Spring in the step
Alpine vistas open up at every turn in South Korea’s Seoraksan National Park
THERE’S a big run on plastic ponchos — pink and mauve are the favoured colours — from hiking stalls at the gateway to South Korea’s Seoraksan National Park.
Steady drizzle has turned to pelting rain; the wind is stripping blossoms from the cherry trees, laying a thick carpet of confetti at our feet. But our adult son has joined us from Seoul for the weekend, and today is his only chance to climb Ulsanbawi.
If only we could see it, 873m above the swirling mist is the crocodile jaw of Ulsanbawi, a famed peak in the country’s most cherished national park, not far from the northeast border with North Korea.
For a pint-sized country, with about half the land area of Victoria, the Republic of Korea punches above its weight when it comes to mountains — they cover about 70 per cent of the country, while 20 per cent of land is designated as national parks.
Pre-Buddhist civilisations revered mountain spirits and hiking is a celebrated national pastime. And judging by the ponchos and umbrellas flying off the shelves during our visit, it takes more than hurling rain to dampen the spirits of modern Koreans.
We pass the Sinheungsa Temple complex, believed to be the oldest Zen temple in the world. Visitors chalk messages on wet slate tiles and place them at the foot of the giant gilt Bronze Buddha. The gently curving track leads us through forests of pine and cork oak.
After the cave hermitage, halfway up the mountain, the forest thins out until all that’s left are bonsai-like trees poking through cracks in the rocks. Soon we are grasping handrails on rain-slicked metal walkways; ahead are climbers hauling hand-over-hand up near-vertical ladders, a staircase of rainbow ponchos.
At the top we reach a lean-to and a laughing Red Cross man dispensing tiny cups of ginseng tea. Despite the gale, there’s a party atmosphere. We’re as mad as each other to climb 900 steps in a storm, with no prospect of a view.
Rain stinging our faces, we sip our tea, then retrace our steps until we reach a restaurant in the forest where we thaw out by the fire with a bowl of steaming dumplings in broth.
To reach Seoraksan we had taken a bus from Seoul the previous day, the 21/ hour trip an engineering feat of flyovers, tunnels and fast motorways.
Everyone piled out at a rest stop called Gangland for spicy rice cakes and fried chicken on a stick. We gazed at paddy fields, forests and cabbage fermenting in earthenware jars on cottage balconies.
The trip ended at Sokcho, a lively seaside town, where a frequent local bus makes the 30-minute trip to the national park. As we turned inland, jagged mountains reared up through the window. An arcade of cherry trees in blossom felt like a guard of honour.
We are happily installed at Seoraksan Tourist Hotel, a faded charmer inside the park. Drum beats from the Sinheungsa Temple float across to our balcony. Ensuite rooms (with underfloor heating and a choice of Westernstyle beds or Korean floor mattresses) are small but spotless and comfortable. Manager Charlie Kwak is the epitome of Buddhist calm; when we return wet to the skin from our hike, he promptly rustles up a clothes-horse.
Each morning we eat breakfast at the cafe five minutes’ walk into the park. (Charlie tells us its name means ‘‘the smell of snow’’.) Three massive beams support the roof, and the walls are decorated with skis, climbing boots, ice axes and snowshoes.
Mr Lim, the friendly barista, drips boiling water from a long- spouted metal jug on to coffee grounds in a filter cone. The soundtrack is Nashville guitar and jazz piano; outside the picture windows it’s the tumbling river and the sough of the wind.
Our last foray, on a day of unadulterated sunshine freighted with hiking promise, is to the clifftop Geumganggul Cave Temple. The trees are coming into delicate apple-green leaf as we strike out on a gently rising track by the river.
It’s a weekday and the path swarms with a school group of teenagers. They hoon about, refreshing Facebook profiles and bashing plastic bottles of frozen water on the rocks, sending forest birds into a maelstrom of fluttering.
We stop for a break at a restaurant upstream. Boulders the size of trucks litter the rushing river. There’s a lifesaving ring with a sign urgently announcing: ‘‘Throw this life ring to rescue a drowning man.’’ After the restaurant, the gradient ramps up.
There are no rain ponchos today, j ust a crocodile of nimble- footed Koreans — a couple of weary Australians in their midst — climbing the switchback ladders and pausing for breath on the metal bridges. Lovely alpine vistas open up at every turn. A man thrusts a Snickers bar into my hand and smiles encouragingly: ‘‘Only 100 steps to go.’’
Atop a dizzying ladder, we reach the tiny cave. Flickering candles illuminate the rock walls. The roof is strung with lanterns; three statues of Buddha radiate tranquillity. Ayoung monk, dressed in a grey quilted robe, sits cross-legged on a wooden plank on the tip of the cliff face, chanting and banging a drum.
Across the abyss, 1708m-high Daecheongbong, the highest peak in the national park, floats in the heavens. The monk’s chants echo across the valley. We sip water from the spring and then back carefully down the ladder.
A monk chants at the clifftop Guemganggul Cave Temple, above; hikers in colourful ponchos, left; the giant bronze buddha, below left; and friendly barista Mr Lim, below right