Hiking in Korea is not for the faint of heart.
My legs still hurt.
Basically, hiking in Korea is unlike other places. You go straight up. None of this switchback business to lesson the strain. The paths are stones arranged into haphazard steps, or actual steps scaling the cliff-like paths.
But the sun does, in fact, rise in the east. As we saw over the Sea of Japan. More on that later.
Seoraksan. We climbed Daechongbong Peak (대청봉); all 1,708 metres (5,603 feet) of it, and then some. It’s the highest peak in the Taebaek mountain range, and the highest second-highest third-highest peak in South Korea.
A beautiful weekend!
Day 1: Friday
Ryan and I suffered the 4-hour bus ride to Sokcho, and I was stared down by a grumpy old man for talking too loudly. And he continued to stare at me even after I got quiet, so I hid behind his chair until he turned around.
Seriously, Koreans are very into keeping it quiet in public. I get stared at all the time on subways and buses, usually as Becca and Ryan laugh until I sheepishly lower my voice.
Anyways, we met up with Dan, Amelia (the birthday girl! who unwittingly chose this adventure as her birthday trip), and Becca. They had snagged a hotel that was $20 a room. Dan & Amelia’s room actually had a bed, while the rest of us were left to mats on the floor. I should have taken a picture. You basically get a square room–a little smaller than my deck back home–with a stack of mats, pillows, and blankets. Plenty comfortable! There was even a communal tube of toothpaste in the bathroom. I used my own.
Horrendous wall paper though.
The guys were starving, so we wandered the streets of Sokcho. Which, for a beach-side tourist town, was eerily dead at 11 or 12 at night. At a random corner, we turned right, and saw a sign that said “Chicken and beer.” Done! Turned out, it was a norebang. A very odd first-time-norebang-experience, but what are you gonna do! We had birthday cake, too!
Day 2: Saturday
We had to wait for E-Mart to open–we needed food, and Becca needed hiking shoes and a backpack–so we got kind of a late start. For travelers: just take the No. 7 or 7-1 city bus–there’s a stop right next to the bus terminal, and across from the express bus terminal–to the park. Cost is ₩1,000.
On the bus, we got more than a stare-down for talking too loudly. Mid-Dan-rant, another old man yelled at and shushed us. Oops.
The English information guy tried to warn us that all the shelters were full, and we better not try climbing Daechongbong.
We decided to just go for it anyways. What were they going to do if we got up there and they were full? Make us walk back down in the dark? I love that we have the ability to play the dumb foreigner card! (Side note: the man was a liar. Two of the shelters were first-come; only the last one was reservation-only. SO he just assumed they were all full since it was later, the chump. Although he was half-right…)
After a wrong turn (ahhh, WV horror movie flashbacks!), we spent the next few hours of the afternoon enjoying some dazzlingly gorgeous scenery as we climbed up and down and along the ravine (sorry, I just really wanted to use the word, “dazzling.”).
Every.single.person. on the mountain was completely outfitted from head to toe. Brightly colored hats, brightly colored whisk-away-hiking-shirts, brightly colored fleece jackets, brightly colored rain jackets, dark colored pants–all of the quick-dry variety–and backpacks. Oh, and hiking poles. How could I forget the hiking poles? Especially since at one point or another we all wanted desperately to grab them out of the hands of the hiker who had poked/shoved/hit/tripped us with them and whack them over the head.
At first I felt super-American-touristy in my bright green shirt, and remembered that I had bright blue shorts in my pack for the next day. Then I saw the neon rainbow lining the trails of the mountain, and relaxed. I blended right in! Nope, scratch that, I didn’t have hiking poles. Darn.
I have decided that Korea is simultaneously the most polite and the rudest culture I have ever experienced.
My co-workers are delightful, everyone is always saying “Maybe” and trying not to upset anyone else, they try overly-hard to be hospitable, and then there’s the whole “service” deal and gifts and free things you get all the time.
On the other hand.
I don’t think I’ve gone a day without hearing someone hock a loogie. Yech. And I see them on the sidewalks. It’s worse than trying to avoid stepping in gum. No wonder they don’t wear their shoes inside!
Out and about, you bump into people. Granted, there’s not a lot of space for a lot of people. But still. And it was no different on the mountain.
On the way up, we had to constantly stop to make way for the droves of people coming down in endless lines of hot-pink, hot-orange, and periwinkle. We were all getting a bit frustrated–especially as A) there were 5 of us and it would have been much simpler for them to let us pass than for us to wait for the 500 of them to amble on by, hitting us with their sticks as they went, and B) it’s common hiking courtesy to allow the up-hikers to pass.
