Conquering Seoraksan

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I am not the fittest of persons. My stamina wanes after a minute (or less) of jogging. When I run for the bus, I find myself panting when I’m seated. When my friend suggested climbing a mountain, I was all up for it, but I knew it was going to be an insane challenge for my body. I’d only trekked up Bukit Timah before this, and that alone exhausted me to no end – and it was only 164 metres (538 feet) high.

Seoraksan’s tallest peak however, is a whopping 1708 metres (5603 feet) high, the third highest peak in all of South Korea and the tallest in the Taebaek mountain range. That peak is Daecheongbong.. to be conquered next time. Lol.

We took the Ulsanbawi trail which measures 3.8km in distance, and led us 876 metres above sea level. According to locals, it’s 888 steps up to the top, past winding and steep stairs and rocky terrain. The journey to the top was a huge challenge for me, physically and emotionally.

I can honestly tell you that there were so many times along the way where I just wanted to give up. Especially when we got to the rest stop mid-way. I was already delirious with exhaustion here, and I was so tempted to just give up and climb back down.

My thighs were burning, I was sweating buckets despite the chilly weather, and the trail never seemed to end. You look up and all you see are stairs – and the peak far away in the distance. It takes a certain grit to push through all the way, and I was afraid I didn’t have it in me… But I learned that it’s really all in the mind – it’s a battle of willpower all through the journey. Maybe I’ll do a ‘Things I Learned’ post soon on this.

And thank you Chris for the encouragement and patience – we made it!!! And it was really worth all that effort.

This is going to be a heavy picture post – and mostly the pictures can speak for themselves 🙂

 

HOW TO GET THERE

There are limited options on how to get to Seoraksan National Park, but the easiest way I believe would be by express coach to Sokcho, Gangwon-do.

  1. Take the subway to Gangbyeon subway station (Seoul subway Line 2)
  2. Cross the road and head into DongSeoul Bus Terminal
  3. Board an express coach heading to Sokcho. The bus timings are relatively frequent, and the ticket costs 17,300 KRW (about 20 SGD). If you’re worried, you can book tickets on their website, but I think this is unnecessary as there will definitely be seats available. Do also note that the website is only in Korean.
  4. It’s a long ride, but the bus travels mostly on the highways so it’s quite fast – expect a 3.5 hour ride. Once at the Sokcho Bus Terminal, purchase tickets for bus 7 or 7-1 to Seorak-dong.
  5. The bus ride will be about 30 minutes long. Alight at the last stop at Seorak-dong.
  6. You will arrive at Seoraksan National Park! Your adventure begins…

Here are some pictures to guide you along the way. 🙂

 

GANGBYEON & DONGSEOUL BUS TERMINAL

Gangbyeon is a small suburban town, much unlike other metropolitan parts of Seoul. I didn’t get to explore much of it, but it was an eye opener on what life in Korea is like beyond the busier parts.

DongSeoul Bus Terminal.
Chilling at Paris Baguette while we wait for our bus.
Be sure to stock up on food for the long bus ride!
Another obligatory selfie.

The buses are pretty comfy, with reclining leather seats and all. But I’m the sort who can’t sleep on buses or trains or flights (unless I’m really really tired) so I ended up documenting my journey from Seoul to Sokcho. And I think it’s always good to stay awake if you can, to see the beauty that passes you by.

Crossing the Han River.

We got to our first rest stop. And don’t ask me where, because I have no idea where this is located. To me it looked like the middle of nowhere, lol. The rest stop is named Hwayang Gang Land, and it’s surrounded by hills and greenery. And stepping out of the bus, the first thing that hit me was the amazingly fresh air.. simply lovely.

It says the journey is about 2 hours 10 mins here.. but nope it stretches more than that.

 

More cherry blossoms along the rest stop!! 😀

And we quickly got back on the road. You’ll see a few border checkpoints along the way – Namyangju and Misiryeong. Once you see the Misiryeong border checkpoint, that means you’re almost at Sokcho!

