Its flashing neon lights, its abundance of restaurant options, its narrow cobblestone streets, the sensory overloading Jung-ang market, its riverside bike path, its street vendors, its plethora of aromas, its juxtaposing architecture, and its copious cafes, each somehow more perfect than the last.
As I sit here in a leather forest green tufted chair, surrounded by Edison bulbs, and sipping artisanal cold brew from a minimalist steel mug, the aromas of coffee and craft made chocolate, the smooth melodies of classical music, and the passerby’s outside my adjacent window, I’m reminded how amazingly lucky I was to be placed here. For years, I’ve dreamt of living in a place like this, a place with life, a place with action, all just steps from my residence. And while I never would have imagined that I’d find such a place in South Korea, my Daejeon neighborhood of Eunhaeng-dong is all that and more.
But, every now and then, the alleys feel a little narrower, and the buildings a little more obtrusive. The sky seems a little hazier, and the smells began to reek. The filth on the streets and inherently on my white converse begins to bother me, and my tiny studio apartments begins to feel confining. Two weeks ago, I spent an amazing day adventuring through the mountains, but since then, I’ve breathed only city air. So, when I woke up this morning, I had one goal in mind, escape to nature.
Halfheartedly, I typed “hiking in Daejeon” into my google search bar, already knowing what would come up. Gyeryongsan national park, a popular hiking destination at the northwestern edge of the city. But, I’d just done that hike three weeks prior, and in between the hour-long bus ride, the endless hordes of people, and the lack of options on the trail, I was in no hurry to return. I scrolled a bit further and found “Gyejoksan red clay trail”.
Again, I expected this result, as I’d come across it in my many months of predeparture research. And while it did seem a bit more unique than Gyeryongsan, it was also an hour away by bus, and I suspected it would be just as crowded. So, now 0-2, I adjusted my approach. Instead of trying to find an English post about hiking in Daejeon (a longshot), I pinched around my map in search of trails. Not five minutes later I’d found my target. With my camera bag packed, two waters, and a freshly purchased kimbap, I set out toward nature.
The hazy sky brought with it a gentle breeze, which spontaneously gusted much stronger. Dressed in black athletic pants and a long sleeve t, I was comfortable, if not slightly warm in the 53-degree temperature.
Down one street and a single left, not five minutes in, and I’d already found a point of interest. Stacked on top of a plethora of vibrant colored roofs sat a magnificent temple, with forest behind it. Reluctantly, I entered the grounds through a narrow opening in the front door. An older man, about 50 meters away, bowed politely and then continued tending to his gardening.
At the entrance to the temple I stood, unsure if I should enter, when two welcoming old faces swung open the door and waved me in. In a pristine prayer room, I methodically tiptoed across the polished cherry wood floors, attempting to find the right angle to capture its rich beauty. A statue of Buddha, at its center, and a million finely detailed panels of color populated the space, as a warm afternoon light leaked in from the windows. “Back to the trail” I thought to myself.
In a relaxed state of mind, I ascended a hill behind the temple, catching new views of the city at every turn. At the top, I sat on a bench, overlooking the very school I teach at, just a few hundred meters away. Excited to make this a daily routine, I pulled out my phone to drop a pin, and realized that I’d only just begun.
Back down the hill I jogged and hopped across rocks and leaves, until arriving at one last road crossing. Into a narrow stairwell, engulfed by shanty structures, plagued by many decades of harsh Korean weather, subpar building materials, and the remanence of war, I stepped carefully to avoid fallen scraps of metal, and even some remaining barbed wire. Then, out of nowhere, a sign for the trail.
The first hundred meters or so where sketchy to say the least, as I snuck past two snarling dogs, and even more barbed wire. But, as the horns of the city faded into the rustling of leaves, the trail opened up into something magnificent. At several hundred meters above the city, I’d found an oasis.
A densely populated forest of tall pines, oaks, maples, and more, lined the trail, as it wound on endlessly. Around rugged boulders, and over steep inclines, it hugged the side of the mountain, offering breathtaking glimpses of adjacent peaks and sprawling city throughout.
About four miles in, I found another temple. And as I continued further, two more followed. Perched high above the city, in an anciently constructed lookout, I sat for a while, admiring the splendor of the scene, the gratification of the day, and the luck of my perfect placement.
Just two hours later and here I am. Showered and dressed, sipping coffee at yet another new favorite café. Outside the sky is dimming, and the lights are just beginning to glow. This is life in Eunhaeng-dong.