Thursday, September 26, 2013

Jirisan - the last last goodbye to Korea's National Parks

After Seoraksan, I knew I wasn't quite finished with Korea's mountains, so I added Jirisan to my "things to do before I leave Korea" list, and actually managed to get it done during the chaotic last weeks of my time in Korea.

My Haedong master was the one who recommended Jirisan: he told me that Seoraksan was great, but Jirisan has an older, quieter feel. The way he spoke about it made me suspect that Jirisan also represents a piece of nostalgia for him, since he grew up nearby in Jeolonam-do. He has told me a little about his past, both good and bad, and for him, like many Koreans, the national parks represent locations of safety and peace, away from their chaotic high-pressure lives.

Unfortunately for me, it also meant that he was not willing to accept my usual "I'll just show up and wing it" trip plan. In the usual overly-generous Korean way, he wanted to make sure I had the best experience possible and he proceeded to plan and book my route/accommodation in minute detail. This chafed more than it should have because A) I hate being told what to do (especially by an older Korean man for whom I've been nursing a ridiculous unrequited crush) and B) Because I really honestly didn't know how my trip was going to go: I had a number of other things I needed to do that week, including visiting Gangneung and Gwangju and an Ultimate tournament the following weekend in Daejeon. 

So despite my constant pleas not to involve himself, he booked me three nights in the mountains, which was very nice of him....but slightly annoying at the same time. Out of a mix of rebelliousness and pure disorganization, I only ended up making one of the reservations. Unfortunately, when I missed my first night they called him.......and he proceeded to call me and in true Korean fashion rebuke me thoroughly. I then had to update him at least 8 times a day about where I was and where I was going....this would have been annoying from anyone else, but mostly just came off as endearing from the man who spends half his time kicking my ass across the haedong gym and the other half resolutely ignoring my blatant come-ons. 

I spent the night in Korean-style budget accommodation: the Minbak. Minbak are heated under the floor, and you sleep on the ground. Otherwise its just like a regular hotel room. I was warned beforehand to "insist on fresh bedding" as they often don't change out the blankets between occupants at a Minbak....this was not an issue as I was the only occupant at the place I chose, and had to have a room freshly prepared for me. Unfortunately, like in my traditional accommodation experience in Japan, I had bug issues: this time crickets. Even though it was still scorching hot in the rest of Korea, the air in the mountains was decidedly crisp, and I guess my warm blankets were as appealing to the crickets as they were to me. Yuck.

Jungsaani is a dedicated tourist town with with numerous Minbak, a huge bus stop, a ranger station, small restaurants, and some convenience stores. I felt less like the only tourist than I had at Osaek....but the place still gave off an "off-season" vibe, even though it was late-August. Many shops were closed, and there were few customers. My Minbak was up the hill from the main centre, so I walked down and had Kimchi Jjigae at the only open restaurant, swam in the river with some vacationing university students, caught a ride back to my room with the Minbak owner (a friendly guy who had some errands to run in town), and curled up with the crickets. I fell asleep listening to the river rush by - no traffic, no laughing adjushis, no city lights. It felt distinctly like camping in Canada and when I closed my eyes it was easy to imagine being in a tent next to the Isaac River in Bowron Lake Provincial Park on the other side of the world. It was a funny thing to imagine, especially with my return to Canada looming so close.

These flowers look distinctly like tiny mischievous dragons.
I woke up early to a light rain that got steadily heavier as I started my climb up to Cheonwangbong, the highest peak in the park and the second highest in South Korea. The going was steep and the views more or less entirely obscured by the rain. 

There were also a lot of these signs, which warn you against "bivac" (camping) due to sunbears. 
About halfway up I stopped to explore a gorgeous temple. The bad weather only served to make the place more peaceful - sound was muffled by the heavy mist that shrouded the entire valley and drifted between the buildings,  the smell of wet incense was heavy in the air, and a lone bell tolled quietly. I filled my water-bottle at the temple spring, and was joined by a woman monk in white robes and shaved head. It was basically the most iconic Korean temple experience the universe could possibly have mustered for me.

When I reached Cheonwangbong it was raining heavily, and the wind was merciless on the summit. I stayed long enough to eat some beef jerky and get my picture taken by the only other visitors (who offered me their rain jackets - so sweet!) I then proceeded down toward Seseok Shelter. The route was an amazing tangle of boulders, cliffs, jagged ridges, and alpine. At one point I stepped over a deep crevasse....only to follow the trail down and around in a complete circle, so that I was looking back UP between the rocks I'd stepped over from at least 3 stories below. I spent a lot of time trying not to think about the views I was missing behind the thick mist.

