Tuesday, March 17, 2009

chiaksan - wanderlust in korea

well, like all things, this one is late too.
im just not the blogger that some other guys living in korea are.
a friend of mine and co-worker here at HUFS, rob, goes seriously ALL OUT in blogging (i mean, daily.) even though i love writing about my experiences and, of course, sharing them with anyone and everyone interested in hearing about them, i can only spend so much time thinking and talking about myself and the past... im a 'here and now' kind of guy, so i cant stay side-tracked from the present for too long.
enough excuses. let's cut to the chase.

saturday, march 14

about two weeks ago it was starting to get warmer, my feet were getting restless, and the smell of adventure was in the air. so i said to myself, 'enough of you schmoes!' and i jumped on an early morning train out of the city.

several weeks earlier i had bought a hiking book (in korean, not in english because all the english ones are about as useful as a 'guide to the best fast food places in seoul' - this one has topographical maps, directions, tips on yearly festivals nearby, detailed trail information all for more than 400 hiking spots!) and it was burning a hole on my desk. since i got it, my plans have been to go somewhere outside of seoul at least twice a month (because every other week i have a lesson on saturdays). temperatures in excess of 5C were all i needed to get the show on the road, literally.

i declined invitations to drink with my students on friday night so that i could get a good night's sleep, and left my apartment about 6am in the morning. 정량리역 (cheongnyangni station), one of the hubs for commuting out of seoul, is only about 5 minutes away from my place by taxi, so i had no trouble getting out by 7. i bought some really disgusting kimbab (like korea's version of the sushi roll - no fish, except maybe cooked tuna, but lots of veggies and normally a great snack on a hike) which was probably a day old already. i choked it down as best i could while the train rumbled out of the city.

the only companions on this little adventure were my ipod (which i kept running almost continuously) and a book (i was reading a book called The Interpreter by suki kim, a korean american, at the time - it's a modern noir-like fiction about a korean woman who grew up in america in a family that barely tolerated her and with whom she lost touch when she had an affair with a marriend man while in university. living basically alone, with a sort of long distance affair and a job as a court interpreter, she begins to try to uncover the mystery behind her parents unexplained murder several years earlier. the book is kinda all over the place and feels kind of directionless, but in a good way, and it certainly revealed a few things about asian immigrants in america, not to mention being superbly written).

[The Interpreter ~suki kim]
two hours later, i was in 원주 (wonju), a city of about 1/3 million people in gangwon province about 90 miles east of seoul (see above). here i needed to catch a bus that would take me to 치악산 (‘chiak’ mountain), my final destination. chiak (also called 비로산 – ‘birosan’) is located in chiaksan national park, about 30 miles out of wonju city. the bus (no. 41 or 41-1; the stop is just outside wonju station and to the left, in front of family mart) would take me to 구룡사 (‘guryongsa’), a buddhist temple about 5km (distance) and 900m (elevation) below chiak’s peak (more on guryongsa coming up!). noticing with dismay as i exited wonju station that i had just missed the bus, i decided to stop somewhere to get a bite to eat and buy a few provisions. after a short search, i ducked into a small, generic korean restaurant, the kind that serves the staple korean foods for a very reasonable price, and ordered some 된장찌개 (‘dwenjang jjigae’ – soybean paste stew) to warm me up and a couple kimbaps for the hike. it was actually quite a bit colder than i had expected, and i was starting to worry about the mountain conditions. luckily i had brought a lot of extra warm clothes so i layered up as i waited for the bus.
it was about a 45 min ride to the stop below guryongsa and about 20 minutes on foot to the temple itself, so i didn’t stop to look around, as it was already after 10. i wanted to get to the peak by 1 o’clock so that the bulk of my hiking would be in the most intense sunlight. it was incredibly windy, as the weather forecast had predicted, and i was already feeling a bit cold. without the sun, it would have been a pretty miserable hike. the entrance tickets to the park were like a buck; i shelled out some pocket change and began the march.

