“He’d been sitting on his nervous energy for so long, it was good to have something to do with it”

SceneryView from Bibong PeakStairs to Temple 1 and Temple 2View from Bibong Peak and sheer rock face that others were climbing upWoodlandFish at COEX aquariumShark viewing at COEX

If there is one thing I’ve always wanted to visit Japan and do, and one thing I regretted not being able to do when I did visit there, is to go to northern Japan and Hokkaido and go walking. I want to see the scenery there- see the woodlands, lakes, the iconic images of the cranes in wide fields of snow. For Korea I wanted to do much the same- I wanted to see some of the scenery as I had seen online and in Family Outing. I did not think it would be possible in just three days but I soon discovered that there is a famous and very popular national park right outside of Seoul- the Bukhansan National Park. I decided to dedicate the majority of my last day in Korea to go walking there. Apparently the views of Seoul from the peaks were fantastic and the national park website had details of all the trails and listed not a single one as difficult. So I picked one,  printed a map, and made sure to pack my hiking pants and boots.

Once again that Sunday I overslept, but not so badly as the day before. I got ready for the day and packed up my backpack with supplies then headed to Daechi. From Daechi it was straight through to Bulgwang station. I was not the only one heading out walking. I had heard hiking was a popular weekend past time in Korea and its true. There were many people dressed up in their proper hiking gear. I could not help but feel under dressed in even this. I was just wearing some casual pants and my hoodie. I most certainly did not look the part like they did. The journey to Bulgwang was long but I got there eventually. This is clearly a place a lot of hikers pass through- as I was walking looking for the bus stop I passed groups of people dressed for hiking, and a long market stall on the street selling hiking gear for the unprepared. I was tempted but not foolish enough to pay the premium prices even for a jacket. Besides, it was turning out to be a fairly pleasant day. The sun was out and the air was crisp, in the distance I could see the mountains- was one of them what I was going to climb?

Of course, first I had to get there. I eventually, by the power of deduction and from visiting nearly every bus stop stumbled upon the right one, the one that I assumed the vague instructions I had managed to get through googling was referring to. There is very little information about visiting bukhansan online. Very little. the question I was then faced with was- which bus?? I looked at the little paper where I had printed out the hangul and roman alphabet of the park and the gulgi tunnel, trying to pick the stop out on the map from it. Thankfully, just then a korean who had been waiting at the bus stop stepped up to me to ask me where I was going. He took my little bit of paper, pointed “This is where you are going?” I nodded. He pointed to the map and told me the bus number, then told me “Two stops” Thanking him I stepped back and we waited for the bus together. After a little while he got my attention again. “Sorry, ” he said “it’s three stops.” I felt almost overwhelmed by his kindness. Who does such things for strangers these days? The bus pulled up and he told me “This one” and I smiled at him, thanked him again and followed him onto to the bus. I took the seat behind him and clutched my bagpack, nervous still.

I counted off my stops then stepped off the bus, finding myself quite literally stranded. The instructions I had gotten online had told me to head straight for the bibong entrance but there were two roads! Thankfully there was another couple that had gotten off the bus, again dressed in their professional gear so I followed them and yes, I could see the mountains coming closer. It was a lovely stroll to the entrance of the park. It was so quiet and peaceful and the sun was shining up ahead…It was really a beautiful day that day. I had been worried about being too cold to hike or about rain but the sky was clear and it was sunny, I even had to stop to take off my hoodie.

I  landed up at the entrance to the national park and discovered it was not the bibong entrance, but the gulgi tunnel entrance. I stared at the map of the park and realized that I could still get to Bibong peak from where I was so I decided just to follow the masses and start walking. There really were a lot of people there, all of them professionally dressed and well, professionally walking. Not out of breath and stumbling along like someone. I had been very wrong to believe the park website when they listed all their walks as easy. This was not easy. The only walking I’ve done is in the Peak district and those gentle hills and country lanes are nothing compared to scrabbling over rocks and across streams like this. Eventually the path started curving upwards and I was literally scrabbling up over rocks and half way to vertical rock faces, that of course the koreans walked over like they were nothing. My heart was pounding and my breath came fast and I was nervous as hell about slipping and falling – it would have been so easy to misstep and end up with a broken skull. Yes, my thoughts became quite morbid. Eventually I reached a rest point where I saw another map and decided on my next direction. I wished I had taken a picture of the map; it was totally different from the one online. Pictures weren’t on my mind this day though. Just staying up right and not making a fool of myself in front of the professional Koreans was. This sounds like I wasn’t enjoying myself but I was. It was wonderful, exhilarating to push myself like this. To get up and do something other than sit in front of a screen all day.

