Seoraksan National Park
07.04.2009 - 15.04.2009
'Why is she going to South Korea for hiking? It is for shopping and eating.' said my cousin.
Why do people go to South Korea for shopping and eating when they can enjoy magnificent natural scenery in perfectly managed national parks, well-indicated trails, enthusiastic companies and good transportation system?
While South Korea is marketed as an international city with the same luxurious amenities as any other international cities, it is the proximity of relatively grand mountain ranges and their diverse seasonal beauty that locals indulge on the weekends. I follow one of my travel motto: ‘Do what the local do to truly understand and appreciate a country.'
So I hopped on a shuttle from the airport straight to the bus terminal in Seoul and took an express bus to the northeast town of Sokcho. It was dark, quiet and chilly when I got off the bus in this small town. A few strange-looking men gave me a brief glance while I walked towards the small castle-like motel across the street. A middle-aged woman eagerly took me to a large room with TV, water cooler & private bathroom for 30000 won (approximately US$30). A decent price for a budget room in South Korea, a monstrous price for a backpacker who is more used to a $10 bunk bed with shared amenities. Nevertheless, I gladly settled in with an empty stomach after a long day in transit. I even entertained myself with thoughts of using the long-forgotten necessity called 'hair spray'.
Early in the morning, I checked out, bought a pack of cookies and boarded the local bus that goes to the entrance of Seoraksan National Park. After storing my laptop & clothes in the lockers at the visitor's center, I started my first trail, to Ulsanbawi. Standing like a fence over the Seorak mountains, Ulsanbawi is a a series of six granite, quartz & mica peaks that rise as high as 873 meters, covering an area 4 km in circumference and named after its reverberated sound of thunder in the rain ('Crying Mountain Rock' in Chinese translation.) About an hour of easy trekking followed by another hour of over 800 steep steps later, I was greeted by a breathtaking view of this giant rock formation. Each rock is an artwork created by nature. Ulsanbawi is nature's fortress, with hundreds of stone soldiers on duty guarding the Seorak Mountains, the East Sea, Dalma Peak, and Haksapyeong Reservoir around it.
I had a much-deserved bowl of noodle on the trail back with a Taiwanese in his 50s, who was also traveling solo. We took the cable car up to Gwongeumseong, the site of a ruined castle. Of course, I wouldn’t give up a chance to scramble a little to the top. An ice cream and cable car ride later, my Taiwanese friend recommended his hostel, The House Hostel by the intercity bus terminal. Upon arrival, I found the friendliest host who let me stay for free since the hostel is fully reserved. I shared a large minbak room with an English girl that night.
After a little bit of persuasion at the gate, I managed to charm myself into Seoraksan again on the next day, for free this time. I headed for the Biryeong Falls, a graceful waterfall above a series of cascading falls. Student groups came and went. I managed to arrive in between and owned the tranquility to myself for over half an hour. The sound of water put me in a meditating mood. This is the moment I long for, in nature alone, completely merge with my surrounding in spirit.
With my spirit renewed, I decided to hike up to Geumganggul cave. A turquoise stream led me towards Biseondae, an area with gigantic boulders scattered along the river as if nature's decorated rock garden. Poets expressed their feelings by engraving on the flat rock surfaces with elegant calligraphy for generations to share. Once pass Biseondae, the ascend became very steep and rocky, which is a nice change. It took me another 45 minute to reach a tiny cave, with a tiny Buddhist temple inside. Although I was expecting a larger cave, my slight disappointment and exhaustion quickly evaporated after I was awarded with sweet spring water from the tiny waterfall on the cave wall. High above overlooking Cheonbuldong Valley, I sat down and prayed shortly, imagining myself as a Buddhist nun spending days and weeks in this isolated cave to meditate with nothing but the wind and an open heart.
"What brand camera?” asked a Korean in his 50s. I showed him my camera. He said "Pictures for me?” while pointing at the altar and giving me his business card at the same time. His battery ran out and was desperate to take some photos with his friend at this tiny temple for memories. Mr.Sim, his friend and I shared oranges for snack and hiked back down together. Back to Sokcho, they treat me for the best mussel seafood noodle soup in my life. Then finally they dropped me off at my hostel. This must be Korean hospitality.