설악산 (Seoraksan) — Seorak Mountain

Korea had Memorial Day today, so we had a three-day weekend. Since it’s getting colder, we knew we’d better make the best of it. So we declared this our weekend to go to Sokcho and Seoraksan. (We, this time, were me, Amanda, Sean, and Sean’s girlfriend Natalie, who’s now here on her two-month visit. During the day while we’re working, she mostly reads and studies.)

Sokcho is a beach town in the north of Gangwon. Strictly speaking, here in Sachangni I’m only sixty miles away from the coast. But what I hadn’t counted on when I came to this small country, thinking how great it was that everything was so close, was that mountains have a way of magnifying distances. The bus ride that I take most often goes to Chuncheon. To get there the bus skirts around the sides of every mountain between here and there, and sometimes it zigzags up or down one of them. The exception is that occasionally, instead of skirting a mountain, the bus just goes through it. There’s a highly developed system of tunnels here in Gangwon, some of them a heck of a lot more ambitious than I’d expect to find out in the country where all they lead to is a few villages full of people whose highest economic ambition is to start up a restaurant. But aside from the tunnels, it’s a lot of winding back and forth, and so the sixty miles between here and Sokcho take three hours to cover, and that’s if you time your buses just right.

What we wanted to do in Sokcho was go on a zipline that Amanda had read about. When we got to Chuncheon, where we’d be picking up the bus to Sokcho, Sean persuaded Amanda that we should do a little research at one of the computers in the waiting cafe and find out exactly where this zipline was. It turned out it was in Gangneung, not Sokcho, although no one told me this. If they had, I could have told them we should get a ticket directly to Gangneung, because that’s a proper city, not a little village that would only have bus service from Sokcho. Oh well, to Sokcho we went. “I’m not bothered, I’m happy to just go,” Amanda said. She spends all her time in buses gazing out the window at the landscape passing by. I get the feeling that she could do this for days at a time. The rest of us were a little more focused on having a destination.

We got to Sokcho and took a different bus to Gangneung, a ride of about an hour and fifteen minutes. Now we were on the coast, and occasionally the highway skirted the ocean. An enthusiastic wind was trying to push some of the ocean up onto the highway today, but we were plenty high and safe, so I looked out at the lighthouses and the harbors and the tetrapods. When we got to Gangneung, by chance we found an information booth staffed by a guy with flawless English, and he told us that the zipline was in fact not here in Gangneung, but a bus ride and a taxi ride away near a place called Jumunjin. By now we were all fed up with buses and waiting, so we found a taxi, told the driver where we were going, and got dropped off there, right at the coast, at the bottom of the zipline tower.

The guys running the zipline suited us up in harnesses and led us to the tower. It was made of metal and stood on a rock prominence rising dozens of feet above the ocean. The zipline crossed a small bay and ended at a beach on the other side. We climbed stairs up to the top and looked down at the waves smashing against completely unperturbed rocks, and made fun of Natalie for being nervous. Sean went first to show her it was okay; he flew out into the air very shortly there he was at the bottom. Natalie went next, and then Amanda, and lastly I went. And it was a very good zipline. It wasn’t as long as the one at Nami Island, but it was much more exciting to go over the churning ocean than it was to go over a flat river with yutzes in big boats on it. I was pretty happy, and the only complaint I had is one that goes for all ziplines—they don’t last long enough. I want to ride a zipline down the whole length of the Amazon River. But I have to settle for ziplines that last less than a minute. Sometimes reality isn’t as cool. (Actually, the reality would be canoeing down the Amazon, and that would definitely be cooler, so that’s not true in this case.) I bumped to a halt over the beach and the guys helped me out of my harnesses, and then we kind of just left. I thought we were going to hang out at the beach, but it turned out the plan was to go back to Sokcho and hang out on the beach there.

We’d spent so much of the day traveling that by now it was night, and we were all famished. Luckily we found an awesome restaurant. It was the first time any of us had been to a “self” (셀프, selpeu), so we didn’t understand it at first, and kept asking the waiter, who wasn’t really a waiter, to bring us stuff. After he showed us several times how it was supposed to be done, we caught on that we were meant to go into the front room, take whatever we wanted to eat, and bring it back to our table to cook it on the grill in the center. So we ate a whole lot, and it was all delicious. Also, apparently they wanted to pay us to drink beer. I couldn’t figure this one out, but two people both seemed to be telling me that it was W9,000 per person if we didn’t drink, and W8,000 if we had some beers. I never did really understand it, because at the end it worked out to W9,000 for two of us and W10,000 for the other two, but that was still a pretty sweet deal.

