Sokcho and Seoraksan - Chuseok Holidays!

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October 3rd 2012
Published: January 29th 2013
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Chuseok holidays had arrived and myself and a friend had organised to go away hiking in the north of the country. Chuseok is basically Korean thanksgiving, most people travel home to be with their families and pay their respects to their ancestors. People prepare food as offerings and then go tidy their ancestors graves. My co-teacher Shasha told me that she would be very busy cleaning, cooking and visiting all her families houses - she doesn't consider it much of a holiday!

It is customary to give and receive gifts at this time, so in the days leading up to Chuseok I was given an presentation box from my principal containing three bottles of olive oil and six cans of tuna; two pairs of sports socks from the vice-principal; a box of white lotus tea from the mothers association; and a massive bag of Korean pears from Shasha. This year we were getting a 5-day weekend break, and I was looking forward to getting out of the city and into the countryside!

Our destination was Seoraksan National Park, six hours north in Gangwon-do. It is one of the most popular destinations for tourists and nature enthusiasts in Korea, and is a UNESCO registred nature reserve. We were staying in a nearby area - basically in a group of hostels and hotels that lined the road on the way to the park. We checked into the Goodstay Morning Inn before going on a short tour of the area. Basically we were staying near a ghost town! There was nothing but empty shopping squares, abandoned overgrown hostels, and weed covered car parks! We returned to the relative hubub of our wee area for dinner (Bibimbap mmmnn) before calling it an early night.

Day one of hiking started with a nourishing breakast of spicy noodles and orange juice sitting outside a shop. I couldn't help myself and bought an adjumma hat. We decided to hike up to Ulsanbawyo, one of the more challenging routes, and the path brought us first to a temple area. It was utterly peaceful despite the crowds and we caught sight of a Buddhist monk praying in one of the temples. Finished exploring, we followed the path onwards and upwards through the forest, passing many mounds of stones and well-kitted out colourful Korean hikers.

The day was sunny but cool, definately colder up here than in Busan! We stopped for a snack at the bottom of Ulsanbawyo rock. We found it's story quite funny! According to legend, "The Creator of all things called upon the mountains and rocks all over Korea to create the world's most beautiful mountain, namely Geumgangsan. A rock representing Ulsan came a long way to answer this call, but it's massive body worked against its progress, and it arrived to late to be incorporated. However, as it started to return home, the rock fell in love with the scenic beauty of Seoraksan and decided to stay there." Fantastic!

Getting up the rock was no mean feat. Stones and metal stairs formed a path up. Unfortunately the stairs were risty, narrow, incredibly steep and leaned in all possible directions! Progress was slow, especially on the parts where we had to bear crawl and there were constant human traffic jams. But eventually we made it to the top, over 800 steps later! The views were nice but the platform was tiny and crowded with vendors and hikers waiting to get their photo taken.

At the bottom again, we decided to treat ourselves and get a taxi to a jimijilbang (Korean sauna/spa). Now this was an experience! We were given towels and headed in to get changed - naked women everywhere! We had to completely strip down, no clothing allowed! There were three pools of varying temperatures to sit and soak in, two saunas, and a lot of showering areas (stand and sit) where women were scrubbing themselves. It must have been a family spa as there were a lot of small children running around with water guns! By the time we left our skin was feeling smoother, although I was craving a scrubbing! We tried a different restaurant for dinner and ended up cooking our own stir-fry squid dish. We made the interesting discovery that squids do indeed have beaks when I nearly ate one! Another early-ish night, tired and sore but happy!

Our second day of hiking was in the direction of Biseondae and the Biryeong waterfall. This time we were able to appreciate the changing colours of the autumn leaves as we followed a river up a valley. Again it was incredibly peaceful and I got lost in my own thoughts. There were still plenty of steps to navigate but we took them at our leisure. We read another local legend about the area: "A beautiful angel came down from heaven and fell in love with the area. She spent a long time here having fun and when she left she was sad." Honestly! The scenery was absolutely beautiful but the distances given for the next sections were unreliable, so after reaching the waterfall we turned back to return to the park entrance. As it was still early we got the cable car up to Gwongeumseong mountain for quick and easy views. A bit too easy really- there were people crawling all over the mountaintop like ants - so we just sat and people watched. There were people in their Sunday best and adjummas in full hiking regalia. Around the other side of the cable car we climbed down to a small tranquil temple perched on the cliff. I felt so serene sitting there, glad to be away from the hustle and bustle of Busan. Later we bumped into some friends from orientation who live in Gangwon-do, and we went out for samguypsal together. Love Korean BBQ!

Our last day of the holidays was a relaxed one as we couldn't manage anymore hiking! We went into Sokcho for a delicious brunch in the appropriately titles "Almost Heaven" before going to a different jimijilbang. This one had even more facilities than the last one; individual jacuzzi pools, steam room, sauna, water jet for your neck, but my favourite part was a heated floor where you could lie down and nap. We spent a good three hours there and I gave myself a good scrub in the shower after so my skin was glowing! Back in town we went in search of a Sokcho speciality, 'ojingo-sundae', esentially stuffed squid. It's made by removing the intestines etc and filling it with a mixture of tofu, rice noodles, onions, carrot and egg. The stuffed squid is then baked or fried, and sliced for eating. It was absolutely delicious and left us wanting more. The restaurant we had chosen was typically Korean - sitting cross-legged on the floor, very small menu in Hanguel, and the nervous waitress didn't speak a word of English. Luckily an elderly man sitting nearby helped us to translate and we got chatting with him for awhile. Turns out he used to be a professional baseball coach and has connections all over Korea. He gave us his card so that we could get to see the Lotte Giants for free next time.

After our meal, we meandered through the town and markets - lots of dried fish to be had! We also saw an entire basement full of seafood restaurants; live fish and shellfish sat in tanks while the customer chose what they wanted, and then sat on raised platforms while their dinner was killed and prepared. We passed the time in coffee shops until it was time to get our overnight bus back to Busan. We met a really nice man at the bus station who started talking to us. He works for the Korean coastguard and he told us about the Korean war and the DMZ. It was nothing we didn't already know but it was interesting to hear it from a local's perspective. And so ended my first real trip in Korea!

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