NOTE: After receiving an overwhelming response for my first posting about Singyesa Temple in North Korea, I thought I would update the posting with even more pictures and some observations. I hope you’ll enjoy the update!
Hello Everyone, I decided to dig deep into the archive of Korean temples and find this gem. This temple comes from my two day adventure to NORTH KOREA in 2007!!!
Yours truly with a North Korean worker from the neighbouring hotel. This picture was taken by his co-worker at the hotel. In the background is Kim Il Seong and Kim Jung Il. We were instructed that if we wanted to take pictures we couldn’t cut the painting in half with our cameras because the Kim’s are gods and that would be sacrilege. So for most pictures the North Korean hotel workers took the pictures.
Recently, unless you’re Wolf Blitzer (of CNN fame), or Bill Richardson (former Governor of New Mexico), North Korea is virtually impossible to get into. This all started with the killing of a South Korean woman on July 11, 2008 when she was shot to death by a North Korean soldier. This shut down the Gumgangsan Mountain complex to tourists. And then it worsened in 2010 with the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong-do.
So when it was still possible to visit Gumgangsan Mountains in North Korea, I decided to jump all over an invitation to join a few other co-teachers at the hagwon I was working at in March of 2007. I actually didn’t even know that such a thing existed until they asked if I wanted to go. In total, there were six of us going. After living in Korea, at that time, for three and a half years, this was going to be the most unique opportunity of my entire adventures throughout the Korean peninsula.
So after work at seven on a Friday night in March, we made our way over to the Busan Station to catch a KTX (bullet) train up to Seoul. We had to be up there by 11, so we were cutting it close. But fortunately, everything ran smoothly and we got to the bus we needed to get to at a university in Seoul. Overnight, we slept in the bus as we made our way from the north-west side in Seoul over to the north-east side near Seokcho. We arrived at five in the morning outside immigration on the South Korean side of the border. The instructions we received just before brokering the DMZ were unforgettable. We were instructed to hand over all our cell phones, and that if we had cameras that zoomed past 5X we had to hand those over as well (I guess the North Koreans just don’t like to be checked out). Also, we were told that bags that had either U.S. or South Korean flag patches attached to them couldn’t be carried over the border. And we were instructed, when communicating with North Koreans, that we couldn’t smile, make eye-contact, talk politics (makes sense), and that our room and trails at the parks we would be visiting would be bugged. Lastly, we couldn’t take pictures, besides in the areas that were approved by the North Korean government. So this ruled out the road to and from the Gumgungsan complex we would be staying at. In fact, we were told there would be soldiers standing along the road and countryside with red flags; if we were caught taking unauthorized pictures of North Korea, they would raise a red flag, our bus would pull over, and it would be a quick trip to and from North Korea.
With all that being said, you might be wondering why I decided to go to North Korea; well, I guess the quickest answer to that is that you only live once. So with “Wonderwall”, by Oasis, playing on the bus radio, we crossed through the DMZ. And like we were warned, there were a countless amount of soldiers with red flags waiting our arrival. Looking around the barren landscape, I notice numerous missile silos up in the mountains pointing towards the south. It didn’t get much more real than this.
Well the surreal severity of the situation became even more intense when we got to the “Immigration Office.” And you might be wondering why I put that in quotes; well the “Immigration Office” was a massive wedding tent. In the background were two massive paintings attached to a local factory. And in the air was playing propaganda music. Like cattle, we were told what line and number we had to go through immigration. Sweating a bit, like all the other foreigners waiting to get into North Korea, it was finally my time to confront the immigration officer after I passed through the security check. Slapping my passport and visa down on the desk, the man scanned both, and looking up with frog eyes (he must have had a medical condition, because both eyes pointed in opposite directions), he proceeded to ask me “Poost time Gumgangsan?” I didn’t want to ask him anything, but I didn’t understand what he was asking, “Pardon,” I asked as politely as I could. Again, “Poost time Gumgangsa?” Scratching my head mentally for a second, I finally figured out what he was asking, “Yes, first time in Gumgangsan.” And with that said he welcomed me to North Korea. Now, almost in mockery of the all surreal situation, there were a row of portable toilets (I guess they were literally trying to make us crap ourselves) and a stuffed life-sized bear with a North Korean dancing inside. Surreal!
Finally, with everyone through immigration without any problems, we were on our way to the green-fenced complex that would be housing us during our two day stay in North Korea. After dropping our stuff off at the hotel (ie former palace of Kim Il Sung’s wife), we made our way over to the trail at Manmulsang. After the early morning and the afternoon of hiking, it didn’t take me long to crash after dinner.
Manmulsang: the first trail we hiked when we got to North Korea.
The next day we had a fully booked day to Samilpo Lake, Kuryongyon countryside,and Singyesa Temple. On the way to Kuryongyon we saw Singyesa. Our tour guide promised us that on the way back from climbing around the North Korean countryside at Kuryongyon, we would go.
And around lunch time we visited the trail at Kuryongyon.
So after a 2 to 3 hour hike, we returned to Singyesa Temple. Singyesa Temple (신계사) was built in 519. However, the temple was completely destroyed during the Korean War. The only thing that remained was, and is, a stone pagoda. In 2004, in collaboration with the Jogye Buddhist Order in South Korea and both Korean governments, the temple started to be resurrected. And in 2007 there was a lone South Korean monk/care-taker. In 2007, a lot of buildings had been resurrected, but had still to be fully furnished with internal and external paintings, as well as altar pieces. It must be noted that Singyesa Temple is more of a decorative piece than an active Buddhist temple. There are no followers at this temple other than the South Korean monk/care-taker in North Korea.
In total, there are 5 buildings at Singyesa Temple. There is a bell tower, living quarters, prayer halls, and the main hall. Some, in 2007, were incomplete, whether they were void of internal or external painting. Also, most noticeably, there was no bell in the bell tower. However, there were some gorgeously simplistic main altar pieces in the main hall. The colour scheme was uniquely orange, something I have yet to see in South Korea. The most unique aspect of this temple is a stone tablet marking a visit from Kim Il Seong in 1947 and 1948.
With a quick whirlwind tour of North Korea, and unforgettable moments along the way, it was time to get back to the South and work at 10 a.m. on Monday.
Admission is free and is only open when (and if, Gumgangsan is open up to foreigners again) the tour bus is willing to visit Singyesa.
OVERALL RATING: 9/10. Just for being North Korea alone, and being scared the entire time I was there, this temple is rated so highly. The temple itself is rather non-descript, other than the uniquely orange colour scheme. Also, when you first enter the temple grounds, there is the granite marker indicating a visit from Kim Il Seong in 1947 and 1948.
Enjoy the pictures of this temple, which is a rare inside look into North Korea from a foreigner’s perspective.
**I would like to give a special thanks to a good friend for giving me permission to use some of her pictures. Thank you T.H.!**