(Travel Korea) Yellow Flowers and the Road to Gurye

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(Travelnews=William Harlow)  While resting at home as the weekend approached, my wife asked me “what do you want to do for the weekend?” I could tell from her tone that an answer consisting of lying on the couch watching television wasn’t going to cut it so I figured I’d say “let’s go somewhere close with historical stuff to look at.” This was the wrong answer.

Unknown to me at the time was that she had seen news reports of some yellow bushes flowering near the town of Gurye in Southwest Korea near Yosu (the Koreans call the flowers san soo yoo but for the purposes of this article, having no idea of the English name, I will simply call them yellow flowers). Since the die was cast, I agreed and at the last minute we were off to Gurye.

Hwaeumsa Temple

Deciding on a weekend trip on a Friday afternoon leaves little time for planning. Still, we had a friend make train reservations (getting two of the last four seats remaining). We quickly packed as the electronic tickets arrived in my wife’s cell phone. Soon we were off to Yongsan station to catch the 1500 Saemaeul to Yosu (that stops at Guyre).

At the time of this writing, I think the faster KTX trains are still under construction for this route so the Saemaeul is the next best bet. (I’d rather walk than take the Mugungwha or local train). The train ride was nice and relaxing. Korea has a wonderful rail system. It left on time and arrived on time. Four and a half hours later we had arrived at the Guyre station. Of course by then it was 7:30 P.M.; we had no return tickets and no place to stay.

The station was empty; however, we went to the ticket booth and purchased a return ticket for Saturday night (we had stuff to do at home on Sunday). The lady at the ticket counter was very helpful, gave us a tourist map of the area and circled great places to see. After leaving the station you immediately realize you are not in Seoul nymore.

We grabbed some soup at a small place near the train station. They were closing down at around 8:30 P.M. but stayed open until we were done. By the time we finished it was after nine and the bus to downtown Gurye had stopped running so we shared a cab with other folks at the bus stop.

The taxis were more expensive than Seoul but still not bad. We walked around the center of town and it was pretty sleepy. We actually asked a police officer where the center of town was and he said we were in it. So we grabbed a room at a hotel down town, got some snacks at the local supermarket that was also about to close and settled in for the night.

We spent the night looking over the map and making plans for the next day. Gurye is actually a great tourist destination. The map provided (though in Hangul) showed a large number of places of interest and activities. Time being short for us we focused in on three things to accomplish.

The Hwaeumsa (a thousand year old Buddhist Temple and the largest of several in the area); the Hwagaejangteo (a permanent market place that has also been active for hundreds of years); and finally the Sansooyoo Mauel (where the yellow flowers are concentrated and where the yellow flower festival takes place were the three things we decided to see. Our plan was to take the local buses to each of these locations in turn. With the plan in place, we settled in and got some rest for the night.

We were up before the town. The coffee shops we had located the evening prior were all still closed at 8:00 AM on Saturday morning. So we went to one of the few 24 hour convenience stores that was open and got coffee, snacks, and water for the day ahead. We then proceeded to the bus terminal and mapped out our bus plan to accomplish our plan.

The problem was that early on Saturday morning the buses were running infrequently to the places we wanted to go. Realizing that time is money we decided to take a taxi to the temple and see if we could catch a bus from there later. The temple was close and we easily caught a taxi pointed to the temple on the tourist map and were on our way.

We arrived at the Hwaeumsa, paid a modest entry fee, and spend an hour or so touring the grounds. The temple was beautifully restored and blended in with the surrounding environment. It is a very large facility and apparently also has a temple stay program where folks can stay overnight and learn more about the temple and the Buddhist religion.

I have been to temples all over Korea and this was definitely one of the nicer ones. After looking around the temple for an hour, we walked down the main temple complex entrance via a walkway build along a mountain stream. Near the path are signs to tell the story of how the temple was rebuild after being destroyed by fire during the Japanese invasion in the 16th century.

One of the monks then had a dream to ask the first person he saw for funds to rebuild the temple. The next morning the monk went along the stream and found an old lady doing her laundry. The monk asked the lady for the funds. She said she was poor and could not help even though she wanted to. Shortly after the old lady died and was reincarnated as beautiful princess who took on the task of rebuilding the temple. I thought this was sort of a cute story.

When we got to the bottom of the hill, we saw little hope of a bus and decided to take a taxi to the market. We have an expensive (18,000 won plus) ride to the market and arrive just before lunch. The Hwagaejangteo market has been a place of trade and commerce for hundreds of years.

It is located right on the boarder of Cholla Province and Kyongsang Province and is where merchants, farmers and other people have met to trade their goods. It is also located right on the river that forms part of the boundary between the two provinces as well as a regional commercial artery in the old days.

Now there is the Namdo Bridge that crosses the Seomjingang river. The market starts at the northeast end of the bridge. The market was pretty cool. There were numerous permanent stalls and vendors were selling everything from leather goods, hats, spices, and local food. It was great to walk around and look at it all. One of the most interesting things I saw at the market was an old steam powered machine that made small rice cakes. The wife bought a variety of local spices and then we had lunch at a fish stall in the market.

After lunch we found the local bus terminal and finally the schedules were in our favor. We caught a bus to Guyre and arrived just in time to catch a connecting bus to Sansooyoo Mauel. This bus took us through significant road construction along the way, but we arrived in good order.

The yellow flowers that were our original objective was in bloom but very patchy. In the center of the shrub patch was a large parking area where a small festival was taking place. It mostly consisted of food vendors and trinket stalls. We were able to walk along paths through the yellow shrubs and it was very pretty. There were some small concerts going on as well; however, I heard that the yellow flower festival wasn’t as big this year due to many farmers being distressed over cattle disease in the past year.

However, there were signs of making the festival bigger and better in coming years. A large metallic sculpture was build to honor the yellow flowers with a pavilion that overlooked both the sculpture and the resort town in the valley below.

The flowers were nice, the spring weather was perfect, and we had accomplished our plan with time to spare. We caught a return bus to Guyre and devised another plan to fill our time before we caught the train back to Seoul. That, however, is another story.

The key points on a visit to Guyre are: First, it is a great tourist location; however, it is heavily visited by Koreans and not westerners. So expect Korean food, and little or no English either spoken or for maps and brochures. Second, it is not Seoul.

The major towns are small, taxis cost more, and the buses are the main way to get around and the bus schedule may drive what you to see. Still, there is plenty to see. There are at least four major temples in the area (we went to the largest one).

There are Korean resorts, river activities, and beautiful scenery. It gives the traveler a taste of Korea different from the Seoul area and can be a great weekend getaway. Plus, now that the wife has seen the yellow flowers, she has to tolerate me going to historical locations.

Photo: Travelnews DB