Published: September 13th 2011September 13th 2011
"Seems like the roads stretch out like veins, but there's no heart.
Nature's haircut is concrete now, and we played our part.
So we sing ...
I've lost my taste for modern things. They're not for me.
I want mundane: a quiet place, where time is free,
And I can sing ..."-Electric President.
Places where trees outnumber the people usually put me in a Walden-esque mood. The natural beauty that we suffocate with concrete jungles and plastic people is where I feel most like who I'm supposed to be. I went to Sokcho for the Chuseok holiday last year and, as a newcomer to Korea, was enchanted by a city that's main draw wasn't bars, clubs, or shopping, but mountains, beaches, and outdoor activities. My homebase, Geumsan, is quite nestled in nature as well, but it's a countryside vibe whereas Sokcho has it's seaside people with a port full of fishermen, not farmers. The city is as far out of the way as you can get in Korea, which kept me from returning, until this last weekend. As my bus sharply cut the corners of the foggy mountain shrouded by night and safely hidden by lack of street lights,
I squinted my eyes to try and glean a familiar shape or scene.
Nothing was too familiar since I had been brought to the Intercity bus station, not the Express station where my friends had gotten us a motel. I took a taxi to the Time Motel, which sat about a 2 min walk up the road from Sokcho beach. I paid 50,000 won for 2 nights and the room was worth much more. A big screen television with a computer connection, a bathroom with a modern and aesthetically pleasing shower, a nice little balcony, and a comfy spacious bedroom. I threw my ever heavy bags on the ground next to Mia's things and we went next door to hustle Phuong and Michael out onto the beach for some dinner. Crowding around the Family Mart, not suprisingly, were a group of foreigners. Michael knew some of them from orientation and so we walked with them to the carnival games booths that sat oddly out of place on the sidewalk. As a prize, it was fireworks for all and as our new friends ran to the beach to set some off, we sat down for a much needed dinner. Sokcho
beach has many salt water delights, all of which made me want to vomit. I'm not one to suck down a sea creature and neither was Michael. Sadly, the only non seafood dishes were available at Family Mart so we munched on chips and sipped on wine as Phuong and Mia ate a four course meal that included almost everything the ocean has to offer. Poseidon must have been impressed (or enraged?). A massive plate of glass noodles topped with raw fish, side dishes of shrimp, snails, fish on the bone, seaweed soup, fish eggs, and other blobs of who knows what.
The wine made me restless and the thought of fish head soup made me queasy so Michael and I took a few fireworks to the beach and joined the others. The sky was on fire and our group and others whooped as some of the girls threw off their clothes to reveal bathing suits that were put to good use in the crashing waves. As they screamed and splashed around, we shot off fireworks in a wizard like fashion, one of the explosions almost setting my jacket on fire. It was raining a bit and so I
climbed up to the lifeguard tower to join a beer pow wow. An Aussie, Kiwi, Brit, and three Irish made up the small party and we started a conversation about our lifestyles in Korea and family and friends at home who found it irresponsible or "just a phase". As if our lives here weren't reality. I was the youngest of the group, most of which were in their late 20's and early 30's, and it was interesting for me to hear their opinions on a nomadic career vs. settling down. This was as intellectual as the conversation got as we poured more beer down our gullet and switched to topics like what our porn star names would be, the craziness of Australia, the importance of Styx, renting a dome hostel to party in, and maybe having a blood pact to remember this night forever? I headed home to my motel room and sleeping friends around 2am, covered in sand and with a happy brain that was swimming in wine.
We had said we would leave for Mt. Seoraksan at 9:30 and I woke up at 9:45 with a hangover drying my mouth. Outside our window rain was steadily falling.
But these facts didn't matter because nothing would get in the way of me and that mountain. I took a shower and had a breakfast of apple and almonds. We bought some ponchos and snacks and then caught the number 7 bus to the base of the mountain. (Might I mention here that if you are looking for breakfast in Sokcho during Chuseok, give up now. Nothing is open and the large and wonderful looking coffee shop near the beach seemed to only be open at midnight. In my opnion, no one should be drinking coffee at that hour).
