Seoraksan NP and East Coast, sushified, discofied, templeised, mountainised, muscletied, oceanified and now doing summer school!

The caravan of Korean automobiles left Eomjeong around 11.30 am and headed towards Wonju for the first training activity, cold noodle lunch Bibim guksu  and Bibim naengmyeon. This was the start of our school training on the East Coast of Gangwon Province. After this filling and delicious lunch we headed towards Gangneung, Gangwon-do. This is a coastal party city, home to shops, many restaurants, and of course… Gyongpodae Beach. We sailed past Gangneung and drove north towards Yang Yang, a smaller city with the famous Naksana Temple and Sol Beach, which was to be our home overnight.

After depositing our luggage in the “shared” accommodation (8 to a 2 bed apartment) we headed to Susan’s harbour for our second training activity, a sail around the harbour on a splendid yacht, despite my recently reduced girth my compulsory life jacket was the tightest girdle man could ever have invented! The highlight of the trip was the interaction between the two sets of teachers on adjacent vessels. On our return to the harbour it was time for activity three, sea kayaking within the confines of the harbour, swimming was not allowed for safety reasons. Unfortunately my Korean being weak I did not understand the instructions, tossed the “straight” jacket to one side and plunged into the murky waters………heaven! In the distance the other teachers had returned to childhood, venturing no more than 10m from the slipway and pelting each other with water. The best was to come as each pair disembarked they failed to ascertain that the slipway was loaded with slimy algae are many proceeded to go arse about tit, with bumps, cuts and bruises being the price paid for the juvenile 5 minute water-sports spree. After first kits were dispatched to tend to the wounded we were instructed to head back to the hotel to shower before dinner.

We were told the itinerary only allowed us 45 minutes to return, shower and make ready before returning to Susan’s harbour for yet more sushi. Remember there are 8 inhabitants in each room and one shower! With military precision we organised 3 minute showers and assembled as instructed outside the hotel to take up the limousine (minibus) transport back to the harbour. This stage one of the evening had everyone rubbing their hands in anticipation of the luxury feast, not I. My previous induction into the realms of sushi mania had resulted in a gob full of fish that tasted quite clearly of urine. I was told this was a delicacy and the most expensive, I should treasure the experience. Sorry I did not; thankfully the restauranteur was kind enough to prepare a kind of rice soup known as Juk, it was delicious! There were also many side dishes of kimchi, mushroom, rice cakes etc.  I had a good fill. Stage two was about to commence, the disco/norebang. We mounted our trusty limousines and headed downtown around 9pm to a cavernous and very empty nightclub, even the DJ had not taken up residency for the evening. The school had a private room booked for norebang, loaded with beer and soft-drinks. As the evening progressed and the alcohol took hold the party made regular forays onto the dance floor, gyrating to a mixture of K-Pop and Acid House. I was in an 80s/90s time-warp and thoroughly enjoying every minute and burning off more of those behemoths we call calories. Halfway through the evening some 60 or more people arrived; guess what? They were teachers on a training course, just like us! As the evening appeared to be drawing to a close we were ushered back to the awaiting limo’s to be driven back to the hotel, I noticed some of the party were missing and enquired why? It transpired stage 3 was about to commence but I was not deemed worthy of stage 3.  Why you may ask? Well the Englishy speaking teachers were not going to stage 3 and it had been decided that without a babysitter I would be ill at ease! I stopped the departing limo and headed out without fear or trepidation to the seafood bonanza that was stage 3.  Needless to say this act of recklessness instigated a fully fledged disembarkation of the limo and most people then got ready for stage 3.  Stage 3 was a seafood barbecue washed down with copious quantities of soju and for those not near or past their drinking sell by date, well, they were finally pushed over the edge into alcohol oblivion; first days training over!

