Wednesday, September 14th, 2011.
Happy Chuseok everyone! Actually Chuseok was about 3 days ago, but its hard to keep track of days during a 6 day long weekend. The fact that I get 6 whole days off work for Chuseok (A Korean holiday about celebrating our ancestors) has catapulted it into my top 5 holidays – above Labor Day and below St. Patrick’s Day.
So what to do when you find yourself in South Korea with 6 days to kill? My answer was to finally scratch off Wolchulsan National Park from my list of must dos in Korea. Wolchulsan has been sitting pretty smugly at the top of my list of things I want to see in Korea for some time. You see, Wolchulsan is a tricky place to find. The closest town is Yeong-am, which is about an hour south of Gwangju (which is about 3 hours west of Busan). I tried to get a trip to Wolchulsan organized in the past but could never get past the planning stage, because it is impossible to find good directions for getting to Yeong-am. Lonely Planet only explains the route from Yeong-am to the park and the park’s webpage doesn’t do any better. Furthermore, there are no buses that run directly from Busan to Yeong-am. I even read some other people’s blogs about hiking Wolchulsan, but they all skipped over the travel details. Bastards.
Because of my frustration in finding my way to the park I’ve decided to include the directions here, just in case anyone ever stumbles upon this blog while looking for directions. This might be a little (read: extremely) boring for those of you who don’t live here or are never planning on travelling to Wolchulsan. Feel free to skip to the next paragraph. Here’s the route: From Seoul, simply hop on a bus to Yeong-am. If you are leaving from Busan (like me) or Daegu or Ulsan or anywhere else, just take an inter-city bus to Gwangju. At the Gwangju bus terminal you can buy a ticket for Yeong-am (the buses run every 30 min). Take the bus to Yeong-am (you may want to learn Korean or ask the bus driver which stop is Yeong-am, as there are a few stops at small towns on the way and we found ourselves constantly asking if this was OUR small town). Once in Yeong-am it is clear sailing, there is a motel you can walk to from the bus station where 3 of us stayed one night for 35,000 won. There is an outdoor market, grocery stores and a few restaurants in town, walking distance from the station and motel. From Yeong-am the easiest way to get to the park is by taxi; the entrance closest to town is about 3,000won and the entrance further from town around 12,000. Both extremely cheap, especially if you are travelling with one or two people to split the bill. Or you can take a bus from the station in the center of town (buses are supposed to run every 15 mins, but they ran every hour on the day we were there).
Right then, anyway let me tell you about the trip. First, Yeong-am is the first small Korean town I have ever spent a significant amount of time in. It had a super laid back, friendly small town feel to it. The Koreans were clearly not used to seeing foreigners, and while we got more curious stares than we do in the city (I’m totally immune to these by now anyway) we also had lots of nice Koreans asking us where we are from and if we were hiking Wolchulsan. Having people come up and ask us what we were doing in town and where we are from really reminded me of how impersonal big towns are. When I moved to Korea I not only moved to a new culture, I also moved into a big city for the first time in my life (before Korea the largest city I lived in was Ottawa, but it doesn’t count because it has an insanely small town feel to it). I think that in the turmoil caused by the culture shock of my initial relocation here I failed to notice that city life, not just life in Korea, is different from my life back home. Yeong-am gave me a tiny taste of the small town lifestyle I’ve lived most of my life, and I realized that Korea isn’t filled with busy people who couldn’t care less about you or where you are from, that’s just big cities.
*city lifestlye shpeel over*
The hike itself was amazing. In my experience, most hiking in Korea is pretty tame. Even the two biggest hills in Busan were pretty manageable hikes. The paths tended to be flat and gravelled (sometimes even concrete) and the only thing to remind you you weren’t strolling through a park is the slight incline and the views. Wolchulsan was different. It certainly didn’t coddle its hikers – if you want to climb this mountain, you have to earn it. The trails were rocky and when they occasionally became forest dirt they were narrow and root-strewn. Alot of the hiking, particularly the ascent to the peak, was very steep. Steel staircases were common to get up particularly steep areas, but sometimes nothing more than a steel handrail bolted into a cliff gave you leverage to climb the slippery rocks. More than twice even a steel handrail was too much to ask for and our only assistance was a knotted rope hanging down a steep rocky path.
One or two times I found myself holding a handrail with two hands and pulling myself up arm over arm as my feet struggled to find purchase on the smooth wet rocks. Very badass. I know what you are thinking and the answer is yes, I did hum the Indiana Jones theme song to myself most of the way. Although I make it sound really challenging I don’t want to put off anyone who is thinking of hiking Wolchulsan – you don’t need to be in super great shape to pull this off, just general good health. Be prepared to sweat and work hard though, unless you are a terminator.
On the way to the peak we saw a temple, a waterfall (which had all but entirely dried up this time of year) and the suspension bridge, which is the real highlight of the park. There is video of all this stuff on my youtube channel, which I will link to below. The bridge was particularly cool though, and worth a mention here. It was about 52 meters long and about 150 meters above ground (though it was halfway up a mountain, so probably a couple of hundred meters above sea level). It was made of steel and concrete, so not as awesome as I hoped (I was seriously looking forward to a swaying, rickety old thing and was hoping to cheer on Indiana Jones as he battled a heart stealing Indian Shaman) but it still kicked righteous ass. We also saw a rock shaped like a penis and a cave shaped like a vagina which, hilariously, faced each other just a few hundred meters apart. The number of puns and witty repartee was staggering and Dom and I quickly proved to Hilary that we were much less mature than she thought – its good to be 23.
The hike took a total of 6hrs and 30mins and I loved every minute of it. Easily some of the best hiking I’ve done in Korea. I’d like to thank the Korean people for inventing Chuseok and giving me 6 days off work while they celebrated it.
Check out the Wolchulsan video here:
That’s all for now BNBers!