Thursday, October 21, 2010

Gyeryongsan National Park, some Drama in Daejeon

School has been fairly uneventful this week. All the kids appeared tired and broken after their exams, so I gave them the task of making group presentations about a country of their own creation. They had this week's lesson and 20 minutes next week to complete it. I told them I expected to see flags designed, laws drawn up, ideas on how their new societies will work, a national anthem and anything else they could tell me. The results, which I will post about next week, have guaranteed hilarity written all over them already. I promised, perhaps rashly, that winning groups would be bought some snacks from the school shop.

Aside from a fairly pedestrian week at school, there is, of course, the seemingly inevitable weekend hiking trip to report. We left on Friday afternoon again to get the two-and-a-half hour drive to Gyeryongsan National Park out of the way, and allow us some camping before hiking the next day. The weather forecast for Saturday wasn't great, but we were undeterred, and we arrived at the campsite in good time at about quarter to eight in the evening. Unfortunately, the campsite was run by one of those meddlesome, petty old fools who believe they are fountains of knowledge and fantastically helpful, when in fact their incompetence is only matched by the by the doggedness of their delusion and their cretinous belligerence. Usually, my tactic when faced with the demonstrably idiotic is the by now well-worn S.N.I.P. (smile, nod, ignore, proceed), however this is more difficult when someone wants to charge you money to pitch your tent on a concrete slab, or within five yards of the site's only toilet block. Learning more Korean is of course good in itself, and here it would have had great utility. However, and perhaps fortunately, I wasn't able to tell him how annoyed I was when after offering us a decent pitch, he then gave it to a couple who arrived after we did (there are no reservations at national park campsites). They flounced up to him with their vile little dog - it looked like a rat whose fur had been shaved off so they could buy it a jumper; and like them it barked like it was on an amphetamines-rich diet - and took our site because, from what I could tell, they could piss and moan in Korean far better than I can.

Finally we got a place behind two cars on some gravel, next to two families (complete with wailing kids), who rather sweetly asked me if I needed help putting our tent up. I declined. It was getting towards nine o' clock by this point, we were both hungry and tired, so I hurriedly setup up the tent and lit the barbecue. Sam sorted out the bedding, and then moved the car under the superfluous supervision of the aforementioned monkey who had somehow gained charge of this circus. It's understandable that those families offered help though. When camping, Koreans, whether as a family or not, I have noticed without fail, bring tents with more space than most apartments here; TVs, entire kitchens, generators, fridges, enough food to survive a drought or a poor harvest or both; endless amounts of fabric and poles to use as windbreaks or privacy screens, benches, cots, chairs, stools, hammocks, stoves, barbecues etc., etc. On one occasion I actually saw a kitchen sink, though I wasn't surprised. Bear in mind this is for a weekend. The expense they go to must be extraordinary. I can understand it in some respects though. If I lived in a tiny office-tel with my family I would be tempted to take up as much room as was humanly possible when I went camping, spreading my self out and enjoying the luxury of, as well as my luxuries in, the great outdoors. Don't think I'll ever see the point of bringing a TV camping though, although Koreans are hardly unique in doing this.

By the time we had shoveled some food down our throats and drank a couple of beers it was nearly half past eleven and time for bed. The alarm was set for quarter past five the next morning so turning in was a necessity.

Duly awoken before first light, we set about clearing our stuff up and having a hasty breakfast. Much to our irritation, the moron who ran place was also an early-riser and had decided that the best bet for his morning's entertainment would be to stare at us fixedly and offer occasional, puerile criticism. Our car was an inch out of alignment with the other cars in the lot, he helpfully let us know, momentarily breaking his 'I'm gonna unremittingly watch you eat that boiled egg' stare. As we left he insisted it was impossible to go to the parking lot nearer the trailhead and we would have to leave the car at the campsite. We just drove off and found out about five minutes later that this was a load of crap, as we parked the car in an empty, but very open lot.

As we started out at seven in the morning the trail was empty and quiet as we walked towards Donghaksa, the monks evidently having finished their morning prayers. I'll describe our route using this map. First of all, ignore the "you are here" bit. Find "Donghaksa Parking Lot". This is where we started. We walked straight in a westerly direction along a small road, paved all the way to Donghaksa (about a twenty minute walk), where it becomes a bit more trail-like.
On the way to Donghaksa

After ascending for about fifteen-twenty minutes we came to Eunseon waterfall, which for whatever reason was little more than a trickle.

