Saturday, 28 February 2015

The life force to Koreans: hiking the fabulous Koreas' mountains


Mountain culture and customs are hot-wired into the lives of each Korean. What better way to get under their skin than to hike together with them?

SOUTH Korea lies along a peninsula that is hugely mountainous, with a spinal ridge running for 735 km from the DMZ boundary in the north to the East China Sea down south.

This mountain range has monumental relevance to the people of Korea as it is believed to provide the life force to the nation: its arterial rivers drain seawards, bearing sustenance for the inhabitants living in the lowlands. Many historical events that occurred on these mountains have been documented whilst just as many myths and folklore have been re-told over generations.

For the tourist, hiking the mountains of the Korean peninsula would seem like a natural activity, to immerse in the culture of this dynamic country.

The terrain is not high, the tallest peak being Cheonhwangbong at 1,915m, in Jirisan National Park, at the southern tip of the range. The next highest peak is Daecheongbong, 1,708m in altitude, squatting on Seoraksan National Park diametrically to the north.

The ranges are inter-linked through a series of hiking trails, following the ridge line closely and crisscrossing valleys and rivers. Temples, villages, farms and shelters dot the hills.

Soothing: The scenic mountain ranges of Korea are rich in bio-diversity. The N Seoul Tower is a popular tourist attraction. Go early to avoid the long queues for the cable car.

Such an eco-system has made mountain hiking a national pastime that is likely to overtake taekwando in popularity as a sport. There’s also a whole line of Korean celebrity fashion wear for hikers. Unfortunately, for the tourist, not much promotional information on hiking is available from official tourism literature.

It would take a lifetime to explore the legendary mountains of Korea and we had limited time to spare before our wedding anniversary celebration back in Seoul.

Day trip to Seoraksan

We took a 3-hour bus ride to Sokcho, a tourist town on the north-eastern coast of the Korean peninsula and an entry point into Seoraksan National Park.

The park showcases the Seorak mountain range, and is loved by the locals for its natural beauty and bio-diversity. Hikers come to marvel at the uncanny ruggedness of the “Dinosaur Ridge” and soak up the fables of the mountains’ origins.

There are many trails up picturesque Seoraksan, numerous short ones requiring half-day’s effort and several longer routes that are more than 10km in distance.

A good option for tourists is to hop on the cable car, not far from the Visitor Information Office, and catch a ride up to Gwongeumseong Fortress at a height of about 900 m. This was the option we selected together with a long queue of like-minded tourists. We reached the counter at 10.30am but all tickets were sold out.

Without wasting any more time, we opened the map, picked out what looked like an easy route and headed out to Biseondae Cliff.

It was only 2.3km one-way and took us through a forested area, tracing a path beside a gushing stream. The fresh air and fine drizzle made the pace invigorating.

 Many eateries are found along the trails of the park. Many eateries are found along the trails of the park.

We skirted a pool of crystalline water at the bottom of a huge rock face, which I took to be Biseondae Cliff, and crossed a short bridge whereupon the trail ended abruptly at a locked gate. Beyond laid wilderness that could be experienced only with a permit from the ranger’s office. We clambered up a rocky slope and joined some hikers on a break.

“Where are you from?” queried the ajeossi (middle-aged man). I told him we were from Malaysia, as I shared a chocolate bar with his 10-year old son. I remarked that the scenery here had a mystical and mysterious air.

He nodded, “Ah, as mysterious as the disappearance of your airplane”. I guess he was referring to MH370. We both nodded and sighed. They wished us a good trip and moved on. We stayed a while to admire the view of the distant peaks framed in by the hillside trees. On our way down we stopped by a tea house. Bibimbap downed with a hot bowl of miso soup tasted a lot better here than in the lowlands.

We dozed on the bus back to Seoul. That chilly night in Seoul, we captured our last “high” at the N Seoul Tower, atop Namsan. Standing 236m tall, the tower accords a night scene of the city.

We were feeling pretty tired, but fulfilled. So, I suggested we take the cable car up instead of climbing the stairs. I didn’t hear any objections.

Hiking near Seoul

THE view from Bugaksan might have been more panoramic if not for the faint haze hanging over the “ancient quarters” of Seoul that April morning.

To the south-west, we could just make out the hillock of Inwangsan and the colourful string of hikers inching up its summit trail, while afar north, the rocky peaks of Bukhansan glared in the sun.

Seoul, the 600-year old capital city of South Korea, is encircled by a fortress wall that links four surrounding hills, Bugaksan, Ingwangsan, Namsan and Naksan. Of these, Bugaksan is the tallest at 342m and is located in the neighbourhood of Samcheong-dong, majestically overlooking Cheongwadae (Blue House), the President’s official residence and office.

We had taken the northern route of the fortress wall, entering through Hyehwamun Gate, muddling through a residential area up a steep incline, and, with some orienteering instinct, located the path that followed the ancient stone wall, leading us up a hill of cherry trees.

Due to its proximity with the Blue House, this section of the trail requires foreigners (who are called “aliens” in official documents here) to sign in at Malbawi Station with their passports (or “Alien Registration Card”) and sign-out at Changuimun Station.

Guards are posted at intervals within eye-shot of hikers. One young cadet approached me to view my camera photos and requested some to be deleted. The pictures were mainly landscape shots, mostly bird’s eye views of the city, which didn’t look pretty anyway, back-lit by the morning sun.

It was a quarter past eleven when we arrived at the top of Bugaksan. The guard, more militia than forest ranger, had been monitoring the growing crowd at the plot, and sternly ushered any lingerers to move on. No picnic here, literally, just pictures.

The Koreans are actually a helpful and friendly lot. On the way up we had approached more than a few ajumma (“aunty”) for directions and they were profuse with their assistance; expressive hand gestures and finger pointing, and a continuous barrage of verbal directions, delivered in Korean.

We nodded our gamsa-hamnida (“thank you”) and they gleefully let us off. Still clueless, we were comforted to know that at least we were in hospitable country.

The descent to Changuimun was unexpectedly steep, and the high steps slowed the pace somewhat. Overall, the hike was enjoyable, requiring just three hours, which left us plenty of time to slip back downtown for another helping of sumptuous Korean spicy soup.

By Lee Meng Lai The Star/Asia News Network

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