Friday, May 17, 2013

Round Trip To Nowhere


About a week ago, I learned that I would have Friday, May 17, off for the National Holiday that is Buddha's Birthday. I wanted to do something special, so I began doing research on things you can do/places you can go on this day. As it turned out, there is a place called Bongamsa Temple, a Buddhist monastery and Zen meditation center that many trek to on this day. The temple itself doesn't look special or even greater than some other temples you can visit. So why do thousands visit this place every year? Because it's only open to non-Monks one day a year--Buddha's birthday. The second trickiest thing about visiting this temple... is that it's pretty much in the middle of nowhere and is one of the most complicated (tourist-drawing) places to get to in Korea. In fact, here is basically the directions for me to get there:

1) Take the train for an hour into Seoul (in a direction I'd never been before).
2) From the train station, go to Dong Seoul Bus Terminal and catch a bus.
3) Take the 2-hour bus trip to a little town called Jeumchon, which is one of many little towns that make up the bigger Mungyeong.
4) Walk 40 minutes in an undisclosed direction and/or catch a cab to the other side of Jeumchon to a different bus station.
5) Catch the Red 300 bus (which supposedly had leave times at 7:40 AM, 9:40 AM, 1:40 PM, 5:40 PM, and 7:10 PM). 
6) After roughly another hour on the bus, get dropped off in the middle of nowhere to walk for another hour to the temple. OR, if you so choose, you can wait 15 minutes for a shuttle that will take you closer, and then you only have to walk for 20 minutes.

Knowing I might only have one shot at seeing this place in my lifetime, I made the decision to make the  ridiculously long and complicated journey. Here were further downsides: 1) I'd be going to the middle of nowhere where not a soul would speak English, 2) I get terrible anxiety when it comes to potentially getting lost (and it doesn't help that I wouldn't be able to communicate with anybody), and 3) I'd be going alone, as my friends had other plans for the long weekend. But knowing this was a once-a-year (and/or in-a-lifetime) opportunity, I bit the bullet and went for it.

It started on Monday when one of my co-teachers helped me book a bus ticket from Seoul to Jeumchon. We printed off the confirmation page, and all I had to do was show that at the ticket counter along with the card I paid with, and I'd get my ticket. She also forewarned me that traffic would be bad on Friday, so while the trip might normally take 2 hours, it could take up to three or a little longer. And that was fine. We got my bus ticket for 10 AM (though at the time, I had a slight inkling I should have gotten it for a little earlier time), which under normal circumstances would get me to Jeumchon by 12, but at worst 1:30. And then the bus to the temple road left at 1:40, so it would be perfect timing. With all of this in mind, I mentally prepared myself for Friday... and then the day came.


I wake up at 7 AM on Friday. I fully charged everything overnight so I'd be ready to go and have some stuff to keep me entertained on the longer portions of the trip. With my stuff, I make my way to the Gunpo train station. It's a little after 8 AM. I'm full of anxiety over the trip, even to the point I felt slightly light headed at times. But I get to the station fine, wait for the train to Geumjeong (which doesn't take long, thankfully), and head over. This first little leg was easy. I've traveled this direction many times at this point.

It was getting off to transfer in Sadang where there newness began. On the train to Sadang, I found I was sitting across from what seemed to be an American girl, which is an uncommon occurrence,  especially on a train prior to reaching Seoul. But we didn't speak. It eventually reached the point of awkwardness where we were aware of each other's presence, but had waited too long to say anything.

And then we both got off at Sadang. She went left. I turned right. And then I checked my map, then checked the walls and signs of the station, and turned around and went left. And I ended up standing right behind her in line, waiting for the next train. We eventually got on the train, still saying nothing, even though our train became packed and we were smooshed against each other at one point. But she soon got off the train, and I continued on toward my destination.


As I exited the train at my stop, I had no idea where I was going, nor what this Dong Seoul Bus Terminal even looked like. But I confusedly followed a herd of people out of the station and across the street toward a large building with buses nearby that I could only deduce with all my Sherlock-ian powers to be the Bus Terminal.

