious. If you decide to buy a few persimmons yourself, be careful not to pay more than 3,000 won per set of three persimmons; people have been known to get ripped off.

After a five-minute walk, I reached Danpung Tunnel, which is where the journey really begins. Danpung means colored leaves, and the tunnel is actually a paved road lined with 108 colorful maple trees. The 108 is no accident, either. The number symbolizes the 108 worldly desires that beginning Buddhist ascetics should remove from their minds, feelings such as happiness and hatred. At the end of the tunnel, I came to Wuhwa- jeong pavilion, which sits on a lake. There is a leg- end that a couple of hermits playing go (or baduk in Korean) on the pavilion one day, sprouted wings and rose to heaven. Tall tales aside, the lake itself is beautiful, a worthwhile place to spend some time admiring the brightly colored fish, serene waters and brilliant scenery.

On the way to Naejangsa temple after the lake, there is an information center where English is available to tourists. After walking about another half-mile, I came to a cable car. Mount Naejang is only 763 meters high, surely no Everest. But in the mountains of Korea, that is a pretty good peak, so I decided to take the lazy option. Besides, the view from the cable car looked enticing. The cable car is not part of my tour package, so it cost me another 3,000 won for a round trip.

The ride itself lasts about 10 minutes. My tour guide said, "It's like sailing through a grove of coral reefs in the sea." He was not just spouting hyperbole, either; the vista of reds, yellows and orange trees across the rolling hills was as impressive as it was peaceful.

It took a couple more hours of fairly easy hiking to get to Naejangsa temple. At the temple, there is a small lake and a gate with overwhelming, two-meter-tall sculptures of the four heaven- ly guardians inside.

In the temple, there are four buildings and a pagoda that contains the sari, or remains, of the Sakyamuni Buddha, contributed by the Indian reverend monk Chiratana to Naejangsa Temple in 1979.

At this busy time of year tourists can be seen everywhere and complete serenity becomes harder to find. But if you walk inside the temple, there is a relatively quieter place that will let you pray for good fortune by adding to the piles of pebbles, according to traditional Korean beliefs.

Although Naejangsa Temple was a little disappointing, the next stop made up for it. A short bus ride took us to the idyllic Baegyangsa temple. Located right after the border between the North and South Jeolla provinces, Baegyangsa temple in South Jeolla province is a more authentic and original temple ambiance.

After an hour-and-a-half of more free time, the bus took my group back to Jeongeup Station in time for the train leaving for Seoul at 7 p.m. Compared to my last trip to Mount Naejang three years ago, the area has become more crowded with visitors. If you can make allowance for that, this one-day trip is a great way to see one of the most scenic areas on the peninsula in the autumn.

Making the trip on a weekday is advisable. During the peak of the season in late October and early November, tourism officials estimate that Mount Naejang on a weekend might attract more than 100,000 tourists a day.

by Chun Su-jin

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