The bus took about 20 min and dropped us off at the entrance where we paid 4,000 won (ish) to delight in some rainy trails. Ponchos on and we looked like freaky clan members. Despite the rain, there was just as many Koreans and foreigners hiking as when I had come last year on a cloudy day. I had become obsessed with hiking Ulsanbawi, a 3.8 km hike that goes vertically up a rock face after a fairly easy beginning. Mia is from Chicago (her explanation of not being a hiker being just that), Phuong doesn't like hikes that last
longer than 30 minutes, and Michael didn't have much experience but seemed obsessed himself with not letting a little blonde girl show him up. Feeling uncertain, they followed me on our path. It started on concrete going past the many restaurants and traps set for tourists until we stepped onto dirt and came to the huge sitting Buddha. I find temples fairly boring and I'd say that this Buddha is worth the trip to Seoraksan if you aren't inclined to hike. There are beautiful trees with pink flowers shooting out as many stare in reverence at the large figure looming over the burning candles. As you walk farther on there are stone bridges that cross over the gushing and swelling with rainfall river. A debate was soon had on whether the water was drinkable, not that it mattered because we had our safe plastic encapsulated liquids. It seemed that a review of safety and survival techniques was needed, as if my friends didn't trust me to take them through the wilderness.
I'd say wilderness is too strong a word for most Korean hiking, unless you are planning an overnight in the mountains trip. Most of our trail had man-made
bridges, stairs, and even bathrooms and restaurants in the middle of our trail. We wondered how they got all those products up to the middle of a mountain until we saw a man with a slab of water bottles, cooking supplies, and more strapped to his back as he ambled in the rain up the hill. I felt sorry for him. What a horrid job and probably for horrid pay...
The first 2 km was on an incline, but a soft one. I wasn't too out of breath and Michael was keeping up with me but Phuong and Mia weren't loving it and decided to stay behind and we pushed on. It become stair after stair and I could tell Michael was getting tired so I allowed him a rest (I may or may not have gone into personal trainer mode). He showed me how heavy his backpack was and I knew he had to shed that so he hid it under a tree to get when we came back. At this point I got out my umbrella because I was sick of being drenched. It's impossible to hike with a plastic hood on your head so I had
taken it off. We marched on and I yelled to Michael that we had found the rock by the temple that he had been looking forward to. This rock sits on a boulder looking like it's about to teeter off. Michael was convinced he could push it off. Sadly he failed. We saw that is was only 1 km to the end of Ulsanbawi. 1km!!! I was feeling disappointed. I didn't feel challenged. This hike hadn't even gotten my heart rate to the point where I felt like my chest would explode. That is what I had been craving. As we climbed more and more stairs higher into the fog I felt like we were coming to something that would finally excite me. Ulsanbawi itself rose HIGH out of the fog with metal red stairs switchbacking up it. It looked surreal and phenomenal. I was scared out of my mind.
I have a pretty bad fear of heights. I get that rolling in my stomach when I look off the top of a high building and I do believe this all started when I went to Chichen Itza in Mexico. We climbed the pyramid and at the top I
couldn't look out over the ruins because I had my back pressed to the wall. Going up had been fine but coming down seemed impossible. I ended up going down on my butt and praying to God that I wouldn't die. It's a cherished memory on one of the wonders of the world. This moment from the past flashed through my mind as I put my foot on the first red stair. The rain was pouring and the fog was thick. This was my challenge. I shut off my brain and focused on the steps in front of me. Those shiny, wet, slippery steps. I looked behind me at the foggy abyss. Oh god. I was out of my mind and was going to die. I would probably end up killing Phuong's boyfriend too! WHAT WAS I DOING!
