Namsan Mountain, from west to east

Namsan Mountain, from west to east

A 5-hour hiking course from Tumsugol (valley) in Yongjang 3-ri to Tongiljeon Unification Hall, crossing Gowibong peak

This hike started from Yongjang-ri, the location of Gowibong peak. Gowibong, one of Namsan Mountain’s two representative peaks, features beautiful and unusual rock formations. Solo hiking all alone is tedious indeed and pretty exhausting. From the trailhead at Yongjang 3-ri to the top of Gowibong peak, it’s a climb of 494 meters. Even though the gentle morning sunshine provided no hindrance, a 494-meter climb is no picnic for inexperienced hikers. While griping over the phone to a friend of mine who is an avid hiker, I maintained a slow step-by-step pace.  
As I climbed the mountain alone, though, I drew strength from the friendly greetings of other hikers I passed along the trail who had started out from the opposite direction. The great, expansive rocks also played a part, making my heart race and squirm at the sight of them.

The hiking course begins in Yongjang 3-ri on the western side of Namsan Mountain. It passes the Baekunam Buddhist hermitage near Gowibong peak, followed by the hermitages of Sinseonam and Chilburam, and ends up in the parking area of Tongiljeon Unification Hall on the eastern side of Namsan    Mountain. Including lunch and some rest breaks, it took me a total of five hours to complete.
I had asked Gyeongju Namsan Institute the duration of the course I was planning, and they said it would take about four hours. I guess this hike takes somewhere between four and five hours.

Cheollyongsa temple site on the western side of Namsan Mountain and its three-tiered stone pagoda
After looking at the temple site of Cheollyongsa, Cheollyong plateau, and the three-tiered stone pagoda, I had lunch at Nokwonjeongsa, a restaurant specializing in sanchae jeongsik (a full-course meal of wild mountain roots, greens, and vegetables).

I entered the trail between the three-tiered stone pagoda at the Cheollyongsa temple site and a small Buddhist hall. I found myself at a two-way fork. As I was deliberating, two gentlemen that I had seen earlier at the restaurant greeted me and mercifully asked where I was headed. When I told them I wanted to go to Gowibong peak and then Baekunam Buddhist hermitage and wasn’t sure which way to go, they promptly told me the way and invited me to join them. The course going up to Gowibong peak from the Cheollyongsa temple site is pretty steep. I shuddered to think what might have happened if I had climbed up alone. I once again thanked the kind gentlemen who were guiding me.

A friendly chat at Baekunam Buddhist hermitage
Climbing higher and higher on the steep mountain trail, my pace slowed down as my legs quivered and sweat poured off me. The gentlemen I’d been hiking with since the fork in the trail said they were heading to Baekunam. So I tagged along with them again. Baekunam is on the way to the hermitages of Chilburam and Sinseonam, and I decided to rest there a while. Baekunam is a quiet and secluded hermitage near Gowibong peak. With warm greetings, the Bodhi dwelling at the hermitage energized a weary hiker like me. I imagine many hikers stop by here.

I quenched some of my thirst with ice-cold water. The yaksu (spring water) you encounter on a hike is like a veritable oasis.

As I was chatting with the much-appreciated gentlemen who had shown me the way, we were joined by a family on an excursion from Saegatgol (valley). On their way up, they said, they had seen the seated stone Buddha statue in Yeoramgok as well as a recently-discovered relief carving of the Buddha. We exchanged pleasantries and various hiking stories, and shared advice and recommendations for future hiking courses.

My fellow hikers and I said our farewells, and they all headed down towards the Saegatgol parking area. With a quite a distance still to go, I decided to sit in a chair and rest a bit more before setting off again, enjoying a bite of banana the kind Bodhi gave me.

There’s just nothing else like that sweet moment of restfulness, sitting in a chair at Baekunam and enjoying the southern ridge and valleys of Gowibong Peak.

Hiking the ridgeline between Baekunam and Sinseonam
Leaving behind the scenery that is now permanently imprinted in my memory, I set off for my next destination. Once again I was a solo hiker. Since the trail follows the ridge around Gowibong Peak, there aren’t many uphill sections between Baekunam and Sinseonam. This was the easiest part of the hike. But then again, the trail is narrow and uneven, so you need to be somewhat careful.

As I was approaching Sinseonam hermitage, there were many boulders large and small, as befits such a rocky mountain. The path goes between and through the boulders, and there are even ropes attached to rocks for pulling yourself along. So, be prepared for rugged going towards the last part of the ridge trail. On a trail like this, requiring much caution as you navigate past the rocks, you sometimes receive a magical gift. Sitting on a broad rocky precipice that formed a natural observation platform, I was able to scan the entire panorama from the eastern to the southern part of Namsan Mountain. This view must explain the reason people go hiking in the mountains. There is no better feeling than this, seeing the whole world at my feet and feeling like the king of all I survey. At a moment like this, I wouldn’t even envy a sinseon, or divine being from heaven. I saw this hiker who exuded the aura of a sinseon or a Silla hwarang warrior on a quest for truth and enlightenment, and asked him to let me take his picture.

