Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Farewell To A Faithful Companion

I said goodbye to an old friend in Seoul. I had bought my scruffy tent in West Jerusalem back in early 2007 for just 100 shekels (around £10 at the time) in a small shop just off Yaffo Street. It was the cheapest one I could find yet she served me well through my various trips since then. I had called her home in over 25 countries on 100 different occasions (to get an idea of how useful a tent can be check out my free-camping map for this trip - it helps if you initially zoom out a little), but it was now time to part ways as I will have little opportunity to use a tent in the next 7-9 months and 2kg is a lot of extra weight to carry around. I left her with my host and hopefully she will get passed on to another traveller who will be able to make use of her. My week in Seoul passed by very quickly and was certainly not enough to see it fully, but I had to keep moving. The call of the road is unrelenting.

One of the many picturesque valleys in Seoraksan national park.

Due east of Seoul, near the coast, lies the Seoraksan national park, home to forests and soaring, granite peaks. Surprisingly, for a country the size of Portugal but with the population of Spain, there are many forested mountains that are largely untouched, with most people concentrated in the urban centres that dot the valleys that they share with intensely-farmed paddy-fields and small-scale farms. It is on the mountains that you get to see middle-aged Koreans in their element: hiking. Or at least kitted out in all the latest Gore-Tex, ultra-breathable, lightweight, wicking, super-soft hiking gear, along with top of the range boots and walking sticks. Even when they're out for a short amble Koreans seem to be ready for a full-scale Everest expedition. Seoraksan certainly didn't require any special equipment with wide trails and well-maintained steps. Into the wild it wasn't, and the trails were busier than Tesco on a Sunday afternoon, but that didn't detract (too much) from the natural beauty of the mountains. And I was pleasantly surprised at how little litter there was on the mountain given its popularity. In fact I spent most of the day with a smile on my face practicing one of my two Korean phrases: anyong haseyo, or hello. Simply saying this made my fellow hikers beam and shower me with random gifts of food. In fact as soon as they see that you're a tourist and not one of the 40,000 American GIs that are stationed in Korea then it's smiles and friendliness all round. Furthermore the Czech Republic (or Cheko as they call it, which, funnily enough, is what I call it myself when I'm speaking English, as Czech Republic is too much of a mouthful) is not some unknown entity to most Koreans and I was taken aback by how many knew Prague and had even visited themselves.

The first day on the mountain saw me hike up to the topmost shelter just below the highest peak at some 1600m - the mountains of Korea are not of epic proportions, but their steep nature make them seem higher. Despite it being a Thursday in the off-season the 150-bed "hut" was almost full. I was the only foreigner there. In fact I was the first foreigner there in almost a week and I hadn't seen another all day. Not that it mattered and I was soon adopted by a group of Koreans who shared some of their food and soju (Korean rice wine) with me, and by the end of the evening we were in a circle swaying rather drunkenly to Korean folk songs. The next morning I rose early with everyone else to ascend the main peak to view the sunrise out of the Sea of Japan; only to be surrounded by our own sea of mist that clung to the mountaintop throughout the morning. So a little disappointed I headed down through the maze of canyons, ridges and fast-flowing streams of the park until I reached the coast and got to rest my weary legs.

One of the two rooms of bunk-beds at the mountain shelter. There was a party atmosphere with singing, games and gossiping amongst the inmates.

The walking was far from the most difficult that I had ever done, but the constant steps and my decision to carry my entire backpack from one side to the other (it appealed to my sense of parsimony to hike from one of the park to the other rather than leaving my stuff at the entrance and then entering and leaving at the same point) had left an impression on the muscles in my legs and they didn't want to do much for the next few days. Instead I mooched around the coastal towns of Sokcho, Yangyang and Jeongdongjin. The coast is home to small towns that live to a great extent off the short summer holiday season when locals flock to the country's many splendid beaches. To keep the punters happy many of these town have some oddly kitschy tourist attractions such as Yangyang's insectarium, Sokcho's tourist-powered ferry, and Jeongdongjin's giant hourglass that empties its contents once a year (unfortunately this year it was undergoing repairs and so was out of action). At least this was made up for by the North Korean submarine that was on display just up the road.

Seafood stall in Yangyang selling all sorts of dried marine exotica, including dried rays (hanging from the ceiling).

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