Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The 808 Steps

With much planning, my coworker Carp organised a weekend away on the Eastern coast in the Seoraksan National Park. It was an incredible place, and a very fun weekend!
It began with us feeling very Amazing Race-y with just 35 minutes to get from work to the bus terminal, a stretch at the best of times and harder with the Friday afterwork traffic. We all pretended to be kind and generous teachers and let our students leave 5 minutes early, but really we needed that little time up our sleeves. Unfortunately our boss chose that night to have a "quick word" with us, and despite our protests and strained faces, he was actually being lovely, having heard we were off to Seoraksan, and gave us some money to help support our weekend! Very kind and unexpected and helped start the weekend off on a good note. We got to the bus with four minutes to spare and travelled for two hours to Chuncheong, where we stayed the night, after some delicious dakgalbi (the chicken barbecue in front of you, totally delicious) - apparently it originated from there, and we weren't disappointed.
The following day we had another two hour bus ride through to Sokcho, a city on the coast and the gateway to the national park. Totally beautiful, the ride through almost reminded me of Fiordland, only it just had a different feel about it. We met up with others there and headed for the park.

Korea does nature: Neon welcome signs!
(l-r) Sara, Ann, Me, Laura and Carp

Carp had given us a little idea about where we were going, but then he pointed out THIS:

Ulsanbawi Rock

And told us we were going to climb it! I almost fell over. It's over 800m above sea level, and we were about to climb 808 steps straight up the side of it, about 400m straight.
It's hard for photos to do justice to just how major this was!

This totally reminds me of somewhere in
Fiordland - minus the tui, and pohutakawa

We walked for maybe 1 1/2 hours up through forest, it was relatively easy going, we passed an amazing HUGE statue of Buddha, a temple and a hermitage where monks still live. I saw my first ever squirrels, chipmunks and woodpeckers - I was LOVING it, while everyone I was with (being either Canadian or American) scoffed at my innocence, but it was so novel to see these wee critters!

And to hear birdsong, it was lovely. So nice to be free of the hum of neon (excluding the welcome sign) and the constant blarring of K-pop music (as much as I do love it) and the noise of the city. Silence! Peace! And because we'd got our a into g so late, most of the Korean hikers were heading down and out so by the time we got to the base of the rock, we were almost the only ones left there.

This isn't the rock we climbed.

We reached the hermitage where there's a teetering rock, which (with effort) you can make rock a little - we all failed, and then watched one single (and slight) Korean man do it almost effortlessly.

The most daunting part of all was looking up at this rock we had to scale, there was a rickety ladder bolted to the side of it and they pretty much just went right up. I'm sure at home you'd not be allowed to climb this without some kind of harness, it was perilous at the best of times. I had moments of horrible vertigo looking back over my shoulder (which I quit doing) at just how far down the ground was.

One of the many, many rest stops - it was
incredibly hot despite being so high up

The view from the peak over Sokcho,
the city we stayed in, and the Eastern coast of Korea -
pretty close to the border with the North

At one point we passed a group of Koreans heading down, and a man was carrying a beer, which he insisted we take - pretty bizarre he thought the need to pack that for this trek, but we were pretty happy to receive it - despite it being warm and flat.
There was also an ahjumma (which is the word for an older Korean woman, who are pretty notorious around the place, they say they run the country) tailing along behind us using her hands and feet to climb, and we were determined not to let her pass us, so were super pleased when we finally made it to the top!

Lazzarin and I on the top of the world!

The temple back down on flat land, most incredible,
beautiful setting for one.

Sara and I having some well-earned Galbi
back in Sokcho

The next day was spent on a hot stinky bus home, there were plans for bungy jumping on Sunday but noone was feeling much up for it. We're hoping to get back over this way in autumn, apparently the colours are incredible, and there are many more walks to do, it's an area definitely worth more exploration!

Some very jaded travellers

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Trains, Ferries and Automobiles

How to: Get to the Beach in Korea.

First, take a 1/2 hour taxi to the subway station, then take two subways to Dongincheon. Perferably have some sunshine in your foreground, and ensure you pack your togs, sunblock and a very cheery mood - you're gonna need it!
Also helpful to have a loud and still semi-drunk Irishman along for the trip for entertainment value. Thank you Aidan.

Sunshine and we're going to the beach - hurrah!

From there it's a simple cab ride with a fabulous driver who plays you A-Ha 'Take On Me' and ABBA 'Honey Honey' on the way - this is his driving music. But do not, under any circumstances, over enthusiastically begin to sing in horrible non-melodic voices. He will tell you to shut up and threaten to kick you out.
Arrive at Woomuido (I can't spell Korean place names) and get on a boat. Sing the predictable "Never thought I'd be on a boat, it's a big blue watery road" lyrics - they are compulsory. Watch Korean families throw food at seagulls with gusto and enjoy hundreds of the scoundrels trailing along with your boat across to the island.

Poesidon - Look at me!

Next, wait 1/2 hour for a bus while reading your Korean phrasebook and being rather proud of being able to read the signs around you for the first time - EVER! Enjoy a Korean man squat down beside you, take said phrasebook and laugh hysterically to himself while pointing out particular words or phrases. I guess these must be in jokes, as I found it funny, but not as funny as he did.

After a 40min bus ride across Incheon (an island, where the Int'l airport is, where I flew in, funny to be back) enjoy a leisurely 15 min stroll across a causeway and around a road to another ferry.

Board ferry. Watch as ferry turns around, travels for two minutes (at most) and docks on the other side. Question need for ferry and the possibility of a bridge. Dismiss. You're on Muuido!

So now, pack yourself into another bus like cattle (or some very intensive bus ghosting - ghosting for beginners if you will) and enjoy another 15 min ride along very narrow but two-way roads through farm land. Be pleased you can only see your friends' armpits and not how close you come to running down SUVs, goats, and children.
And then, dear friends, you are AT THE BEACH!

Six hours of travelling was SO worth it for this!

How to: Have Fun at the Beach

1. Swim. Ignore the lack of other swimmers. Ignore the brown water from the silt pouring in to the China Sea from the Yellow River. Ignore the floating bandaid and itty bitty little dead crab. Put your head under for beachy hair. Rinse. Repeat.

2. Beer on the beach. Obviously.

3. As the tide receeds, follow it, and you'll end up walking for about an hour. On the return trip, splash annoyed friends and marvel at the weird and unique sealife dredged up in the mudflats and laugh at the Korean families wearing plastic yellow waders while digging for clams.

4. Watch the sunset. Pur-edy.

5. Eat galbi (Korean BBQ) on the beach front. Combine with soju.

We are very mini. But we are also having a
whole buncha fun with sparklers. Yippee!

6. Realise fireworks are sold alongside sunscreen and shampoo at the one and only store on the island. Buy a bundle. Write your name in the sky.

Laz's bike is so much cooler - it's pink and has a basket!
7. Borrow/steal childrens bikes and ride around on 'em until you tire of it/until you break them/until a Korean woman - likely the mother of the children who officially own the bikes - comes and scolds you and whacks you on the bum to get off (yes, this is from experience. Bad, bad Sophie!)

8. Steal/raid wood and make bonfire. Fall asleep in front of it. Bliss!

Next week: Seroaksan - The National Park of Wonder!