Temple Stay and DMZ Ecological Peace Festival

This weekend (May 25th-26th, 2013) we participated in the DMZ Ecological Peace Festival in memory of the 60thanniversary of the Korean DMZ. It was held in the northeastern corner of the country in Gangwan. The schedule included:
  • ·      A stop at a South Korean 22 division military base located on the DMZ where the women in our group served and ate lunch with the soldiers
  • ·      A tour around the DMZ and view of North Korea from Go-Sung DMZ observatory
  • ·      Prayer for peace by multi denominational religious leaders and song
  • ·      An overnight temple stay at Geon-bong Sa Temple
  • ·      Geum-gang Mt. Music Festival
  • ·      Sunrise at the East Sea
  • ·      Zen Meditation
  • ·      Tea Ceremony
  • ·      Hiking around Hyang-ro Bong Mountain

Thaddeus and I joined our group, as part of SIWA, outside of Itaewon early Saturday morning to embark on our weekend tour.  We were not sure what the weekend had in store for us quite yet.  As we met at our buses we found ourselves again surrounded by a variety of press and in the company of ambassadors, foreign soldiers, embassy works and people from all around the world.  It was quite the group.
            We loaded the bus and headed towards Pyong-Chang,  in the Gangwon province of South Korea.  Pyong-Chang is an exciting location because it will house the 2018 winter Olympics.   It was also where our temple was located that we would be staying at for the weekend. Gang-won province is split between North and South Korea.
  The bus trip took about three hours.  About an hour and a half into our trip we stopped at a rest area.  At this time men and women were asked to separate into different buses.  Only the women of the trip would be going to the 22nd ROK Army division to feed the soldiers.  I am still not positive why it was this way, but I am going to go with cultural reasons?
            As we drove through the country side we were surrounded by beautiful views of mountains, rice paddys and rivers.  It was absolutely stunning.  When we finally came to the DMZ we drove through a gate that was decorated with two large dragons.  As we entered the 22nd division base, soldiers stood outside waiting for us in formation.  As we exited the bus, the soldiers clapped for us.   I felt pretty famous. (haha) 

            The commander of the regiment gave a brief speech.  He was very excited to have us visiting the base.  In Korea military service is mandatory for two years for boys.  They can choose to go prior, during or after college.  The majority of the soldiers were 18-21 years old.  The commander spoke of the importance of the placement of these soldiers at the DMZ and how dangerous it was to be “on the front lines.”
            After the speech we made our way to a cantina truck where several Korean women had been preparing food.  There were giant plates of bulgolgi, three kinds of kimchi, rice cakes with mushrooms, salad, cherry tomatoes, rice and soup.  I was in charge of serving the bulgogi.  As the Korean soldiers lined up for lunch, each women serving, greeted them.  A Korean interpreter taught me how to say a Korean phrase that I thought meant hello.  Later she told me it was just a popular TV phrase for Americans to say that had no literal Korean translation.  

After serving everyone lunch I was given a plate and went into the dinning hall.  Each woman sat at a different table and spoke to the soldiers through an interpreter.   Many of the soldiers also knew a small amount of English.  Each table was set up with a small grill to make Korean BBQ in addition to the lunch we served.  The soldiers said that this was a very fancy meal for them. 
Everything was delicious!  I really enjoyed talking to the soldiers.  One of the soldiers even told me I was the first foreigner he had ever seen in his life!  He spoke surprising good English for never seeing a native English speaking person!  Once we ate lunch, we went outside and all posed for pictures together. 
At this point we were not sure where the men were.  I texted Thaddeus, and he said he had lunch of cucumber soup, rice and seaweed at the temple.  He also participated in a gong ringing ceremony.  One of the gongs was so big it took two people to ring it. 

                        We met up shortly after lunch at the Go-sung DMZ observatory.  The views were absolutely beautiful.  You could see the East Asia Sea as well as three mountain ranges that meet between North and South Korea.  Inside of the DMZ is a mountain called Geum-gang Mountain.  This is known in Korea for being the most beautiful mountain in the country.  It was thought for years to belong to North Korea. However,  recent surveys determined it is split between North and South Korea.   The mountain ranges in this area remain in what is close to pristine conditions since it has been over 60 years since humans have inhabited them.

