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The Killer Trek to the Buddha of Health, Gatbawi- South Korea

Famous in Daegu is a stone Buddha with a hat. Gatbawi is the Buddha of health, and many Koreans make a pilgrimage to him to attain blessings. We’ve never seen a Buddha statue with a hat before, except for the many images of it plastered all over the city.

It would be criminal to have lived in Daegu three years and never climbed Mt. Palgong to see it. So we did. We did it! It was tough, but we persevered!  Boy, did our thigh muscles scream for the next four days….but we did it!

We climbed up there last Sunday, exactly one week ago. As we drove up and up, we figured that great, the more we drove up the mountain, the less we would have to climb it…ok. At 8:30 in the morning, we were surprised at how many cars were already parked.

Korean coffee shops don’t even open until 10:00! Apparently, this pilgrimage is worth getting up early for, or perhaps they just wanted to beat the heat. We had to park in the third parking lot, which didn’t seem too bad, until we were crawling back down; that extra 300 yards was a killer!

The walk immediately started getting steep. Someone had decided that laying rough concrete would be easier than steps or a dirt path, but it didn’t seem to help me much. The sign at the beginning said it was a mere 2.2 kilometers….no problem!

After about 15 minutes of continuous climbing, we sat down to take a quick break on a rare piece of flat land. A Korean-American couple came up to talk to us, and she let us in on a secret; we really hadn’t even started yet. What?!

So after our chat, we bravely headed uphill….and we climbed, and we climbed, and we climbed. At one point there was a nun (well, we thought on the way up that she was a monk with her shaved head, but on the way down we gave her an offering and she blessed us in very melodic female voice), and right behind her was a well-made and intentional rest area. We figured that it had to be about half way. So we took a short rest and kept going.

We climbed another 20 minutes or so, with frequent stops, and came to a distance sign, only 300 meters to the top. We finally had made it two-thirds of the way. At this point we were visibly tired, and the people who passed us gave us many words of encouragement. Well, I’m assuming that’s what they were saying; it sounded sweet. I didn’t detect one bit of “Lady, if you think you can make it up this mountain with your big American body, you have another thought coming.”

We stopped at another rest area and reloaded on water, afterwards we knew we were on the final stretch, and what a stretch it was. There were a few “steps” that I had to lift my weary legs about three feet in the air to pull myself up. I really don’t know how those ancient Korean ladies do it, but there were plenty that couldn’t be a day younger than 80, and they were all kicking my booty all the way to the top!

Finally, we were there. The first stop was a window selling offerings, candles, rice, etc., and then after just a few more stairs, we saw a concrete platform packed full of prostrating pilgrims. We could hardly navigate through the throng without tromping on hands. As we came around an enclave of rocks, there he was, Gatbawi, the medicine Buddha. I suppose if you can climb that mountain, you are going to have pretty good health.

We lingered for a few minutes trying to take in the august and lively spiritual scene, but after a few photographs, we headed back down. I marveled at how they could first climb the mountain, then prostrate themselves 108 times, then climb back down. It was going to take all of my strength just get back to the car.

Going down was not any easier than going up. We gladly took advantage of the few rest stops as our legs were quickly turning to jelly. Luckily going down was much faster than going up, but the best part was, that now I got to be the encouraging one. So many Koreans gave us their blessing; it was wonderful.

If you find yourself in Daegu, take the bus to Gatbawi. Now that my thighs have recovered, I can truly say, it was worth it!

Author Bio: Corinne Vail is a travel photographer, food lover, and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 14 years. For many years she lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands teaching the children of the US. military. She’s visited over 90 countries, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.


Saturday 17th of November 2012

It sounds like quite the climb! I'm sure I would be resting every few minutes but what an accomplishment to have under your belt!


Saturday 17th of November 2012

Suzy, It was awesomely tough...a once in a lifetime experience! Thanks, Corinne