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Month: June, 2015

Korea’s ‘Smallest’ National Park, And How It Lies

IMG_2976The nature of blogging means that I have the appearance of a hectic and action-packed life. If I were to post in a fashion similar to denizens of the Twitter Abyss, you’d be treated to close-ups of me vaguely picking my nose while playing Far Cry 4, or to us dancing wildly around a very confused dog when the ‘ooga chaka’ bit comes on during Blue Swede’s Hooked On A Feeling; as it stands, this site’s feed seems to miss out all the boring bits, eg. the full-time job which actually brings us to Korea.

That being said, the last month or so has provided a bounty of blogworthy distractions and, except for the abovementioned nosepickings and workgoings, pretty much has been a constant stream of Doing Stuff. I can tell because my thighs feel like two angry pigs fighting over a truffle after we dominated Korea’s smallest national park, Wolchulsan, along with recurring partners in crime Nate and Alysha.

If you squint, you can see the Cloud Bridge roughly dead centre.

If you squint, you can see the Cloud Bridge roughly dead centre.

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When I say ‘smallest’ national park, I’d like to reiterate the standards by which national parks tend to be measured. Admittedly, the park is surrounded fairly closely by a busy highway, and you can see distant civilisation from every angle – however, what Wolchulsan lacks in square kilometres (a mere 41km²) it makes up for in violent, perpendicular angles. Within minutes of setting off, we’re sticky and panting in the late Spring afternoon, even under a constant awning of foliage; deceptively sturdy iron walkways have been hammered into the mountain at often improbable angles, occasionally starting to resemble ladders more than paths.IMG_2732

LIES

LIES

Yours shiny truly.

Your shininess truly.

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Optimistic signposts along the way reassure lucky hikers that (for example) the scenic Cloud Bridge(Gureumdari, 구름다리) is a mere 0.3km away from that spot. The bridge does indeed come into view promptly – as a thin shadow across your face as you look directly up, precisely 0.3km above your head. The steep climb to the bridge provides an ample workout for one’s legs, arms, core and silent hysteria (note: the writer’s own fitness may affect his personal standpoint on some matters of physical exertion).IMG_2771

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It’s when you flop onto the ledge hugging one end of the 55-metre suspension bridge that you first see how far you’ve come, and it’s usually then that you work out who amongst you suffers vertigo. The monumental backdrop of Cheonhwabong, the park’s mountainous peak, sweeps into the forest below, eventually diminishing in the distance into farmlands and lonely-looking shrubs. On this particular day, the fieldworkers had apparently taken to incinerating stretches of their land, lending a dramatic if faintly alarming tone to the already impressive view.IMG_2798

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If travelling with a mixture of acrophobes and sadists (honestly a terrible combination when at great heights in the middle of nowhere), be warned that the wholly-secure suspension bridge will…shake, slightly, if one is overly enthusiastic bounding across the several-hundred-metre drop. While amusing to some, the mountain’s acoustics are remarkably effective should anybody shriek involuntarily on a creaking platform above the treetops.IMG_2871

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Putting into context how laughably easy the arduous uphill scuttle has apparently been so far, it’s from this side of the bridge that the park landscapers apparently started to get a sense of humour. Iron steps and railings are knocked deep into the stone of the mountain at the sort of angle which could only accommodate a suicidal Slinky. While never actually worried for my safety, I marvelled at the views I had while climbing of the very tops or very bottoms of my fellow hikers as we ascended (all of whom had lovely scalps and bottoms, so no harm done).IMG_2879

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The panorama from the actual peak (at least our actual peak, as we had no intention of getting to the actual actual peaks on this occasion, or possibly lifetime) is staggering. It’s the sort of view Peter Jackson would drop hobbits and dwarves on to do a helicopter fly-by of. By this point in our journey we hadn’t seen or heard any other climbers for a long while; our last encounter had been blaring hymns out of his phone at an incredible volume, but there wasn’t a sign of even his musical presence anywhere in the valley. Feeling like The Only People In The World, at that altitude, with a can of Sour Cream Pringles, was entirely blissful, albeit a touch windy for some of the more sadly airborne Pringles.IMG_2908

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The moment we realised this was the wrong bloody way.

The moment we realised this was the wrong bloody way.

After an infuriating failed attempt at a round trip – discovering after a very steep descent that our route took us further into the mountains rather than, as was preferred, out of them – we climbed back up the knotted rope-ladder and prepared our knees and ankles for the jellifying return journey down the mountain. A much shorter trip later, we’ve lost the normal use of our legs and we’ve seriously pissed off a peacefully dozing toad in a rock-pool.IMG_2939

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I take comfort knowing that, at least for a week or so, I don’t have to do anything horrible like adventuring or seeing more beautiful scenery. I suspect my 25-year-old knees couldn’t take it.