I sat and had a drink of water and took in the scenery before continuing onwards, upwards, soon stumbling upon a beautiful temple, right there in the middle of the woods. I contemplated climbing up to the temple but there were many, many steps and I knew that if I was already feeling tired from the hike to the temple, then I really should not conserve my energy for the real climb up to bibong peak.

Because yes, the climb up to bibong was even more intense- scrabbling up more rocks, my legs cramping, my chest tightening as my heart pounded and my breathing became quick and shallow. I dramatically thought to myself I was going to die. But oh it was worth it once I got to the top. The top of bibong was a sea of people in their brightly clothed hiking gear, sitting around having picnics and drinking coffee and in the background, there was Seoul, misty and bright and beautiful. I wandered around, taking pictures, taking in the sight of it and eventually landed myself a pretty neat spot to sit and stare at the view , if not a particularly comfortable spot. I slowly ate the energy bar I had brought, then the chocolate, just sitting for ages, feeling something like contentedness take over me. Even if I was cold and tired I felt so peaceful.

Along the walk there had been some people who said hi to me, and now sitting there on the top I suddenly found myself approached by a Korean man, who was offering me a  cup of coffee. I stalled him, checking who he was with (his wife and family), checking the source of the water (a shared canister between him and his family), and then he brought out a sealed sachet of coffee and I relented, accepting it gratefully. As he made it he asked me about me. I got the usual “Where are you from?” and like always I stalled. It’s an awkward question when you don’t have a set national identity, when you are living abroad so far from home. My first instinct is always South Africa,before I remember I’m supposed to say “Manchester, UK” as even if its a lie, its the one that makes the most sense with my accent. Now that I’m living in Malaysia I do contemplate saying “Malaysia”, if only to see how people react but I know that is silly. The man left me with my cup of coffee and I decided to take my time with it, slowly savouring the bitter, cheap taste of instant coffee made straight with hot water and little else. I listened to music on my mp3 player, continued to stare out at the view, filled with amazement at how wonderful it was to be there, at how content I felt. These days it is so rare to feel so content, to just sit and look at a beautiful view and not feel anxious for all the things I should be doing. I also marvelled at how, next to me, there was a sheer 70-80 degree rock face that the Koreans were walking to the top of. Koreans really are great hikers. It was a sight to behold, seeing groups of people standing posing for pictures on such a sheer jut of rock.

Of course I had to get down the peak eventually, I couldn’t wait until it turned dark! I handed the man his cup back, thanking him with my best smile, he said it was nothing and even handed me an orange before I turned away.Again, the kindness of strangers is amazing isn’t it? I don’t expect much from strangers. Having two people be so nice to me on one day was amazing.

The question was- how to get down? I followed one path only to find it was going further up to another peak, and I was tired of climbing up. So I went back the way I came and stumbled upon a path leading downwards and even though the sign did not point to where I wanted to go I decided to follow it. This was not the wisest of decisions. I found myself on a beautiful quiet path snaking through the woodland. The ground was rocky and littered with leaves and beneath the leaves lurked patches of black ice. I discovered this when I slipped on the black ice,barely catching myself in time for a heavy fall. A Korean hiker told me to “take it easy” as he passed by me. I wanted to die of embarrassment. Of course there was no where to go but to keep following the path, so I kept following the path, and it was long and it was pretty and it was treacherous as hell. I was scrambling often, gripping onto nearby trees, sometimes slipping and sliding down rocks and even at times clutching at the ground to slow myself as I let myself slide down, because it was the only way to get down. I was aware of the sting of my hands from clutching the rough surfaces, of how muddy and disheveled I looked but nothing mattered more than staying upright, than not falling. I barely even got any pictures of the gorgeous scenery- there was no time to stop, I had to keep going, I had to get through this to a point where it would end already. Even though the climb was challenging it at least had not involved ice. Sometimes I would even have to cross over streams and that was terrifying- what if I fell in?! But I managed. I kept managing.

