Seoraksan – not a baaaahd day’s hike

To celebrate Seollal – the lunar new year and the start of the year of the sheep (hence the baahd title joke) – I packed up and shipped out to the port town of Sokcho on the East sea. As Seollal is one of the two big annual holidays, it was me and 22 million Koreans on the move for the three day holiday, so the going was not fast. However, Sokcho isn’t too far from Seoul, and a four hour bus ride across the country and around the entrancing Seoraksan national park later, I arrived at the express bus terminal, directly in front of my glorious, hot-pink, turret-sprouting motel.

Barbie-meets-Blofeld

Barbie-meets-Blofeld

The Rocustel Motel, despite looking like something Disney’s Snow White vomited after a night out on raspberry vodka shots, is an amazingly comfy, cheap n’ cheerful motel, with impressive Barbie-meets-Blofeld interior and underfloor heating to die for. It was the perfect place to use as a base in Sokcho: behind the express bus terminal, a ten minute walk from tourist hotspot and food heaven Abai village, two minutes walk from the beach, and over the road from the number 7 bus stop, which provides a direct service to Seoraksan National Park ticket office in one direction and ‘Rodeo Street,’ the shopping centre of Sokcho, in the other. Things couldn’t have been any easier.

Friday morning dawned crisp and clear, in marked contrast to Thursday and indeed Saturday, which both dawned murky and dismal, so the weather was with us as we set off for the trail. The buses were, too, and we skipped across the road and straight on to the #7. Surrounded by brightly dressed families, it was clear that everyone in the vicinity was going to make the most of the beautiful weather. In true Korean style, everyone was dressed in ‘full set’ of colourful, functional hiking gear, top to toe. Backpacks sprouted hiking poles from the top, water bottles from the sides, and cleats and ropes from the bottom. I was looking sloppy in regular boots and jeans, but I had a ridiculously brightly coloured, brand name hiking jacket on over my layers of very ordinary jumpers, so I felt I could hold my head up with the rest. Just.

Turning from the coast road to head into the hills we passed pleasant fields and houses, and the Kensington Stars hotel – complete with a fleet of Metroline Routemaster buses. Bizarre but wonderful. At the ticket office, also the end of the line for the bus, we piled out and joined the throngs of eager hikers. Despite the crowds, the ticket office and information booth were quiet and supremely easy to navigate. We got our English trail map and headed merrily up the path.

The day was brilliantly sunny and followed two pretty miserable days which had been rainy in town, but clearly snowy in the hills. The incredibly regular triangle shapes of the snow-dusted hills stood out in relief against their dark ridges of fir.

View from Ulsanbawi

View from Ulsanbawi

We progressed down a path at first busy, but clearing nicely as we passed first by the cable car base taking crowds up to the Gwongeumseong Fortress, then by Sinheungsa and the bronze Buddha, where several trails into the hills diverge.

Sinheungsa Buddha

Sinheungsa Buddha

From there, the path was much quieter, the main sounds being the snow falling from the trees and a small stream running beside the path. It felt somewhat like walking through Narnia in the eternal winter, and I expected to see Mr Tumnus gambolling down the path to meet us (did Mr. Tumnus gambol? Am I slighting a dignified literary character?) or at the very least a suspicious but beautiful woman in a sleigh to offer me a cup of delicious Turkish Delight.

Sadly, neither faun, witch, nor beverage were forthcoming. However, I was compensated by my first ever sighting of a chipmunk. Continuing my theme of childhood dreams stymied, it was not able to talk to me in obnoxiously loud nasal tones, nor was it wearing a woolly jumper with its first initial knitted into the front, but I was happy to see it nonetheless and took numerous snaps as it scampered across the path and over the stream.

Chipmunk!

Chipmunk!

We had elected to hike to the rock ridge of Ulsan Bawi; just over a seven and a half kilometre round trip to the 873 metre peak which took a good four hours. As well as the temple, the route passes the ‘tottering rock,’ Heundeulbawi, which our map informed us can only be ‘waggled,’ no matter how many people try to push it. We were in full on hike mode by then, so we took it on faith and didn’t stop to try.

A little beyond the rock, the walk becomes less about scenery and more about effort. The whole route has well maintained steps and stairways. For the winter, the metal stairs had been layered with hardier (and less slippery) rubber matting, but the heavy coating of snow made everything more treacherous. I began to envy those well-prepared walkers with their metal cleats strapped over hardy hiking boots.

The end of the course is famed for its 800 steps, drilled into the sheer rock face that rises majestically up to tower over the park and the surrounding area. My slight fear of heights (never enough to stop me going up high stuff, but always activated just at the point when I need to get down again) meant that I missed out on the scenery en route to the top as I was too busy clinging to handrails / trees / ropes / passing strangers to really enjoy the surroundings, but I made sure I had a good look around at the top. What I do recall from the occasions where I raised my nose from my feet for more than it took to locate next said cling-object are grand vistas of jagged, snowy peaks stretching into the distance, the warm granite folds og Ulsan Bawi coated in soft layers of snow, and lots of snow-covered trees peeking from precarious toe-holds in the cliff face.

As everything I had heard and read promised, the effort was worth it. By midday, we were at the peak looking north east over Sokcho and the line of the East Sea stretching into the distance, and south and west at the peaks of the park, sparkling with snow and sun.

The descent was trickier as the strong sun had melted a lot of the snow into slippery slush, but we arrived back by the cable cars in time to enjoy a delicious kimchi jeon – stodgy enough to refill depleted energy stores and spicy enough to warm through damp socks. I had hoped to finish the day by relaxing with a cable car journey up to the Fortress, but I hadn’t counted on the demand. Tickets were sold out until the final trip of the day, two hours later. My damp feet weren’t going to last that long, and it didn’t seem I’d have much time up there to enjoy a look around, so that’s an adventure I will save for next time. That and the full 11 hour hiking course to the Daecheongbong peak…

Ulsan Bawi

Ulsan Bawi

Snowy day in Seoraksan

Snowy day in Seoraksan

***

and for the travellers…

I used a number of blogs and travel information sites, listed in no particular order below.

To get to Sokcho most advice said to get the bus from Dong Seoul Terminal (동서울종합터미널 – East Seoul) by Gangbyeon station (line 2). However, we went with the minority who suggested the Dongbu Express bus from Gangnam Express Bus Terminal (고속버스터미널 – lines 3, 7 and 9) because it’s closer and easier to get to for us. The Dongbu Express is a really nice bus with lots of space, even for really tall people. It cost 18,100 won  (about $16 / £10) each way. There’s no toilet on board, but there’s a nice stop in Inje, about the midway point.

The 7 and 7-1 buses from Sokcho to the national park were 1200 won ($1) each way. They also take Cashbee, but sadly not T-money cards.

The entrance fee to the national park was 3500 won per person, and the cable car to Gwongeumseong Fortress 9000 won.

Useful and / or interesting blogs with further information on Seoraksan and Sokcho:

The Goat that Wrote

Derek Versus Lonely Planet

Expat Abundance

There are numerous others, these are just the ones I used to look up details on travel and trails. All the regular sites have useful and pretty up-to-date info, too: Visit Korea’s English language pages and Wikitravel are my standard go-to pages. Hiking Hub Korea also has some good info for walks.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Three Things Thursday | The Parrot on the Power lines

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