A road trip to the hills and beyond.
My stomach rattled in my ribcage as the bus stopped and started over. The road was heavy with family-packed cars leaving Seoul for the long weekend. A trip that was supposed to take three hours turned into a five-and-a-half-hour odyssey. My back was sticking to my leather seat, my knees were chafing on the seat in front of me and a man to my right was snoring tremendously with his mouth agape. This bus ride was a test of endurance, but then I saw the mountains. My anger transformed into awe. My first glimpse of Seoraksan National Park came through the steamy window on my right; in the distance serrated peaks cut a jagged profile across the darkening sky and for the moment I forgot the bus, the traffic, and everything else.
During Korean Memorial Day weekend myself, my girlfriend, and a friend decided to escape city confines and explore the natural side of Korea. We wanted two days of relief from crowded subway cars, grimy air, and loogie-covered streets. Seoraksan was our solution: The forest brimming with sharp-edged peaks, waterfalls, twisting rivers, and soaring pines.
That night we shared a pot of gamjatang (pork bone and potato soup) and finished it with a bottle of local makgeolli, a traditional Korean alcohol made from rice. The soup was thick with succulent pork and golden potatoes. The makgeolli was slightly sweet and creamy – a perfect balance to the rich, fatty soup. I was exhausted at dinner and committed a chopstick debacle. My final cup of makgeolli became the victim of an erratic potato. The makgeolli turned dark red and small strips of potato skin floated to the top. The drink would have looked more at home in a lab studying infectious disease than in my stomach.
After dinner we called a taxi and went to our hotel located near the park entrance. We checked in, boiled eggs ahead for breakfast, discussed our hiking route, and then took a nice walk down the road to stretch our cramped legs. The night was a sheet of onyx, but the stars were bright. We stopped for a moment to enjoy the stars, silence, and the sweet scent of pine needles. After the walk, sleep came quickly.
The sunrise washed our room in bright light, but we slept in anyway; nothing is more tiring than traveling. We woke up at nine and ate a Spartan breakfast of boiled eggs, salted peanuts, yogurt, and a banana. Then we gathered our bags and walked towards the park. Originally, we had planned on taking the local bus to the park entrance, a little over two kilometers away, but then we saw a gigantic line of neon-clad hikers and decided to walk. I would rather walk than risk being jostled by ludicrously colossal multiday packs or skewered by sinister-looking walking sticks. On our left, a river bordered by tall green pine trees flowed peacefully over white boulders worn smooth. Behind the river, spiked peaks soared and waves of mist rippled slowly amongst them. At the main entrance we walked under a mighty wooden gate and bought our KRW 3500 admission to the park.
We decided to hike Ulsanbawi Rock – a gorgeous yet short trek. Our hike to the summit took us just under an hour and forty minutes. At the beginning, the pathway snaked through a lush valley and a small stream gurgled calmly on our left. Chipmunks scampered and played on the rocks while large magpies croaked overhead. The magpies’ brilliant blue, green, and black feathers shimmered in the sun. Bright green and orange toads hopped and swam about in small pools. The day was muggy, but occasionally a soothing breeze swept through the pines and provided relief. The terrain was steep and near-vertical sections of stairs dominated the final approach. At that point my forehead and back were soaked in sweat. The sun sat directly above us and the tree canopy disappeared. As the stairs took us higher and higher, the view became more and more beautiful. From our lofty vantage point, we enjoyed the rolling greenery and rugged beauty that make this park unique.
Finally, the stairs ended and smooth walls of towering granite stood before us. At the summit, sweat-drenched hikers gathered in swarms to take photos of the peak marker in order to justify their exertion and shattered quads. We opted to avoid the chaos and ate a small lunch on the summit of a lower peak. As we chewed on our trail mix and gazed at the beauty expanding in all directions, a fog from the Pacific came lumbering over the slopes and left us eating amongst the clouds. This dazzling view of Seoraksan National Park was worth the horrors of the cramped bus, the exhaustion, and jostling with grouchy, neon-clad elderly hikers.