During our time in South Korea, it is becoming more clear that the true beauty of this country is found less in the prominent neon glow of city lights and the ant-like busyness of city life, but perhaps more in the less observable and intangible aspect of the country’s personality. There is no doubt that Seoul is the heartbeat of this country, and indeed being one of the most densely populated cities in Asia, it justifiably earns its reputation as the liveliest city in the region. However, if you do happen to travel far enough to see the lights of Seoul, then perhaps you may be willing to travel just a little further. Venture beyond the angelic glow and I for one have begun to appreciate the ‘real’ South Korea, and perhaps the true beauty is that is does not succumb to one persona, but rather exists as a true schizophrenic…a fluctuation between cosmopolitan cities that never sleep and the tranquillity of beyond.
During our so far brief stay here, we have continually heard about the beauty of the more rural South Korea and the true identity these areas bring to the country. It was in pursuit of this path
of discovery that we decided to join a group called the Seoul Hiking Group. For any persons looking to spend a significant amount of time in South Korea, we would highly recommend joining this group as it is completely free, you are not bound to attend any trips, but more importantly, it offers excellent opportunities to see some of the more less accessible areas of South Korea, in particular to places where the trains and buses may not run! The group is organised by Warren Seung Il Kim, a local business trader and native of the Seoul area, but more importantly and simply, one of the nicest people I have ever had the pleasure to meet! He is a man who lives for his passion (hiking) and has learned the English language solely through meeting fellow hikers! This does of course give rise to a few humorous mishaps in communication that become somewhat lost in translation, but Warren certainly proved a very capable, entertaining guide whose personality served as a persistent antidote to any remote feelings of fatigue from the hike.
Of course, the primary antidote to such fatigues existed in the sheer beauty of our expedition, where we
were able to gage a very real experience of Korea! Our voyage, ironically began in Seoul at 11.30pm on a Friday evening…our destination? A six hour bus journey to Yeosu, a small town located on Korea’s south coast. As you can imagine, sleep was sparse as we drove, ever nearer to our destination!
We arrived at a small parking bay beside the Yeongchisan trails mountain range, where we departed the bus at 5.30am and our ascent. Any tiredness from the journey seemed magnified by the initial intensity of the incline. However, upon reaching our first stopping point, a place to view the sunrise in all its glory, all feelings of exhaustion were immediately washed away at the astonishing beauty of the sunrise! Enjoying this cocktail of aesthetic beauty and true fresh air reinforced the sentiment that the city lights seemed another world away.
Making our way through the numerous peaks of the trails our ultimate objective was to reach Heung Guk Sa temple, a Buddhist temple village located on the other side of the Yeongchisan trails. Along the way, we were able to take in the beauty of the ‘Pink Azaela Mountain’, so named because of the pink
flower decorating the peaks. Furthermore, we punctuated our trek with a visit to the Do Sol Aam temple, a Buddhist place of worship five minutes from the peak! Here we were able to purchase a hot drink of tea and it was one of the first opportunities to get to know some new people on the hike. We were of course on the hike with our friends Courtney, Katina and Monica but part of the mantra of these hikes is to meet new people from all walks of life (no pun intended!).
It was during the final stages of the initial hike through the Yeongchisan trails that we were able to understand the true beauty of this place, at the Heung Guk Sa temple, a small Buddhist temple village at the foot of the mountain. The serene beauty and stillness of this place brought about an undeniable but not oft felt emotion experienced by many people…a feeling that the heart is truly content.
I have enjoyed many of the places I have already seen in Korea but this was the first I can truly say that I would not have wanted to leave! But, with more adventure to
be had, we pressed on via bus to Odongdo Bay. Odongdo Bay is the type of place where Koreans go for a day out at the weekend and it proved to be a rather enjoyable place! We were able to take in the view of the Lighthouse, together with reacquainting ourselves with the time honoured tradition of Korea being a nation of drinkers! We were able to pass a 50+ year old woman being escorted to her transportation by two friends, unable to stand by herself! Must have been the Soju!
Our trip afforded us the opportunity to take in the sunset at Suncheon Bay, a marshland approaching the mouth of the sea, crossed by walkway to a small mountain range to take in the view!
We finally concluded our day by staying in an Ondol, a Korean guesthouse which provides no private rooms but rather large dorms, where you receive a mat, pillow and blanket and sleep on a heated floor! Our room in particular, supposedly meant to sleep 6 would have looked full sleeping two! I would like to say the Ondol was situated in a village but that would be more than a stretch…standing within
a square mile where maybe seven buildings! In true spirit, however, we left our belongings in the room and went down to the small but very secluded beach for a BBQ and campfire, the perfect way to end such a satisfying day!
Following a surprisingly decent sleep, we set out the following day (Sunday, the 3rd day of our trip) heading for Jirisan, a village based in the centre of Jirisan National Park, a labyrinth of beautiful mountain ranges and of course, home to one of the more beautiful locations to view the Cherry Blossom. The Cherry Blossom tree blooms for perhaps two weeks in every year, so we certainly consider ourselves fortunate to be able to witness one of Korea’s most beautiful sights.
Jirisan itself proved a very worthwhile trip, with its local market bustling with activity. Here we were able to sample some traditional Korean drinks, including a drink which appeared to be wood flavoured water, literally, with an olive oil thickness…unexpectedly pleasant. It was here that we were able to again understand any presupposed notions of Korean culture were somewhat wide of the mark. Without generalising, our experience has given rise to idea that whilst
Koreans maintain dignity and tradition, they are nonetheless more than willing to interact will the western man. In the market alone, we began dancing with some local Korean pensioners out for a Sunday shop, this not long after being serenaded by a (probable) soju influenced afternoon of drinking by one of the local men! But again, it is the seemingly insignificant events that for me, are proving to be the most substantial…walking down a insignificant road in the middle of a valley with the Cherry Blossom beginning to fall, providing the effect of gentle snow, is just another in a growing list!
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