From the observatory it was also possible to see a road and railroad system that connect North and South Korea.  The road was free of cars and has only had military traffic driving on it for the last 60 years.  The train has only been run across the border once in 2007 when tension between the countries lightened for a short period. 
            Once we had spent some time taking in the view, our group went into a conference room  made up of beautiful glass windows.  Here everyone gathered to pray for peace and unification between North and South Korea.  There were about 15 religious leaders representing different Buddhist factions at the ceremony.  We were also given a brief history of the area and conflict.  Once the prayer was over I joined the diplomat’s spouse’s choir in singing two traditional Korean songs.

After this we headed towards the temple to begin our overnight stay.  At the temple men and women again were separated.  It is not allowed for members of the opposite sex to sleep in rooms together in a temple.  About 25 women and myself entered a small building, made up of three rooms.  There, we all picked out small sleeping mats and found places on the floor to spend the night.  The rooms were relatively small and we looked like squished sardines sleeping next to each other.  The sleeping pads were only as thick as a blanket,  so they weren’t very comfortable.  There were several foam pillows the size of a brick, as well.  I was not fortunate enough to get one of these.  The nicest part of the sleeping conditions was that the floors were heated (Korean Ondol system), so it was very warm.  There was only one bathroom in the building for the 25 of us!   Need-less to say, it was not the most glamorous sleeping arrangements, but everyone made do. 

Once we made our “beds.”  We all headed to the dinning area for dinner.  The temple was split up into different buildings, and a stream and the beautiful mountains surrounded the grounds.  Every time you entered a building you had to remove your shoes.  

Geon-ong sa temple is one of the four major Korean Buddhist temples in history.   The temple was built in 520 during the Silla dynasty.  In 1951 it was almost completely destroyed during the Korean war.  Today it has been reconstructed and is an extremely beautiful establishment.

            For dinner we sat on the floor with low rising tables.  The Buddhist diet is completely vegan.  For the 4 meals we ate at the temple  we were served rice, seaweed, mushrooms, a clear soup with bean sprouts, kimchi and a kind of fresh fruit or vegetable.  There were no beverages served during meals but there were two springs located on the temple grounds with ladles with which to get water to drink.   

After dinner we were treated to a beautiful performance of traditional Korean instruments including the Kayagum, Yanggum, Tanson, Choktae, Hae Gum, and Piri.  These instruments are both string and horn instruments.  I had never seen them played before and was beyond impressed by the musicians skills.   The performers played both traditional Korean songs and  popular songs like “Hey Jude” by the Beatles.  Lanterns lit up the stage.  A woman also did some Korean chants.  Her voice was so strong and echoed throughout the mountains.  

After the musical performance we were asked  to spontaneously come to the stage and sing.  Everyone in our choir was very hesitant to go onto the stage after such a beautiful performance.  We finally went up in front of the crowd and sang our songs.  The performance went over very well!  Phew!!
            In the crowd that night, were both the mayor and the governor of the Gangwan province.  They both stood up and gave speeches.   Following this, girls wearing swans on their heads and honok flowing white gowns did a dance performance in front of and around the temple.  Their silhouettes danced on the colorful temple walls.  The performance seemed magical.  It was extremely beautiful! 

Finally, to end the night,  two “peace poles,”  that looked much like totem poles,  were brought near the stage.   The mayor, the Turkish ambassador to South Korea and the governor took turns painting the eyes on the “peace poles.”  There were two poles and each one was to symbolize  North and South Korea. 
After the final ceremony it was around 9:30 and we all made our way to bed.  I slept near the door of the room and was woken up throughout the night whenever someone had to move me to go to the bathroom.  Yes, that is how tight it was in the room. Needless to say,  I did not get a lot of sleep.  At 4:30 we all woke up and loaded the buses to the East Sea (Commonly called the Sea of Japan in the United States, much to the ire of Koreans).  There we watched the sunrise.  Fishermen were out on their boats squid fishing.   The day was very hazy, and as the sun rose it only peaked out of the clouds for a few brief moments.   Although we did not get to see the most beautiful sunrise,  the overall experience was wonderful!  It was nice to spend the morning watching the fishermen and watching the waves crash onto the shore of the sea.