On the way down, Koreans redeemed themselves in our minds. In total we received: cucumbers, bottles of energy/vitamin drinks, candy, and a snickers bar. Plus having our photos taken twice with random people.
No room in the Inn
The first shelter we came to had space left, so Ryan & Becca stopped off there as Becca didn’t have a sleeping bag and couldn’t risk sleeping outside if the next shelter was full.
Up until that point, the trail had been a lot of up and down and up and down and sideways. Right after we left them, the serious incline started, and never stopped. Basically, the first half was making your way through the ravine and slowly gaining ground, and the second half was going up the actual mountain. OUCH.
We took many breaks in that last jaunt up to the shelter, and I am not ashamed. Our legs were burning, and my heart was beating faster than a butterfly’s wings on crack.
First we ran into a small look-out tower, and this man sketching the surroundings, who I wish I could have talked to.
At the shelter, the man behind the desk told us they were full. We asked if we could sleep on the floor. To which the man replied, “No. No floor.” Cue our baffled faces and looks of “Oh no, what are we going to do now? Who could have guessed this would happen?”
“OK, floor tonight. But Seoraksan, no floor. Tonight only, floor.”
“Kamsamnida!!” You dirty liar you. After we set up our sleeping bags on the porch, we were asked to move by a group of men who set up TENTS on the porch, and were woken up by at least 20 snoring Koreans, also sleeping on the floor. “Dumb foreigner card” is equal to “smart Korean card” in this case.
Everyone was loud, some were drunk–as evidenced by the monstrous empty bottles of soju the next morning–and generally disturbing the peace. Ironic since that weekend had already included a stare-down and a shushing for talking loudly.
We hiked up a little further, sans packs, to catch some sunset-lit-views.
On the plus side, we got to sleep under a ridiculous amount of stars. And only woke up a few times because of the cold. Although at one point Dan poked Amelia to try to get her to stop snoring, before he realized it wasn’t her. It was the 20 other people around us.
Day 3: Sunday
Around 4am, people started getting up–talking, laughing, and generally being loud.
Around 4:30am, I go, “Are you guys awake?”
“Yes. For the last hour and a half.”
“Oh, look a shooting star!”
“Yeah, I’ve seen loads.”
“Hm…wanna just start hiking then?”
We wanted to see the sunrise from the top anyway.
Thank goodness I threw my headlamp in my bag at the last minute.
We passed a man laid flat on the long, painful way up, up, up. I think we climbed the last 700 meters that morning. Sheesh!
Every now and then, we’d pause to catch a view of the ever-brightening nightscape. As the sky got lighter and lighter, we started going faster, as much as our legs could manage. We ascended the ridge, only to find there was 1.1km left to the peak. Onward!
We got close enough. Amelia and I sprinted up a few flights of stairs (I guess muscle pain is mostly mental!) to get as high as possible before the sun broke the horizon. She was in her t-shirt, and got some laughs and comments from Koreans clad in three layers of down-jackets.
After watching the event, we finished the climb.
The hike back down the way we had come was 10-12km, but the hike down to Osaek was 5km. Tough choice. Osaek was also supposed to have hot springs.
Besides killing my knees, Amelia and I having aching limbs, and the three of us running out of water about 1km away from the bottom, it was grand! The leaves were pretty, anyway.
Once in Osaek, we disappointingly couldn’t find the hot springs. Ironically, I think we found them, but the people at the hotel couldn’t speak English. I pointed to where it said Hot Springs in the guidebook we had, and they sent us on our way. Oops. So all we found was a fountain of sorts for people to drink the mineral water that was in the elusive actual hot springs.
Oh well, you win some you lose some.
We reunited in Osaek, then split up again to head home.
Our bus apparently hit a ton of traffic, but as I slept for 90% of the 5 1/2 hour ride, I didn’t mind so much.
The next morning, I thought I had lost the use of my legs. I spent the day mimicking for my teachers how I hobbled to the kitchen.
And grimacing every time I had to stand up.
And today? Calves are still painfully sore, but I’m thinking I’m going to work them out again anyway. Can’t afford to rest!
So next up, I have to hike Jirisan–the second-highest peak in South Korea–and Hallasan volcano on Jeju island–to finish my hat-trick.
And hopefully I’ll have some leg muscles left over.
(p.s. “san” means mountain. Therefore, Seoraksan, Jirisan, Hallasan, Manisan, Munhaksan, etc. etc. etc. So you would say either Mt. Seorak or Seoraksan. Language lesson for the day!)