Okay, focus. Don't look behind you. Don't look up. Only at each new step. I climbed those stairs in an ajumma stance, with one hand on the rail and one of the steep stairs. As I was coming up, others were coming down slowly gripping the rail with their faces white. Most hikers will have an affinity for each other and
so I smiled at the Koreans who smiled back and me and laughed at our predicament. I saw a foreigner guy and asked him how much farther. "About 10 minutes", he said, "Are you doing okay by the way??" he asked. "Oh no worries, just a fear of heights. I'm focusing" I explained. He laughed and yelled "Well, the way down is even worse!" as he stepped carefully away from me and on his way to safer ground. I couldn't see Michael and was unable to stop so I just kept my hunched journey going until I reached a spot where the stairs went somewhat into the rock. I sat down breathing heavy from the intensity of the height, not the stairs. I shed my poncho and umbrella. I needed to have all limbs free for survival. I finally saw Michael and we sat down clutching the rails. "This is dangerous!", he exclaimed. This I knew. And I was loving it.
The stairs went farther into the rock through slight caves and I could no longer see the abyss so we felt more sure-footed. I scrambled up rocks like Gollum to see what was ahead. It was the top.
Our final destination. I was soaked to the bone as I held tightly on a hand railing with my eyes closed and just took in the insanity of standing on the top of a mountain in the pouring rain. Behind me, four men sat under the shelter of a rock next to locks couples had secured to secure their love. The fog was so white that I couldn't even see how high up I was. Michael and I sat out of the rain and ate some peanuts and drank some vitamin water. I was starting to feel really cold. We headed back down feeling accomplished and proud. Everything that had seemed so challenging now seemed hilarious. Our path up the rocks had become a waterfall and we were just incredulous with how ridiculous a situation this was. We slid down the rocks holding onto ropes and as we slowly went down the stairs the fog parted and I could see the BEAUTIFUL BEAUTIFUL view. We were high in a sort of rock valley and I was no longer scared. We reached the bottom and felt like we could conquer it all.
The trip down went much faster but I
was so much colder. My umbrella had been stolen and my poncho was protecting my backpack so I was wearing a thin button up and leggings that were completely wet and getting wetter still. The hike had taken about 5 hours and my legs were getting weary so when we reached Phuong and Mia at the bottom, I was ready for some damn potato pancakes. I ate the thing that surely involved about 5 potatoes in no time. We got on the bus as I shivered and looked through my photos feeling proud of Michael and happy that I had gotten to do what I came to Gangwondo for.
The rest of the trip was spent walking around the beach, attempting to rent bikes by the lake, and taking in Rodeo Street, or should I say Closed Street.
We had made a promise to swim in the ocean but as we were about to drop trou I saw one of the Irish guys I had met standing on shore with a big group of Koreans who were stressed out and screaming at a fishing boat. I noticed the other Irish guy, seemingly calm, floating in the waves hanging
onto a life preserver. He wasn't very far out and my first instinct was to run out and grab him because I'm a pretty strong swimmer. Although I've never looked very good at it or had the style down, but I can move fast and living by the river has taught me how to keep my head above water in a current. But the ocean is a different beast and the Irish guy seemed pretty strong and he wasn't in the water which made me think we had a rip tide going on. He told me that his friend had gotten pulled out really far and he had done pretty well getting in this far. He seemed exhausted. Finally after some pathetic work by the Korean police to pull him in, he made in and sat down with a blanket, looking red, tired, and most likely embarrassed and happy to be okay. This put our swimming ambitions on the shelf, but we did prance around in it and the waves taunted us to give them a go.
Our bus to Seoul took 4 hours because of traffic which annoyed me to no end but the first 2 hours followed
a river and the green luscious forests that I stared at and thought wistfully of how nice it would be to live here, just as I had one year ago. I never will, it's too cold and too far (reminding me of my decision years ago between Humboldt and Sonoma) but I'm very fond of it and I do hope to come back before my life in Korea comes to an end because really, everything is better in Sokcho.