So this past weekend Amelia hit the ripe old age of 23 (25 Korean!). She decided that she wanted to spend it hiking the tallest mountain on the Korean Mainland, Seoraksan. Seoraksan is located in North East South Korea and stands 1,707m tall. In comparison the tallest mountain in Britain stands at 1,344 m (Ben Nevis – thank Wikipedia for this information!)
We headed to Chuncheon straight from work on Friday to get the 6:30 bus to Sokcho, which is the closest town to Seoraksan. Three of our friends from orientation, Becca, Rachel and Ryan had decided to come and join us for our expedition. Ourselves and Becca arrived first as we lived closest, we had to wait a couple of hours for Ryan and Rachel as they live on the West Coast in Incheon and we were on the North East Coast! Anyway, we went for a night-time walk on the beach, found somewhere to stay (5 Pounds each for the night – basic, but clean and comfortable), had a catch up and a brief sing along in a Neurobang (Kareoki Bar) before a further catch up and bed.
We got up nice and early to stock up on supplies for our hike (Cereal, Sweets, Biscuits and Chocolate) and headed to the main entrance, Seorak-Dong. During our bus journey we were told to be quiet by an old Korean man who was trying to watch a television programme on the local bus (the buses sometimes have televisions broadcasting television shows from them) so this guy obviously expected a bus crowded with about 30 people all to sit in silence so that he could watch his programme. Considerate. Anyway, we arrived at the entrance to be greeted by absolute masses of Asian tourists who had also came to visit. We had expected it to be busy but even we were taken aback a little at the sheer numbers of people in attendance.
We were planning to sleep on the mountain so we had brought appropriate clothing and sleeping bags etc… Unfortunately the tourist information advisers informed us that the Mountain shelters were full and that we should not attempt to hike up to the top. However, we have slowly began to get the impression that Koreans like to ‘protect us’ and are always overly ‘cautious’ when telling us what we should and shouldn’t do. It’s almost as if they think that because we cannot speak the language, most places are off-limits to us. However, we had a map and decided that we should just go for it, the weather was good and the path was clearly marked and that with my phenomenal sense of direction and map reading skills (even when the map is in Russian – there were no English copies!) we were confident that we could make it to the top. We were also of the opinion that if we climbed up so far before dark, they would not send us away as it would be too dangerous for us to descend back down at night-time and that at worst we would just have to rough it for a night on the mountain. We were fine with this as we felt it would be an adventure and something a little different. We were also of the opinion that we had travelled all this way, so we were going to do our best to get to the top.
So we set off on our hike and off into the ravines we went. The first 3 hours or so were relatively easy as we climbed a gentle slope. The path was heaving with people which was becoming quite infuriating. The scenery was beautiful but the sheer number of hikers was ruining its splendour. We were also getting annoyed at their eagerness to push in front of you, and their unwillingness to let a group of 5 pass until all 30 or 40 of their group had walked past us in the opposite direction. Initially we were trying to be polite and doing the western thing of letting others past and generally being considerate. However, hundreds of Koreans had failed to show any of this to us, so in the end we thought ‘sod it’ and decided to follow their example. By about 3pm, the scenery really was becoming quite something, with the leaves on the trees providing a vivid contrast of colour set against the spectacular cliff faces that lined the ravines.
Becca and Ryan decided to stop at the first shelter (half way up the mountain) and stay the night as tiredness was taking its toll and they weren’t quite as fussed about reaching the top as we were. Although we wanted them to join us for the remainder of the hike, we understood that it was getting challenging and we still had quite a long way to go. So onwards and upwards Amelia, Rachel and I went.
The views were becoming increasingly beautiful the higher we climbed, but the gradient was increasing also. We were dripping with sweat and totally exhausted by the time we arrived at the next mountain shelter about 1100m up. We enquired about staying inside the heated shelter, but it was full. We were told that we could sleep on the outside patio of the shelter. We were happy to do this, and more than pleased as it was actually flat! So we ate some Chocolate Digestives, Twix and Frosted Flakes for dinner and we went about wrapping ourselves up for the VERY cold night that lay ahead of us. The previous couple of hours hiking up we hadn’t noticed the drop in temperature as we were having such an intense workout, but once we stopped, it was cold. Biting cold. We had all of our warm clothing at the ready and attempted to sleep on our sleeping bags. Unfortunately we had no pillows or mats to sleep on so it was just us, our sleeping bags, and the wooden patio floor. It wasn’t for the faint hearted. We lay there resembling ‘Eskimo’s’ staring at the night sky. None of us have ever seen the sky so beautiful. We were about 250 miles east of Seoul, by the coast and only about 30km from North Korea so there was just no light pollution whatsoever. I have never seen so many stars in all my life, and neither had the other two who are a lot better travelled than I am. I just wish my camera could have captured the stars.