I envy this carved seated Bodhisattva, who takes in this beautiful view every day.
Stone relief of seated Bodhisattva near Sinseonam hermitage

If you look up from Chilburam hermitage, you can see a Bodhisattva carved on one of the higher rocks near Sinseonam. Its a stone relief of a Bodhisattva seated on a cloud. Confronting this cliff so steep it makes you giddy, my fear is repelled by that feeling of jealous envy. As I stood pressed against this rock and looked around, following the gaze of this stone Bodhisattva, I couldnt have felt any more jealous of him, sitting here every day and enjoying this amazing view.

Holding a flower in his right hand and raising his left hand to the chest, the Bodhisattva is bringing enlightenment to all sentient beings. The figure is seated, with robes draped below an octagonal pedestal and his right leg hanging down below the pedestal. Such a relaxed seated posture for a Buddhist figure is not common. The carved clouds welling up from below his feet surely conjure up the image of a secluded spiritual retreat for sinseon (divine beings), hence Sinseonam hermitage.

After many exclamations of ‘wow!,’ I head towards another treasure, Chilburam hermitage, visible beneath my feet past this awe-inspiring cliff.

Masterpieces among masterpieces,
Seated Buddha image carved on a rock pillar near Chilburam hermitage and four-sided relief of Buddha figures

I visited the flower of Namsan Mountain, Chilburam Buddhist hermitage, where seven Buddha images can be seen clustered in one place. I travelled four hours to see the three stone relief Buddhas carved on a round boulder near Chilburam Hermitage, and standing in front of that, the four-sided stone column with Buddha images carved into each face, the epitome of Buddhist Silla art.
I was glued to a wooden bench for a long time in front of the four-sided stone relief, hypnotized by the Buddha’s benevolent smile that made me forget my fatigue and and aching leg muscles. Visitors kept arriving, even though it was a weekday.
Sitting on a bench next to me were two young guys touring around, and one of them made a video-call to his Mom at home, wanting to share this masterpiece with his family. “Mom, I’m at Chilburam~”

Visitors to Chilburam hermitage make drawings on roof tiles or sometimes write down wishes, channeling their own hopes and prayers. Chilburam is dotted with uniquely illustrated images of the Buddha, each expressing the artist’s individual character. These tiles are another worthwhile attraction. The dream the Silla people harbored a thousand years ago of creating the Pure Land of Buddhism, with Namsan Mountain at its center, still continues today with these prayers. 

Last stop on the hiking course,
East-West three-tiered stone pagoda at Yeombulsa temple site

After hiking about three kilometers downhill from Chilburam Hermitage, you’ll come to Dong-Namsan village. As the trail was nearing its end, I came upon the East-West three-tiered stone pagoda at Yeombulsa temple site, the last stop on my hiking course. The stone pagoda that stands here was restored in 2008. In 1963, a damaged pagoda from the ruined temple site was moved to Gujeong Plaza in Bulguk-dong. Forty years later, there was a public outcry to return the pagoda to its original site. And so the pagoda came back to Yeombulsa temple site in Namsan-dong.  

Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms) says the following about Yeombulsa temple.
At the temple that was to become Yeombulsa, there was a monk who chanted Buddhist mantras many times each day at certain hours. The sound of his chanting of Namo Amitabha reached 170,000 households in Seorabeol (ancient Gyeongju), 360 degrees in every direction. So, to honor him, people called him Yeombulsa (念佛師chanting monk). When he died, a clay statue was made and enshrined at Minjangsa (敏藏寺) and the name of the temple where he had dwelt was changed from Pirisa (避里寺) to Yeombulsa (念佛寺).
As I viewed the stone pagoda in Namsan village, the remains of Yeombulsa, I listened hard to hear the sounds of his chanting from those olden days.

Asking the mountain the way
                     -by Ma Sang Yeol
The midday sun
creeps slowly up the mountain.
The peaks break into a cold sweat
as the mountain stands wordlessly,
deaf to the sounds of wind and water rising from the ravines.
A constant stream of climbers ask the way,
though the mountain gives no answer.
Alone, they ask the way and give an answer to themselves,
and the climbers keep on climbing.
As they get closer and are about to ask again,
the mountain stands solitary, shouldering a roaring snowstorm.
Many people try to shake the mountain,
But the mountain is wordless, giving away only a path.
Who made this mountain deaf and blind?
Nevertheless, we will be able to know
that mountain that gives away only a path for descent
as it thrusts into the world.

As if driven, I followed the path the mountain provided--climbing, walking, descending over a five-hour hike.
Wordless as it is, still theres nothing like a mountain to befriend a solitary hiker.
Having found myself succumbing to the mountains charms little by little, I wrapped up my hike on Namsan Mountain.
With its many trails forking off in different directions, I feel like I want to keep searching for more hiking courses on Namsan.
Thats one reason Im glad the weather is starting to cool off.

Website of Gyeongju Namsan Institute (click to visit)
Namsan Information Center, operated on weekends by Gyeongju Namsan Institute, is located in the Samneung parking area on the western side of Namsan Mountain, and in the parking area of Tongiljeon Unification Hall on the eastern side of Namsan Mountain.


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