Monday, June 25, 2012

Hiking in Korea: Going to the Greenery

Another week has slipped through my hands and another Sunday beckons me to write a blog post. You will perhaps all be relieved to know that I won't be writing yet another blog on Kyoto, which seemingly demanded all of my attention over the past few weeks. Instead, I'll be writing about a particular Wednesday a few weeks back in which I geared up in sporting attire to challenge another of the endless hiking options available in Korea. Koreans take hiking seriously, and there is a truly ubiquitous presence of it across all facets of society. Sporting goods stores are stocked to the brim with colourful hiking clothing and shoes, the subways are packed on any given weekend with Koreans wearing the aforementioned hiking gear, and the trails themselves can often be crowded (a thought entirely foreign to me being from Canada). In Canada, hiking is an opportunity for escape and solitude, whereas in Korea it tends to be communal activity that the whole country relishes in...often at the same time on the same mountain. I can still distinctly recall hiking Taebaeksan and crossing paths with thousands of Koreans along the way. There was literally a standstill lineup on our way going down the mountain. Thus, we decided to head to a more secluded destination in Chiaksan National Park. Chiaksan isn't as well known as Taebaeksan, but it possesses a majesty of its own, as the dense trees of the mountain blanket it with startling, robust greenery.

Chiaksan in Chiaksan National Park
We awoke on our holiday, afforded to us by Memorial Day, to embark on a trek to a mountain littered with Buddhist influence. The first step for Bri and I to was meet our friend Luke at Jukjeon station, followed successively by a subway ride to Express Bus Terminal to hop on a bus that would take us to Wonju. We met Luke while hiking Taebaeksan, and he proposed the idea of hiking Chiaksan based on a friend's recommendation. I expected to be confronted with a relatively easy hiking course, but was pleasantly surprised by both the challenge and views afforded by Chiaksan. It's funny to think that if I had a Wednesday off while living in Toronto, I'd probably go out for lunch with some friends or play a little golf. However, in Korea I'm willing to take a bus for several hours with the luring proposal of a new experience. That thirst for new experience is something I'm going to desperately try to hold onto when I return home, as I seeped back into routine a little too easily following my exchange in Norway. Once we arrived in Wonju, we embarked on a 30 minute public bus ride from the terminal and arrived at the foot of the mountain strewn with Korean venders and restaurants. The unmistakable smell of kimchi and the ever popular hiking dish, Pajeon, were in the air. I bought a bandana with a map of Chiaksan on it, more for practical purposes than anything, and we began our hike. The bandana certainly came in handy for my sweaty North American self on the journey that exceeded 10 kilometres by quite a margin.

About half a kilometre into the hike we came across the first indication of Buddhist influence. It wasn't particularly subtle either, as Guryeongsa Temple is clearly marked on the respective signage of the mountain.


It was relaxing to hear the chanting of Buddhist monks as we strolled by the entrance gate (pictured above) of Guryeongsa. We opted not to explore the complex further, as the forest seemed to hold more seductive prospects. Moreover, to be perfectly frank, there is an undeniable similarity between almost all Korean temples that I've witnessed. Some may say that it lends them all a certain continuity, but I'm more inclined to say that a little more differentiation would really be beneficial (at least purely from a tourist perspective). Nonetheless, it goes without saying that these temples are by no means boring to look at and explore, Guryeongsa likely being no exception.

 

The Myth of Chiaksan 

Chiaksan derives its name from myth and legend, which is not altogether surprising in Korea. As an ardent fan of tall-tales and folklore, I happen to truly appreciate this aspect of Korea, and Asian culture in general. Initially the mountain was known as Jeogaksan, but the supposed fateful trip of one man was to change that. Apparently many, many years ago, a man was hiking Jeogaksan when he came across a snake with a nearly dead pheasant it its grasp. Feeling sorry for the poor pheasant, the man pierced the snake with an arrow, and ultimately killed it.

The man began to look for lodgings for the evening as the sun was setting, and happened upon a woman who graciously welcomed him into her home. In an entirely believable turn of events, the woman actually transformed into a snake as the man was sleeping, and ultimately revealed herself as the unlucky widow of the snake he had killed earlier. This fuming snake-woman coiled around the man and swore that he would die unless the bell at Songwansa (a nearby mountain temple) rang out three times before morning. In an unlikely, yet timely, turn of events, the bell was mysteriously heard three times throughout the night. The bewildered man, now freed from the snake-woman, went to Songwansa the following morning only to the find the pheasant dead beside the bell. In an act of self sacrifice, it had rang its head against the bell and given up its life. Thus, Jeogaksan become Chiaksan which literally means "Pheasant Peak Mountain."

 

The Trek 

After leaving Guryeongsa, it was an incredible relief to note the relative emptiness of the trails. I was surprised by the nature that surrounded me, particularly by the clarity of the water. About a kilometre into the hike, we stumbled upon a clear pond with a heavenly greenish hue, which practically invited us to take a sip.






The weather wasn't excruciatingly hot, but I still managed to end up shirtless, much to the chagrin of some conservative Korean hikers along the way. Honestly, I feel as if conservative Korean individuals have a lot that they sneer at, so long ago, I started returning their seething stares with jovial smiles. Higher and higher we went, embracing the lack of concrete and resurgence of something I'd forgotten about - personal space. We stopped momentarily for some digestive cookies and oranges (the hiking snack of champions) and took in the sounds and smells of the mountain. I also noted a peculiar Korean knick-knack which was glued to a small rock beside our resting point. It looks to me to be a sort of monastic figure, as the bamboo and little wooden hollow bell are in his hands.


On and on we went, heading for the peak which stands at around 1300 metres (4265 Feet). It was definitely one of the steeper mountain I've climbed, underscored by the over 1000 steps (both man-made and natural) on the way to the summit. Needless to say, I was sore for several days after the excursion. The views continued to impress.


As with most mountains, the impressiveness of the view was consistent with our particular elevation. However, Chiaksan managed to offer unique, worthwhile views from about the halfway point until the summit itself. The terrain itself also managed to be quite captivating, rarely leaving a moment for boredom, more a time for tired contemplation and navigation.



It was one foot in front of the other, as any good hiker does, but the course got progressively harder. The last 500 metres were nothing short of exhausting, but a welcomed exhaustion if that makes sense. I guess it's that old notion that if there's "no pain" there's "no gain." It's something I always felt was especially applicable to long, grueling Canadian canoe trips where the final few steps of the trip feel almost divine, but that wasn't always the case on a particular portage during the trip. It always seems to be the case that physically demanding trips seem better, more euphoric even, in retrospect. However, I'd have to say that I appreciated this hike the whole way through. I was particularly fond of a lookout located about 200 metres from the summit.


After 200 metres of grueling stairs and rocky paths the summit was finally in our grasp. There's something remarkably satisfying about reaching the peak of anything, be it a mountain or a career. We took a well deserved rest, and investigated our surroundings. The first thing I noticed was the presence of three large stone towers. Apparently, the proprietor of a bakery in Wonju erected these towers in the early 1960's. He said that he received a divine command in a dream to build three towers on Birobong Peak on Chiakson. They have collapsed several times and even been struck by lightning, but are now actually maintained by Chiakson National Park Office (after the passing of this man in 1974). If nothing else, it gives the summit a distinctly interesting flavour, and adds to the achievement of reaching it in the first place. The summit is as good a place as any to find yourself.


All the big problems of your life suddenly don't seem so big from 1300m up. In fact, they don't seem big at all.

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