Spring in the step

Alpine vis­tas open up at ev­ery turn in South Korea’s Se­o­rak­san Na­tional Park

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Asia -

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.

PIC­TURES: AN­DREW LECKY

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

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