Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Seoraksan Hike Weekend: Day One

A hiker taking a photo of the sunrise from atop Seoraksan.

I enjoy hiking. So, when Jackie said there was a long hike up the third-highest mountain in Korea, Seoraksan, I thought it would be a lot of fun. Then she said it would take twelve hours. Whoa. Intense. We chose to go with When in Korea (WinK), a group that specializes in taking expats around on different excursions, experiencing all the Korea has to offer.

After work on Friday, I met Jackie and went to the nearby subway station. We then rode over to the meet-up point. It was already a bit cold, but I had already changed into a couple layers to keep warm. The bus took a few hours to get all the way to the starting point. Seoraksan is located near the northeast coast of South Korea. Along the way it was difficult to sleep because they kept the lights on in the bus for some inexplicable reason. We tried to sleep as much as possible.

When we got to the start point we sleepily stumbled out of the car an into the fresh night air. Immediately multiple people began exclaiming, "You can see the stars!" The ability to see the stars, which I once took for granted, was striking. I had not even realized I could not see them in Seoul. But now that I was away from the city, there they were again. It was nice.


We began the hike at three in the morning. A group of older Koreans began warming up and stretching before hiking. Our group decided, hey why not, just copy what they are doing. We stretched and began up the mountain. A great many people were making the trek. Bus-fulls of people crammed onto the narrow trail made it a slow hike.

All of the older people had walking sticks. They use two of these metal sticks to help them up the mountain. It appears to be very effective. However, for the  rest of us, it takes up a lot of space, space which is already not plentiful. And since most of them are slower than us youngsters, it becomes frustrating quickly. Luckily, many of them took breaks on the way up and that provided an opportunity to pass.

At many points, we were chest to back and shoulder to shoulder with strangers. The path up the mountain is not very wide and there must have been hundreds of people jostling with each other to get to the top. I imagine we looked like bees scrambling along a beehive, but with much less organization.

Sunrise

Hours later, we reached the top. It was incredibly cold there. Going up the mountain, I knew it was getting colder, however, I did not realize how freezing it was until we stopped moving. Also, the wind at the top was strong. It really caused the cold to sink into my bones. We went seeking for shelter from the wind. Unfortunately, people had taken all the good places. We had to settle for trying to hid on the side of a rock where the wind could still hit us. It did not work well.

The sun began coming up about ten minutes later. My hands and ears were frozen. Jackie and I huddled together as best we could. I knew that I had to at least get some pictures because I would not have the opportunity again, nor did I want to put myself through this again soon. I resigned myself to knowing it would hurt and I pulled myself up to the tallest rock.

Waiting for the sun to rise.



The wind tried its best to knock me over. I stood atop the rock and struggled to keep myself from being batted down. The cold was tremendous. I snapped pictures for five minutes and jumped down. It was cloudy anyway. I wish I had a better view; that's how it goes I guess. I hurt all over, but I was happy that I got those photos. But, wow, I wanted to get to the shelter to warm up!

Along the way to the shelter, there were many great places to take pictures. Jackie ran to the shelter. I leaned against the rope that helps people not fall to their deaths in a sort of imitation of Muhammad Ali fighting George Forman and using the Rope-a-Dope. From that position, I took pictures.


Sitting above the clouds.


I can see the first shelter at last!

The First Shelter

First of all, the shelter was packed. There was hardly any room to walk or sit. People pushed and shoved to get by. That is pretty normal in Korea, but it still annoys me. We walked down to an eating area and two men moved their bags so we could sit on the floor. Jackie had made peanut butter sandwiches for us before we left. Those sandwiches were sooooo tasty after all the work getting up there.

After eating, we decided to walk around and check the shelter out. It was totally packed and moving around was difficult. We eventually made it down to the lower floor. It contained bunk beds for napping. Every one was taken.

Back up at the top, Jackie found a spot on the floor to curl up and sleep. I got frustrated by the crowdedness (and being constantly pushed). Eventually I made my way back to the shelter's main room and found a spot near Jackie to nap for about 30 minutes. It felt good, but we had quite a bit more hiking still to do.

Hiking Through the Valley

Once we got down from the mountain and into the valley, the sun came out and it warmed up considerably. A welcome change for sure. Not only did we enjoy the valley for its warmth, but also for the scene before us. The mountain was all bare trees, the valley kept some of the leaves on the trees. The Greens, reds and yellows mixed together beautifully. I am still not used to so many colors during fall, which isn't to say I dislike it. How could anyone dislike that?





Along the way we passed a couple more shelters. Each time we sat and rested for a bit. This part of the hike was considerably more relaxed. At each shelter, the Korean hikers would pull out of their enormous backpacks what seemed like entire kitchens. They cooked meals and some of them drank soju while sitting on the floor and relaxing. Then they would pack everything away and get back to hiking. It is strange to me to even think about drinking alcohol while hiking, but these guys do it a lot. They are the experts I guess! But still, water is good enough for me.




As we continued to wind our way through the valley, it still warmed up. We dressed in layers, so it was no problem cooling off. Now that we were at the bottom of the valley, the hike was incredibly easy. It flattened out, was hardly crowded at all and even had a few restaurants to eat at. There was one point where we stopped near a stream to sit and talk. At another point soon after, we stood and watched people climbing a nearby mountain (you know, like in the greatest movie of all time, Cliffhanger). The trees were even more plentiful and colorful.





The changing leaves in the Seoraksan valley.





The End of the Day

Finally the hike had come to an end. We walked down the trail, surrounded by vibrant trees, and came to a plaza which centered around a Buddhist temple. Before we reached the clearing where the plaza was, we saw, poking out from over the trees, a giant statue. It was incredible. Many people took photos of it, but others would come up and lay on the floor to pray there. I even watched a boy who could not have been older than four, watch his dad pray there and try to imitate what he was doing.

Also, while we were waiting we met a couple new people from our group and waited for the charter bus to come pick us up.





Giant statue at the Buddhist temple at the end of the Seoraksan hike.


Our first day with When in Korea was a big success!

[You can find Part Two of our adventure, which includes a swim in the ocean and ziplining, at the link]
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