Tiger-Dragon Mountain

Trip Start Dec 02, 2011
Trip End Dec 02, 2012

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What I did
Donghak-sa Temple
Gyeryong-san National Park

Flag of Korea Rep.  , South Chungcheong,
Sunday, April 15, 2012

Since it was finally a nice spring week, a couple of my friends and I decided head down to Gyeryong-san National Park (게룡산국립공원) to see the Donghak-sa Cherry Blossom Festival. Like many of Korea's National Parks, Gyeryong-san consisted mainly of a series of hiking trails and Buddhist sites scattered over a small mountain range. Donghak-sa (동학사) was one of the temples in the park, and each a popular Cherry Blossom Festival took place on the road leading to the temple. In Korea, cherry blossoms didn't have the almost spiritual significance they held in Japan, but their arrival was still considered a good reason to go out for a stroll and a drink or two, or more.

It was possible to get to Gyeryong-san from either Gongju (공주) or Daejeon (대전). We went via Daejeon because it was easier to get to Daejeon and because Donghak-sa was on the Daejeon side of the mountain. Arriving at Daejeon station, we switched to a city bus to go the rest of the way to the temple. I had directions to the bus stop from the internet, but I asked the information booth in Daejeon station to double-check.

The woman at the station told me to take the underpass out front of the train station, then turn right at the art store to take the stairs back above ground. The directions were a bit misleading because I think "art store" was a bad translation. It seemed to be a store selling Korean handicrafts. We probably wouldn't have turned there if I didn't have my internet directions as well.

Once at the bus stop, we didn't have to wait too long for the bus. The station was one of the first stops on the route, so we had no problem getting seats for what was advertised as a 40 minute bus ride. As we got closer to the temple, however, the bus became packed and so did the road the bus was on. The road to the temple was a simple two lane road through a mountain pass. As a result, everyone who wanted to visit either the national park or the festival had to go down the same road for several miles so the road became essentially one giant line into the parking lot. Traffic wasn't horrible in the morning, but it did add a good 20 minutes to the bus ride. We realized we'd need to make sure to leave plenty of time to catch our return train in the evening.

Although it was before lunch, many festival booths were already setup and operating in some capacity along the sides of the road. Alongside the road were also lines of cherry trees. I was disappointed to see that the blooms weren't really open. Based on the month's weather, I had thought the timing was going to be perfect. Oh well, at least the weather was good, slightly cool and sunny.

We left the festival for tonight and started our day with a hike up the mountain. I thought we'd go on the path past Donghak-sa and by the Unseon Waterfall. However, on our way to the temple, we stopped in a gift shop where we met an American who warned us the path going past the waterfall was really steep. We didn't want to be totally warn out after the hike, so we decided to take the path turning off to the right just before Donghak-sa instead. That one ran up to two old stone pagodas on the way to the top.

I'm not sure how it compared to the path by the waterfall, but the path to the pagodas was pretty steep itself. Most of the 1.6km route was stones piled to make something of a staircase running alongside a small stream. Although I wouldn't call it overcrowded, there were many other hikers on the path. We stopped a few times rest on the way up, and it took us basically the full estimated one hour and ten minutes to reach the pagodas.

We stopped briefly at the pagodas where we made plans to meet-up with two other friends who called us to say they had just driven to the area of the festival. We thought it would take them a while to hike up to the pagodas, so we decided to continue on up the hill in the direction Geumjandi Pass.

We made it to a small, flat space a few tenths of a km above the pagodas and rested there for a bit. There were decent views of the land to the north of the park, and we could see Sambul-bong peak. One of my friends and I decided to go up to the peak while we were waiting. Our other friend wasn't quite up for it yet, but it looked pretty close to me, and I was attracted by the fact that you could see the people walking around on the peak. For some reason, I like looking back down to see where I used to be after climbing things, and we could wave at our resting friend from the top.

Anyway, we went up and, although the climb was still steep and there seems to be a permanent haze over Korea that limited how far we could see, the views were good. Just below the top, I got a call from out car driving friends telling us they'd made it to the pagoda. They'd made much better time coming up the mountain than we had. I lost the signal as we continued the last few meters up towards the peak, but we continued anyway because we were so close.

