Thursday, September 30, 2010

Gangwondo Chuseok Part Two: Odaesan National Park

Waking up after the wash-out in Wonju, we decided to take a rest day to let our kit dry, and use it to travel to within easier striking distance of Odaesan National Park. Hiking fifteen or so miles in the pouring rain meant we deserved it, we reasoned.

We had been tired and whiskified enough to have had an early night and had woken up fairly early. Breakfast came from Kripsy Kreme, a pretty rare treat if you live in Mokpo, and just across the street. Thankfully most of our gear had dried during the night, except our boots. We packed up and headed to the bus station to get on a bus to the town nearest Odaesan. Catching the bus at ten o'clock-ish, we sauntered through the lesser roads of Gangwondo and arrived in Jinbu, a sleepy, one street town, and the gateway to the park.

We walked around what little there was of the town in the increasingly chilly weather and plumped for the 알프스 (Alps) motel, the least shady-looking lodgings available. It was cheap, which was good as it was also basic and a bit grubby. We stocked up on ramyeon and other snacks at the local Lotte-Super, as we didn't know what would be open later on: nothing much was around lunch time. We managed to find one open restaurant - admittedly this was on the middle day of Chuseok - which charged us a small fortune for some rice and mountain vegetable side-dishes. Still, it filled us up, and the quality of the food, in particular the refreshingly non-fishy kimchi, wasn't bad at all.

There was nothing else to do except go back to motel room, read, wash and watch bad TV. We did this until we had to start drinking to stave off the boredom, right around the time we started watching action movies. I went out to buy some more beer at around 8 o' clock, and Jinbu had come alive. The local Family Mart was heaving, various fried chicken joints had opened their doors and numerous drunks staggered around the street, singing and laughing. In fact, after having been a somnolent one-street-town during the day, the festivities obviously caught up with some people. Our motel seemed to become a sort-of Korean flophouse of noisy, inexpertly shagging drunks, while the streets outside seemed to have degenerated into a pseudo-Bacchanalian riot of soju and greasy food. Woken up several times during the night, we were almost curious enough to go and have a look.

When six-thirty rolled around we made coffee and oatmeal, somewhat tragically, on the camping stove in our room. The problem with Odaesan is that unlike other Korean national parks, it doesn't open early enough. In fact it doesn't open until nine o' clock, which was a bit inconvenient for us, as we had to get to Sokcho later in the day. The first bus that will take you to the trailhead was at eight-thirty. We checked out of our motel, got on it and 45 minutes later we were stashing our larger bags with a kindly lady, who refused any money for doing so, at the shop by trailhead's bus stop. This is the kind of thing I really enjoy about Korea. Back home, if there were actually somebody to ask to keep your bags, too often the response would be something along the lines of (sharp intake of breath) 'Well, I can't be responsible for your belongings, I don't know how safe they'll be...', or something equally disobliging. So often I have benefited form the kindness of strangers while here, in ways that are sadly almost inconceivable back in the UK.

Not having enough time to do a whole day's hiking we chose a course a little shorter than this one. I'll describe where we hiked but bear with me, it's not as easy as it sounds. Looking at the map linked above, the trailhead is where the road (in purple) intersects with the red trail line, north (or above) Odae Mountain Villa. We followed the red line clockwise up to Birobong, then over to Sangwangbong. Where the red line hits the purple again, instead of continuing up to Durobong, we just continued down the access road, back to where we started. The hike took us about four hours.
Japanese Maple becoming autumnal

It was a shame that we didn't have more time, as Odaesan, I thought, was a particularly attractive place, and the weather was much more agreeable than the day we spent on Chiaksan. I could understand why it's sometimes called the Korean Alps. The trail up to Birobong (yes, another one) is steep and fairly hard work, but seeing as the trailhead is at about 900m a.s.l., it's only about 650m of climbing. The poster in the park optimistically declares that, at my weight, I burnt 2,000 calories on the climb. I'm  unconvinced. It took just over an hour for me, which means I was working harder than if I was chopping wood and playing tennis at the same time. It was also very pretty and quiet, as we'd overtaken almost all the hikers who had started before us. The higher we got, the more evidence there was that a change in the seasons was on the way. Leaves were beginning to turn, and although I'm pretty certain John Keats didn't walk in Korea, his 'season of mists a mellow fruitfulness' was evident on the slopes, peaks and ridge of this part of Odaesan. The forests here seemed older than most I've seen in Korea and the flora was different from what we get down south, their creaking agedness emphasized by the film of mist that ran through them, obfuscating most of the views at higher elevations. The sun was evident once we started to descend, however. The walk down the
View from Birobong
access road back to the bus stop wasn't unattractive, but was a little boring.