[right outside the entrance; the hike begins!]
there were many pretty sights along the first stretch of road leading to guryongsa, but i didn’t stop to take any photos yet, reassuring myself that i would take as long as i wanted once i tackled the mountain. it was hard to resist the urge to linger as i passed by the beautiful buildings and carved statues of guryongsa (i’ll get to explaining these later; be patient!).

[entrance gate to guryongsa]
from guryongsa, there was about a 2km, gently inclining path that took about 30 min to trek to the trailhead. more pretty sights that i ignored here.

[other pretty sights - i got these on my way back]

[pa an' kids grabbin some pre-hike food, although i never saw them on the trail]

i did, however, take a short detour at the main trailhead to catch a glimpse of the 세렴폭포 (‘seryeom pokpo’ – a waterfall). the falls were actually partially frozen – not a good sign.

[frozen falls]

from here it was about 2½km to birobong (the summit), about 800m up – pretty steep incline, but that’s the way hikers like it in korea (you won’t find any switchbacks here).

[at the main trailhead]

the first stretch is probably the hardest – like 1000 stairs – so i was glad to get that part out of the way. most of the path from this point was following the ridgeline as it wound up to chiak’s peak. the nice thing about this is that you’re always on the highest part of everything around you except for what’s directly in front of you. whenever you look through the trees to your right or left, you’re looking at other ridges that are pretty much level with you, so it’s a good confidence boost. i felt like was ‘almost there’ the whole way up (for me at least, this was not discouraging).
after the winding stairs, the going was pretty easy - some melty snow, but nothing too slippery. it didn’t take long, however, for things to get noticeably more disturbingly treacherous. the melty snow became frozen-melty snow – far worse than ordinary snow because it was like the path up was blanked in a layer of ice. this is where my provisions failed me. not having bought hiking shoes since i came to korea, i found myself slipping and catching myself at each step. this turned out to be a helluva lot more exhausting than the hike itself (and i paid for it afterwards, believe me). nevertheless, i persevered and managed to fall on my ass only a couple of times before reaching the top. the way up was actually quite pleasant otherwise. the trees blocked most of the wind (when it find a chance to strike, however, it did with vengeance, sucking away my warmth and few muttered curse words ta boot). there were quite a few hikers along the way, much more than i expected under the present conditions, but i was able to enjoy most of the hike in solitude.

[ice-covered stairs... ouch]
the last leg was a real doozy. but the struggle was alleviated by the sheer beauty of the view and ‘winter foliage’ (by winter foliage i mean the ice that hung from every branch and twig – because of the strength of the wind, the ice formed as sideways ribbons in a truly spectacular effect; when the wind blew these ‘natural wind-chimes’ jingled and laughed – it was a sound like no other i had heard before). it was easy to find excuses to stop, rest, and take a look.

[my icicle windchimes]

[i traded photos with a group of hikers who were taking a break with me at this great viewpoint]

[they played a secret melody - only audible to those few who made it up here this day]

the top was magnificent. although i began my climb in a land where spring was beginning to show its face, in the end, i found myself in the heart of winter – the wind threatening to whip my cap off the top of my head, the snow deep and crunchy beneath my feet, the skeletal trees adorned with lacey ice, and the white, barren landscape stretching on and on in all directions. this was more than escape. i couldn’t have hoped to go somewhere farther from my everyday world than this.

