Thursday, November 14, 2013

Seorak Mountain and the Osaek Hot Springs

And yet another trip with Adventure Korea (AK), this time to Seoraksan and the Osaek (Five Color) Hot Springs!

This was an interesting trip in a few ways.  First, since Seoraksan is the highest mountain in the Taebaek mountain range in Gangwon-do, I didn't have to take a three-hour bus to Seoul for this trip.  I just had to find my way to the Intercity Bus Terminal in Gangneung (not difficult) and buy a ticket and ride the bus to Sokcho (also not difficult).  Once in Sokcho, I would need to take a taxi to a restaurant inside Seoraksan National Park, but I had no idea where the bus was going to let me off so I just hopped off at a bus stop as soon as I saw a big road sign pointing to Seoraksan.

I wandered for a little bit (Sokcho is a nice city... all three blocks that I saw) and flagged down a taxi.  I had saved several maps (in Korean and English) to my phone previously of where I needed to meet AK, but the taxi driver wasn't really sure where it was so I called one of the AK coordinators/guides (he sent me his cell number just for this purpose) and he gave directions to my driver.

After a 10 minute drive (that was far under the 45 minutes suggested by Google Maps from the Sokcho Terminal so I guess it was good that I got off in the city!) and less than 9000W, I was at our meeting location.

About 2.5 hours early.

It's okay.  I had planned for early, though that was a bit more than I expected.

So what did I do?  First I found a bathroom.  Because that always comes first.

Then I visited a little store and bought some snacks (Nuts!  A small bar of chocolate!  Four protein bars!) before wandering into the little town at the base of the mountain.  There were a few women out in their gardens, a man putting a new gate on his house (he said hello!), and some people unloading a veritable crap-ton of cabbage from the back of their van into their front yard.

I found a cute little elementary school tucked at the base of the mountain.

 I wandered back again and played around with my camera settings and then eventually settled onto a rock to watch Adam Lambert on Glee and read about effective diets for martial artists.


Finally the buses arrived (three of them!) and we ate bibimbap from a buffet line.  I'll be honest: from the outside this little place that we ate at looked like a dive.  It really did.  But holy moly can appearances be deceiving!  This place was gigantic on the inside!  In fact, two other groups were already inside eating before our three buses were added to the mix.  I had the opportunity to chat about differences in the Korean and American education systems with a few older folk, including a nice Indian lady that is working at the Korean Samsung Headquarters for a year and a Korean who lived in America for his middle/high school careers.  We talked about discipline, the concept of detentions v. suspensions, and after-school activities.  He was pointing out how much he preferred the American approach to after-school life compared to Korea.

I agree.  Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut... that's something that can be saved for the education rant that I'm sure will find it's way on here at some point.

Then we hopped into the bus and drove for about 30 minutes to another location in the park.  There was an easy hike and a hard hike (all the way to the top).  I choose the easy hike because I brought my nice camera and I didn't want my knee to hate me.  It was awesome even if I didn't get a gold medal for making it like the other group did.

The crew! (Photo Credit: Adventure Korea)

This one is just mind-bending to me.   Water flowing
down the mountain.

The Biryong Waterfall at the end of the hike!

When I say mountains are steep in Korea, I mean it.
You literally can't see some of the steps that I had to take
from this perspective.

Because it's a national park, it has all sorts of signs.  The scientific names
make me so happy!  

 A bunch of views of the fall colors near the bridge at the beginning of the trail.  

After returning from our easy hike, I bought a bottle of water that I guess was from the mountain (?), ate an ice cream cone, and then wandered up to the Buddhist temple, killing time before our cable car ride.   

There was a rock that you can't push over that I didn't go see.  I'll be honest again: my heart just wasn't in this trip at all.  I had been excited, but I pretty much just felt dead inside the day of.
Given how much elation I usually get from these kind of things, it was also a strange out-of-body experience.

Dead, out-of-body, numb... sounds pretty great doesn't it?  I was happier in the morning when it wasn't cloudy, so maybe I can blame the overcast weather for my lack of interest/enthusiasm/remote happiness.


I don't really have an appropriate transition from that.

Anyway.  We took the cable car up to the top of Seoraksan like the lazy slackers we were.  

Kelly Clarkston's "Because of You" played on the way up.


Ha, ha, ha.

