The Round Trip to Nowhere; or, My Surreal Misadventure on Buddha’s Birthday

Missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity can be hard to deal with, especially when you are involved in the opportunity and still miss out. I had been living in South Korea for about 2 and a half months at the time of this event, working as a public elementary ESL teacher. One thing about living and working in South Korea was accidentally finding out you had days off work, since I was not afforded a school calendar or anything. I had to rely on my fellow teachers to remember to tell me. Sometimes I found out the day before, but in this particular case, I found out a week ahead of time that I would have off a Friday for Buddha’s Birthday. I wanted to do something special, so I began doing research on things you can do or 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.

This was my goal.

The temple was not much different than many of the other easily accessible temples, yet thousands journeyed to it yearly. Why? Because it’s only open to non-Monks one day a year: Buddha’s birthday. The second trickiest thing about visiting this temple was that it was pretty much in the middle of nowhere and was one of the most complicated (tourist-drawing) places to get to in Korea. In fact, here are 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 didn’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 the teacher in charge of us foreigners, SangMyung, 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. I shrugged. That was fine. We got my bus ticket for 10 AM.

This was my first mistake. I had an inkling in the back of my head telling me to pick an earlier time, but I ignored it. Under normal circumstances, a 10 AM bus would have gotten 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, the big day.

I woke up at 7 AM. I fully charged all my electronics overnight so I’d be ready to go and have some stuff to keep me entertained on the longer portions of the trek. I grabbed my stuff and made my way to the Gunpo train station, about a 10 minute walk from where I lived. I’d made that walk almost a hundred times at this point. There was a tiny Pizza Hut about 30 seconds from my building I had wanted to try to see how different it was from the American variety. But I passed it by and continued to the station. It was a little after 8 AM. I was full of anxiety over the trip, even to the point I felt slightly light-headed at times. But I arrived at the station fine, waited for the train to neighboring Geumjeong, and headed over. This first little leg was easy.

The first sign that it was going to be a surreal day was rather subtle. On the train to Sadang Station, I found I was sitting across from what seemed to be an American girl. This was a bizarre occurrence, and I thought about saying something, as it was not common to bump into another English speaker outside 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.

We both got off at Sadang. She went left. I turned right. And then I checked my map, the walls, and the signs of the station before proceeding to turn around and go the other way. I ended up standing right behind her in line, waiting for the next train. We eventually got on, still saying nothing, even though our train became packed, and we were smashed against each other at one point. But she soon got off the train, and with her seemingly went my chance at English for some time.

I continued my journey until I reached my stop. From here, 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.

The inside was chaos, similar to 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. I had barely learned to read Hangul by that point, but there were hundreds of towns, and I didn’t have that kind of time. Then 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.

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 assigned seat, which was near the front and all by my lonesome. 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 of this supposedly 2-hour trip 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 silently offered me a Korean Dorito. I took one, as it was impolite to deny your elders. It tasted like a Dorito.

1:40 came and went. It was 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 started to feel okay about the situation and knew we could still potentially make good time. Sure, it’s a 2-hour bus trip, and we’d been on the road for 4 hours, but you gotta stay optimistic, right?

Then we take a 15 minute rest stop break. Okay, 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 started moving again. The old wise man gave the bus driver a little bottle of vitamin drink.

And, finally, after another 45 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’d ever seen up to that point. But this leg of the journey was over, and it was time to get off the bus.

I managed to grab this picture from the bus.

So it was almost 3 PM at this point. I stood 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 Buddha help me, 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 SangMyung for assistance (her request).

Okay, so, 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, 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 wasn’t helping said anxiety). I was hungry. I was terrified. And I was damn determined to still make it.

I walked around trying to find the bus times, which I did–eventually. Except for one tiny little problem: They were completely in Korean. I mean, not even tiny English letters beneath for foreigners. This was like a We-Never-Have-Foreigners zone. But, again, I could read Hangul, and I knew what word I was looking for.

And I still couldn’t find it.

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. Of course, the one change from the online times was the later time. So it was now 3:10 or so, and the next bus to Bongamsa was over two hours away, with no promise of a bus to pick me up and bring me back to Jeumchon from the middle-of-nowhere road drop-off point. And no promise that by the time I actually got to the temple that it would still be open for visitors, as I still had another 2-hour journey ahead of me.

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’d come in—I wasn’t up to that embarrassment) and said “Jeumchon bus.” He nodded and, amazingly, took me right where I needed to go.

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–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, one of the only options at the terminal, 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. The drive back, of course, was much simpler. Except the part where we suddenly pulled over to the side of the road to help a stranded bus by taking on its passengers. But even with that, the return trip only took 2 hours–almost on the nose.

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.

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

A young Korean guy walked up to me.

“Do you need help?” he asked excitedly. He spoke English pretty well, and it was clear he was quite excited to be able to use English in a conversation. The juxtaposed irony of ignoring the English-speaking girl at the start of my day only to have an English-speaking Korean help me near the end did not go beyond me. “Where are you going?” I pointed to Sadang. “Ah, yes. Where will you end?” He wanted to know my end goal to help me even further.

“Gunpo,” I said, pointing on the map.

“Ah, that’s far,” he said, disappointed he couldn’t help more.

Really, I just needed to get to Sadang, and I could find my way from there. “Which train to Sadang?” I asked.

He pointed me to the platform opposite us. I thanked him, walked down the stairs, turned the corner, and waited for the rest of the stairs to clear out from the exiting passengers of my train I had just missed.

It didn’t take long for another to show up, though, and it was abnormally empty. I was actually able to sit down pretty quickly (a rarity), and we continued to Sadang. One there, I found my transfer train easier, though I ended up behind a Gaggle of 5 chatty Korean girls as we waited (probably late teens or early 20s). Anyway, the train shows up, and we’re not allowed on—I later learned they were emptying the train to be cleaned. Sure. Okay. A few minutes later, another train showed up, this one much fuller.

Long story short, I was stuck standing next to said Gaggle, who one at a time slowly took over the seats in front of us as they emptied, one even proceeding to just sit on the lap of another. It came to a point where a seat opened up next to one of the girls. The one sitting on another’s lap starts to move for it but stopped. She motioned for me to take the seat, as I was still standing. I shake my head and motion for her to take it. We both do this a couple more times until she’s giggling and insisting that I sit down. So I do.

The next stop was mine. 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 was after 7 PM by this point, and I was exhausted despite not really having done much. I exited onto Geumjeong platform and waited.

And then, as I stood next to a waffle stand, a fully robed monk walked by in front of me. It was such a surreal experience to wrap the day that I’d been attempting and failing to get to this temple. But it didn’t end there. As I waited, watching the Buddhist monk, the train arrived, and I got on and stood right next to a Korean Catholic nun, habit and all. Two young women were standing in front of me and the nun, teasing each other—one of whom actually gives the other the finger directly in front of the nun. The other girl then takes out a full, large hand mirror from her purse and proceeded to check her teeth. I was either hallucinating, delusional, or in a cartoon.

It was at this point I had pretty much mentally checked out of this day.

I got off at Gunpo station, a mere 10-minute walk from my place, and as I stepped off the escalator from the station onto the sidewalk, my phone finally died. And I figured that after such a day, I deserved to treat myself. I was going to get Korean Pizza Hut.

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.

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