We couldn’t sleep and managed about 2 hours, but for the rest of the night we pretty much lay there just staring up at the sky. Despite the cold and lack of comfort, we were enjoying the night sky over 1000m on the side of a mountain, and looking forward to the prospect of reaching the summit for sunrise over the Sea of Japan.
Sunday – Amelias birthday!
So after 2 hours sleep we decided to get up and try to make it to the summit for sunrise. The Koreans staying at the shelter were all up at 3:30am with their gas cookers boiling their rice and Kimchi. We tried to sleep in a little later but gave up and were up by 4:30am. We packed our sleeping bags and began our final ascent to the top in total darkness. Note -We had torches and headlamps so it was not as dangerous as it sounds!
However, it soon became apparent that we were not the only crazy people to be hiking up (or down for that matter) the mountain at 5 in the morning. As we looked up the mountain all we could see was lines of torches and headlamps heading towards us. None of us had envisaged this at this time in the morning. The ascent was steep and exhausting, it seemed to go on forever. The hundreds of people brushing past us in the opposite direction was spoiling our mood a little as it was just stupidly busy and we passed a man who had seriously injured himself descending. I wondered whether the sheer numbers of people ‘rushing’ down the mountain had contributed to this. 10 minutes later the air ambulance arrived to airlift him to hospital. We managed to get to a viewpoint 100 metres or so from the summit in time for sunrise. There was not a cloud in sight over the ocean as the sun rose from the horizon, we could not have asked for better weather. I now understood why so many people were on the mountain at this time of the morning. It was beautiful.
We then began the final ascent and made it to the top. The view was spectacular. The anger and frustration I had felt with my perceived rudeness of the other hikers was now irrelevant and a distant memory. At this point I should probably add that there were at least 200 people on the summit at 630am, quite ridiculous. ‘Only in Korea…’ said Amelia. There was a seemingly never-ending line of people climbing up and down the final approach to the summit. It would have been nice for a bit of peace and quiet to appreciate the view, but we had accepted this was never going to happen a long time back. We appreciated the view and it’s beauty, took some time to rest and snap some photos, before beginning the descent.
We decided to take the short descent (5km) as the way we had ascended would have been 10km down to where we started on Saturday. We didn’t fancy this and there was the bonus of hot springs at the bottom of the shorter route. The way down was very pleasant. There was lots of people hiking up who we pitied, because there was nothing less unappealing to us at that point except for hiking up a mountain. Our love for Korean people was re-affirmed also, everyone was so friendly which was in stark contrast to the route up! Everybody seemed to be saying ‘hello’ and smiling, we were offered bars of chocolate and some people even asked if they could have their photo taken with us! This was more like it…
Korean’s are not bad people, they are the same as us and arguably more polite and friendly in many ways. I am sure nothing personal was meant by the Koreans hiking up the mountain, it’s probably just the ‘Korean way’ of doing things. It just takes some getting used to because at times they were reckless, downright dangerous and almost knocked Rachel off a ridge close to the top! Hence the general annoyance. Like I said though, they redeemed themselves for us on the journey down! I still have a lot of love for Koreans. I am particularly fond of my students and school. It really is a nice place to be.
Unfortunately we ran out of water about an hour and a half before we reached ground level. The weather was very hot, and the descent as exhausting as the ascent due to the gradient. The lower we reached, the hotter temperatures were. By the time we got to ground level the girls were gasping for water and I wasn’t feeling much better! We found a hotel, ate some lunch and relaxed. We were exhausted, our legs felt like they had turned to jelly.
Becca and Ryan came to meet us and we ‘chilled out’ at the springs. The springs were nothing spectacular but once again the tourists were out in their hordes. As far as the eye could see was coaches lined up on the road, and traffic in and out of the village was gridlocked. Koreans bless them seem unable to do anything unless they are told to, or unless they are in large groups of 20-40 people. For example, they will not cross at a traffic light junction until the green man says ‘go’ even if there are no cars coming either way as far as the eye can see. If we cross the road when there are no cars coming they have been known to look at us in horror. I think this is just the asian way though to be fair, as the Japanese were pretty similar and I have been told the Chinese are the same.
Around 3pm we said our goodbyes and began the journey home. Our bus took forever and we finally arrived home shortly before 9pm. I rounded up a few of the other teachers living in our apartment block to wish Amelia a happy birthday. We ate some cake and off we went to bed. We’d had a fun but tiring weekend and Amelia said she thoroughly enjoyed her birthday weekend. She just wished she didn’t have to get up for work Monday morning!
The rest of the week
Monday we did very little except go into school and work. Our legs were incredibly sore. Amelia hadn’t experienced such aching for several years apparently. She was a very pathetic sight.
