The Hiker and the Heavenly Maidens

The sun’s rays transformed the water into a river of gold, the trees danced in the breeze and the path leading up the mountain beckoned me to explore the Park’s treasures. It was springtime in South Korea, a perfect season to experience the beauty of Seoraksan National Park. I was staying in the small town of Yangyang in Gangwon province, near the park, and it was here I met a local woman who offered to be my guide.

We set off from the Osaek Hot Springs and headed towards Daeseung Falls.  The track followed a mountain stream and I stopped frequently, not because it was an arduous walk, but the mountain views took my breath away.

My guide pointed out a waterhole in the river and commenced telling the Korean myth about the Woodcutter and The Heavenly Maidens. In the story, the heavenly maidens descend to Earth to bathe in a secret waterhole in the mountains.  They are spotted by a woodcutter who steals the clothes of one of the maidens, preventing her return to Heaven.  While listening to the tale it dawned on me that I was familiar with it. My wife, who is a storyteller, told this story to school students when we had previously visited Korea.  It was one of her favourite myths and here I was, in the very place of it’s birth. Not only was the landscape beautiful, it now felt magical.

Too soon my guide had to return home, so I hiked on by myself. Seoraksan National Park is a popular destination for Koreans and foreigners alike, especially in Autumn when the leaves change colour and the park becomes a spectacular kaleidoscope of Autumn hues.  Hiking in Spring however has the advantage of the park not being so crowded, so for much of the time I was on my own.

As I was walking along I couldn’t stop thinking about the story, and at one particularly deep waterhole imagined that perhaps the maidens also came there to bathe. Although the track to the actual setting for the waterhole in the myth, the Twelve Angels Bath (십이선녀탕) was closed due to maintenance, I sensed the whole area alive with the presence of the maidens.

My daydreaming was interrupted by the sound of voices. I turned around and saw seven catholic nuns approaching. Wearing their traditional habits, they appeared to be floating towards me. Was I dreaming or had some heavenly maidens stepped out of the story and come to visit me? We greeted each other and the nuns proceeded to climb down to the water, take off their shoes and soak their feet. I couldn’t believe the myth was unfolding in front of my eyes.  Unlike the woodcutter in the story, I had no intention of stealing their shoes, but being a photographer I wanted to take a few photos. They nodded their assent and asked me to come and join them to share some fruit. Together we sat, our feet cooling in the waterhole, eating watermelon and enjoying the sunshine.

Eventually it came time to leave and continue my journey. I was saying my farewell when they said, ‘Stop, we a have a gift for you.’ They all stood up and sang. Their voices, pure as the snow melt soared up the mountainside and into the heavens.  Tears welled in my eyes and I felt blessed. After we parted, I could not stop smiling for the rest of the day.

Seoraksan National Park is a truly magical place, with its sublime landscape and great hiking trails where you can meet cheery hikers and if you are lucky, perhaps a heavenly maiden!

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I am here!

I have never really been a nature photographer, actually I don’t even like to classify myself as any ‘kind’ of photographer.  I just take photos of the world around me, wherever I am at the time. When I am not travelling, I live in a small coastal town in Australia.  It’s very easy to go for long walks here and not see another person, but I do encounter a lot of wildlife in the natural environment, so that is what I take photos of.  Every photo I make receives the same attention, whether it is a sentient being, an object or a landscape.  In the end, it’s all part of the same reality.

Photo: Where I was this week!IMG_1776

Mindfulness

I love walking, it clears my head, keeps me relatively fit and gets me out of my home office.  I often walk the same route for weeks, really getting to know the place and trying to be mindful of my surroundings. I view them like the famous T.S Elliot quote:

‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Time – Space

I have been working on making images of time and it has been challenging. There are the clichés of time of the day, clocks, movement of light etc. But none of them have been really satisfying. Out on my early morning walk today, I remembered that my camera can do double exposures, thus allowing me to record two moments in time in one image. The resulting visual shift of space and time in the photo is getting close to what I am trying to achieve.

Time/Space
© Roman W. Schatz, 2014

timespace

On top of fake mountain

I love mountains, which is probably not surprising, as I grew up in Switzerland.  One of my favourite places to visit is South Korea, a country that reminds me of Switzerland.  The Koreans are keen hikers, the train system is excellent and there are lots of mountains. When I first visited the port city of Tongyeong  in the South Gyeongsang Province a few years ago, I took a cable car ride to the top of Mireuksan mountain. From here you have one of the most spectacular views in South Korea. In clear weather, visitors can even see Tsushima Island (in Japan), Cheongwangbong Peak in Jirisan, and Dolsando in Yeosu.

I promised myself, that the day when my good friend Marcel Meier comes to visit Korea with me, I will take him here.  That day finally came last year, as the two of us spent one week in the county for a photo project.  I was really looking forward to revisiting the mountain and to show off some of Korea’s finest views.  Time was short and we only had one day in Tongyeong. Unfortunately the mountain cable car was closed for maintenance and would not be opened for a few weeks!  I was very disappointed but there was nothing we could do about it.  We took our cameras and headed for the local port near our hotel. It was here that we discovered another mountain range.  You won’t find these hills in any guide book!