On Mountains, Tourism and Chipmunks

by benrobins1

It would appear that my compulsion and my ability to communicate these past few days have been at odds with one another. I would like to emphasise that this is due in part/its entirety not to the fact that I have not done anything to report, so much as I have felt done for by something. 10 hours of borderline-vertical hiking will do that to you.

As promised/threatened, we have completed our tour of the Seorak mountain range at the appropriately-named Seoraksan National Park, North-Eastern South Korea. That is to say, we did in fact finish it last Sunday and I have simply been rubbish in updating about it. As such, the complaints to follow are somewhat outdated and no longer applicable to my health and/or being.

As taken by a lovely old couple I initially offered to take photos of with THEIR camera.

Seoraksan is – I am told – the finest national park in South Korea, and I’d believe it. Mostly for the spectacular vista of mountains, rivers and Buddhist monasteries replete with authentic Buddhist monks, but partly due to the evidential (and, by now, expected) hordes of kitted-out Koreans competing for floor space. Never before have I been in a queue on an isolated mountainside – but more on that fun rant later.

Firstly, we knew we were passing into the sticks of Korea when the bus-stop posters changed from adverts for Psy and Samsung to those of livestock and heavy machinery. Although Sokcho (nearest major-ish city) is the main commercial hub of the area, it’s about half the size of Bath, UK (for non-Bathonians: not all that big), and somewhat isolated amidst the mountain ranges.

Before any adventures were embarked upon, we prepared ourselves for the arduous task of finding accommodation within walking distance (ie. a radius of several miles) from the national park. As it turns out, this was significantly less of an ordeal than expected; although all hotels were apparently fully booked (oh no!), this was specific only to ‘English’ rooms (I beg your pardon…?). It would appear that, in light of the tourist industry, hotels seek to accommodate Westerners in their natural environment, versus the ‘Korean’ rooms for locals.

Perfectly comfortable, if alarmingly pink at times.

This double-take-inducingly huge Buddhist statue leaps out of the surroundings.

Was this an attempt to discriminate and distinguish foreigners? No. Was this an indication of Tourist Prices and unfair conmanship? No. The difference? English rooms have elevated beds, Korean rooms have floor-quilts. This is apparently enough to deter your average Western traveller, which in turns deprives me of a certain amount of respect for said travellers: it was actually a fine night’s sleep, and we even found a (mostly) English movie channel. We watched The Sorcerer’s Apprentice with the rose-tinted appreciation of those deprived of their mother tongue.

Hiking Day. 5:30AM. We wake up feeling more bizarrely invigorated than any late morning so far in Korea. I promise myself that late mornings are nonetheless still preferable. Our hopes of a Lonesome Walk are instantly dashed by the (admittedly drastically reduced, but reliably present) string of similarly-minded walkers by the road, which we take as a sign to Speed Up as we march two kilometres to the gates of Seoraksan.

Filling our water from the convenient monastery spring (a trend to follow on our riverside journey; the mountain water was delicious and has yet to go awry digestion-wise), we were all set for the nigh-vertical hike. Whilst challenging on occasion, strenuous at times and cripplingly exhausting at others, the views were spectacular. The higher we went (and we went high), the further into the seasons we went; as the air gets cooler, autumn comes quicker for the foliage. As such, we left summer and wandered into autumn over the course of three hours.

Upwardly mobile, we made good time. Although there were the inexplicable throngs of walkers (who presumably must have been on the mountain well before dawn, unless they sprang from the very cliff itself) to bypass for fear of developing beard growth while shuffling along, we generally reached the final slope in good time. This was the point when the ever-present and totally English social rage phenomenon known as the Red Mist began to descend.

This was induced by a number of factors: firstly, the hill in question was roughly one-and-a-half kilometres in horizontal length, regardless of upward angle; secondly, the angle in question would make even the hardiest chewing gum roll

These inviting pools taunted our sweating selves the entire journey.

stubbornly off your average school table; thirdly, we’d been hiking for around four hours already by that point, and finally fourthly, we were competing against thousands of bus-driven walkers who cared little for pedestrian dual carriageways. The fact that it transpired these walkers had only the downhillwalk to accomplish before getting the bus on the other side did little to abate our gasping profanities as we climbed alongside the path through bracken and grainy slopes.

Our original, apparently short-sighted target. Sigh…

The way we had just come. Suffice to say, we were proud.

On the other hand, the view from the top was staggering. Meg nearly got shoved off a platform in favour of a family photo (someone out there has a blurred photo of my ear as I stormed past the shot) and we realised that our intended goal was, in fact, an extra (and, by our timing, impossible) 5-6 hour hike further up the mountain – but we were still a vertical mile from anywhere and I could see over most people to the scenery beyond.

Chipmunks are EVERYWHERE on the mountain – far more so than squirrels in England.

After failed delaying tactics, we catch up with the back end of the walkers…

The return journey consisted mostly of muscle-strained and wobbly legs, significantly denser queues and the hilarious event of Ben Robins standing on a loose rock and nearly plummeting into a wholly scenic ravine before possibly having his life saved by yet another demonstration of the Korean ability to casually and thanklessly prevent the death of a fellow stranger (see also: subway train-door rescue). After that scene (and, in fact, after this sentence), my ignorance and intolerance of the local ways of life became somewhat more reserved. My punishment: two tiny scratches on my unprotected camera lens – I had put my only filter on my more valuable 50mm lens only the day before – which are largely superficial but a reminder of my errant ways nonetheless.

This has by far been the longest of my blogs, by way of apology for my muteness and also as a means of justifying having loads of photos on here. It’s literary/pseudo-journalistic masturbation at its finest, I’m afraid. If, however, such made up/naughty words are your thing, there’s a button at the bottom of the page flashing FOLLOW in large, friendly letters; I’ve had several (two) people asking if there’s a means of following the blog via email updates, and am on good information that this is the way to do it. If not, at least I shall be very disappointed.

Where the mountain would be impossible to climb without serious experience, these rattling metal paths served to corral walkers.