And boy was it hectic inside. It was like a small airport, packed full of the amount of people that'd be in a large airport. There were lines and lines of people waiting to get tickets at the ticket counters/kiosks. And it's at this point I'm starting to panic, because my bus leaves at 10 AM, and at this time, it's roughly 9:45 and I have zero idea on which line to get in. At first glance, each line offers tickets to different locations, and the giant marquee above is in Korean. And although I can read it, there were hundreds of towns and I didn't have the kind of time. Until I got closer and saw the Romanized spelling underneath the Korean. I quickly scanned the names and found myself standing in the last line on the opposite side from the entrance. It was a long one, but, fortunately, it moved quickly.

Seats across the aisle, pre-occupants
I got my ticket with no issues, and the exit to the waiting area was right nearby, so it was incredibly easy to find. And there I waited for about 5 minutes until the bus showed up and they started letting us on. I found my seat (they're assigned), which was near the front and all on my lonesome (the right side of the bus just had 1 seat, next to the windows. Then there was a narrow aisle followed by two seats). An old man was sitting across the aisle from me. He was well dressed, and had that "old and wise" look about him. Not long after the bus departed, he opened up a bag of Korean Doritos.

It wasn't long after the journey began that my worry-meter began to rise. We were essentially stuck in traffic, and it took an hour just to get out of Seoul. But I figured, hey, we'd eventually hit a big highway and things would speed up after we got out of the city. When two more hours had passed and we had barely reached the halfway point, I knew it was hopeless. The 1:40 mark was speeding towards us quickly.

The old wise man's phone kept going off. His ringtone was the instrumental to Dancing Queen. At one point, he offered me a Korean Dorito. I took one, as it's impolite to deny when Koreans offer you something, especially if it's an elder offering.

1:40 came and went. It's at this point I tried talking myself into believing the bus times were old, and there was a 3:40 or something in there. Because why would it just jump 4 hours like that? I start to feel OK about the situation and know we can still make potentially good time. Sure, it's a 2-hour bus trip, and we've been on the road for 4 hours. But you gotta stay optimistic, right?

A small corner chunk of the rest stop. Buildings to the left.
Then we take a 15 minute rest stop break. OK, sure. Fine. Might as well. I don't get out with most of the others. I'm too paranoid that I'll forget how to get back to the bus and then it'll just leave without me. (The rest stop was huge.) We eventually get moving again. The old wise man gives the bus driver a little bottle of vitamin drink (I've had a couple of these--they're pretty tasty). And, finally, after another 45-50 minutes, we come to our destination in Jeumchon. Our 2-hour bus ride had taken not 2, not 3, not even 4 hours. But 5. 5 whole hours on a bus, sitting next to the old, wise, dorito-loving, coconut juice-drinking, Dancing Queen, and staring out the window at what eventually became some of the most gorgeous countryside views I've ever seen. Seriously--I was too slow to bring out my phone to take pictures most of the time, but there were views you've only seen in movies. But this leg of the journey was over, and it was time to get off the bus.

The only real scenic picture I could grab.


So it's almost 3 PM at this point. I stand up to get off the bus, and I suddenly realize that my head is spinning. All of the anxiety I'd been building up all day, on top of the fact I hadn't eaten anything but a single dorito, had really impacted my light headedness. But I'd come this far, so by God, I was going to at least try.

I exited through the other side of the Jeumchon bus station and, lo and behold, had no idea where to even begin. The only directions I could really find anywhere on the internet were "go straight, cross the 4-way stop, turn right, go straight and you'll reach the bus stop" as well as "a 30-40 minute walk" as described on a different site. But I couldn't even figure out which direction to go at the 4-way stop, much less any of the rest.