After the sun rose we took a short tour of the East Coast.  In this area both Presidents of North and South Korea used to have beach homes.  Today the homes are museums.  The North Korean beach home, located on the side of a mountain, looks like a small castle and was the residence of Kim Ill Sung before the area was captured by the South in the Korean War.  On the stairs of this home there is a plaque and photo of Kim Jon Il visiting the home when he was five years old.   We walked to a small peak and found a small bunker and could see the view of the DMZ through barbed wire fences.  An older Korean man joined us for our short hike and we looked  for fishing boats belonging to North Korea in the distance.

After this, we stopped at beautiful Hwa-jin po lake, which is the largest lake in South Korea. Located here is the vacation home of South Korean’s first presiden,t Syngman Rhee.  The home was not open but statues of the past president were visable through the windows.

From here we returned to the temple to have breakfast.  The meal was the same as the previous; however, we had fresh tomatoes and sweet rice cakes for a treat.  In Korea tomatoes are considered a fruit. 

After breakfast we were invited to see the remains of Buddha that are stored at the temple.  A great monks bones do not fully burn after cremation. These pieces of “tooth” (actually fired bone), belonging to Buddha, are on display at the temple.
Next we  participated in a tea ceremony and Zen meditation presentation. We were all given robes to put over our outfits.  The reason for this was to not be distracted by our clothing during meditation. 

                                                            For the tea ceremony, we sat down on the floor on small mats with a table.  A women in Hanbok brewed tea from hot water and green tea leaves that were grown in the area.  The tea was prepared in a small pot made out of traditional Korean pottery.  Once the tea had steeped she poured it in a small bowl.  From here we each served ourselves a cup of tea in a very small cup.  The women told us to put the tea cup in the palm of our right hand and only secure it with our middle finger tip.  After this we were to take our left hand and place it in front of the cup.  The tea is suppose to be drunk in three sips.  The first sip you are suppose to observe the color.  The second sip you are suppose to observe the smell and the final sip you are suppose to concentrate on the taste. 

After the tea ceremony was over we began our lecture about Buddhism and Zen.  A monk explained an example of Zen to us.  He stated: “Suppose a wife and a husband come to a temple and the wife gets a job serving food.  There are 300 people at the temple and they all line up to get food.  That particular night the husband is in line to get food and very hungry.  He rubs his stomach to symbolize to his wife that he is hungry.  Through this action she understands his feelings.  No one else can understand this unspoken interaction.”  This was described as a clear example of Zen,  which we also do not understand.
            Monks practice meditation 6-8 hours a day to try and achieve enlightenment.  Enlightenment is finding your inner self.  When meditating, in the Buddhist religion, you are supposed to keep your eyes open and look at your nose.  This keeps you exposed to what is happening, on the inside as well as on the outside.  While we are meditating a Monk walked around with a stick and hit anyone on the shoulder if they seemed to lack focus or to be falling asleep.

Our final event of the day was a hike around Hyang-ro Mountain.  A scientist/botanist, who has been studying trees of Korea, accompanied us on our trip.  He explained about the importance of studying and preserving trees in Korea since it is an island.  Korea is one of the only countries that makes it mandatory for children to be educated on forest preservation.  Part of the class allows children to spend the day in the forest studying the environment.  The DMZ is one of the most preserved forests in the world due to lack of human activity for the last 60 years.

After our hike we had one final temple meal.  Guess what?  It was the same thing we had eaten for all of our past meals. But this time we got watermelon! Yippee! After lunch we hopped on the bus and headed back to Seoul after a very interesting weekend. 


I've been living abroad for a decade now! My travels have lead me to visit over 80 countries, marry a fellow globetrotter, and reside in 8 countries in four different continents. I am currently based in Brussels, Belgium! Join me as I focus on sustainable budget friendly travel and giving back while living abroad!

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