At the top it actually started to rain so I decided not to hike up to the very top (what would happen if Wilbur got wet?!) so I do plan on returning and actually completing that hike one day.  I tried hotteok for the first time at the little cafe.  Oh my gosh!  So hotteok are Korean pancakes and come in a variety of flavors, and these ones had a beautiful syrupy cinnamon filling.  So good!  I split a set of two with a much older music instructor and then chatted with two first year hagwon teachers about - what else? - the education system here in Korea.

Sorry Korea: it wasn't a very happy conversation.

Post-hotteok bliss, we took the cable car back down (no more Kelly this time!) and then we hopped on the bus and drove another 50 minutes to the Osaek Hot Springs which are in the interior of the Taebaek mountain range.  I shared a room with a lovely lady who has been living here several years (was a teacher, currently a stay-at-home).  I was not remotely hungry, but I got some milk and a little box of Kanchyu from a convenience store and then forced myself to be sociable at the "Awesome Restaurant" (as dubbed by the AK staff).  I got to see Samgyeopsal being cooked.

UGH! Eww! How could anyone eat that?

Samgyeopsal is literally "fatty (pork) meat".  You get a little portable stove on your table, you put an angled rectangular iron plate on top, and you put a little cup at the end so all the grease can run off.  Then you roast some garlic at the top end of the iron plate before putting on these thick slabs of - basically - fat with a little bit of meat.  the meat cooks, you cut it up with scissors (no knives for Korea!), and then you wrap it in lettuce and shove it in your mouth.

I can think of a few people that are reading this and probably thinking, "Yes!  That sounds delicious!"  If you like bacon, samgyeopsal is basically really fatty and really thick bacon.  Visit Korea.

Eventually everyone started ducking out and I went back to the room to try to do a little GRE studying.  What do you know: no Olleh Wi-fi in the mountains so that didn't happen.

Instead I went into the hotel basement and enjoyed the jimjilbang and the hot spring water for a little while.  It was really, really nice (also: HOT WATER! See more on that in a subsequent post).  Finally, I got the chance to slerp in a traditional Korean bed, meaning a pad on the heated floor (which was actually wonderfully toasty), resting up for the next morning hike.

This is the best part: since I got to Sokcho on my own, I had to leave on my own.  Lucky me, the buses that would come to the Osaek Hot Springs were at 9:30A, 10:30A, and 4:30P.  Well, 4:30P, three and a half hours after everybody else left for Seoul was obviously not an option, so that meant I would be hiking on my own in the morning.

I woke up at 5AM and got ready.  Then I went to find the bus stop because the directions I got last night were: go down the hill, past the bridge, past the foot springs, and then walk until you see nothing else around you.  That's when you know you're there.

Somehow that did not make me feel particularly great.

So I hiked down at 5:30 in the morning, in mostly pitch darkness and found the bus stop (which was basically at the end of the road, but there were things around it, thank you!).  I pondered the bus schedule and the map.

In case you wanted to know what it looks like.
It was on the inside of the little bus stop.
Then I wandered back, found a bathroom (see above statement about bathrooms), and attempted to find the hiking entrance.  As I walked along, I watched a guy with a flashlight hunt for something or other in the river water.  I think he might have been catching something?  He had a little scoop...  More people joined later.

I headed back for a muffin, yogurt, and coffee breakfast with the three people that were up (two of which were AK guides) and then back I went to the hiking entrance so I could make the 1.5-2 hour hike with time to spare before my bus.

It was pretty awesome and the pictures of the sun lighting up just the peaks of the mountain don't do any justice to what it actually looked like.

I drank some spring water at the Buddhist temple (and on the way back I even got to hear the monk chanting).

Massive amount of pictures:

At the very end of the hike I ran into a Korean couple that took my picture at the waterfall.  Then we tried to converse on the way back... always fun to try!  They were very nice, though their pace was a little slow so I eventually explained, "Bus. Time. *gesture gesture* I go," and went on my way.

I made it with plenty of time (twiddled my thumbs for a good 40 minutes), got on the rickety little bus and rode it into town (1500W), got off at the first stop in Yangyang (the town) because again I had no idea where the bus would go, and then used my Olleh Egg to load some maps so I could find the bus terminal.  It was literally a straight shot so I walked about 5 or 6 blocks, bought a ticket, and hopped on a bus back to Gangneung with about 2 minutes to spare.  Great timing!

The foot springs?  Unlike the freezing cod mountain spring
water, this was actually pleasantly warm!
The background against which I twiddled my thumbs.
I would like to point out that when you stand at the bus stop, there
are most certainly things within your sight.  
And then I was home with half a day to study and prepare for Monday.  Whew.  If I can manage something like that, my street smarts must be increasing.

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