 

 

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Sand, Crabs and Broken Toes

 

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Disclaimer: only part of the title is a medical condition.

We’re descending slowly  into a now more-than-fleeting camping fetish. Having successfully survived the arsonists and anally-retentive groundsmen of Sangju, we were eager to accept our friends and fellow colleagues’ offer of a joint-trip to the actually isolated coast of Sungpyeong; a barely-trodden expanse of glinting fool’s-gold sand with nary a soul to be seen nor heard (with the exception of a determined yet mysterious boat whose bi-daily routine seems to consist of throwing things overboard to pass the time).IMG_2091

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Safety-conscious dog check the GPS.

Safety-conscious dog check the GPS.

Being far more practical humans than ourselves, Nathan and Alysha are part of that expat elite who actually own their own car – all the better to fully explore the country, avoid a slightly tedious daily work commute and to accommodate their two beautiful yet affectionately heavy jindogae Fiona and Ingrid. The two Jindos dwarf, chase and are in turn right-hooked by our comparative runt of a dog regularly, made all the more hilarious/repellent by a thick layer of wet sand and salted fur.

The drive to Sungpyeong is reassurance enough that we have the place to ourselves: a little while off the highway and it’s nothing but mountains and mirrorlike, irrigated valleys as far as the horizon. We’re so far out in the sticks that, were we to wander aimlessly into the nearby villages, we’d be less of a mild curiosity and more of an exotic, sweaty fascination. The car pulls into the dusty, empty parking lot and all the signs of off-season are there: the toilets are conveniently-placed albeit not-so-conveniently locked, the bins are noticeably overflowing but sunbaked past the point of offensive and you can’t hear anyone competing for space on the sand.IMG_2163

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Meg cannot possibly contain the gibbon within.

Meg cannot possibly contain the gibbon within.

From the car, we heft our camping gear on foot to Nate and Alysha’s pre-discovered Choice Spot, hidden amongst boulders and alongside a handy water and/or wine-cooling stream. From a distance, however, the beach appear to have a life of its own, with pebbles seeming to erratically rush towards and away from the oncoming waves. On closer inspection, we realise that we’ve simply disturbed hundreds and hundreds of tiny red crabs, all scurrying wildly away to their subterranean dens underfoot. Most succeed, with the exception of the three hapless crustaceans our fascinated dogs managed to seize. True to her nature, Millie totally failed to dominate even a tiny specimen; the Jindos on the other hand managed a grisly, acrobatic display of catch-the-crab before getting at least one leg each.IMG_2126

Following the dogs’ enthusiasm, we promptly hurled ourselves into the sea, quickly discovering that the water was A) emasculatingly chilly and B) a cunning camouflage for the sneakiest bastard rocks known to geography. After a few minutes of soothing drifting and violently spontaneous profanity, I reckoned I would do The Romantic Thing and carry Meg (+her stubbed toe) from the cruel waves. This lasted approximately three seconds before I kicked the rocks’ reigning champion, ultimately lacerating my foot and actually breaking at least one toe while dropping Meg back into the sea. Not a proud moment.IMG_2152

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One of the upshots of camping on a nigh-isolated coast is that one can let one’s imagination run wild vis-a-vis campsite customisation and driftwood furniture. Pooling our combined creativity and DIY skills, we managed to rig up a mostly-successful underground(/sand) cooler box, as well as an elegantly canopied, raft-remnants-and-polystyrene-box dining table, complete with almost-not-wet Styrofoam stools for the discerning diners.

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IMG_2441Evening entertainments included a live concert (playing Mumford & Sons from a mobile phone whilst drinking stream-cooled wine), a private cinema (Meg and Alysha escaped to a tent to watch Pitch Perfect on iPad) and a fully-interactive arts show, ie. Nathan and I scrambling over rocks while waving torches maniacally for the sake of light-trail photos.IMG_2471

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Still sadly un-equipped with a remotely spacious tent, Meg and I pretzelled ourselves into the (quote-unquote) ‘2-person’ tent for another night’s almost-sleep, with Millie’s small canine buttocks firmly clenching my shoulder for much of the duration.IMG_2474

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Luck willing, we’ll actually get our human-sized tent before the next inevitable, obsessively-documented expedition. Until then, I will contend myself with hunting down the elusive dunes of sand hidden in the crevices of every bag, shoe and sock I own.

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