We got back to the start point, picked up our gear, ate ramyeon (again) and waited for the bus to take us back to Jinbu. We hustled to get on the next available bus to Gangneung, sleeping a little, before transferring through the manic bus terminal and getting the first bus we could to Sokcho.

Given that walking the entire ridge - probably a two day affair - is possible in Odaesan, I'd like to go back some time. The problem, as always, is the logistics of getting to the place and having enough time to do what I want to before having to leave. It may well end up being another place I add to the list of mountains to hike once I've finished my contract, which is okay, but I wonder how long this list will have become by the end of next April.

Flowers on the access road back to the bus stop

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Teenage rebellion and Chiaksan

This last week has been Chuseok, apparently the Korean version of Thanksgiving, though conceivably that could be phrased the other way round. For the first time in a few years this national vacation has fallen during the middle of the week, on the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of the last full week of September. My school, like many other institutions, has decided to take the Friday off as well, giving me and everyone else six days off on the bounce. Great!

I still had to go and teach two lessons at school on Monday, however, and deal with the lingering drama last Friday had brought. During one of my lessons a first grade girl could not manage to stop talking, after being repeatedly asked, for the five minutes it took to explain the task to the class. She stomped off home in a tantrum, missing her remaining lessons for the day, when I told her she would be spoken to by one of the senior Korean English teachers about her behavior. She was in completely-unreasonable-teenager-mood, swore at me in Korean and addressed me in banmal (more information on banmal is here), then refused to leave or sit down or do anything unless I addressed her in Korean and used honorifics.

It seems to be the case at my school that the girls have the spikiest behavior. While the boys are undoubtedly more consistently badly behaved, their bad behavior is an obnoxiously-grinning sort of moronism. The sort of moronism that consults the dictionary then beams at you, asking what a "uh-nutch-ee" is - they meant eunuch, how I chortled - while their friends' faces redden, suppressing guffaws. The boys fight, and shout, and try to embarrass you with the misguided idea they have acquired god-knows-where that they are the first generation to have discovered genitalia.

Still, I find this preferable to the worst behaved girls who are vain, mendacious, truculent, snooty and waspish. The boys who behave badly hate the system but don't try to make it a personal vendetta against you, while this seems to be at the top of the badly behaved girls' agenda. Their behavior seems malignant and vitriolic, rather than daft and indecorous.

So, before lessons began on Monday, this girl's charming, embarrassed and slightly harassed-looking home-room teacher brought her to my office to perform an act of contrition. Feeling fairly de-mob happy, I suggested we had a fresh start after Chuseok, and that if she behaves well for the rest of the semester I'll forget about her tantrum. The student agreed, though I'm not sure if I believe her. I guess I'll just have to wait and see.  

Anyway, onto Gangwondo. Hastily sneaking out of school at 4 o' clock, I met my girlfriend and picked up the rest of my gear before heading to the bus station through the fast developing carnage of Mokpo's pre-Chuseok traffic. We got the bus to Gwangju and managed to inhale some fast food before taking the 18.40 express bus to Wonju. The trip took just over four hours, and we were grateful to find the clean and comfortable, though dubiously named, love motel, the 호텔 로망스 (Hotel Romang-seu), a couple of minutes walk from the city's bus station. We collapsed into bed just as the rain began to drizzle.

At just after seven in the morning it was still drizzling when we left the hotel to find a taxi to take us to the Goryong entrance of Chiaksan national park. The taxi ride took about half an hour and cost 20000won, significantly more than the bus, but we enjoyed the convenience. We wanted an early start, as we had decided to walk the whole of the mountain's ridge trail which would take, according to the Korea National Park website, 10 hours (a map is available here). It also claims, a little bizarrely, that this is a two day hiking course, presumably by walking half and then flip-flopping for another day to complete the trail, as there are no shelters in the park. Camping is expressly forbidden, unless at a designated site (not on the ridge) and punishable with a fine of up to 500000won.

Stormy weather at the top of Birobong
Not that many people would relish camping in the weather that arrived about half an hour into the walk. The skies darkened further, the wind picked up and the drizzle graduated to torrential rain.The going became less than great and it took us nearly three hours to reach the 1,288m summit of Birobong (which I think might actually mean "rain peak" in Korean), the tallest peak in the park. The weather was even more severe - the wind was particularly fierce - at the top: the cairns in the photo (left) are about ten meters apart, but the one at the back is barely visible.