Tuesday we headed to a teacher training conference with our co-teachers, once again on the North East Coast. The accommodation and setting was gorgeous, but I don’t think any of us learnt all that much. It seemed to be a re-cap on our orientation, even though that was not its purpose. We didn’t mind though, we got free buffet food which was very good in addition to a hotel next to the beach! It was good fun, we had a few drinks on our balcony with a few other teachers overlooking the sea. It was pretty cool because the military were practicing drills whilst we were on the balcony. They were firing flares into the sky that lit up the entire night-time sea and beaches, they were firing tracer rounds into the sea and there was these huge searchlights constantly beaming out checking that the North Koreans don’t try anything they shouldn’t. In 1996 a North Korean submarine landed on one of the beaches in the area and about 30 odd people including civilians, South Korean soldiers and North Korean Commandos ending up being killed. Hence the tight security and lot’s of soldiers with machine guns patrolling the beaches.
We went to a Neurobang again and sang some Kareoki. Kareoki bars are a huge deal in Korea, they are everywhere. This was really good fun. There was about 14 of us in total, a combination of Brits, Americans, Kiwi, South Africans and Canadians. Despite there being only 3 Brits – myself, Amelia, and Gareth (a Yorkshire lad from York funnily enough – but a Leeds fan – I’ve let it slide for now!) British songs pretty much dominated… I was very proud of this. Renditions of Oasis, Robbie Williams, Queen, The Spice Girls, and the Beatles were belted out. What we were lacking in talent we made up for in enthusiasm. I was however quite appalled that the Americans had no idea what the words for Angels, Don’t Stop Me Now, and Don’t look back in Anger were. They’d never heard them?! Crazy. They made amends to some extent by having at least heard of Bohemian Rhapsody, Hey Jude and Wannabe. They still did not know all the words though. They were pretty good at rapping along to Snoop Dogg, Eminem and TLC however when the rest of us were noticeably lacking. I’ll give them that one. The rest of the world all seemed to know the big British songs though, so I have concluded that South Africans, Kiwis and Canadians (to some extent) are cool in my book. Americans – not so much! Even the Koreans know who Robbie Williams is and Angels for goodness sake! Anyway, it makes me very proud that are little Isle of 60 million people has given the world so much culturally and socially! When we went to Japan we saw countless Japanese just wearing Union Jack t-shirts, these are also often spotted in Korea too. Cool Britannia…
We woke up in the morning to the sound of the ocean and the heat of my uncomfortably hot sheets due to the under floor heating being turned on to high. Yes that’s right. Under floor heating. In England, it’s a luxury reserved for the rich, in Korea – any Dick, John or Harry can have it. It’s great. When it’s not on to high that is. It was very nice being able to brush my teeth on the balcony overlooking the beach and sea and having someone pay for it!
When we arrived home we decided to cycle up the road and check out our new apartment. It is nice, if a little smaller than what we were originally given. We had a 3 bed apartment until today, now we are in a studio apartment. Brand new, just a lot smaller but nicely decorated and cosy! We are also living outside of the town now, my room is overlooking rice paddies and you will be able to hear the sound of farm animals! It’s a very pretty rural setting, if in the middle of nowhere. We quite like this though, as I don’t think either of us would fancy living in a Korean city. I will post some photos up next week.
I arrived back to school today and have taught one lesson. Tomorrow is festival day so there are no classes and the school is putting on a performance for local residents and parents etc… The teachers are performing a rendition of the USA for Africa song – ‘We are the World’ by Micheal Jackson. Basically the US equivalent of Band Aid. The teachers are all dressing up and look hilarious in their outfits. Mrs Kim is Cyndi Lauper and Mr Bae is Lionel Richie. I’ve been designated the part of Stevie Wonder. I have to dress like him too. They’ve given me some ridiculous wig (its grey – not black) and I have to sing the Stevie Wonder part in front of the entire local community. I’m contemplating bringing a white stick along, but I’m not sure what the score is over here with political correctness yet. Fortunately it’s only 2 lines. Should be fun though. Festivals are a really big thing over here. The students have been rehearsing for the last week and a half and missing lessons for it. I am however concerned at the appropriateness of it. I just watched three 13 year old girls rehearse the Beyonce dance to ‘All the Single Ladies’ whilst writing this this afternoon. Don’t get me wrong, they were good. But anybody who knows Beyonce and the video to that song will know that although yes it is a wonderful, truly beautiful video, it’s probability not suitable for 13 year old girls to be performing in front of the village ‘elders’. Especially in a ‘conservative’ country like Korea. Nevermind. It’s not my place to say.
Anyway, time to go now. I hope you enjoy your weekend and I will update you again next week sometime!
Love to all.
Goodbye for now