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Published: August 10th 2013
It's so much fun being back in Asia again, where you collect insect bites like other people collect parking tickets, where it is so hot that you're sweating while trying to dry yourself after a shower, where the water from the shower leaves your skin with a greasy film, where the used toilet paper doesn't go into the toilet but into a bin beside the toilet. Popular culture totally lied to me about South Korea: nobody here speaks English and I haven't met even one K-Pop girl. Not that it matters because she wouldn't speak English if I did. The non-English-speaking here takes a curious turn: if you ask if someone speaks English, instead of shrugging or making some other gesture like people elsewhere would, here the person just stares at you. And stares. And stares. Evidently they are hoping that if they stay very very still then you will not be able to see them and leave. It's the chameleon defence.
I hadn't had any intention of staying in Seoul more than a couple of days. I don't know much about South Korean national parks, so I had taken a lucky dip from a selection I found on the
internet and settled on Juwangsan National Park. August is a holiday month in South Korea and the parks get pretty full, but apparently this one somewhat less than others because it is further away from the capital, and also it is based around a mountain so I figured it should be cooler there. It was not.
The park is easy to get to. I took a three-hour bus ride from Seoul to Andong at 7.30am, and then a one-hour bus from there to Cheongsong at 11.45am. There was supposed to be a bus from there to the park at 1.10pm but it didn't arrive so the next one was at 1.50 (they come every half hour or so). The buses are easy enough and so long as you can pronounce the name of the place to the ticket seller then you're sorted. The intercity buses have the destination in English on them, but for local ones you might need to compare the Korean script on your ticket with that on the front of each bus to get the right one. Once at the park there's a whole village of food stalls outside the entrance and amongst them I found
to stay in for 30,000 Won per night.
I'd been hoping it would be cooler here than Seoul, and hence more bird activity, but that was not the case. The temperature was in the mid-thirties when I arrived, but I went out anyway to get the lay of the land. The forest is really nice, a mix of pines and broadleaf, wrapped around massive outcrops of rock. The trees were throbbing with song, but it wasn't from birds it was from cicadas. Of birds there was little sign. It would be great here in spring or even winter, but right now it was dead from the heat. At the first junction in the path after entering I perused the map signboard. All the other visitors were heading off to the right, so I took the left. I should have paid more attention to the colour-coding: there was a reason everyone else was going right! The trails are marked in different colours for easy, intermediate, moderate, advanced and expert. There is literally ONE section of track colour-coded for expert. Guess where I ended up. Before getting to that vertical section, I found a couple of birds in a
tree which had me scratching my head over. After going through the entire passerine section of the field guide ten times I finally settled on Daurian redstart, except they didn't look like the picture! That sounds kind of stupid, but it was a process of elimination and nothing else had the tail colour and wing-patch, and yet in the book they weren't all mottly on the body like my ones. I wasn't happy with the ID but fortunately the next day one of those individuals was still there, and it was accompanied by a full male so I knew it was right after all; I'm guessing they were immatures or weird females. I also found a flock of vinous-throated parrotbills which I was delighted with because they were my first parrotbills (and I knew what they were straight away!)
I persevered with the track I was on but there were no birds at all up there, so I climbed back down and found another trail. This one turned into a series of wooden steps, and it was here that I saw a Siberian chipmunk, my first mammal of this trip. There are quite a few species of chipmunks but
this is the only one found outside the Americas. A little bit after that I found a white-backed woodpecker. My only real target bird for South Korea was the black-faced spoonbill but the woodpecker was much better. For the spoonbills I knew they were always at Dongmak Lagoon so was 99% sure I'd see them no problem, just turn up and there they are, but with the woodpecker you see it unexpectedly fly in through the trees and then have to put some work into trying to get a good enough look as it moves between the trunks until you can work out what species it is (and also I didn't know there were white-backed woodpeckers in South Korea so even better).
The next day I did the tropical birding trick of going out early and late to look for the birds, and spending the hottest middle part of the day hiding out. Trouble was, even at 6am it was extremely hot already and there were still no birds. I took the easiest track there was (all flat!) and by one of the toilet blocks spotted a pale thrush. The birds here are confusing me no end. The book
says that the pale thrush is a winter migrant to South Korea, appearing from October to May. Now it is early August. But I got a few photos of it and I know it's a pale thrush, and I saw a couple of others later as well. On the way back past the same spot a couple of hours later I found a snazzy-looking elegant bunting and a Eurasian nuthatch. Technically the park is open from sunrise to an hour before sunset which means spot-lighting for nocturnal animals is out of the question, but unfortunately I went too far on the late afternoon birding session (which yielded almost no birds, by the way!) and it got dark while I was still out in the forest. Oops. Fortunately I happened to have my spot-lighting torch in my bag. Funny how things work out. The only thing that worried me a little were the big scary dogs chained outside one of the monasteries which I would have to pass on the way back. I wondered if they might only be chained by day but left free to roam at night. Really the only things that overly concern me when travelling are dogs
and zombies. Fortunately the dogs were nowhere to be seen on the way back. The night didn't really have any better animal-watching results than the day, although there were a multitude of frogs and toads of at least four species and loads of big crickets all over the trails. The only bird seen was a grey nightjar sitting on the track, and there were no mammals apart for a large unidentified bat hawking over the river.
The next day was much the same, with a few additional new birds, namely Asian brown flycatcher, coal tit, and Brandt's jay. That last one was formerly included in the same species as the European jay but it looks completely different so that's one that I am splitting. Best animal of the morning was Oriental fire-bellied toad, an amphibian I've always wanted to see. I found two on the trails (one the classic bright green and one a brown colour) and somehow picked one out amongst the stones of a river-bank from up on a bridge fifty feet away. The night was even less interesting than the night before, although I did see a little viper of some sort (one of the Gloydius
species I think, which are lethally venomous, but most of the herptile IDs will have to wait till after I'm home).
And now I'm back in Seoul for a couple of days before jetting off to my next destination. Getting back to Seoul was a little more roundabout than getting to Juwangsan. I got the bus from the park back to Cheongsong, where I discovered that the bus to Andong doesn't go from there, despite that being where it stopped on the way in. Instead I had to get a bus to another terminal where there was a bus to Andong. It was all made more confusing by nobody there speaking a lick of English and me not speaking a lick of Korean.
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