Everyone but me was pooped, so we found a motel and they went to sleep. I wanted to find the beach, so I struck out walking. It turned out to be difficult. I spent a long time staring at maps along the street wondering where on them I was. In the end I found a nice Korean woman with English that was much better than she believed, and she led me to where she was staying in a jjimjilbang overlooking the harbor. But it was a long way from the harbor to the beach, so I didn’t get to lie in the sand. I did, however, see squid boats. Did you know they fish at night using really bright lights? Squids are attracted to them. She explained this to me. It was pretty cool.

She was going to climb Seoraksan the next day, and so were we, but we got up at different times, so I didn’t see her. Here’s what I wrote for the day in my journal:

We woke up and it was time to get on the bus to Soraksan. So we did. In a harbinger of what we’d see very soon, the bus became packed to the brim as we went further and further toward the park.

It turns out Seoraksan is the answer to the question of what happens when you seclude 50 million people in a tiny country and tell them all that one mountain is the best one. There were people everywhere, throngs of them, clotting up the entire park. Sean said he’s never seen so many people all trying to hike at the same time.

After discussing it, we decided we’d all be happiest if the girls took the cable car to the Gwon-geum-seong peak and Sean and I hiked on our own steam up to Ulsan Bawi (Ulsan Rock), a rock Sean had read about. So we parted ways and I started walking mwith him. Because Koreans are, Sean says, the slowest walkers in the world, we spent the entire hike figuring out ways to get around the numberless gaggles of them knotting up the trail. This led to some fun skirting around the trail, especially at the bottom before it got steep and narrow. The trail was pretty flat for quite a ways, all up until we got to the bottom of the rock itself. Ulsan Bawi, I discovered, is a serious rock. We were standing and looking up from the bottom of a congregation of rocks taller than any building we’d seen since last time we were in Seoul, each of them probably heavier than the town of Sachangni. People with foresight and Korean language skills were climbing straight up a crack between two of them using gear that I have to presume they booked months in advance. I desperately wanted to do that, but we both had to resingn to using the stairs.

A red metal staircase was driven into the rock face, going all the way to the top. It was full to capacity with people. Cutting corners and squeezing where we could, we got on and moved slightly faster than average pace. But the views were something that I hope to see in dreams for years to come. From our stairs clinging to this bare rock, we could see the orest blow stretching out to cover all of Seoraksan Park and crowding up to the waists of all the other rock peaks around us. The sun lit it all from an artist’s angle and birds flew through the sky in the infinite abyss around us.

We got to the top and it was fenced off, the view blocked on one side, there was a souvenir vendor, and it was packed to the railings with Koreans and other tourists. Sean and I agreed that Korea had, in this case, ruined the experience. So we found our own rock, a mildly perilous climb away over some rocks with deadly consequences for us if we’d slipped. Sean had a hamburger; I had water. We enjoyed ourselves. I watched a butterfly until I couldn’t see it anymore.

So then we had to climb back down. It was quicker, at least. We sat where we were scheduled to meet the girls and Sean called them, only to find out that they’d just gotten to the peak on their cable car. We climbed a whole mountain in the time it took them to wait. It transpired that they’d filled that time by fending off weird men and hiking to a nice waterfall with a fence to keep swimmers out. The view from their peak was apparently very nice, though Sean says we were higher up.

I’ll put up pictures of this sometime. It was a good one. I don’t know what we’re doing next weekend, but I almost hope we stick around in town, because I’m having so many adventures and not experiencing the endless stretches of contemplative free time that I expected I’d have here. I was supposed to be sitting at a desk and writing a book by this point, but here I am still climbing mountains. Oh, how rough I have it.

File under: climbing, friends · Places: Korea

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Sounds wonderful! I just love reading about all the fantastic stuff you're doing. Keep it coming. I love you and God bless you-

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