Korea’s Crown Jewel

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March 25th 2009
Published: March 25th 2009
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1: Boulder Rocking! 11 secs
Setting foot in any national park there is usually an ‘aha’ moment when you realize why this particular parcel of earth is designated so valuable we need to hoist it to a higher pedestal than that of, let’s say, a pig lot. The national park system, setting aside your philosophy on how they are or should be managed, is one on the great inventions the United States has shared with the world. With that in mind, and with countless recommendations by the locals, Cass and I and a couple of other friends (the irony is they’re Canadian), Jason and Rachel, went to go see what the 'best of the Korean best' was all about.

We got up early, left our bags with one of the most hospitable hostel owners I’ve ever met in Sokcho (House Hostel for any of you ever visiting from out of town), a port city on the East Sea and the gateway to Seoraksan National Park. It turned out to be an absolutely beautiful, bordering on hot, spring day. We arrived at the park knowing we wanted to take the cable car up the mountain, and climb the remaining 20 minutes to that particular peak.

The ant farm that generally is Korea, meaning everything sweet is always overtaken by hordes of people, must have been busy planting their spring kimchi cabbage because the park was surprisingly quiet. After jumping in some Korean groups photos, we hopped on the cable car within ten minutes and were flying up the five hundred meter rise in no time. From the gondola you could see ridge after ridge of sheer cliffs stretching to the sky, a density of rock formations so unique I’ve never seen anything like it. The higher we got, the more opened up to us, and the more awestruck we became.

Thirty minutes of scrambling up treeless rock face, helped only by unsteady concrete footholds, we dodged enough people to make the summit. There, we were compelled to crack open the mountain berry wine we bought in the parking lot for a celebratory, ‘kon bae!’ Interestingly enough, just below the summit was a man with a cart selling summit medals, announcing his intentions with a megaphone. How he got there, and what he was doing, was beyond any of us.

Coming down the cable car we saw a giant Buddah, which peaked our interest. We were so far from it, yet it was as large as a building; we had to stop by. Once we got there, we were literally dwarfed by the immensity of the statue. It must have been five stories tall, truly memorable. Gazing at it gave us a good rest until we tackled our next mission.

We were off to go see the famous Heundeulbawi, meaning ‘rocking rock.’ It was a pleasant hike considering our already shaking legs. We were heading in the direction of the striking rock cliffs when we came upon a complex of sorts, ramshackle huts, stores, and souvenieer stands, which included this rock. I walked right passed the rock, at first, in favor of seeing the cave that housed a Buddah similar to that we visited in Gyeongju. It was natural overhanging cave, glassed in for protection, with a magnificent and beautifully preserved statue. Very cool.

The commotion of the masses led us to the rock. It was more like a monsterously huge boulder that you could push around. I’ll try to upload the video of Cass and Rachel moving this thing, it was wild.

Some of you may remember my bout with Chiaksan National Park in the fall, and my ‘convieniently too late’ knowledge of what the Korean syllable ‘ak’ means when referring to a mountain. ‘Ak,’ said like you just finished a large shot of soju (you can imagine what sound that would be), in any portion of the word means, “very difficult to climb.” Learning from Chi-AK-san, I knew Seor-AK-san would be another humdinger, and I was waiting for it to strike. Our decision to climb up to the top of Ulsanbawi peak gave Seoraksan just that opportunity to strike.

This realization struck me as I stared up at the staircase containing nearly nine hundred steep metal steps. That’s no lie; 900 of these things took us right up inside a small fissure in the cliff face. Moments of white knuckled stairsteps, heart exploding pulse rates, and thigh burning was in my near future, but I wasn’t gonna let it phase me this time. The views from on top were breathtaking, the wind tattered Korean flag waved confidently in the cool breezes coming over the ridge, and the peaceful tranquility was only broken up by a… Megaphone?! Yes, we popped out on a summit platform no larger than a bedroom and, don’t ask me what feat of engineering made it possible, but we were greeted by yet another metal cart full of candy bars, a computer to print pictures, and summit medals all being advertised by a man through his megaphone. A Megaphone! You know, the more I experience in this country, the more I’m truly blown away by things!

Standing up there, taking in the panorama of ocean and peak, river and waterfalls, city and nature, I did a quick comparison of other places and parks I’ve been; a mental rank order. I know the greatest national park Korea has gets overrun with people (thankfully not this weekend), there was a glaring metal staircase built up the bowels of the mountain, and the summit was polluted with commercialism, but looking at what the landscape had to offer, I can safely say it is a park that ranks right up there with the best. I’m not sure if anything will compare to Denali or Glacier, but I will put my money on Seoraksan in just about any fight. It is Korea’s crowning jewel, the best of Korea’s best, hands down.

On a more somber note, our thoughts and prayers go out to those affected by the plane crash this past week in Butte.

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