Sunday, May 13, 2007

Seoraksan National Park

I woke up after sleeping badly in the baking hot room. First job of day is to find a bank.

The lanterns are to attract squids

I head into town, via a traditional hand-operated ferry - people drag the cable across the platform with metal hooks. I wonder whether I'm expected to help.

Simple but effective

Presumably not as I've paid for the 30 second trip! I watch the oldies sweat. They're very proud that a scene from a Korean drama was filmed here, there are posters telling you all about it on both sides. I don't know much about Korean dramas, except that based on the single digit minutes I've been watching, the girls are very rarely unattractive.

Can't say I've seen it..

Next I run into bank issues. I try several banks, and none of the ATMs work (for me). I ask a chap in one bank what the secret is, and he helpfully explains that foreign cards don't work in any bank in Sokcho, this town. I peep in my wallet - I have about five pounds, not enough to get the bus out of here! Oh dear! Washing up perhaps?

Turns out he was wrong though - I find a single "global" ATM in Shinhan bank. Marvellous. In my panicked state I take out a wedge of cash, which comes in effectively five pound (10,000won) notes, so I can't close my wallet for the amount of paper in it. Nice feeling, but why oh why don't they introduce a bank note with a slightly higher value?! Having to take 400,000 out from an ATM is just not sensible! That done, and with a palpable sense of relief, I hop on a bus to Seoraksan National Park, as recommended by Sarom.

This park is supposed to be one of the most beautiful on the Korean Peninsular, though I have my doubts as the bus winds up to hills steeped in haze. I still haven't seen a foreigner now, for three days! The park suffered heavy damage in the 100-year record downpours in 2006 and not all the trails have been restored. There are various access points, opening up different areas, but as I'm relatively pushed for time, I head the standard way in, i.e. to Seorak-dong. It's actually not more than about 20 minutes from the town centre, very accessible.

Hence this access village is heaving with people - huge groups of hikers and school-kids. The kids giggle and yell hello at me. I walk up past the Naewonam Hermitage, some sort of Buddhist site, heading along the trail to Ulsan Bawi. Bawi means big rock. Along the way, there is Heundeul Bawi (the tottering rock), which is a 16 tonne boulder which can apparently be wobbled by a group of people. I try by myself and fail. Actually I'm not even sure it's the right rock, I may just be giving myself a hernia totally unnecessarily!

16 Tonne Pushover

According to LP, half of Korea has at some time played superman here! It's in front of Gyejoam Temple - which is an interesting prayer hall built in a cave. There are Chinese characters carved on the rocks everywhere, though how long they last with people trampling all over them, I don’t know.

Mediaeval graffiiti

From this point the trail gets steeper, and is for the most part a staircase heading up to Ulsan Bawi, which is an imposing granite cliff reaching up to 873m. I meet a couple of foreigners at last! An American and Canadian are on the way down, then later I meet an English girl who is going out with a Korean guy (unusual way round!) and living in Korea, walking with an American chap whom they met on the bus.

I always say trekking is like climbing stairs all day

There are apparently 808 stairs up, it feels like it, but is well worth it for the view. The haze has cleared somewhat, and one can see the tree-lined steep mountains and deep valleys all around, and the, err, dark clouds rolling in from the west.

It's windy, hold on to that visor!

It's noisy at the viewpoint as a bunch of old Korean ladies have made it up and are bickering away, as they do, so I head round to one side, find a quiet spot on my own and enjoy a picnic of bananas and tomatoes, which a squirrel decides he'll share, although the cherry tomatoes are still far too big for his mouth, so he struggles with his nibbling, very cute to watch.

Cute cute

The rather sweet story behind Ulsan Bawi is that God called all great rocks and mountains together to make Mount Keumgang, the most beautiful mountain under the sun. This rock, Ulsan Bawi, the representative of Ulsan City, was too late to get a good spot on the mountain when arriving because it is so big, so it returned to Ulsan, but on the way decided to stay at this spot instead of returning to Ulsan, because of the beautiful view of Seorak Mountain.

On the way down it starts to pour with rain, but I do meet a couple more foreigners, and then the Dutch couple from the boat over to Korea! What a coincidence to bump into them here! Small world indeed. Incidentally - here's a question for you all. When should one acknowledge or say hello to those who are, like you, clearly foreign? I ask this because a few times I've made eye contact with another foreigner, then looked away without smiling or saying hello, then felt bad afterwards for it. It's all a question of size and frequency - one generally wouldn't say hello to foreigners in, say, Tokyo, as there are many of them. Seoul sometimes. And in a small place like this, it is expected that one will stop and chat with any foreigners encountered. There must be thresholds for when one has to simply nod an acceptance "ah yes, we are both foreign", when one must say hello, and when one must make small talk and invite people to dinner. After negotiating these social mindfields I hop on the Gwon Geunseong cable car and enjoy a surprisingly good cappuccino looking over the now very atmospheric scene - it's pouring with rain on and off, is very gloomy and grey, yet awfully pretty.

Another group of old ladies have shown up here, one seems to enjoy bursting into falsetto operatic singing, little clips of 20 seconds or so at a time, enthusiastically applauded by the others, which tended to set her off again. I joined in the clapping, which was greeted with amusement and appreciation! Absolutely surreal! A large clap of thunder made me think about sitting under a large metal frame at the top of a mountain in a thunderstorm. Hmmmm! However, the goodness of the cappuccino overrides such concerns, I must finish it first, even if I get fried doing so.

Rain down over Sokcho

Later the usual challenge in the evening was to find somewhere to eat. I'd "done" seafood the day before and felt like something else (marmite on toast, let me into the harbour!!). After much deliberation I went into a little local place without being turned away and managed to order a bibimbap, a hot stone pot with rice, egg, chilli sauce and other bits and bobs in it that you mix up yourself, and let cook in the pot. Safe, very safe. Nothing moving. I proceeded.

I almost dread going back to the "oven" motel after, so I delay by going via a PC-bang, or internet café (bang means room), where I work out a new plan for tomorrow - how's about going to Jeju Island, the Korean honeymoon and hiking mediterranean destination off the south coast - with a domestic flight! Good plan. It's worth mentioning the "bang" system here. Foreigners on first being invited to a "DVD Bang" may wonder what's in store. All it means is a room where one can watch movies with friends (also popular with courting couples). Other bangs include jjimjilbang, which are public baths or spas, where one can lounge about, sleep on the floor in a communial area and watch TV, Bideobang (yes, a "B"! Pre-dating DVD bangs), Noraebang - which is Korean karaoke, Board Game bangs - large spaces as the name suggests - to play board games, and Da bang, which are tea houses where, according to LP, the coffee girls serve more than just coffee. Intriguing but sadly I didn't come across any of these! Perhaps it means they serve cocoa too.

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