It's at this point in the story I need to do a little backtracking, because there's a very important tidbit that needs to be explained. Throughout the 5-hour bus trip, I did 3 things to keep myself occupied: 1) listened to music, 2) chatted on Facebook via my phone, and 3) checked the map on my phone to see how much further away we were. Needless to say, my phone battery drained very quickly. I had to stop chatting on Facebook, but couldn't stop checking the map. It eventually came to a point where the battery was below half. And I still planned on using the phone not only as a camera to take pictures, but as an emergency device in case I needed to call my co-teacher for assistance (her request).

OK, so anyway, I had no idea how to get to this second bus terminal. Fortunately, I had written down the Korean for it on a piece of paper before leaving home, so I hopped in a cab and showed the driver the Korean, which worked. He took me to the second station, which was somewhat hidden, but I found it fine.

Now imagine yourself in my situation. You're in small-town Korea (for all my family and friends back home, think the Cuero of Korea), hours from anyone you know, where nobody but you speaks English, your phone is going to die soon, and you're so light-headed from anxiety and lack of food that you're afraid you might fall over at any second (which isn't helping said anxiety).

So I walk around trying to find the bus times, which I do eventually find. Except they're completely in Korean. I mean, not even tiny English letters beneath for foreigners. This is like a we-never-have-foreigners zone. But, again, I fortunately can read Hangul, and I knew what word I was looking for. And I still couldn't find it. And then I saw some color coding, and a reddish area with (300) next to it. I figured that's where I wanted to look, and sure enough, I found it in red letters. And, sure enough, the time jumped from 1:40 to 5:40... with no 7:10. So it's now 3:10 or so, and the next bus to Bongamsa is over two hours away, with no promise of a bus to pick me up and bring me back to Jeumchon from a middle-of-nowhere road drop off point. And no promise that by the time I actually got to the temple at this point that it would still be open for visitors (remember, it was still another 2 hours-ish journey from Jeumchon).

I had run out of adventure juice for the day, and my risk-taking quota had been far exceeded. So I decided it was time to just head back to the first bus terminal and make my way back home.

So here was my next realization. I could walk back for 40 minutes feeling light-headed, and in a direction I wasn't sure was the right one. Or I could get in a cab and say... what, exactly? Without them speaking English, I couldn't exactly say "the other Jeumchon bus terminal so I can get to Seoul." But I couldn't just stand around forever doing nothing, so I hopped in a cab (which thankfully wasn't the one I came in--I wasn't up to that embarrassment) and said "Jeumchon bus." And he nodded and took me right where I needed to go.

That was easy.
I went into the station and, similar to my previous realization, discovered I would now have to buy a bus ticket from a non-English speaker, and I wasn't even sure which window to go to or what to say. But there were no lines as this was a much smaller place than Dong Seoul Bus Terminal. And then I saw a sign next to a ticket window that said "Dong Seoul * Gangnam." I figured it was worth a shot. I told the lady "Dong Seoul." She printed me a ticket, pointed to the leave time (which was 3:55. At this point, it was about 3:25).

As I waited, I bought a tube of Sour Cream & Onion Pringles to get at least some kind of food in my system. I stayed inside for a bit before going outside to wait for the bus.

Waiting for the bus.

I knew I wasn't going to get some of the same views as I did the last time, but I was going to be ready with my video camera (my phone was near dead, and I wanted to save the battery just in case). And for the first hour or so, I took random footage of the countryside as we drove along. Not as cool as some of the other shots I missed the first time, but there's some good ones. Here's a short compilation video.

Anyway, this was a pretty simple drive back (I was also in a single seat row again, though this time near the back of the bus). I just listened to music and watched a couple episodes of Community on my laptop. Oh, and we suddenly pulled over to the side of the road to help a stranded bus by taking on its passengers. So... that happened. And this trip only took 2 hours. Almost on the nose. Yeah.


I promise I'm not making any of the following up. The set of events that occurred at this point of the story were just as weird for me to experience as they probably are for you to hear.

