A few weeks ago I got a Facebook invite from an old La Crosse friend Mitch who I recently discovered is currently teaching in Seoul. He's been here since August and since then has spent a few weekends exploring and hiking throughout Korea, this time he was trying to get a group together to tackle Jirisan, the second highest peak in Korea (the first, Hallasan is on Jeju island, so this is actually the highest on the mainland). I'm a fairly active person, but since being in Korea I haven't had many major athletic challenges or tests of my endurance, none the less this invite spiked my interest. Two weeks later, along with my friends Sara and Amanda who I talked into coming headed towards Jinju. Friday night we all met in Jinju, found a budget motel and went to bed early, before starting our adventure Saturday morning.
We started our day at GS25, to load up with food and water for the day before catching the bus to the base of the mountain. We were dropped at Jungsan-ri, leaving us with a 20-minute uphill walk to the base of the park. There we took one last look at the map, confirming our hiking route - we went with the steeper but faster option for a grand total of 5.4km to the peak estimated to take around 5 hours. After that it would be another 1.7km (downhill) to Jangteomok shelter, our home for the night.
The hike started pleasant varying between trails, stairs and a few rocky areas, all of which were spotted with Korean hikers. The company you meet on the trails of Korea create some of the greatest hiking moments. In fact, we met what would become great entertainment and friends later on at our first rest stop, aside Kalbawi rock
The climb became steeper as we continued, varying between staircases, and a mishmash of rocks, sticks and trees to grab as you continued along. Before starting this hike I was somewhat hesitant as to my hiking ability. Amanda and Sara were in the same boat as I and so the hike started with lots of jokes hinting at our eventual defeat on the side of the mountain. As it turned out I underestimated my strength and ability, I kept pace, if not exceeded Mitch's', while we trekked along. Although there were frequent breaks made as we were often waiting for Sara and Amanda (sometimes for photo ops, other times to regain energy).
We agreed that Beopgyesa temple would be a good rest point for lunch (the delicious Kimbap that had been hanging out in our backpacks all morning). I kept hoping to see a sign marking our distance, but at the same time was fearful of what it may say. Every stop to catch our breath was followed by a "how much longer do you think" or "we're probably almost there", "shouldn't be too much longer". Eventually we made it to a clearing and lo and behold...Beopgysa was visible in the distance!
Good news: lunch time, a rest stop and some amazingly peaceful scenery, this was a great spot to take it all in and realize where we were. Bad news: still another 2km to the top! As we packed up the remains of our kimbap (had to save something for dinner) and geared up for the rest of the day Amanda and Sara broke it to us - they were giving up. They decided that the mountain was too much for them, and with fear of either not making it to the top, or back down once they did make it, they opted to return to Jinju. We tried our hardest to persuade them - sleeping on the top of a mountain with 120 other people, no running water or shower, what more could you ask for? But alas, they decided to return. I was bummed that they would not be able to continue on with us, however I think they made the right decision, as it only got harder from there.
Having a good hiking partner kept me going, we were able to keep pace with each other and keep good conversation. Memories of drunken La Crosse nights, silly teaching stories and reflecting on all of the oh Korea moments we've experience while here definitely made the time pass faster. At one point Mitch asked me "Are you a marathon runner or something? This doesn't even seem to be phasing you." This is one of the best compliments I've ever gotten because no, I am not a marathon runner, and as usual underestimate my own ability. It was nice to be recognized and woken up to the fact that I'm stronger than I perceive myself to be. Another thing that kept me going was the other hikers on the trail, sharing smiles, sometimes food, and the popular "Fighting!" (화이팅) with the Korean fist pump. As we approached the top we met back up with our friends from the bottom - sunscreen face and company! They immediately realized that we were two waygooks (foreigners) short so we tried to explain they faced defeat and returned to the bottom. "Ohhh die!" was their polite response - uhh sure, our friends died.
We made it to the top at about 3:30pm meaning a total 6 hours of hiking. It's amazing how you can feel such a bond with people after experiencing something like summiting a 1915m mountain together. Everyone had a great sense of pride and accomplishment and you could see it on their faces. We did become the foreigner attraction with a few hikers asking for pictures - I feel like I know what celebrities feel like now. After spending some time at the peak we decided we better make our way to the shelter, as the website noted we had to check in by 5pm or our spots would be given away - trust me, I was not going to be late for that deadline.
When we arrived we were told to wait until 6pm, per usual the information did not coincide with what we had previously been told, but no big deal - it was either check in and hang out or hang out then check in. The shelter holds a total of 135 people which were split up into about four different rooms, each consisting of two massive wooden bunk beds, girls on top boys on the bottom. While waiting in line I was attempting to read the menu of what food they had for sale, thinking that no one could hear me as I sounded out the different options. The man in front of me turned around, stared for a while and then completed the word I was trying to make out - some kind of candy bar. He asked if we had eaten yet and when we said we had kimbap his immediate response was "no, dinner down there - my family". Turns out this guy was hiking with his son another boy and three of his friends. They invited us in and shared their samgypsol, ramen, and coffee - sometime it pays off being the foreigners!
Everyone was preparing to settle in for the night by about 9pm (early, but half of them would probably be up by 3am to hike back to the peak for the sunrise). Mitch and I stayed up for a bit talking, sharing travel stories and photos, but before long decided it was time for a sleeping pill, earplugs, face mask and bed. I slept surprisingly well, considering I was in a room with about 50 other people and sleeping on a hard wood floor, but was up by 6:30am and ready to go. As I stepped outside to use the bathroom I realized I had forgotten about morning weather - it was cold and very windy. As I watched the Koreans bundle up in their long sleeve shirts and windbreaks I slightly regretted my t-shirt and leggings decision. Now, not only was I the foreigner but I was the crazy under-dressed girl - many women had a look of concern as I departed the shelter to a brisk 7:30am gust of wind. But, as expected within a few minutes of hiking we were out of the wind and already warming up - take that Korea.
The hike down folloedw a valley and stream, crossing back and forth a few times which made for a great view and more peaceful atmosphere except for the last hour and a half when my bladder was screaming at me and all I could hear was the trickle of the nearby stream. We stopped a few times to take in the view and to admire the waterfall but the trek down took about half the time and we were back in the city by 11am. With amazing timing there was a bus preparing to leave for Jinju as we approached the parking lot and lucky for us he waited, another hour ride and we were back to where it all started, at the Jinju bus terminal. Of course the first thing on our minds was food - a real meal, no more kimbap, please! We made our way to a nearby restaurant, enjoyed some bokumbap and mandu, then back to the terminal to catch our buses.
Despite the doubt I had before departing on this adventure I am beyond happy that I decided to go. I'm not going to say it was easier than I thought it would be because in all honestly I had no idea what to expect before starting the hike. Of course there were parts that challenged me and made me think 'where the F is the top of this thing' but overall the hike went pretty fast, like I said before I think the company helped. It's too bad Mitch is leaving in a few months, i'm going to have to find a new hiking partner. Next on my list is Seoraksan (outside of Seoul) in the fall and hopefully make it to Jeju sometime this year to hike Hallisan (tallest peak). I also found out that you can hike from the trail behind my apartment all the way up to Gumi - once it cools down a bit I might have to give that a try.
Where to start. After living in this country for three years I have memories, experiences and stories galore. I'll now always be a bit partial to the Land of the Morning Calm. Filled with delicious foods, beautiful nature and friendly people, I'm always happy to return.