That foreigner probably never visited Pohang though. Because there’s this temple which doesn’t even slightly resemble the other temples in Korea. Even its nickname suggests it’s a little…different.
When I googled it, I noticed immediately why it’s known as the Dragon Temple – quite simply, it looks like a dragon. I didn’t know how to get there, but I did know one thing: I HAD TO SEE IT.
I handed my phone to my co-teacher, who was born and raised in Pohang.
She studied the temple’s homepage, her face screwed in confusion. “You’re teaching me about my own hometown; I’ve never seen this temple before!”
“You’ve never seen this temple before?!” I asked incredulously, even though she just told me she hadn’t. But I couldn’t believe she hadn’t even heard of it.
She shook her head. “Dae-won-sa,” she said slowly. “Dae-won-sa…that doesn’t even mean ‘Dragon Temple’.”
My curiosity about the temple peaked. “What does ‘Daewon’ mean then?” (I knew ‘sa’ meant ‘temple’.)
“I’m not too sure, actually…”
She handed my phone to my other co-teacher and asked her if she’d heard of the temple.
My other co-teacher’s eyes bulged. “Wow, where is that temple?!”
The next day I headed to the bus terminal. I was going to find this elusive temple. I headed straight for the tiny room in front of the entrance to the terminal. The Tourist Information Lady would obviously know how to get to the temple and she would be able to tell me what ‘Daewon’ translated to since her English was pretty good.
I knocked on the window. It slid open to reveal a smiling, middle-aged woman, but a different one to the usual smiling, middle-aged woman. Please speak English, New Tourist Information Lady…
“Hello. Can I help you?”
“Hi!” I gave her my phone. “Have you heard of this temple in Pohang?”
She studied every inch of the screen curiously before saying, “no, I don’t know this place.”
My heart fell. Not even the Tourist Information Lady knew this temple existed.
“…but according to this website you should take Bus 500 or 510,” she continued. I actually knew this piece of information already from my earlier research on the temple, but ‘take Bus 500 or 510’ was where the internet stopped being helpful.
She handed my phone back to me. “I think you need to go to Chilpo Beach; the temple may be near there. Take either of those buses and get off after about 50 minutes.”
“Great, thanks!” I threw my phone into my bag and bolted for the bus stop across the street.
I hopped on the first of the two buses to arrive – 510 – excited and ready to finally see the Dragon Temple. I double-checked the route printed above the exiting door, my mind easing when I read ‘Chilpo’.
10 minutes…20 minutes…30 minutes…bringing my book was a good decision…40 minutes…still trees and open road…50 minutes…where’s the beach…55 minutes…the bus stopped.
“Last stop!” the bus driver shouted in Korean. I looked around and saw that I was the only passenger.
The bus driver eyed me suspiciously as I walked down the aisle towards him. I saw his eyes bulge slightly behind his dark sunglasses as he realised a foreigner was about to speak to him. With the little Korean I had, I told him my problem.
He looked at me completely alarmed, but whether that was because he was concerned I was lost, or whether it was because I spoke Korean, I will never know. He then shook his head violently and spoke far too fast, but I managed to grasp the gist of it:
- Bus 510 has two routes.
2. I took the wrong route.
3. I should really have taken Bus 500 heading for Chilpo Beach and transferred at HeungHaeSomethingSomething, the transfer station for Chilpo.
I thanked him about seven times, got off the bus and waited for the next bus back to the terminal. And as I waited it hit me.
I cursed myself for not thinking of it before. It was the magical number in Korea which rescued me countless times when I needed the answer to anything transport-related, whether it was the bus, train, subway times or even directions to anywhere in Korea, and it ranked in my Top 5 list of Things I Love About Korea. But for some reason I never thought about it.
Yes, the 1330 Lady would help me. I dialled the number.
“Hi, how can I help you?”
“Hi, yes, I’m looking for Daewonsa or the Dragon Temple, in Pohang?”
Oh god, not you too, 1330 Lady…
“Can you spell that for me?”
I spelt it out twice.
“Actually, I’ve never heard of this temple before. Let me research it and I’ll phone you back with directions.”
I watched the same trees and open road roll past me for the second time that day, this time from the window of Bus 500, when my phone rang.
“Hello, I’m sorry to make you wait, but I had to make a few phone calls to find out where this temple is. Finally, I have found this information: when you take Bus 500, transfer at HeungHaeHwanSeung Centre and then take one of these special buses heading for Chilpo…”
She read out a number of bus times. “But be careful because these special buses are different; they don’t have bus numbers like normal buses in Korea, so you should just be ready at the station at the departure time and then read the destination on the bus window. Can you read Korean?”
I told her I could, thanked her profusely and hung up.
After about 50 minutes I disembarked at HeungHaeHwanSeung Centre: a tiny cubicle of a room lined with a wooden bench on which a few people were sat. I was the only person there under the age of 70.
I checked the TV displaying the number of minutes to the coming buses, but realised I was wasting my time since the bus I needed was a special bus. I checked the time on my phone: 12:09. I had six minutes until the next special bus arrived.
I used the five minutes to take in my surroundings: HeungHae was a one-horse town, yet buzzing with activity. It seemed to be dominated by old Koreans who sat on their haunches under umbrellas and shouted out to passers-by to buy their seaweed, tomatoes and anchovies. The stifling heat combined with the ever-present puddles of water on the pavements, combined with the blend of fishy smells emanating from the crawling market place was overwhelming and forced me to retreat into the tiny transfer station.
I checked the time. It was 12:18. Something was wrong; Korean buses are incredibly punctual and I never let the bus stop out of my sight; there was no way I could have missed the bus.