So I follow the crowd to the train station from the Dong Seoul Bus Terminal and realize (I had a lot of realizations today) that I have no idea which train to get on. And for whatever reason, this station is absurdly unhelpful in its maps and markings and signage. At least every other station gives you arrows or posters or something to guide you where you need to be. Not this place. So I go up a set of stairs and look at a map, then look at my map, and I'm standing there trying to figure it out.

And that's when a young Korean guy comes up to me and asks if I need some help. He spoke English pretty well, though he still had an accent. It was clear he was just very excited to be able to use English in a conversation. He asks me where I need to go, and I show him on the map the direction. But that's not enough to subdue his helpfulness. He then basically asks me where my endgoal is, as if he wants to give me full directions (he really wanted to speak English with me) and be super helpful. But when he realized it was pretty far away, and I told him all I really needed was the first step to take me towards Sadang, he gladly pointed me to the platform opposite us. I thanked him and walked down the stairs, around the corner... and waited for the stairs to empty from the exiting train passengers of my train I just missed.

It doesn't take long for another to show up, though, and it's abnormally empty. I'm actually able to sit down pretty quickly (a rarity), and we continue to Sadang. Finding this transfer was a bit easier, though as I'm waiting for the train, I'm standing behind this group of 5 girls who are just chatting among themselves (more on them in a minute). Anyway, the train shows up... and we're not allowed on for some reason. The train empties, and the people who started to go in come back out, and the train leaves, totally empty. Uh, sure. OK. A few minutes later, another train shows up, this one much fuller.

Long story short on this one, I'm stuck standing next to the 5 girls, who one at a time slowly take over the seats in front of us as they go empty, though one proceeds to just sit on the lap of another (and when I say girl, I don't mean little girl. Young woman might be a more apt term, though age was really hard to discern with a couple of them). It comes to a point where a seat opens up next to one of the girls. The one sitting on another's lap starts to move for it, but stops and offers it to me (no English, just motions). I shake my head and motion for her to take it. We both do this a couple more times until she's basically insisted (while giggling) that I sit down. So I do.

2 seconds later, I see the next stop is mine. So I sat there for about 2 minutes before standing back up to go to the door (and the lap girl proceeded to take the spot anyway). It's after 7 PM by this point, and I'm exhausted despite not really having done much. I exit onto Geumjeong platform and wait.

And then, as I stand next to the waffle stand, a monk in full garb walks by in front of me. Alrighty then.  So the train gets there, I get on, and stand right next to the Korean nun (habit and all). And the two girls in front of me and the nun are talking and teasing each other (one of them actually gives the other the finger in front of the nun), and the other takes out a full, large hand mirror from her purse and proceeds to check her teeth.

It's at this point I've pretty much mentally checked out of this day.


I get off at Gunpo station, and as I step off the escalator from the station onto the sidewalk, my phone finally dies. And I figure that after such a day, I deserve to treat myself. I'd been wanting to try the Korean Pizza Hut for a while, as there's one literally a minute from my apartment building (if even that far). So I order one online and go to pick it up. And here it is... the weird ending to a weird day.

For 18 bucks, I got a pizza a little bigger than my hand topped with bacon, cajun potato wedges, bellpepper, onion, corn, mushroom, and sour cream (it sounds disgusting... but it actually wasn't that bad, to be honest). And a side of sweet pickles... because apparently all Italian food in Korea comes with a side of sweet pickles. I have no idea why. Just roll with it. That's what I do. And that's what I did all day.

1 comment:

  1. OH MY GOODNESS!!! what a day! you are so much braver than I am. I would have never attempted that on my own! But look what you accomplished. i'm so very proud of you. I'm very thankful for the wise, elder dorito eating man who shared a chip with you. And also the Korean young man who wanted to speak english with you. The video was wonderful, thanks for letting us see your beautiful countryside. Was that rice fields? what other type of farmland or crops do you see there?
    Well sorry you didn't get to see the temple, but you did see a monk and a nun! and you had an experience you will never forget!
    And that pizza did look good and sweet pickles go with anything right?