Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Taebaeksan, Korea: Trekking Through Taebaeksan

Every trip seems to begin at the crack of dawn, so why should this trip be any different? Well, it shouldn't, and it isn't. Bri and I made our way from Jukjeon to the Express Bus Terminal at ungodly hours to rendezvous with Dana, Ian, and Dave. The good news is that transportation in Korea is very sleep-worthy. I attribute that to the fact that they make their buses and trains so warm that you can't help but give in to your tiring eyes and drift off to sleep. However, it is entirely possible that you will wake up shortly afterwards with a new found sweat and confusion, while noticing that the windows have been steamed over. We were on our way to the Taebaeksan Mountain Snow Festival, but first we stopped in at Yongyeon Cave, which at 930 metres above sea level, is the highest in Korea.Yongyeon is a limestone cave that is approximately 850 metres in length. I found that a little bit of the majesty of the cave had been worn off by the way in which it had been made into a tourist haven. Specifically, there was a main hall which had a "rhythm pond" with tacky neon lights that didn't necessarily bode for an authentic cave experience. However, I'm always intrigued by the natural growths (pictured above) of cave corals and other sights that are a result of the moisture within the cave. Understandably, I was most taken aback by the natural beauty of the cave, and not wholly persuaded by the artificiality. It reminded me a little bit of the Wieliczka Salt Mine that I visited in Poland during 2010. There were these stunning salt sculptures and chapels underground, but you would also come across artificial "model miners" in action that seemed to take away from the experience if anything. Overall, it's still great to say that I've been inside the highest cave in Korea, and it was an interesting experience.

We were dropped off at the Taebaeksan Mountain Snow Festival for an afternoon of brisk outdoor activity. The sun was shining overhead and it was a great day to be outdoors. The first things I noticed were the immense snow sculptures that were located throughout the festival. Apparently, it's part of a nationwide snow sculpture contest among fine arts students throughout Korea. The sheer craftsmanship of these sculptures was incredible, not to mention the ingenuity and humorous undertones. The more popular sculptures provided excellent photo opportunities for interested parties. We were one of these interested parties mostly because of how unique and enormous these sculptures were. The sculptures that seemed to be receiving the most admiration on the day were Darth Vader, King Kong, Captain Barbossa (Pirates of the Caribbean), Iron Man, and Steve Jobs. It's difficult to imagine what exactly I'm describing, so let me paint a picture for you. Well actually, I'll just be posting a picture for you:
We narrowly avoided the deathly grips of King Kong and continued on our way. There was a plethora of outdoor activities to take part in around the festival, most of which closely reminded me of my Canadian childhood. You could go sledding and tobogganing, drink warm hot chocolate, slip down the ice slides, brave the snowy forests, or just generally revel in the festive atmosphere. Along the way we had ourselves a delightful Korean buffet and indulged in some traditional Korean alcohol (it was only for the purported warming purposes of the alcohol, I can wholesomely assure you). I frolicked along in the wintery climes and snapped a few photos with my nifty Nikon before leaving.
We made a pit-stop at a local convenience store and loaded up on necessities before heading off to our hotel which was located fairly far from civilization as far as Korea goes. However, it had enough ondol mattresses and a pleasant Korean ondol floor, so that's all you really need. A whole group of us ended up in one of the rooms at the hotel and we ended up enjoying a few drinks together. Specifically, we met Canadians, Graham, Stacy, and Tyler who were as eager to celebrate the festive atmosphere as we were. I've always found that Canadians seem to have a tracking device on each other when they are travelling; it's almost like a gravitational pull. Either way, we attempted to pack it in relatively early because it was an early wake up to climb Taebaeksan ("The Grand White Mountain"). The name surely held true to form.
We strapped on our hiking cleats and prepared for departure. At the foot of the mountain, the weather was a few degrees below zero and prime for winter hiking. The scenery was absolutely gorgeous and it continued to become more so as we reached greater altitudes. Accordingly, the wind also picked up speed and the temperature plummeted quite a bit. I can honestly say that it was almost unbearably cold at the top of the mountain. It was almost tantalizing to be surrounded by such picturesque scenery, while your hands are begging you not to take them out of your pocket for another picture. It was serene enough to write poetry up there, but it was cold enough to freeze your pen. The walk up wasn't too much of a struggle, but the payoff was immense. I would have hiked two hours longer to see the same view. There's something special about being at the peak of something that's indescribable. Seeing mountains fade into the distance evokes nothing but positive emotions, and gets the endorphins revving like no other. Everything is better when you earn it, and nothing embodies that better than a mountain hike. If you reach the top, then you get the view, and if you are too lazy to walk, then you can get the view from Google, but none of the emotion.
Sometimes I wake up in the morning and it takes me a moment to realize where I am. I don't mean that metaphorically, I just mean that it takes a minute for me to globally locate myself on a map. That is perhaps the best feeling in the world. To wake up in the morning and realize that you're somewhere interesting, and that you'll be hiking a mountain or visiting a cathedral, or even something as small as eating a dish that you've never heard of or tasted before. Constantly embarking on adventures is nothing short of marvelous. The truth is that there is just so much to experience on this enormous planet, and no one could possible see it all in a single lifetime. That being said, however, there's no harm in trying.

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  5. How wonderfully written ;) Thank you for sharing your experience!!!

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    1. I am very happy that you enjoyed it. Sorry for the delayed response. I have plenty of writing on Korea, so I hope you'll find more that interests you!

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  6. Hey there! Happened to chance upon your post on hiking Taebaeksan after googling on places to stay at near Taebaeksan, as my family and I are planning to travel to Seoul this January.

    I was wondering if you could share with me the hotel you guys were staying at? Did you actually stay in a hotel at Taebaek-si area or in Seoul? And if you would so kind as to share with me your itinerary if you don't mind!

    And by the way, great photos and write-up on Taebaeksan! :)

    Hope to hear from you! You can email me at nicola.njy@gmail.com

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