I look as cold as I felt here!

I arrived at Seseok at about 3 hour too early to check in. The shelters are large ski-resort-esque buildings with outhouses, kitchens, sleeping rooms, and offices for the rangers where they sell water, canned meat, and dried ramyeon. I was cold and wet, so I curled up with my book to watch sopping wet hikers pass by and to wait for them to open the sleeping rooms. 

There is some construction happening on the trail above the shelter, and a group of workers who had been shut down due to the weather were eating and drinking in one of the rooms in the basement of the shelter. They had enough alcohol in them to make them bold enough to approach the foreigner...they insisted I join them for food, hot coffee, and copious amounts of soju, which they were shooting out of regular sized cups instead of shot glasses. They were very friendly, but slightly creepy. When one of them asked if I would like to take a hot shower in his room, I decided it was time to politely back away, and went so join the rest of the hikers in the sleeping rooms above. 

I rented two blankets from the rangers - one to sleep on, and one to sleep under. They are functional green monstrosities: thick and warm and delightful. You sleep divided by gender (or you can sleep in the main room, which is mixed), on raised wooden platforms. Have I mentioned recently that I love sleeping on the floor? Best sleep of my life in the that shelter, although it might have had as much to do with being warm and dry and full of food as anything else. 

The crazy Koreans like to summit their mountains at dawn, and despite the fact that it was still raining heavily and CLEARLY was not going to offer a good view, everyone else in the shelter was up and out of there between 3 and 4am.  I slept until 9, and then headed out. I made my decent down to Baekmudong. At Baekmudong there are regular buses to Daejeon and Seoul as well as to the closest shiway (intercity) bus station at the tiny town of Hamyang where you can go anywhere. 

The trail down to Baekmudong was deserted except for me. Improbably, about half a kilometer below the ridge-line, a raging river pops out of nowhere beside the trail. Where that water comes from is a complete mystery to me and makes me wish I knew more about geography. 

I followed the river all the way to the bottom, crossing some pretty spectacular water-falls and pools along the way. I took my time and enjoyed the sensation of being alone with the river and the mountain and the thick brush and even the rain. I risked a skinny-dip to wash up about half-way to the bottom. It was amazing to stand in that clear deep green pool with the water dropping off the mountain in one direction, and crashing down from above on the other. I guess mountain rivers in Korea don't have a lot of room to be draw out their spectacularness, so they tend not to mess around. I've seen some pretty gorgeous water in BC, but nothing really compares to what I found in Korea - nor can it be properly captured on film. The water is so voluminous and clear and the stream-beds are amazingly steep and boulder filled. It really is like being in some sort of fantasy-land, and I never fail to feel as if I've walked into a book when I hike in Korea. 

My swimming spot

It was a great trip, and I'm so glad I managed to fit in in....but I left with the sensation that I needed to do it over again under more favourable circumstances. There was definitely a touch of melancholy hanging over me, as every interesting experience or beautiful view was followed by "I wonder if I'll ever see anything like this again, I wonder if I'll ever even come close to this place again." I also felt pressure to have the best possible "last trip," and the ridiculousness of this sentiment was only underlined by the relentless rain. I suspect I missed a lot, both because of the weather and because of my pre-occupation with my impending departure from Korea. I really do hope I get to go back...even now, two weeks after being back in Canada, I'm still not sure what the future holds.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Jirisan, after talking to other hikers and reading numerous blogs, is how rugged and wild this park really is, compared to other parks in Korea. In other places its difficult to get into trouble: you're never far from civilization, and amenities are always close. Jirisan is big, you're a little isolated, and the terrain, while no more extreme than other places, becomes more challenging due to its distance from civilization. Most of the people I talked to about the park were caught in some way unaware or unprepared: not leaving enough time or not having the proper gear to face the challenges the mountain threw at them. I am not exempt - while packing I picked up my rain-jacket, then looked outside at the blue-bird skies and 35 degree weather and thought " won't rain...and even if it does, it'll be warm." Neither of these assumptions was accurate. Jirisan made me check my confidence and made me realize that my outdoorsy instincts have been somewhat dulled by the super-accessible, super-safe Korean wilderness. It was a great reminder. 

I really sincerely hope I get the chance to get up on that mountain again - perhaps to do the entire ridge-line from end to end, and to check out the views from that spectacular peak. I might even do it at dawn if it isn't raining. And I definitely won't forget my rain-coat. 


  1. Hi, I was wondering how do you book accommodation on top of the mountain?

    1. Hi! A Korean friend booked it for me, but I understand that you can easily do it online through the national park's webpage: