I’ve clambered up a few mountain peaks, but this was the first time I’d had a cheer squad applaud my arrival at the top. And I’d never before conquered a mountain where a gentleman sits under an umbrella by the summit engraving medals for people as momentos of their achievement.
Koreans love the great outdoors and Gangwon-do province, or “heavenly blessed land” as it is described in the tourist brochures, is their adventure playground. But getting back to nature here means anything but being alone in the wilderness; this is a social activity to be shared with your family, friends and work colleagues. Strange Australians are welcome too and, as long as you’re not looking for peace and quiet, it’s great fun.
Inje County, a couple of hours’ drive east of Seoul, is a hot spot of Korean adventure tourism, with a range of simulated near-death experiences on offer year round. People are winched up a crane to Big Bungy, and play Inje Sudden Attack, a live version of a shoot-em-up computer game which I was told is massively popular (I’m not very up with such things, I’m afraid).
I settled for more sedate activities; a bone-jarring ride over rocks and through rivers in an amphibious Canadian army ATV (All Terrain Vehicle), followed by a drenching raft trip in wild rapids. Then to cap it off I climbed the aforementioned mountain.
Naturally I shared my fun with others. Beside the Naerincheon River, home of the 2007 World Whitewater Rafting Championships, rafting guides were preparing excited groups of families, workmates and corporate bonders to ride the rapids for a two-hour, six-kilometre trip downstream.
I was assigned to a raft with a family of four, and discovered that Mum and the 10-year-old daughter couldn’t swim. This would have disqualifed them from taking to the water in many countries, but apparently the rules aren’t so strict in Korea. We strapped on life-jackets and a young guide with a taut body and even tauter briefs gave us a quick floating lesson. Then we were on our way.
The river was gentle at first, winding between thickly forested hills, then picked up speed as we neared the rocky bits. Following the barked orders I added to my Korean vocabulary, building on ‘Hyundai’, ‘kimchi’ and ‘Samsung’ which, let’s face it, are of little use while shooting rapids. Now I speak fluent raft-paddling Korean; ‘Hana – dul! Hana – dul!’ (One – two! one – two!) and ‘Jeongchi!’ (Stop!). There’s also a handy phrase for ‘paddle backwards as hard as you can, you idiots, we’re going to hit that rock’, but I can’t exactly recall it.
Having survived our first rapids and reached a flatter section of water we swapped high fives and were feeling quite cocky. Until the guide lined us up on one side of the raft (we were used to taking orders now, so we did as we were told), then promptly shoved us overboard.
Much hilarity followed as we splashed him, he splashed us and other guides dunked the pretty girls till they squealed for mercy. When we came to a waterfall we took turns at being ritually held down under the freezing stream. It was all taken in good spirit, and it made me reflect on how laws about safety, insurance and harassment, necessary though they may be, have put a damper on such fun in other parts of the world.
The next day I went for a walk. Seoraksan National Park can fairly claim to be Korea’s most beautiful natural area, with azaleas blooming in spring and leaves turning red and gold in autumn. I was there in summer – misty and sweaty, with the threat of showers. Nonetheless, the park’s rocky peaks, waterfalls and lakes are a magnet for Koreans, so I knew I wouldn’t be alone on Mt Gwongeumseong.
There was a queue for the cable car to take us half-way up the hill, with an hour and half to wait before our turn. That was no great problem; below the mountains was the lovely Sinheungsa Temple, with the World’s Largest Buddha statue – just a few years old, but nonetheless impressive.
Then it was up on the cable car to join the line of ants scrambling up a rocky outcrop known as Gwongeumseong Fortress. My hiking boots gave me a good grip but some were attempting it in flip-flop sandals and even stiletto heels. It wasn’t technical rockclimbing, but it wasn’t so easy either and the last part of the climb was beside a seriously dangerous drop. Nobody seemed concerned. A father was carrying a toddler on his shoulders.
A well muscled climber swathed in ropes and carabiners had positioned himself between the death fall and us wannabe mountaineers and was directing traffic up the safest route. I seemed to be the only foreigner on the mountain that day so those waiting at the top gave me a rousing reception. The clouds completely blotted out any view, but no matter. I know how it was supposed to look – stalls were selling postcards of the mountain complete with snow, azaleas and autumn leaves.
Seoraksan has many kilometres of hiking trails leading to mountain huts and temples, and possibly I could have escaped the crowds by doing a longer walk, but why should I worry about not having the nature to myself? This was a great cultural experience.
The writer was a guest of the Korea Tourism Organisation
Getting there: Buses from Seoul to Sokcho near Seoraksan National Park leave every hour, take about 2.5 hours and cost 23,000won (about USD20) one way.
Staying there: Kensington Stars Hotel under Mt Seoraksan (with great views of the mountain) has double rooms from 116,045won. For other accommodation in Gangwon-do province, see visitkorea.or.kr.
Further information: Entry to Seoraksan National Park costs 3200won. Cable car up Mt Gwongeumseong costs 8500won. For a summary of adventure activities and guiding companies, see injejump.co.kr ( unfortunately in Korean only, but with good pictures) or english.visitkorea.or.kr.
First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney