Sunday, June 03, 2007

Songnisan National Park: June 2nd and 3rd

I didn’t have to work on Saturday so I took the opportunity to escape to a local mountain for the weekend. The anticipation of having a relaxing weekend steadily increased throughout the ninety-minute bus ride to Songnisan National Park, as we made our way through rice paddies and small towns. The bus station is at the opposite end of town from the entrance to the national park. The quarter mile main strip was lined with restaurants and small touristy shops. I found a hotel for 30,000 Won (about $32) and dropped off my stuff. In addition to being well known for its beautiful scenery, Songnisan also boasts the tallest standing Buddha in Korea and a large temple complex. I wanted to spend some time there Saturday afternoon so that I’d be ready on Sunday just to do a long hike.

The Buddha is pretty spectacular; at 109 feet, the bronze sculpture is almost 150 tons. The complex, which includes a 5 story wooden pagoda and many smaller structures, dates back to AD 553. The complex was destroyed in a 1592 Japanese invasion and was rebuilt in 1624.

My hotel seemed like it would be nice and quiet. After eating pajeon (a seafood/spring onion pancake) at a restaurant nearby, I went back to the hotel and finished my book and watched the finals for an international breakdancing competition on TV (held in Seoul). Just when I was beginning to get tired, the noise began. TVs turned on, doors slammed and animated conversations carried through the thin walls. In the two weary hours I spent trying to get to sleep, I must have turned off my alarm. The shutters kept out all of the light, so when I woke up I didn't know what time it was. I decided just to get moving and leave my bad hotel experience behind me, even if I was up before my alarm was supposed to go off at 8. Imagine my distress and annoyance when I learned it was 10:50 am! Cursing everything, I hurriedly changed and threw all my stuff together. I was out of the hotel in fifteen minutes and was at the ticket booth at the park's entrance by 11:15. So much for an early start and a leisurely hike!

Anger must have propelled me to the top- I made it to the summit in 2 hours, though I was told it would take almost 3. I was annoyed with everything, particularly how I am in Korea. Luckily those thoughts temporarily disappeared. I had to focus on climbing the endless stone stairs to the summit. Once there, I plopped myself down on a rock and enjoyed the views. Aside from being able to see the touristy area at the base of the national park, everything was green or granite! Hurrah!

Instead of going down the same trail, I opted to walk along the ridge and then connect to a lower path. I ran into a hiking group along the way. The first encounter consisted of the usual "hello!" and "where are you from" pleasantries. They seemed either impressed or concerned that I was hiking by myself. I continued on but they passed me after about 20 minutes. A few minutes later I came up to a clearing which had huge boulders and flat rocks looking out into the valley. A few of them were taking pictures of the view but then they quickly turned their attention to me! They took pictures of me alone and then of me posing with a couple of the men. After that I went off the trail to eat some trail mix and take in the view by myself. I was ready to continue my descent, but I came across them again all sitting on a rock. This time they invited me to come sit with them and I was promptly offered honey water, chocolates and a tomato/potato puree. The other half of the group then beckoned me over towards them. I was handed a cup of makkeolli, Korean rice wine, and chopsticks to try some fish. I was also given cucumber and apple slices. They were all quite amused by the situation and I got a few high fives and handshakes. They were preparing to continue on and they invited me to walk with them. I have never gone so quickly down a mountain! It took some effort to keep up with them... Some of the men talked with me but the women barely looked at me. The level of communication was very low, but I learned that one of the men was an engineer and that another had a daughter my age. We finally made it back to the temple complex and took more pictures. They had to leave but we exchanged email addresses and promises to send one another the photos. Here is a picture of part of the group:

Celebrity mode did not wear off after the hiking group left. I was approached by two Koreans who wanted to take pictures with me. Then a few minutes later, a little girl came over and offered me a stick of gum. I got a few more hellos to round out the experience of being the only white person on the mountain that day.

I had a decent weekend overall, though next time I'll just catch an early bus and make it a day trip.


Blogger JaneM said...

A great story, nicely told. I think the New York Times would be interested in "Posts from South Korea".

10:06 AM  

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