CHAPTER XX. A trip to Poo-kan - A curious monastery.

One of the most interesting excursions in the neighbourhood of Seoul, is that to the Poo-kan fortress. The pleasantest way of making it is to start from the West Gate of Seoul and proceed thence either on horseback or on foot, along the Pekin Pass road, past the artificial cut in the rocks, until a smaller road, a mere path, is reached, which branches off the main road and leads directly to the West Gate of the Poo-kan fortress. This path goes over hilly ground, and the approaches to the West Gate of the fortress are exceedingly picturesque.

The gate itself much resembles any of those of Seoul, only being of smaller proportions. It is, however, situated in a most lovely spot. As soon as we have entered, a pretty valley lies disclosed to our eyes, with rocky mountains surrounding it, the highest peak of which towers up towards the East. The formation of these hills is most peculiar and even fantastic. One of them, the most remarkable of all, is in the shape of a round dome, and consists of a gigantic semi-spherical rock.

Following the path, then, which leads from the West to the South Gate, and which winds its way up steep hills, one comes at last to the temples. These are probably, the best-preserved and most interesting in the neighbourhood of the Corean capital. When I visited them, the monks were extremely polite and showed me everything that was of any note. The temples were in a much better state of preservation than is usual in the land of Cho-sen, and the ornaments, and paintings on the wooden part under the roof were in bright colours, as if they had been only recently restored. There are, near these temples, by the way, tablets put up in memory of different personages. In other respects, they were exactly similar to those I have already described in a previous chapter.

At last, on the left hand side, I came upon the old palace. As with all the other palaces, so in this case there are many low buildings for the inferior officials besides a larger one in the centre, to which the King can retreat in time of war when the capital is in danger. The ravages of time, however, have been hard at work, and this place of safety for the crowned heads of Corea is now nothing but a mass of ruins. The roofs of the smaller houses have in most cases fallen through, owing to the decayed condition of the wooden rafters, and the main building itself is in a dreadful state of dilapidation. The ensemble, nevertheless, as one stands a little way off and looks at the conglomeration of dwellings, is very picturesque; this effect being chiefly due, I have little doubt, to the tumble-down and dirty aspect of the place. As the houses are built on hilly ground, roof after roof can be seen with the palace standing above them all in the distance, while the battlements of the ancient wall form a nice background to the picture.

The most picturesque spot of all, however, is somewhat farther on, where the rivulet, coming out of the fortress wall, forms a pretty waterfall. After climbing a very steep hill, the South Gate is reached - the distance between it and the West Gate being about five miles - and near it is another smaller gate, which differs in shape from all the other gates in Corea, for the simple reason that it is not roofed over. Just outside the small South Gate, on the edge of a precipice, are constructed against the rocks a pretty little monastery and a temple. The access to these is by a narrow path, hardly wide enough for one person to walk on without danger of finding himself rolling down the slope of the rock at the slightest slip of the foot. The Buddhist priest must undoubtedly be of a cautious as well as romantic nature, for otherwise it would be difficult to explain the fact that he always builds his monasteries in picturesque and impregnable spots, which ensure him delightful scenery and pure fresh air in time of peace, combined with utter safety in time of war. In many ways, the monastery in question reminded me of the Rock-dwellers. Both temple and monastery were stuck, as it were, in the rocks, and supported by a platform and solid wall of masonry built on the steep incline - a work which must have cost much patience and time.

The temple is crowded inside with rows of small images of all descriptions, some dressed in the long robes and winged hats of the officials, with dignified and placid expressions on their features; others, like fighting warriors, with fierce eyes and a ferocious look about them; but all covered with a good coating of dust and dirt, and all lending themselves as a sporting-ground to the industrious spider. The latter, disrespecting the high standing of these imperturbable deities, had stretched its webs across from nose to nose, and produced the appearance of a regular field of sporting operations, bestrewn with the spoils of its victims, which were lying dead and half eaten in the webs and on the floor.

The place goes by the name of the "Temple of the Five Hundred Images;" but I think that this number has been greatly exaggerated, though there certainly may be as many as two or three hundred.

The most interesting feature about this monastery is that at the back of the small building where the priests live is a long, narrow cavern in the rocks, with the ceiling blackened by smoke. This cavern is about a hundred feet in length, and at its further end is a pretty spring of delicious water. A little shrine, in the shape of an altar, with burning joss-sticks and a few lighted grease candles, stood near the spring, and there a priest was offering up prayers, beating a small gong the while he addressed the deities.

The descent from the temple was very steep and rough, over a path winding among huge boulders and rocks for nearly three miles. Then, reaching the plain, I accomplished the remainder of the distance to Seoul, over a fairly good road, and on almost level ground, all the way to the North Gate, by which I again entered the capital.