After a spicy fish soup breakfast, the second day saw us visiting the gorgeous complex of Naksansa Temple (낙산사) which is located 4km north of Naksan Beach, and boasts a 1,300-year history. The temple was built by Ui-Sang, the ambassador of the 30th King of Silla Period (57 BC~AD 935), and inside there is the Seven Floor Stone Tower (Dongjong, Hongyaemun) together with several other cultural assets. It was named Naksansa Temple by Ui-Sang, at the spot where he learned the prayer “Gwansae-eumbosal” from Bosal, after he returned from studying abroad in the Chinese Dang Kingdom. It was rebuilt several times afterwards, and the current building was raised in 1953.  Visitors can get to Naksansa Temple by passing through the Iljumun and Hongyaemun gates. When you enter the temple from Hongyaemun, you can see black bamboo trees and tiled earthen walls on either side of the sanctuary. North of Naksan Beach, beside the copper bell is a back door, with a path that leads to Uisangdae Pavilliaon and Hongryeonam. Uisangdae is a pavilion built on top of a cliff by the sea, and was built where Ui-Sang used to sit and meditate. Hongryeonam is known as a small Buddhist temple, built above a stone cave by Ui-Sang. Under the sanctuary floor there is a 10cm hole, through which you can peep through to view the sea. Past Uisangdae Pavillion, up the path on the hill at Sinseonbong, there is a stone statue of Buddha called Haesugwaneumsang. It is the largest of its kind in the Orient, and can be seen from as far as Mulchi Harbor. The whole complex is beautifully landscaped and was crowded with familys enjoying the gardens and views along the coast, we partook of some delicious Korean fruit tea adjacent to Haesugwaneumsang at the complex’s summit. At the close of this part of the training we sped back to the same restaurant (yes for the third time) for yet more sushi.  Once again they were king enough to prepare some grilled fish for me, I don’t know the name but it was delicious, I think it may have been Godeungeo Gui which is grilled Mackerel. From here we all departed the training and headed off for pastures new. Sean Choi and I were heading towards Seoraksan National Park on the Sunday to hike up a mountain but we decided to find a camp site near to the beach to relax before the coming exertions. After setting up camp we headed off for supplies of steak to fill our bellies on the evening barbecue.  We had a really relaxing evening but it was difficult to get a good nights sleep as a number of soju-fuelled parties continued into the early hours. Rising early we packed up the camping gear and headed towards Seoraksan National park. Our destination later that day would be Daecheongbong (Peak), the highest point of Seoraksan, we looked forward to fabulous views and good photo opportunities.  The weather forecast was good!

In November 1965, the Seorak Mountain district was designated as a Natural Monument Preservation Area. In December 1973, it was designated as a Park Preservation Area, and in August 1982, as a Biosphere Preservation District by UNESCO. The park is spread across 4 cities and counties: Sokcho, Inje, Goseong and Yangyang. Daecheongbong; at 1,708 meters high, is the highest peak in Mt. Seoraksan National Park and the third highest peak in Korea following Mt. Hallasan (1,950 meters) and Mt. Jirisan (1,915 meters). It marks the point where Nae-Serok (inner Serok) meets Oe-Serok (outer Serok). The regions geology consists largely of Mesozoic granite and granodiorite. The area has an irregular climate (don’t I now bloody know it!) and low temperatures (get out the thermals), it is home to about 50 rare plants, as well as a variety of wild birds. From Daecheongbong Peak you can supposedly view the fascinating landscape of Mt. Seoraksan in all four directions, providing of course you have not taken up permanent residence in a fully fledged rain cloud!

We arrived at “base camp”, Hangyeryeong Information Centre, at 9am. Fitted up for stage one we began the near vertical climb! The planned route for stage one was Hangyeryeong Visitor Center – Hangyeryeong crossroads – Seobuk ridge – Jungcheonbong Shelter-Daecheongbong Peak. Stage two would lead to Socheong Shelter via Bongjeong-am Hermitage. It is hard not to exaggerate the inaccuracy of the literature and Internet information on this area, it’s “pants”. I recommend bionic knee and ankle transplants for anyone daft enough to attempt the ascent. For a slightly portly 51-year-old it was pure insanity! Never though question the resolve of “us” northerners; the secret to success? Imagine there is a fresh fish and chip supper with home-baked bread and best butter at the top.  Psychologically this is all you will need, actually in reality, a helicopter would better suffice. My trusty lieutenant, Sean Choi, was all that stood between me and an attempt at hang gliding without the glider! Onwards and vertically upwards we climbed with Sean’s comforting thought that “this was the easiest route and merely difficult not very difficult.” He had convinced me that at some point, around 2.4km, the path would level out, how true were those words? More of a jest me thinks Blackadder! We reached a milestone indicating we turn right and in 5.3km and 3 hrs 30 mins after traversing Seobuk ridge we would arrive at the Ranger Station at Daecheongbong (Peak). This in fact was only to be a staging post as some 2 hours trekking beyond that was our “real” targeted destination Socheong Shelter.