There are three large cairns at the top of Birobong. They were constructed, apparently, by a Wonju baker during the 1960s, after he had a dream in which God told him to build them. This is the sort of dream I'm glad I've never had, and strangely enough, don't think I will ever have, either. Nonetheless, it took him a good few years to complete his task, and the five meter-or-so high cairns look quite impressive, though I think carrying the rocks there to build them is probably an activity exclusively for the 'divinely intervened'.

In fact, these cairns have been rebuilt by the sentimental park authorities after the two occasions when they've been struck by lightning. This suggests to me, perhaps naively, that this baker's God might be at least contrary, if not actually contemptuous of his achievements.

After pausing for a brief rest and a snack at the top we set off along the actual ridge. The trail was characterized by shady, dense, misty forest, muddy paths and slick rocks occasionally cloaked with dull emerald moss. The quiet was a bit eerie and unusual, as most of the time all we could hear was ourselves and the rain dripping from the trees. In fact, from Goryong to Hyangnobong we saw just six other people, something rare and pleasant in a Korean national park. They were the only humans we saw until we caught the bus back to Wonju.
View looking west from Namdaebong

It took us about an hour and a half to reach the pass before Hyangnobong, where we stopped again and another snack. The rain, for the time being, had abated a little and the hike was becoming less of a slog as we headed onto Namdaebong. By the time we reached this, the final peak, the sun was peeping through the clouds and the weather seemed to be improving. We decide to push on and finish the hike. As we descended I was struck by how swollen the rivers seemed. (I later found out that more than 10cm of rain fell that day, and that some Seoul metro stations had flooded). Most rivers I had previously encountered in Korea had either been gurgling trickles meandering around the bases of mountains or mis-managed, stagnant-seeming, miasmic swamps, like the Yongsan in Mokpo. However, the river on this side of the mountain frothed swiftly and loudly over and between dark stones and boulders, creating attractive miniature rapids and waterfalls.
River between Namdaebong and Seongnam ranger post
The rivers started moving even more rapidly when, after we had got about halfway to the ranger's post, the skies opened again, this time with even more vigour. After taking shelter in some farmer's polytunnel storage shed for ten minutes we decided that it wasn't going to get any better and the best course of action was to walk the rest of the way to the bus stop as quickly as we could. The rain didn't let up, and by the time we reached the bus stop we were fully drenched again, everything we had wringing wet. The hike had taken us almost exactly nine hours, most of it in pouring rain, but it had been pretty, we had appreciated the few views we got more than usual, and best of all it had been quiet. The bus driver - asleep on the back seat of the bus, of course -  let us on and got us out of the rain and was more than a little surprised when we told him we lived in Mokpo. After waiting 20 minutes for the driver to have a rest, comb his hair and dust around the driving seat we set off back to Wonju. The bus we took, the number 23, didn't go by the bus station, but once we were in Wonju a taxi was just a base fare back to the hotel. The rain was still coming down and worsening. After stocking up on whisky and snacks, we found the main road between the bus station and our accommodation was now ankle-deep with water. We got back to the hotel, the guy at the front desk looking quizzically at us. We took hot showers, ordered pizza to be delivered to our room and hung our wet gear to dry, just before the thunder and lightning began, glad to be out of it.    

Sunday, September 19, 2010

First post and all that jazz

My aim in this blog is just to account for what I get up to week by week, what happens to me and what I happen upon. I will attempt to give details about my job, what I do in my spare time and other things I think might be interesting.

I would, however, like to give some sort of introduction to what I hope will be the most prominent subjects I'll write about, those in the blog's title. 

Teaching in Korea

I teach at a high school just outside of Mokpo in the south Jeolla province of the Republic of South Korea. If that sounds like a mouthful, it's because it is. It's at the end of the line for the high speed train, the highway and numerous other trappings of civilization. I teach, putatively, a farcically lightweight 17 hours a week, though often these are reduced by the need for exams, 'university days,' sports days, blood tests, fire service demonstrations, in fact just about any excuse you can think of, and many you can't, means cancelled classes. The job is easy, low-pressure and pleasant, if slightly unrewarding and dull. My co-workers are, by and large, a nice bunch of folks, who, like folks anywhere, are just trying to get along with the world around them.

