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.    

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