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