It is an academic, as opposed to a technical school, and one which has plenty of kids from well-adjusted and more wealthy backgrounds, but inevitably has its share of lunatics as well. Korean students have their studies immovably focused on their college entrance exam. This is amplified at my place due to its proximity to the end of their time at the school, so English speaking classes are really seen by everyone except me as just an admixture of down-time, games and a chance for students to air their more bizarre and/or xenophobic views to a foreigner. No grades are awarded for my class,  so my students are devoid of any extrinsic motivation. I'm too much of a miserable old git to give them chocolate, candy or stickers. They're teenagers: I would respect them a lot more if they didn't beg for these things, though the innocence behind such pleas is endearing, when I consider the monstrous adolescents back home.  

If you have lived for more than a month in Korea it will not surprise you that there is no formal, standardized assessment of English speaking ability in Korean school education. Half the English teachers at my school (there are six) struggle with speaking English themselves. One of them is unilaterally incoherent. Her scatter-gun approach to sentence composition - I am sure in her mind she is thinking along the lines of 'I'll just throw in an "however" or perhaps a "maybe"' - leaves me continually baffled. I do feel sorry for her though: there are kids at the school who have had the opportunity to participate in home-stays in English-speaking countries (New Zealand seems to be a popular choice) whose English is much better than hers. And at least she tries. 

This is part of the conundrum of teaching in a government school here. While so many things in Korea change at the drop of a hat - like my contract of employment last Christmas time - changes in English language learning advance at a regal pace, and often share the hollow, pompous and insistent bombast associated with monarchies. Speaking skills, as well as writing, are beginning to be taken more seriously, and English learning may well become more holistic in the future. It hasn't really happened yet though. So instead, for the time being, the curriculum concentrates on grammatical nuance which, for the rather large portion of kids who are not going to become philologists, has all the utility of an ashtray on a motorcycle. It makes them resent English, one of the most inventive and creative languages in the world. Sadly, they are not only not given any impression that this is the case, but also provided with such scanty linguistic tools as to think it improbable. 

Each entry I post will have something, hopefully, to do with life at school, even if it's just a lesson plan from that week. After all, I spend forty hours a week there so I should, hopefully have something to report.


Obviously, I like to travel: I left home to teach abroad, and don't see Korea as a place to settle down. Paul Theroux has, I think, a pithily good take on travel, as opposed to tourism: 'tourists don't know where they've been, travelers don't know where they're going.'  I don't know where I'll go next.

Conversely, at least according to Theroux's definition, I may also be a tourist. I'll write about the trips I take and let anyone who reads this blog decide which camp I fall into.


By 'trek,' really I suppose I mean 'hike,' but couldn't resist the alliterative title, no matter how cheapening it is. Trekking, of course, requires more than one day on the trail at a time, something not possible too often for me. So most of this part of the blog will be concerned with the day hikes I do around the Korean peninsula and anywhere else I get to go.

Hiking in Korea is good, but has its drawbacks. While Tae kwon do is officially Korea's national sport, hiking, I would guess, seems to be the most popular leisure activity. It is common to see multiple, large coach loads of (generally middle-aged and older) Koreans descending upon their country's mountains every weekend. Consequently, if you're looking for a wilderness experience, then look elsewhere: Korea is just too crowded and hiking just too popular for this to be possible. In addition, this brings with it other problems. Littering by some inconsiderate folks and a predilection some have for making excessive noise - shouting at the summit (brilliant) or, even more appealing, bringing a stereo and blasting your music everywhere you go on the trail -  sometimes lead to a miserable and frustrating day out. 

It's not all bad news however. Trails are, more often than not, pretty steep, so you get a good workout. If you get up early and miss the crowds, or go during more inclement weather you can have the trail to yourself, or at least almost to yourself. The scenery is gorgeous and at times unique. There is potable water along a lot of trails, or a temple nearby which will have drinkable, free water. What's more, due to hiking's popularity amongst the natives it's a great country for novice hikers. It's almost impossible to get lost for more than half an hour, particularly in Korea's national parks, whose enduring popularity means well-maintained and signed trails. Even the 'lesser' mountains, of which there are many, are similarly hiker friendly. When you hike in Korea, a map an compass are often superfluous.

In the blog I'll try to give details of where I've hiked, links to maps and any other information I think might be useful. I'll also try to create an archive of the hikes I've already been on, though this will be a gradual process.

First real entry next Monday, hopefully.