Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Gangwondo Chuseok Part Three: Seoraksan

After a fruitless inquiry at a Korean rarity - an actual backpacker hostel, near the city bus station - we were directed by the charming owner to a rather grotty, though at least cheap motel in the centre of town, just off Rodeo Street, Sokcho's primary thoroughfare. It would be easy to mock such a name, especially because there was no indication why it should be called that, but I'll try to resist the temptation. Perhaps there is a totally logical explanation for a small town near the North Korean border having its main street named after a motif of the American west, just that I don't know about it. Then again, as a foreigner in Korea you do become gradually inured against preposterous uses of English, or in this case, Spanglish.

That evening we planned our assault on Seoraksan over some fiercely spicy dalk galbi. After stocking up on more ramyeon, nuts, chocolate, biscuits and oranges we got an early night, after packing the bags. My bag probably weighed about 10kg (our sleeping bags and mats, spare clothes, wet weather gear, cooking equipment, flip-flops, other sundries like a knife, first aid kit etc.), and Sam's probably around 6kg, maybe 7kg with full water, (food, some utensils, her wet weather gear). While I'm aware that splitting gear this way is considered bad backpacking strategy, in Korea it doesn't seem to be as crucial. Civilization is not only always in close proximity, but the way to it is also so well sign-posted, and there's always someone, usually a lot of people, nearby to send for help if it's needed. It would be remarkable bad luck bordering on almost impossible to die in one of Korea's national parks outside of winter.

On the way to Biseondae
We got to the trailhead, just beyond Sinheungsa's enormous bronze Buddha statue, at about half past seven in the morning. It was a gorgeous autumn morning: crisp, with a bright, cloudless blue sky, and near-dazzling sunlight. Perfect weather for hiking. We walked for about 3km to Biseondae cliffs, where the morning light flecked the cracked and besmeared ochre rocks. The views up into inner Seorak were worth hanging around for here, before the more serious business of the ascent began.

Cliffs at Biseondae
The first section of climbing took us, on a steep incline with an excess of stone steps, to the turn off for Geumgang cave, a hole about 150 feet up some metal steps from the main path. We declined to go and see it. The views would be great, but our guess was that they were comparable as you continued up the trail, where there were fewer people and queues. In fact, as we decided to take fewer rest stops than the other, rather heavily-laden people climbing this part of the park, we soon broke away from them and had the mountain peacefully pretty much to ourselves.
View on the climb up to Madeungryeong pass
It took us until about half past eleven to reach Madeungryeong pass, with a few short rest stops. We idled at the pass for a half hour lunch break, enjoying our oranges with butterflies and the still, sunny warmth. 
After lunch we had a some difficulty trying to locate our trail, which appeared to be closed. Originally we had planned to follow this route, but, we were told, the trail to Suryeomdong shelter was closed, inaccessible. This was more than a little worrying, as I didn't want to have dragged the kit up here only to have to go back to a motel that night. Part of the original motivation in going to Suryeomdong was that it was out of the way - along with Yangpok shelter it is unreservable, operating on a first-come-first-served basis - and it also meant a nice easy hike down into the valley of inner Seorak after a morning of climbing. So we weighed up our choices. At the time, neither of us knew which shelters were booking only and which one was a possibility; our Korean ability didn't stretch to finding out either. So, looking at the map by the trail we decided to get across the Gongnyong ridge. The sign said it was 5.1km, so it couldn't take that long, we reasoned. That didn't quite turn out to be the case, and it's worth pointing out here some of the failings of the - for the most part impressive and useful - English website for Korea's national parks.
Gongnyong ridge. Back centre is  Daecheongbong, the tallest peak in the park
First of all, in the map linked above, it calls the course the Gongnyong ridge course, but the red trail line does not actually touch the ridge. Above the red line which goes through Suryeomdong shelter on the map are three more trails, roughly speaking parallel to it. The Gongnyong ridge is the trail second above the red line, the trail which runs between Nahanbong and Huiungak shelter (in reality, Nahanbong is actually on the ridge itself, just after its starting point, but this is less of a problem). Secondly, The website claims that 'it takes 5-6 hours to pass the 5.1km Gongnyong ridge.' Whether this is deliberately patronizing, I don't know; but it does go on to mention that 'it is a very rigorous course with changeable weather and steep paths' and that hikers 'should take thorough precautions as the place is dangerous.' Now, while I don't think that the dramatic tone is necessary, and it could be put down to bad translation, it did not strike me as any more dangerous than other hikes I've done elsewhere in Korea. 
Disappointingly, it never looks as steep in a photo
Some parts are tough, and I was grateful for the ropes or rails they'd provided. It is a very steep and undulating trail of laborious gains and heart-breaking losses. In winter, over ice and snow, it would be very hard work. You wouldn't be able to do it after a few bottles of ale. However, saying that it takes 5-6 hours to walk it is absurd. Although I got stuck into it, going as fast as I could in an effort to search for a bed for the night, it only took me three hours. Sam had it wrapped up half an hour later. We are reasonably fit, and we hike regularly, but we're certainly not competing in Iron-man triathlons. Which brings me to the naive way the park authorities seem to measure distance: I refuse to believe that I have only traveled five kilometres in three hours, while walking as fast as I can, without stopping. Their measurement of distance, I guess, is done 'as the crow flies,' not taking into account the distance you travel going up and down. My guess is that the ridge is probably about eight or maybe even nine kilometres of walking, on precipitous paths. 

