Hiking, Korea, Mountains
Comments 12

Paths to Autumn Glory

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SOKCHO BEACH, TUESDAY

Like a hobbit on LSD trekking through a Chinese painting. That’s how I described my feelings during my last two days of walking to a friend back home. You get used to a lot of maudlin, syrupy excess in Japan and Korea in their tour-brochure raptures, but Soerak-San did not disappoint. In fact I would rate yesterday as possibly the best day-hike I’ve ever done.

It’s been a wonderful if exhausting trip and it’s not over yet. I meant to blog earlier but the phone signal up there was weak at best and the iPhone, while a marvelous machine, is cursed with an Achilles heel in its UTTERLY CRAPPY BATTERY. Despite hardly using it, the battery died yesterday. Somewhere a Samsung exec is chuckling maniacally…

After my bus trip up the coast, which took no longer than my last trip home, despite the warnings about holiday traffic, I walked south for half an hour to Sokcho Beach, got a room in one of those mock-castle love hotels that blight every city in the land ($40 – cheap), and went down to the really-quite-pretty beach to get some sunset shots. The full moon rose in slow-motion triumph over the Pacific while dockside alley cats prowled near the fishers casting lines and behind the city the serrated ridges and crumbling peaks of Soerak-San glowed in the fading sunlight.

Sleep in the castle was shattered around 3:30am by a bellowing drunkard. This happens often in my Korean love hotel stays. I fantasised about drowning him in the moat or displaying his head on a stick on the ramparts; instead I got up, packed, and went down to the sand to await the sunrise with my camera. It was a long time coming but worth it, even with the Chinese tourists shoving and squawking. A cruise ship crept in; the moon set beyond the granite fangs of Soerak. I boarded a bus for the park.

And what a park. Beautiful, clean – and already swarming with walkers and other varieties of tourist. I raced first to Ulsanbawi, a magnificent set of jagged peaks reached in the final stages via an elaborate and increasingly steep succession of rusting steps. At the top: a hawker selling trinkets and a Korean flag under which proud adventurers posed for pictures. Tremendous views of the eastern coast; the sky was clear and the sun was bright.

After descending I headed into the heart of the beast, along a river bank, steadily rising, to Biseondae Rocks, where I left most of the day trippers behind to continue up the valley, which became a series of glorious chasms, coppery-blue pools below and walls aflame with autumnal maples towering above. Crossing and recrossing the stream on steel footbridges, and finally real trail – beautiful trail with splendid rough-stone flagging and terraced walls. Gaining height as the afternoon proceeded, the autumn colour intensified and I had to keep stopping to shoot more leaves of red, yellow and gold – even a magnificent copse of yellow-leaved white birches.

All this while I was cussing the ludicrously heavy weight on my back – I’d overdone it with the food and on one steep climb I was forced to sit on a log and down six rolls lavished with peanut butter and sliced banana. The climb from Socheongbong to Daecheongbong — 3rd-highest peak in Korea at 1,708m — passed a “shelter” nestled on the col, more a Japanese-style hut than an Appalachian Trail-style shelter. It was throbbing with noisy hikers; I kept climbing, made the summit, and bedded down on it, quite illegally I’m sure, and quite possibly the highest human in Korea that night.

Night was long. I was warm in my down bag and Titanium Goat bivy, but suffered another night of Moon Trauma. It was blindingly bright. And though I was safely hidden in the boulders, I thought, all night I was harassed by countless parties of loud hikers taking their summit shots and making a hullabaloo: “Hana…dul…set! Hana…dul…set!” At one point I sat up and quite sternly requested those discussing my apparently lifeless form to kindly fuck off. They complied, but it was too late; I was awake. At 3:30am. Again. I got up and waited for sunrise. Again.

Well, I didn’t have long to enjoy my solitude. There were probably 150 people up there as dawn broke, appearing from all directions, snapping the predictably glorious star as it surfaced from beneath the Pacific and posing for endless shots at the summit marker. My bag was dewy; it was 8:30 before it was dry enough to depart the humanoid swarm, down past the shelter and back along the trail to a junction.

Here I detoured via a backcountry ridge and spent a long, tiring and stupendously spectacular day making the 12km journey back to Seorak-dong via Biseondae. 12km/7m doesn’t sound far, but it was CONSTANT climbing and descending over and around those gnarly fangs, in and out of forest ablaze with autumnal splendour. It was a photographer’s fantasy, and the weather again was incredible; the polariser got a work-out. It was astonishing beautiful actually, from the close up to the epic; I was exhausted and running low on water till I came to a seeping spring, but didn’t really want it to end. When it did I stopped at the first trailside restaurant back near the park entrance and downed a huge bowl of bibimbap. It was good to eat rice again, and these things called “vegetables”.

I got back here and booked another night in the castle. The price had mysteriously risen by $20; he gave me a $10 discount. I’d decided to come home a day early; I’d had a great trek and my leg muscles were on fire. But sometime in the night – I believe it was around 3:30 – I woke thinking, “What are you doing? You may never get another chance to see this place.” And just like that, I decided. After I publish this, I’m getting back on the park bus and going back in for another day of walking. I might camp out tonight and will get the Busan bus home tomorrow as planned…

Stay tuned for some more detailed write-ups and some guaranteed jaw-dropping shots! Ive taken nearly 400 already! And thanks for reading through this really rather long and BLOODY-ANNOYING-TO-TYPE-ON-A-PHONE post…

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

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12 Comments

  1. It sounds so beautiful. I can’t wait to see the photos… but now you’ve talked it up so big I’ll be expecting amazing shots!! I can’t wait to see what the hobbit on LSD sees! I also am amused by the interruptions at 3:30… You need a little sign to pin to your sleeping bag… “I’m trying to sleep, shut the fuck up”…. and what a great decision to do it again…

    • Haha, thanks Sue, yes, that was quite a teaser, wasn’t it? But I think it would be difficult to screw up with this kind of material! Just staggering, one of my new favourite places.

      Tonight I’m going to attempt to sleep on or very near the beach. I will have my trusty Swiss army knife next to me, with EVERY SINGLE BLADE AND TOOL OPEN. God help anyone who dares disturb me at the bitching hour of 3:30am…

  2. You finally went! Very cool! I spent a summer in Soeraksan as a kid(I probably shared), it turned me into a life time hiker. I want to go back. I can’t believe you wrote this post on your iPhone!

    • Haha, yes, and typing on a moving bus is not recommended unless one’s stomach is stronger than mine. I had to take frequent pauses to close my eyes…

      I can see how Seoraksan would have that effect on you. I was blown away, actually, especially on the second day.

    • Oh, believe me, I hated every tap — especially the very frequent predictive text errors — but the public needed to know!

      Enjoying the arduous but satisfying task of sorting out all those pictures now…

    • I am seriously hanging for the rumoured mini-iPad I heard about recently. I hope it happens. I haven’t owned an iPad, and I heard they’re not really ideal for hiking — but I am spending an increasing amount of my reading time online (regrettably) esp since starting on Twitter (which leads me to all manner of diverting magazines etc), and reading them on a phone screen is NOT HAPPENING.

      And as for typing on them: yes, my masochism takes all kinds of forms.

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