Monday, July 5, 2010

The Big Hike!

I have to admit I was more than nervous after I signed up for a 9-14 hour hike! Seoraksan National Park has the third highest peak, but the most beautiful views in all of Korea. The site had warned that this was not for first time hikers. Well, I've hiked before, but I wouldn't call myself a hiking pro by any means. I certainly had never done a 9-14 hour hike before! I consider myself to be in decent shape as I work out quite often. But, in my opinion, hiking is on a completely different fitness level! Britney and I spent the week prior preparing by purchasing hiking shoes, socks, energy filled snacks, and our head lamps to begin the hike before sunrise!
We headed into Seoul on Friday night after work for one of our favorite meals of chicken galbi. Then, we headed to the bus stop, met up with my friend Melissa who I had met on my biking trip, and hit the road with the DiscoverKorea group (run by an awesome Korean!) at 11:30pm. I didn't sleep more than an hour, so I continued to get nervous as I realized I'd be doing this hike off of a full work week and virtually no sleep. I would be pulling an all-nighter for one BIG hike! We arrived early and began our hike at 2:30am (as opposed to the 3:30am scheduled time). The weather was bitterly cold at that time, something I had not prepared for as it was very warm in Suji. Thankfully we warmed up right away as the hike began. The first two hours of the hike were told to be the hardest, which we found true, but definitely not unbearable. After the first hour, we were feeling confident that we could definitely make the full 14 hour hike to the beautiful view. This was my first hike starting in the dark, but it was by far the most exciting part of the hike for me! My head lamp worked wonders, and it was a blast following the trail with a single light in front of you. As time went on, the group spread out, but we stuck around about ten others.
By 5am, we had light with mountains surrounding us on every side. There were points where it literally felt like we were on the floating Hallelujah Mountains in the Avatar film, of which I am a BIG fan! It was mysterious with the fog and jagged mountains all around. I went from hot to cold at several different points until we reached the first shelter by 6:30am. We rested a while as we were ahead of schedule, and just as we were about to start out again, the clouds opened and the rains began to pour. Again, I was unprepared for this, with the exception of an umbrella which would have been really hard to hike with! Thankfully we were able to buy HUGE ponchos that covered all the gear on our backs. We headed out for a one hour down hill hike to the next shelter where we had to decide if we were going to do the full 14 hour hike. Let me tell you...going down is much less fun than going up. My knees were in pain by the time we reached the second shelter. Sadly, at this point we had to make the decision not to complete the full hike. It was a major disappointment as I knew this was my once chance to hike Seoraksan before I left. We had heard that no matter how far you hike, it's possible to get to a certain point where the park rangers will have you turn around and hike back the same way you came because it can be too slippery from rain. That would be a LONG way back! We also knew that it wasn't going to be worth it even if we could make it to the top as the fog had become so dense that there would be no view at all. With regret we chose to start the three hour decent.
Hiking down was 100% beautiful, but just as painful as the first down hill hour. The rain had not stopped since it started at 7am. I got to a point were I was just too hot with my poncho trapping in the heat that I decided to take it off, wrap it around my backpack, and take the rain for the rest of the hike. Health-wise, it probably wasn't the best choice, but I was far more comfortable with the cool rain. We hiked down the mountains for three hours into an absolutely incredible valley! If you looked up, it was almost as if you couldn't see the tops of the mountains on either side of you. Below and besides us were streams, waterfalls, and pools of crystal clear water where you could see every stone at the bottom. If the weather had been nice and hot, they would have been a blast to take a swim in. Despite the fact that we were unable to complete the full 14 hour hike, we still saw some absolutely breath-taking views during our decent. I kept reminding myself that something that beautiful could only have been created by God. We made it to the final rest stop of many at 1pm. Our hike ended four hours early due to the rain. However, we still hiked for 10.5 hours with the exception of a few relaxing stops as we knew we were no longer on a time schedule once we made the choice to hike down. At the last rest point, there was a restaurant where many people enjoyed hot food and Korean rice wine, a tradition on and after long hikes. From there, we had one more hour of flat hiking until the true bottom where there was a beautiful Buddhist temple and some traditional Korean restaurants. There is also were you can take the cable cars to the top, if you're not up for the big hike. At this point we caught the bus back to town.
We made it back into the town we were staying at around 5pm and headed to a jimjilbang (jin-ji-bong), a Korean sauna. It usually costs no more than 7,000 won ($7) where you can shower, sit in hot tubs, and even spend the night...which many foreigners do after a night of drinking if they don't want to pay for a cab home. They are everywhere! It's usually a family event...a very strange one if you ask me. It was my first and probably last experience, but I had to try it once while I was here. This is how it went. You pay, get a towel, and drop your shoes off right away. Then, you get a locker, drop your clothes and head into the bath rooms. Here you sit on little stools to wash your hair and body before you get in the tubs. After that, you have the choice of three different temperature hot tubs, one cold bath, and two saunas. You can also get a massage. All of this is a communal event....done naked...completely. Even the person giving the massage is naked. EEEK! Let me just tell you that I never showered publicly (not even on teams in high school) until I came to Korea. Then, I realized the showers at my gym were luxury compared to my all-inclusive toilet, sink, and shower bathroom in my apartment. I also figured I could save on my hot water bill if I showered at the gym every day! fear of being naked ended here. I started showering at the gym surrounded by Koreans every day. Now, I was sitting in hot tubs with them too. Oh the stares you get as a white girl with no hair, a belly button ring, and a tattoo! But, it would even be more awkward if you tried to wear a swimming suit at the jimjilbang as being naked is really what it's all about there! When you're finished with all the tubs, you can shower once more before getting dressed and leaving. It was quite the experience, but I think I'll stick to only being clothless in the gym more jimjilbangs for me!
That night we had a group dinner of cheeseburgers that that were made on mini-grills in one of our pension rooms. Until the 11pm Korea soccer game came on, a group of girls headed to grab icecream and walk along the beach. When we failed to get our sparklers lit, a Korean (slightly under the influence) came and tried to help us. Without success, he marched right back to the convenience store we purchased them at, let the workers "have it," and marched right back with new ones that he helped us light. He was SO excited to be helping the foreign girls. Before we knew it, we were sitting right by the water with him and his wife while they practically force fed us one chewy meat, which we think may have been some sort of foot, and Soju. His wife was absolutely adorable as she laughed and pounded her feet on the sand at the minimal conversation we could make with her husband. At one point we were even doing yoga with her as she walked around our circle pushing us down to be more flexible. What a hoot!
We finally made it back to our pension around 10:45pm. At the point, I was less than interested in a soccer game. I got ready for bed at crashed on the floor mats in our room of eight girls. This means I also missed the 3:30am USA game, which some people really did stay up for! I slept until 11:30am the next day, packed my bags and headed to the beach for a long morning nap, while the majority of the group went to a lavender festival about an hour from the town we were in. It sprinkled a little, but I slept the majority of the day on the beach until we departed at 4pm. It was a beautiful ride home through more mountains. I had a great weekend, was so happy to spend it with my friend Melissa on her last weekend in Korea, and saw some incredible views despite the rain! I have to admit, I spent all last week a little under the weather from hiking wet so long, but it was well worth it. While we didn't make it to the peak, I am so happy to have made it to Seoraksan during my time here. If I ever make it back to Korea, which is a definite possibility with my aunt and uncle moving back for 10 years, Seoraksan National Park will be on the top of my list to see again!

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