It is now time to divulge the nature of the weather on the fateful day. Since arriving home I saw a footnote on the park website “Depending on weather conditions and advisories, the park may close!” This held no fear for us as the forecast was fine, the reality somewhat different. As we turned onto the ridge the views were obliterated by the fact we were actually in the middle of clouds, very wet clouds, very cold and wet clouds in fact.  The eternal optimist in me kept relaying a message to my vocal cords “I can see a break in the clouds”, I must have said this to Sean on at least 10 occasions only to be chastened by the forces of nature.  The break never came, the weather got worse and around an hour from Daecheongbong Peak my will began to crack.  Blackadder started a tantrum and was not for going forth, unfortunately for him if the worm had turned it had another 6.4km to navigate in the opposite direction.  Sean took on the role of Batman carrying my rucksack and Robin had no choice put to push on! Sean quoted his army training as the grounding for this act of great kindness and the fact that he was training for a triathlon. On the strength of such gestures great friendships are formed and I will forever be eternally grateful. The 20 minute climb at 45 degrees sent my calf’s into spasm and I felt like the top and bottom half of my body were not conjoined, they did not work in unison but they were truly attached, the pain confirmed that. With Sean’s encouragement I made that final assault and at the top we met another signpost indicating 40 minutes to our first shelter.  I knew then I could not make the second part of the hike, the weather and the mountain had taken their toll, I was a beaten crestfallen man.

On arrival at Jungcheonbong Shelter we were frozen and needed some food, Sean asked the staff if the had spare accommodation as I was suffering and could not make the last part of the journey.  They were fully booked but anticipated cancellations, later they confirmed we could stay there. The weather was to extreme by this time for us to make the move anyway, I would say visibility was around 10 metres and neither of us felt like Captain Scott! We encountered another problem we had no cash! Sean managed to persuade a Japanese Good Samaritan (they obviously do exist) to lend us 10,000 won to pay for the night. After a pre-packed spaghetti dinner and mushroom soup we retired to our designated sleeping area for the evening. The cocoon was shared by around 40 others packed into three levels, the bed a doubled woollen blanket, pillows a pipe dream! Lights were out at 9.00 pm and would welcome into Monday around 6 am, I slept surprisingly well only rising for a visit to Walters Club at 4.00 am.  That minor excursion confirmed my worst fears, the weather had got worse not better, the journey back was likely to be arduous.

We had a breakfast of instant rice porridge and coffee and around 8.30 am, accompanied by my stiff back and tender calves we headed once more into the breach! The initial climb was hard but then psychologically I was comforted by the fact that we were generally heading downhill and by the fact the Batman had once gain offered to carry Robins rucksack, a true scholar and gentleman. We made good speed and my aches and pains fell away, as Joe Hayes would have said “I got my second wind!” I was enjoying this second day despite the views gain being obliterated by cloud and the rain being probably worse than day one, we felt elated when we gain reached the crossroads that marked the start of our 2.4 km general descent to Hangyeryeong Information Centre. The bizarre thing is this was the worst part, searing pain returned to my knackered knees as they pounded the stones, it was no Yellow Brick Road more like the Road to Hell. We were some 90 minutes quicker on the descent and the eventual site of the visitor centre meant Sean encouraging me with one final push for home. Hallelujah the Batman and his near useless Robin had made it in one “slightly damaged” piece. My self sympathy with regard to my knees was superseded by Sean admitting his back was playing up……..maybe my rucksack was to blame?

After a Bimbimbap lunch we headed to the coast for a spot of hydrotherapy, an hour in the sea to ease the pain of our aching limbs, from there a safe journey home to Chungju and a Pork in Soy Sauce grill at a local restaurant.  What a fantastic weekend, action packed, entertaining, painful but essentially one of the most memorable I have ever had.  Batman thank you! Seoraksan NP and the East Coast of SK has left me, sushified, discofied, templeised, mountainised, muscletied, oceanified and I’m now back doing summer school!

This what Seoraksan should look like, my thanks to Glenn Stevens blog.