Asia | Korea, Republic of – The Eternal Mountains
I am currently enjoying the child-free bliss that is a five day break from school. Now, given the weather (hot, sunny, sticky, balmy, tropical etc ) I could have used this as an opportunity to spend five days lounging around on the roof, drinking beer and getting a suntan, however, when you live a stone’s throw from two National Parks, you really have to be a bit more proactive than that.
Thus, I decided that I would make use of Friday to get myself up a mountain. I headed for Bukhansan N.P. which has a choice of two mountains and numerous individual peaks. For those of you who have seen my photos on Yahoo, the spiky mountain in sillhouette is the one this story relates to.
Having arrived at the nearest station to the park, I followed the hoardes of other hikers (it’s a very popular pastime in these parts) towards the frontier. As we neared the park itself, two things struck me. Firstly, how grossly over-equipped Korean hikers are. They have EVERYTHING. If you’re familiar, imagine the ‘fully experienced rambling hiker’ from the Fast Show, give him a tonne of extra gear, and you’ll be getting close. Just in case they did happen to forget their ice axe, rope, or crampons in mid summer, the approach to the park is lined with outdoor gear shops. The second thing was the noise of the insects. From within the forest that dominates the majority of the lower areas of the park, came a cacophony of whirring, chirping, buzzing and whistling. It was more like the jungle than a temperate forest. Having entered the park, I followed the trail up past a beautiful babbling river, possessed of numerous waterfalls and cascades. It didn’t take too long to escape the majority of the crowds, most of whom restrict their activities to the lower areas. Once I got onto the trails leading to the high peaks, it was only the hardcore Koreans who were still in evidence. It was a lovely hike, leading up through the dense woodland, clinging to the steep sides of the mountain. Although I can’t deny it took effort, by far the most draining thing was the humidity. Not only was I sweating from the exercise itself, but also from the still, moisture laden air, hanging thickly beneath the canopy. Indeed, if I closed my eyes, the bugs, the heat, and the humidity were just like the jungle. It was strange to be so hot, sticky, and surrounded by the constant symphony of insects, whilst walking among mixed deciduous/coniferous woodland.
As I got higher, the trail turned into a boulder strewn climbing frame. It was like the Martian Falls at Alderley,only the boulders were bigger, and it was mountain sized! This didn’t stop the Koreans though. It must be said that they’re not speedy, but they’ve got stamina, and the sure-footedness of mountain goats. Many were the old men and women I saw scrambling over seven foot boulders as if they weren’t there. I even saw, at the summit, a couple who must have been in their sixties, shinning about twenty-five feet down an almost vertical rockface. If they’d lost their footing, they would have fallen….a terminal distance.
Anyway, as I continued, I suddenly heard, emerging from the bird and insect song, the sound of drumming and chanting. Perplexed, I headed down a side trail, and found myself at a hermitage! A set of rock cut steps led up to a small house, carved out of a solid lump of granite. Inside sat an old monk, chanting and striking a single drum. The melody of his chant was mesmerising. I found out that the place was called Gwaneuman Hermitage, and had been there for about 400 years. It was a great experience – my first mountain hermitage!
About an hour of trekking later, I broke through the upper edge of the forest, and found myself upon a massive granite outcrop, the highest of about five which rose above the treetops to crown the mountain. This was the summit of Dobongsan, the peak itself being called Manjangbong. The view was spectacular. Mists drifted across the forest below, and the peaks could be clearly seen, rising implacable and eternal, high islands of rock in an ocean of green. In the distance, the mountain peaks at the other end of the park stood silent in outline. Far, far below, the apartment blocks of the real world appeared as tiny building blocks, standing in a different reality, quite apart from this high, quiet place. As I ate my lunch, black squirrels and things that looked very much like chipmunks scampered fearlessly around, taking advantage of the fragments of various hiker’s lunches.
After an hour or so of sheer joy at the summit, I began the long journey back down. I took a different route for the descent, which led first along a ridgeline, emerging on a rocky promontary commanding great views of the peaks from whence I had come. From there, a winding, crooked path snaked down through the forest, dappled in the early evening sunlight. Eventually it joined up with the river, and following the example of many of the locals, I took off my boots, and enjoyed the cool, clear, refreshing water, in one of the many quiet pools that lay between the cascades. It was glorious! A chance to wash off some of the accumulated dirt and sweat. I paddled, I stood in the rushing water, I clambered around on submerged rocks. Fun!!
The last part of my descent followed the river, leading across some really picturesque oriental bridges, and past inumerable waterfalls. As I crossed the last bridge, I was suddenly confronted by the sight of the face of Buddha. This was in fact the uppermost part of a thirty foot white marble statue, standing in the courtyard of a small temple. The building itself was accessed through an ornamental gate, and was as ornately carved and intricately painted as any I’ve seen. Slow, melodic chanting emanated from the dark, candlelit interior, and the intensely spiritual nature of the place, was enhanced and augmented by it’s location amidst the thick forest. The chanting seemed to blend perfectly with the sounds of the river, the birds, and the insects. A beautiful light was cast in the courtyard by the evening sun, and the whole thing was, to be honest – idyllic.
Soon afterwards, having left the park, I was wandering through a labyrinthine assortment of open-air cafes and restaurants, small pokey shops, and carts from which were purveyed any number of strange foodstuffs. I bought a beer, sat outside a little store, and drank it gazing up at the lofty peaks, from which I had gazed down earlier. The perfect end to a perfect day.