[korean hikers love to have a small, impromptu meal at the top, complete, of course, with korean rice wine]

the bliss only lasted a short while, though. i was cold, unprepared as i was for this environment. and i knew that the journey back down the ice-coated mountain would be longer and even more painful. i took as many pictures as my shaking, gloveless hands could bear and grudgingly made my way back down…

it was very nearly hell trying to get off that ice-slick. my hands were freezing as they constantly had be unfurled from the tight, desperate-at-warmth grip i had stuffed into repeatedly back into my coat pocket with as often as i could. fortunately there was often a rope to help me support myself as my feet danced in directions not of my choice over the ice. every time i felt confident enough about my footing to avert my eyes down the path, i would feel the ground fall away beneath my feet. even worse was when i ran into other climbers coming up the path. making a cheery attempt at a greeting (‘anyeonghaseyo’), the quick glance at the faces of the climbers passing by me was more than enough to send me back on my ass, followed by the concerned shouts and exclamations of the surprised koreans nearby. my palms, dry from the wind and endlessly clinging to frozen ropes, were easily shredded on the ice and rocks. chilled to the bone as i was, my blood ran red. upon finally clearing the treacherously icy parts, i virtually ran down the remainder of the mountain, despite my shaking knees, laughing at how i, the fool in sneakers, had cheated death.

i reached the main trailhead before 4 and decided to make good on my earlier promise to myself. i retraced my steps, taking pictures, lingering as much as i wanted, and thoroughly enjoying the benignly plain level ground.

[i took a thoroughly enjoyable smoke break here - there in the distance you can see the giant]

[zooming in on him from below]
finally getting my chance to peek around, i returned to guryongsa. guryongsa temple was in the 7th century during the silla dynasty. the legend goes that the site for the temple was originally a lake where 9 dragons lived. in order to build the temple, the lake was filled, giving the place the name ‘guryong’. figures of dragons can be found all over, especially as elaborately-carved bridge posts, as if the dragons are peeking out of the river at you in defiance of their fate.

[a lovely statue of the buddha]

[temple entrance]

[temple guards - this one threatened me with bluegrass]

[all of these guys were about twice my height; imagine him looking down into your eyes]
[i found this sign lying behind the temple]

[inside the temple]

[back at the main gate where i first started]

[one of the old lake dragons sizing me up before i crossed the bridge - had i been a billy goat, i never would have made it]

[as i was approaching the park's entrance, i heard this strange sound, like singing or whistling... i was literally standing stock still on the side of the path for minutes before i realized it was coming from a hoard of little, black frogs - the stream was teeming with them]
i arrived back at the bus stop/parking area. a row of modest shops and small restaurants seemed quite isolated, out here in the middle of nature and so many miles from town. but just beyond them was a little valley which displayed several more houses, and i made my way toward these, with the purpose of seeking accommodation for the night. the little neighborhood seemed deserted, and no wonder, considering the season. most of the hikers belonged to hiking groups that came and left on large buses. i walked up to a more inviting-looking hostel and poked my head in the door. an elderly woman saw me through the window and came out to meet me. putting my shaky korean skills to the test, i managed to secure a room for a somewhat reasonable price, enquire about the hot water and heating, and procure a recommendation for dinner. having dumped my belongings with a satisfying lack of ceremony, surveyed my surroundings and climbed back out of the valley to get my grub on.

the restaurant i entered was too crowded to find a table, so i told the owner/cook my order and went outside to the sunny and empty, albeit colder, patio. i ate some 감자파전 (‘kamja pajeon’ – fried korean potato pancake) and washed it down with the only drink any sensible korean would choose to have with pajeon after a long hike in the mountains: 동동주 (‘dongdongju’ – korean rice wine). the warm, late-afternoon sun shined down lazily upon me and it was sheer bliss.

[alone on the sunny porch]

[my 'hiker's fare']

afterwards i returned to my newly acquired lodging and took a much appreciated (and needed) shower. i then rolled out my floor bedding and settled down to enjoy the rest of the night in relaxation. i fell asleep around 8pm, but woke up several hours later and watched TV late in the middle of the night. two channels were playing all-nighters of the simpsons and project runway and i drowned my brain in hours of satisfying mindlessness before drifting off once again.

the next day was back to reality. i returned to wonju by bus, looked around a little bit and had a nice lunch, bought some snacks for the train ride and finished up The Interpreter as the train lumbered back across the countryside to seoul.
traveling alone aint so bad.