I found a poster, showing the same bus times the 1330 Lady gave me, stuck on the window of the cubicle. I decided to ask one of the old Korean people sitting on the bench about the bus times. She pointed at the poster, smiled, shook her head and lastly pointed to somewhere in the sky. I pretended to understand exactly what she meant, thanked her and went back to being clueless.
That was my last straw. This temple was far too elusive and I was far too tired. I was just about to cross to the other side of the road to catch the next bus home when Bus 510 pulled up at the bus stop. I took it as a sign and decided to give the temple one last go. In Korean I asked the bus driver if he knew Daewonsa.
My heart felt like it wanted to burst through my chest. This was the first person I had come across who had heard of the Dragon Temple.
I scrambled on the bus to the seat right behind the driver, I didn’t even bother asking whether the temple was part of his route, but he didn’t say anything, so I didn’t either.
The bus travelled along a windy road for what felt like an hour, until finally I spotted the beach. We were close!
And then the bus driver shook his head.
He gestured for my phone. I googled Daewonsa once again and handed the phone to him. I couldn’t read his face as he studied the screen. He handed the phone back to me and on we drove. More grassy hills rolled past, until finally a glint of blue on the left caught my eye.
The bus driver saw it too. “Daewonsa,” he said, pointing towards the bits of blue.
I could have been looking at a chest of gold and diamonds, I was so overwhelmed with joy.
There, resting on the distant hills, was the snaking dragon.
He stopped at a low bridge. I thanked him multiple times and watched as the bus bustled off. Suddenly I felt very alone. To my right were the remnants of a beach and to my left stood a brown signpost that read ‘Daewonsa’.
Compared to the activity of HeungHae, Chilpo seemed asleep. The grass whistled and swayed lazily in the breeze. Five ducks played and quacked happily in a river on my left, while the soft murmurings of the water accompanied me to the temple.
And there it was. The elusive Dragon Temple, unlike any temple I had seen in Korea. The temple started at the dragon’s magnificent head; its mouth wide open waiting for you to enter. Lines of bright pink lanterns hung from the roof of the mouth and disappeared all the way into the darkness of its throat. Its blue, scaly body snaked all the way up the hill on which it rested. The actual temple extended throughout the inside of its body: I followed the bright pink lanterns along the dark, long, winding tunnel, which housed hundreds of golden Buddha statues and an assortment of other dust-speckled temple trinkets, right until the tip of its tail where a tiny prayer room, so tiny that even I had to crouch, waited.
I realised I was the only person in the vast temple (probably because no one else knew it existed), and suddenly the gentle quiet became a throttling blanket of silence. Something moved. A spider scuttled across the dragon’s stomach. And that was my cue to scuttle to the exit.
I took in every inch of the resting dragon, from its horned head to its intricately-painted clawed feet before heading back to the bus stop. Across the low bridge where the remnants of the beach barely flowed, I noticed a fishing rod perched against the bridge, the handle on the ground held in place by two bricks, while the line floated somewhere in the water. The owner of the rod was nowhere to be seen.
I waited for about 15 minutes, but the bus did not arrive. There was a tiny shop directly opposite the spot where the fishing rod waited patiently. I decided to ask the shop owner if I was standing at the correct bus stop to head back to HeungHae. But I didn’t need to because at that moment I heard a jingling sound coming from the fishing rod. A tiny bell was attached at the end of the rod and the start of the line. It started to jingle a little more when the owner ran out the tiny shop and grabbed the fishing rod, a look of delight on her face. She reeled her catch in, a sliver of silver in the sunlight, flapping furiously this way and that as it fought for its life. I left her alone to enjoy her moment with her fish. Maybe the bus would come soon, anyway.
But after standing in the relentless sun for about half and hour, I came to the conclusion that the bus wasn’t coming. And I had not seen a single taxi go by either.
Forty-five minutes later and I was wet with perspiration, starving and desperate to go home. For one crazy moment I thought of hitch-hiking, but just then, at last, after almost an hour of waiting, I spotted a taxi.
I almost cried with joy when I saw it wasn’t taken and hailed it immediately.
“Where are you going?” the driver asked me in Korean.
I couldn’t remember the exact name of the transfer station. HeungHaeSomethingSomething. I hated myself. I tried to google it, but no luck.
I apologised to him and told him to give me a minute, while I searched frantically for the name of the transfer station.
“Where do you live?” he asked me.
“Me too.” He said this in English.
He looked at me through the rear-view mirror and said, “I…drive…you…Pohang?”
“No,” I said immediately. He wanted to drive me all the way home to Pohang, which was about an hour away and probably a steep fee.
“Anniyo, anniyo! (No, no!)” he said quickly, shaking his head. “Don…no,” he continued. He formed an ’X’ with his hands.
‘Don’ is Korean for money. He was trying to tell me I didn’t have to pay him.
I looked at him incredulously and shook my head. “Wait, what?!”
But he just smiled and said, “gwenchanayo.” (Don’t worry about it.)
And then he said this in his broken English: “today…weather…very good, so I happy. Today…my rest day, not…taxi today. I drive you…home, no don.” His finger moved towards the taxi metre and he switched it off.
This taxi ride home would have cost me about 30 000Won/R300, but instead it cost me 0Won/R0.
I touched his shoulder and said to his reflection in the rear-view mirror, “thank you, kamsamnida.”
I fell back on the seat ashamed, grateful, exhausted, elated, starving and relieved. I noticed his reflection smiling gently back at me.
I closed my eyes. I was finally on my way home.