Monday, 5 October 2009

Chuseok in Seoraksan, part uno

Or, for those who can read 한글, “추석 in 설악산”

Done showing off now. Plus, I don't have the handy little stickers on my keyboard to find the Korean letters, so it's kind of time-consuming to type in Hangeul.

So, Chuseok is the Korean Thanksgiving. Every Korean family comes together at the 'big father's house' (this must be a direct translation – it means eldest paternal uncle of the family) to exchange gifts and money and pay respects to their ancestors. There's special food, shops are overrun by gift sets (including artfully displayed tins of spam. I kid you not.) and a great deal of tv is watched. So it's not so different from major holidays in the West really. I've asked all my classes what they did for the holiday: most of them play computer games (not so different from any other weekend!) and said their mothers do a lot of cooking. One student only finished with everything today (the main holiday was on Saturday) because his father is the 'big father' and they have a lot of ancestors. Tough break for the kid – he looked exhausted. Another girl was left at home because she slept in and her parents left without her. I have no idea what to make of that story! I even got a gift from my adult class: a bottle of Blue Nun. Score!

We were lucky to have Thursday off, as that meant we were able to miss most of the infamous Chuseok traffic jams. We set off obscenely early on Thursday morning to catch a bus at 7:10 (AM! A! M!) We chose the 'Intercity Bus-uh' as the 'Express-uh Bus-uh' left from a terminal way on the other side of Daegu. This meant that our journey would take 8 hours in total, in contrast with the speedy return last night, which clocked in at just 4 and a half hours. That being said, the bus was typically comfortable and spacious, and the bus driver was really very nice. If a little unable to drive stick shift, or indeed remember when to reverse. I am becoming accustomed to this sort of thing, but it is always a little more nerve-wracking in such a large vehicle! On the way, Anne and I had a typical Korean stew with some kind of beef and an egg. Yes, a just-barely-coddled egg. I not only ate it - I liked it. I am really beginning to doubt myself about the whole 'I hate egg' thing.

On the way into Sokcho, we passed almost a mile of racks hung with drying squid by the side of the road. Dried seafood seemed to be the town's passion. You'll note the photo of the street lamp decorated with a squid motif. The first afternoon was the only time I really wandered around the town, and the smell of this stuff really did not sit well with me. I try to be open minded about food, but a dried fish split down the middle, with dessicated guts still clinging on? No. Sorry, but eugh. Fortunately, Sokcho is really a nice little seaside town and and we found our way up to a cute little pagoda. This being Korea, a few locals were there hanging out with a bottle of soju. Though it is similar in strength and ridiculously cheap, soju has none of the unpleasant – or underage - connotations of a bottle of Buckfast. I've seen plenty of hammered Koreans, but no aggression so far. They seem to just go for it until their mate has to give them a piggy back home.

Dinner was a simple galbi buffet (as much meat as you can eat for 7,000 won or ₤3.50) followed by an episode of Blackadder and an early night at our cheap and very cheerful hostel. The owner had given us a good chat about what there is to do in the area when we checked in, and confirmed that it was indeed possible to get up Daecheongbong (the highest peak in Seoraksan National Park – and third highest in Korea) in one day. We had unanimously agreed that would be our task for the next day, and planned to leave at 6:20 the next morning.

By some miracle, we all dragged ourselves out of bed before 6am for the second day in a row, and made it to the first bus after a rushed breakfast. Another crazy bus driver made sleep impossible on the way to Osaek, and we were kicked off somewhat further away from the start of the trail than we expected, but we were given English maps at the ranger station, and started our way up before 8am. I was already bloody impressed with us.

The hike to the summit was only 5km, with 1,300m of ascent, and an estimated time of 4 hours. If you've done any walking at all, or indeed any maths, you will have an inkling of how painful those 4 hours were. The three boys in the group quickly zoomed off on their longer, stronger legs, leaving me and Anne to channel the spirit of the Tortoise, and keep going through several pain barriers. Lovely trees and promise of beautiful scenery (and, for me at least, a bagged hill!) provided motivation through several hundred stairs.

I won't delve too deeply into my impressions of Korean hiking just now (lest this post turn into an essay of unwieldy proportions) but it really is not the same as hillwalking in Scotland. This is not wilderness by any stretch of the imagination. There are staircases and walkways everywhere – and swarms of people. People with a crap load of branded hiking gear. As one of our group said, 'Mountains are Korea's catwalks'.

I reached the summit around half an hour after the boys, and Anne was not far behind. The summit itself was actually not that impressive. The views were quite hazy, and we were almost too high to really appreciate the surroundings. We restocked water supplies at the shelter (more like a hostel than a bothy) and began our trek back. As on the ascent, there were hundreds of stairs, which allowed us an easy descent into the valley. The views quickly went from just good to breathtakingly magical. This is not hyperbole: there were many points along the trail where everyone in the group gasped at the scenery. Without wishing to bang on about it, my photos don't nearly capture it, and I have never seen anything quite so majestic and awe-inspiring. It blew the socks off anything I've seen in Scotland – and I do not say that lightly! Oh, and the rock. There was lovely rock everywhere. Like a giant playground of rock just begging to be climbed. I have a feeling I will be back to Seoraksan before this year is done.

After dawdling over photos, we realised that the walk out was much longer than the walk up and we would need to press on if we were to have any chance of getting out before dark. While I did have a head-torch, and the path was good, it was a concern and two of the boys trundled on ahead in an effort to avoid any night-time walking. Mark and I stayed back with Anne to make sure we all got back ok - I was definitely grateful to move a little more slowly by this point! - and we all made it down before sunset.

As well as the views, the other highlight of the hike was that I used a map. Actually, I used two: a trail map in English, and a proper one with contours in Korean. I may not have known where we were at every point, but my directions were accurate when needed, and provided confirmation when we weren't sure. It was a really good feeling to be the one navigating, even if it was just on trails.

After much-needed showers, we headed out for dinner (American this time), and a beer at Sokcho's only foreigner bar, more of which in Part Deux!

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