Consequently, our walk ended up looking more like this one, though with a slightly different middle and ending. The ending, the next day's hike, would take us from Yangpok shelter to Daecheongbong (대청봉), then descending to Osaek (오색), the path to the right of the one marked in blue on the map. The different middle was due to our attempt to find shelter. After going on ahead, I found out at Huiungak shelter that Yangpok shelter was our best bet for a bed for the night. I waited for Sam at the Gongnyong junction and then ran off down the gorge to see if I could find a bed. The weather had been closing in during our time on the ridge, and neither of us fancied being out in the rain again. 
Oryeon waterfall

In reality though, I was happy enough to travel down to the shelter. The walk through the gorge and past the Oryeon waterfall (오련 폭포) and its aquamarine pools was spectacular, if slightly disheartening knowing that we'd be going back up that way the next day. It didn't rain either. After finding friendly staff at Yangpok shelter at just before four o' clock, and, more importantly, two berths in dorm for the night, we set about eating lots of ramyeon and other carbs. 

By the time we'd eaten, washed up and laid out our bedding it was six o' clock and nearly dark. Most of the other folk using the shelter were getting into bed, so we did as well. We had been lucky: there were maybe six people who got beds after us, and we had a corner pretty much to ourselves.

It was a markedly different experience from the shelter I stayed in on Jirisan, completely lacking any corresponding atmosphere of the carnivalsesque. The dorm was unisex as well, also unlike on Jirisan, and several families were bunking down with their kids in tow, who were mercifully some of the quieter of the peninsula's children. There was of course the orchestral snoring that you find in any dorm, and the almost constant shuffle of somebody going to the bathroom. On the whole though, and probably because we had worn ourselves out, we slept pretty well. 
Yangpok shelter
We woke early the next morning, and I rose to get breakfast underway as soon as it was light at about six. During our oatmeal and coffee it started to spit with rain, then it came more heavily just as we were finishing breakfast under the shelter of a stairwell. Thankfully it seemed to pass after about half an hour. We hastily washed up and packed, wearing wet weather gear as the rain continued to spit, and began our climb out of the gorge.

Sam waiting for me, about to climb back up through the gorge
The climb back up to Huiungak shelter took us about an hour, our bodies a bit weary from the day before, and taking some time to warm up. The path was busy, even though it was still pretty early. When I had got up in the dark at Yangpok, a large group arrived, wearing head-torches and asking me where they could buy food. They seemed surprised that the shelter staff, nor many other people, weren't up yet. 

Huiungak shelter, damp and covered in hanging cloud, was a different story, much more like my experience at Yeonhacheon on Jirisan. People abounded, the air was redolent of kimchi, huge pots of rice and various jjigae were cooking, fish and meat were being fried, from the vast culinary stores that had dragged up the mountain. It was noisy and chaotic, so we stopped only long enough to drink and refill our water and have a quick snack before pressing on, upwards again to Jungcheongbong. 

Clouds were rolling over the trail constantly at this point, though the rain and damp that we had started the day with had largely gone. The air was chillier as we climbed higher, but the paths remained busy - it was a Saturday, I suppose - wherever we were. It was a nice surprise to see all age groups represented on the mountain: groups of teenage boys jostled with folks who would soon be drawing their pensions on the narrow paths.  
View on the way up to Jungcheongbong
The clouds looked increasingly spectacular as we made our way past Jungcheongbong (중청봉) and on to the shelter that shares its name. We had taken our time this morning arriving here at about eleven, we had a cuppa-soup and loitered while the wind whipped around us. 

There was very little else to do apart from the short walk to Daecehongbong, at 1,708m asl the highest pint not only in the park, but also in the whole Taebaek mountain range. Unsurprisingly, the summit was crowded and blustery, so we took a few photos and started the descent towards Osaek. 

Going down took about two hours, the slamming downhill working our knees and ankles pretty hard. The trail was pretty and the sun was out, making it a nice way to finish. We got to the exit and walked down to the touristy village of motels and restaurants and shops selling tat. We were there at about two-thirty. 

After toying with the idea of getting a bus we splurged on a taxi, with the faint idea that we could get a bus to Seoul and the return to Mokpo that day. By the time we'd got back to Sokcho, thirty thousand won poorer form the ride, we decided to stay the night and head off early the next morning. It turned out to be a good decision. The six-and-a-half hour journey the length of South Korea would have been miserable had we done it that day.

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