The was a bit of an anticlimax because the water shambled down a quite large cliff-face. My guess would be that during monsoon season this is one of South Korea's more impressive waterfalls. Not in October though. After the falls we continued climbing, steeply, in places for about another twenty-five minutes before coming to the pass that led to either Gwanuembong or Yeoncheonbong. Near the pass there were some good views that were partially obscured by low, scudding cloud that looked pretty ominous to us.
The trickle of a "waterfall"
View on the way to the top

We figured however that we were early enough to climb to the further peak (Yeoncheonbong) and then go back to climb Gwaneumbong. The side trip took us about three quarters of an hour.
View from Yeoncheonbong

After summiting Gwaneumbong we headed towards Sambulbong which was a nice ridge walk, a bit blustery, and it was evident that the park was beginning to fill up with visitors. It took us about an hour, going at a pretty sedentary pace to get to the peak. People were coming from everywhere in groups of roughly forty or so, so we decided to push on.
The autumn colours that draw all the folks to the parks

Originally, we had planned a much longer hike, but by the time we got to Nammaetap Pagoda (the 'you are here' bit on the map) we were becoming discouraged by the increasing congestion we were encountering.

We decide to push on to see if we could walk in the direction of Janggunbong, but by the time we had managed to pass a group of roughly sixty middle schoolers on a single-track path our frustration got the better of us and we turned back to the Pagoda, to take the path back down to the Sejinjeong junction. We were back at the car before midday.

Perhaps it was the weather, or the guy at the campsite, or the overcrowding, or the fact that I'm writing retrospectively about what was a more difficult weekend than usual, but Gyeryongsan was not as enjoyable as other national parks we had visited. Apart from anything else, while the scenery is certainly pretty, it lacks any of the spectacle or sense of the epic and unexpected others NPs I've been to have. It's small and hiking possibilities are limited. It is easily the most commercialized of all the parks I have visited, with neon miles of restaurants, minbak, motels etc running from outer Daejeon to its car parks. It wasn't really bad, just disappointing and unsatisfactory.

Our early exit from the trail, however, gave us ample time, we thought, to do the other thing we had come to the area for: some shopping at Costco in Daejeon. We headed for the city, and after a mere hour of driving round and round we found the store. It being Saturday afternoon it was only marginally more crowded than the mountain, which doesn't help me have a relaxed shopping trip. By the time we were ready to leave, at around four, we'd had enough and wanted to go home.

We got about half a mile out of the store before the car died. The transmission was shot, and neither of us could get it into any gear. We couldn't even get it into neutral to push it to the edge of the four lane road we were now stranded in. Luckily a kindly shop owner came and called the insurance company for us, explaining where we were. I spent the next three quarters of an hour waiting for them using my hat to direct the speeding, oncoming traffic around our marooned vehicle. Predictably for Korean rozzers, two drove past and apart from asking me 'what?' in Korean did nothing.

When the tow truck came we managed to call a Korean friend to help with the interpreting. We found out, at the garage he took us to, what we already knew: the transmission was finished, essentially a new gearbox was required. The mechanic hummed and hawed and said he couldn't fix it. The friendly tow truck driver arranged for us to get another, different, tow to a different mechanic. This guy introduced himself as the 'transmission master' and immediately inspired confidence in us. He explained that he would sort it out, replacing the transmission in three hours, for KRW500,000. It sounds a lot, but it's almost exactly what you would pay in the UK or the States. More amazingly, he actually had it done it two hours after starting at half past six on a Saturday night. This would never, ever happen back home, even if you could find a mechanic who was open on a Saturday night. Your car would be in the shop for days, not hours.

We were so grateful to be able to nurse the car back down the peninsula to Mokpo that we bought the guys who had worked on the car (there were four of them) a bottle of soju each, as a small gesture of thanks. They seemed chuffed. The head guy also told us what else need doing with the car, and wrote it down as well as giving us his card so that we could him when we were with a mechanic down south.

After getting back to the 'po at 11.30pm we got uproariously drunk: it seemed the only appropriate thing to do.


  1. Hey up John
    What a beautiful country you are living in.
    Transmission masters too, very Zen.

  2. You're not wrong, parts of Korea are stunning. Nothing much Zen about Korean traffic though: the driving here is nuts.

  3. dari Sintanjin naik bus apa yah?