We didn't spend too much time at the peak because we knew friends were waiting on us. When got back down to our resting friend, we convinced her to go up to the top because our two newly arrived friends wanted to see the view from the peak. So I ended-up ascending to the peak twice. My legs were really starting to feel it on the second climb, but it was nice to have everyone up there and to have as much time as we wanted to check-out the views.

At this point, it was time to head down to the festival to grab some dinner. On the way, we stopped at Donghak-sa, which we hadn't actually seen in the morning because of the path we ended-up taking. Donghak-sa temple was fairly small and nothing extraordinary, but it had some interesting decorations.

For dinner, we shared kimchi jeon, savory pancakes seasoned with kimchi, at one of the many restaurants lining the road to the temple. It was a decent way to fill up in order to help resist the lure of over-priced festival food.

I had a pleasant surprise when we made it back to the main road. The blossoms that had been barely showing this morning were fully open. The now pink and white flowering trees lining the road resembled the best of the cherry blossom strolls I'd taken in Japan. As night descended, lights were used to highlight and accent the blossoms. It really was a great way to enjoy the blooms.

The festival booths on the other hand, were kind of repetitive and many were over-priced. Although there were easily over a hundred booths, there were only a few variations of the types of booths. They were almost all selling either the same menu of Korean food or kebabs, or hosting the same games. This was in stark contrast to the Japanese festivals I'd been to where each booth type repeated maybe two or three times. We passed several stages with music and what I think were comedy shows going on, but we were more interested in just walking and enjoying the night.

The one time we did stop and sit down was when we needed a bathroom break. The single cluster of public restrooms was down at the Donghak-sa end of the road in the park parking lot, and no one wanted to head back that way at the time. Instead, we went into a restaurant that seemed to mainly serve beer and coffee.

There was a young Korean boy playing in the lobby that I said hi to while I waited my turn for the bathroom. While I was actually in the bathroom, he knocked on the door twice wanting me to come out and play with him. He spoke just a bit of English he'd learned at school or--more likely--a hagwon (a Korean private after school academy), and I learned his English name was Alex.

While my friends ate (or drank, I'm not sure since I never managed to make it to the table), I played with Alex. We mainly pushed a car back and forth across the bottom of the stairs. Occasionally, he would attempt to grab the legs of the restaurant owner (his aunt, I think) as she came down the stairs and trip her, usually while she was carrying something. Aw, how cute. She seemed a bit annoyed at the possibility of falling down the final stairs and breaking her neck, but no one ever actually told him to stop it.

When he finally got bored of the cars, we played "hide and seek". His version of the game was to count to five then pretend not to see the person who was "hidden". It was actually kind of a cute version of the game and good in its own way because had he hidden for real, I might not have been able to find him, and then his parents might have gotten mad at me for misplacing their son.

When my friends finished and it was time to leave, Alex tried to follow me home. I was able to convince him to stay at the restaurant when I remembered the stash of now six-year old Texas postcards I had in my camera case that I had bought as emergency gifts for my first or second trip to Japan. I gave him one of the cute ones and he seemed to think it was an acceptable substitute for me actually staying with him. He gave me a (wrapped) sugar cube to remember him by.

It was getting late for a Sunday night, and my friends gradually wandered to the lot where they had parked. Even around 10pm on a Sunday, the festival was still going strong and traffic was crawling. It took us almost an hour just to get off of the park access road and onto a main highway. I was able to call a number printed on our train tickets and cancel them over the phone. I still have to take them by the station where I picked them up to get my money back, but thankfully this was my home station and not Daejeon station.

Despite the traffic and uninspiring festival booth selection, the day was excellent. The weather was almost perfect. The hike was steep, but the views and the feeling of making it to the "top" were worth it. The what seemed like miles of large, densely covered, and fully bloomed cherry trees made for the best cherry blossoming experience I've ever had. We did really luck-out with the car, though. I'm not sure we would have made it back for our train, or even in time to catch the last train out of Daejeon, on the bus. We also certainly would have had to leave before night was fully on us and the blossoms were at their best.

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