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Hiking to Heaven

KYUNGJU NATIONAL PARK, South Korea – July 25, 1998 Legend has it that, when the sun rises in the East, Mount Kyungju is the first place to feel its rays.

It was also said that this mystical peak, arching out of South Korea’s craggy coastline, would inspire the utmost serenity and relaxation in all who experienced its wonder.

I wasn’t so sure.

After days of traveling along the windy, congested, and often dangerous highways and byways of the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, I found myself wishing for the mundane pleasures of home. The frenetic intensity of the journey to Kyungju, coupled with the immense heat that is unmistakably Asian, had me weary and dog-tired, and hiking to the top of Mount Kyungju was seeming more like a chore than an opportunity for spiritual enlightenment.

After reaching the final plateau before the mount’s summit, one is greeted by the giant stone bell of King Songdok the Great. Songdok was one of the land’s rulers in 1300 A.D., Korea’s heyday when the entire peninsula was united under three kingdoms.

The bell is a brooding sentinel from another world, ushering visitors away from the hustle of life on the surface and into the ether world that occupies the zenith. At this point visitors begin their mile-long trek to the top of the mountain, stepping through refreshing green patches of primordial forest. The temperature is several degrees cooler up here, and the forest pushes you along with a gentle, lifelike urgency.

Over the course of this “miracle” mile, my frustration and irritation gradually, then completely, vanished, and was replaced instead by a sense of awe and wonder. Each turn in the thick foliage brought excitement: Would the temple be around the corner? Is the temple near? I’d been told that this site was one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, so I figured that disappointment was not going to be an option.

The approach to the temple is unspectacular, and feels strangely familiar. The temple is an unassuming wooden structure, roughly ten feet high and backing into the brown stone cliffside beyond. The traditional Korean architecture is evident in the swooping, curving archways in the temple’s entrance and exit. Beside the temple is the lone element of kitsch in the whole experience: well-wishers can purchase tiles (bearing their name, address, and date of visit) to be used in the perpetual maintenance of the temple. Whatever pays the bills that awesome spiritualism costs these days, I suppose.

I entered the smallish temple expecting more of the same fare that I’d experienced during my weeklong visit to this striking nation: a delicate, reverent monument to Buddha, a figure familiar around the world, sitting in the lotus position and keeping close watch over his subjects.

What I got was goosebumps.

It took me several moments to get my bearings inside the structure. I had clearly been deceived. The temple was not small at all; the wooden structure in front was merely a facade for the enormous, gaping temple carved into the mountain itself. Its roof was about a hundred feet high.

The Buddha itself was inspiring. The impeccable statue stood about fifty feet high – the head itself was over eight feet tall. It was seated in the pose I’d expected, but its sheer immensity and surroundings completely floored me. I’m not Buddhist, but my spirit was touched that moment, I can assure you.

In the center of Buddha’s forehead was a large diamond. Apparently the original diamond was one of the largest precious stones in the world, in its day, but was destroyed by Japanese soldiers during World War II. Its replacement was more than sufficient.

When I’d paid the Buddha sufficient homage, I left the deceiving temple. In my reverence and surprise I’d completely ignored the temple’s surroundings. The view from the top of the mount was like something from another time: miles and miles of verdant green forests and valleys, as far as the eye could see. A refreshing, cloudy mist had floated across the valley during my time in the temple, and its sprays deepened the soothing sensation of being atop Mount Kyungju.

I returned to the plateau and Songdok’s bell, accompanied by the rhythmic, piped-in chants of ancient Eastern mystics. It was a cheesy touch, but in the moment, it perfectly complemented the scene. Descending from the mountain, I felt different. I felt clear-headed, relaxed, refreshed.

I guess that’s what taking a hike to heaven can do.

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