This path really was very long, I began to get worried that it would never end and I’d be stranded after dark…but then I reached another temple, after which I crossed a bridge, and finally found myself at a near deserted tourist center. I had made it! But- how to get back to Seoul? I decided that since I had no idea where I was and how to get back to Seoul and no one to ask that I would just keep following the other people who were leaving, who eventually led me to a main road…to a bus stop. I got on the bus that was the same number as the one I had taken before, even though I technically had no idea where it was going. The road signs pointed to a station that, on consulting my wrinkled subway map, was on the line back to Daechi and so I prayed the bus would stop next to it and in the end? it stopped right at the station. This was one case where not panicking and just keeping on walking, following those that knew better, really paid off. Although it was slightly terrifying winging it like that. But there really is little to no information about getting to the park on the Internet! And what info I had found related to a totally different entrance than the one I had found myself in. In fact, I don’t this entrance was even on the map from the Internet! So winging it was all I could do.

And even though going to the national park took up a large chunk of my holiday, and even though there were moments I was embarrassed, I felt slightly panicked because I was lost or thisclose to falling it was so worth it. I was tired, I was muddy, my leg was aching most likely from stepping to hard on it whilst falling or climbing, but damn if I hadn’t done it. If I hadn’t walked for hours up a peak, then through a rocky, ice filled woodland… it was one of the most challenging walks I have done and after doing it? I feel prepared for anything. I felt exhilarated. On the bus journey I thought about all the places I still needed to go in Malaysia to get some walking done, and I also vowed to visit the peak district more often when I got back to the UK. Because walking? walking is a sport I can do. its something that I can enjoy. I want to become like those Koreans who can walk up vertical rock faces as if it is nothing. Gosh, I felt empowered. like I could take on anything, All adrenaline, of course, which wore off as soon as I got on the train.

The train journey back into Seoul felt even longer than the one going out. I kind of…napped. What, foreigners can nap on public transport too. I used to doze all the time when I was commuting.So I napped, and waited, I changed lines and then I was at the COEX mall. COEX is a confusing place but eventually I stumbled upon lotte duty free, and I couldn’t resist a look round…but it was nothing exciting. Then I realized I was really hungry and I decided to forgo the western and go to a Korean looking place! I know! Before coming to Malaysia I would never have the courage to walk into a Korean restaurant in Korea by myself, but I’ve changed since moving abroad. Yes, being a foreigner and having that cultural ignorance can be embarrassing but you know what? who cares! Well, let’s be honest here, it’s more that I’ve embarrassed myself so much being the ignorant foreigner over the past few months that I’ve reached the point where I just don’t care anymore! XD And in the end? The waiter spoke perfect English LOL So much for my courage. I ordered a pork cutlet with rice and it came…layered in vegetables and a spicy sauce, served with miso soup, and a helping of kimchi, dukbokki and that white radish thing with some kind of marinade. the radish thing was ok, the miso soup was miso soup but the kimchi and dukkboki were way too spicy for me! I could barely handled my tentative mouthful. Korean food really is too much for me! XD

After that I went to the aquarium. It was a nice, small one and they had a really cool section- and this was the reason I wanted to go there- where they were keeping the fish in unique tanks- old phone boxes, sinks, a tank behind a bed. One fish tank even had little sensors in it so when a fish swam past a certain place it would make a music note sound. I stared at that one for while, fascinated, and feeling very much like a Typical Engineer. After COEX I went to Myeongdong one last time to pick up a couple of gifts for my sister…then got lured into a couple of other stores… then it was back to the hotel. After too little sleep I had to check out, then I had to run across a busy road and chase after the bus in the pouring rain cos I was late…thankfully it stopped. I cannot bear to think what would have happened if I missed it! I sat on the bus and stared out the window, taking in the last sights of the city and eventually, Incheon. Then it was back to Malaysia and the daily grind.

It was a very short, very hectic but very amazing trip. A perfect little break from daily life. Korea is somewhere I’ve always wanted to go but I’ve never wanted to spend the full £900+ on a plane ticket to get there, so this little trip was more than enough. I do think I’d like to go back sometime- but as a stopover, maybe before I got to Japan this summer.

This also marks my first attempt at blogging about a trip I went on and hmm..I failed a little didn’t I? Oh well. I have two more trips to practice with!