Golgulsa is a Zen Buddhist temple approximately 25km from Gyeongju. Famous as the modern home of Sunmudo, a wholly-Korean Zen martial art, the temple also offers demonstrations of Sunmudo, as well as templestays for Koreans and foreigners alike.
Finding the temple is a test of your adventuring skills. Starting in Gyeongju, either at the Bus Terminal or Train Station (whichever is more convenient for you), take bus 100 or 150 to the Andong bus stop. Be wary: Don’t confuse this little Andong for the town of Andong. Korea’s a huge fan of giving multiple places, mountains, or villages identical names.
The bus stop is quite literally in the middle of nowhere. The stops have their name written in both Korean and English along the top of their awnings, but frequently buses stop at such a position where reading the sign while on the bus is impossible. Notify your driver when you get on that you are heading to Golgulsa and he’ll wave you off at the correct stop about 30 minutes after you got on.
You should have emerged at a bus stop with a couple of houses and a small shop/cafe, with a road that leads off away from the main road. There is no pavement along this road, and a dried out river-bed to the right. Walk along this road for about 15-20 minutes. Watch out for heavy industrial vehicles and very angry wasps. In fact, walk along the side of the road with the wall, because just about every tree contains a wasp nest and these wasps are terrifyingly massive.
The temple will be on your left, up a hill, with statues of monks in various poses on the right of the approach road.
Don’t mind the tape; I seem to have arrived during construction season.
I do wonder whether every season at Golgulsa is construction season, though.
Continue through the main gate and follow the road. You will find a souvenir shop, a map which lies, and various temple outbuildings.
Wait. What’s that? A map that lies? Why, yes. You see, Golgulsa only offers Sunmudo demonstrations twice a day, and the map kindly lists in both Korean and English where exactly those demonstrations will be.
Except they weren’t. They were somewhere else entirely. Somewhere 20 minutes’ hike from where the map said they were, because the demonstration stage was… Yes! Under construction! Even better, several monks and other staff saw tourists waiting patiently at the demonstration stage and said nothing. Only when we found an American templestay volunteer did he tell us where the demonstration was taking place that day, by which time it was far too late for us to catch it.
Speaking of the templestayers…
The grounds are mostly maintained by templestay volunteers. The buildings are erected and painted by templestay volunteers. In fact almost every piece of work we saw being undertaken was done so by templestay volunteers, and every single volunteer had a slightly creepy cult member vibe. In fact, walking past the templestay residences and overhearing the chit-chat from within transformed Golgulsa from a potentially intriguing destination into an outright surreal one.
But, onward! On to Golgulsa’s pride and joy, the massive carving of the Maya Tathagata Buddha, which sits atop the caves containing the original 6th century temples. The Buddha is carved from the rock face, and there are several equally-deadly ways to climb the rocks to view it. I highly recommend that you take the stone steps to the right which initially cross over a little stream. This is the safer of the routes.
Or you can do what I did, and try the left. Perhaps you’re a mountain goat, or perhaps – like me – you think from ground level it looks more approachable.
The left has the advantage that nooks and crannies in the rock face are littered with completely bizarre and sometimes unrelated offerings and tokens. These cute little statues gathered together in one little space were among the best.
It also leads to a couple of shrines, and the main temple building.
What it doesn’t lead to, unless you’re a mountaineer or someone who has no fear, is the Maya Tathagata Buddha. Being a person who is paralysed by heights and can just about overcome them with the assistance of a good, solid handrail, I didn’t particularly fancy attempting the narrow ledge with the loose rope handholds, so I’m afraid I had to pass.
I did then go down to ground level and attempt the ascent on the right instead, but this too eventually led to a dubious rope rail, and while the steps were broader, some were pretty wobbly, and the fear of heights won out again.
All in all it was a pleasant place, with some interesting features, but it felt oddly inauthentic and new. Make sure to ask a volunteer where exactly the demonstrations are taking place today, rather than take the advice of the Map Which Lies.
Bus 100 or 150 from the Bus Terminal or Train Station, to Andong stop, then 15-20 minutes’ walk. There is a tourist information office near the Bus Terminal who can give you directions.