And here we enter into the sleepy town of Sokcho. It’s a little city off the eastern coast of South Korea, with quaint buildings and fishing ports. I’ll write more about Sokcho in another post 🙂

SOKCHO BUS TERMINAL
It’s a 30 minute bus ride, but along the way you will get glimpses of the mountains.. and it feels like you’re almost there, but nope! Everything looks so pretty, so you’ll be impatient! Haha. There will be locals who board the bus in hiking attire, so just follow suit and alight only when they do at the last stop, Seorak-dong. You will be dropped off right outside the carpark, and it’s a short stroll to the park’s entrance.

SEORAKSAN NATIONAL PARK

After a long journey lasting almost 4 hours, we finally arrived at our destination – and it was so beautiful from the get-go. The air was clear, so pure.

Before starting our hike, I got a quick meal for some energy. At the base of the park there are some shops and snack stalls, and this little restaurant.

They have a variety of offerings, but I had a sudden craving for bibimbap (even though I just had it the night before at Gogung). It wasn’t as tasty as the one at Gogung, but the ingredients were fresh and it was really nice to have it amidst such lush surroundings.

AND THE JOURNEY BEGINS

Seoraksan (Mount Seorak or 雪岳山) is near the eastern coast of South Korea, and nestled within Seoraksan National Park, one of the republic’s 20 protected nature reserves. The park is deemed by locals to be one of the nation’s most beautiful and picturesque reserves, especially during autumn. I was there during spring last year, and still managed to see amazing sights during my trek from its base to the peak – I can only imagine how lovely it would be to visit during autumn, when the leaves turn into glorious shades of red and yellow.

Before I begin, here’s a map of the entire reserve. It will be useful if you’re planning your trip to Seoraksan.

There are several trails you can take, with different “difficulty” levels ranging from Easy to Hard. We decided to go for gold and hike up one of the tallest peaks, Ulsanbawi. As you can see on the map, it suggests that this trail would be Difficult, and last an estimated 2.5 hours for the hike up alone. Perhaps for seasoned hikers, but not for us. It took us a grueling 3.5 hours up, and another 1.5 hours down, with several rest stops in between (mostly for me because I felt like my legs were going to combust into flames).

The board also notes some of the park’s flagship flora and fauna species, which includes this long-tailed goral. This species of wild goat is exclusive to eastern and northern Asia, but in South Korea it only resides in the Seorak mountain region. But unfortunately we didn’t get to see any on our hike.
There are some spots not accessible to public. They are cordoned off, but only with rope – you can actually bypass these ropes and enter the restricted zones. However, they are shut out for a reason – so for the sake of safety, or unless you are a very experienced hiker, do not explore past the designated open trails.
We started off at the base of the mountains, which are where the shops and food are located. Lots of people explore just the base itself, and there is plenty of see. There’s lots of pretty trees, and the rolling hills and mountains in the background. Great background for photos!

As I mentioned earlier, there are several hiking trails you can choose from, from easy routes to not so easy routes. Alternatively you can also take a cable car up to the Gwongeumseong too. There is, apparently, a hot springs spa somewhere in the park too. Definitely need to look for that if I’m ever at Seorak again.

You can see the cable car in the distance…
The entrance to Seoraksan’s Sinheungsa Temple.

 

The huge bronze Buddha statue at the temple. You’ll see plenty of devotees paying their respects here. And I did too, praying for a safe journey.

Apparently Buddha’s birthday is celebrated on April 8 in Korea! When we were in Seorak (and even at some places in Seoul) we saw colorful lanterns like these lining the trees, in celebration for the festival. The decorations really added a pop of color to the hues of the forest.

Picturesque.
Stone lions guarding one of the bridges at the base of the mountain.
There are plenty of winding streams along the trails. Take a moment to stop and listen to the water trickling by. Despite being exhausted, the whole time I felt really zen, and it’s really because you realize how beautiful nature really is… especially when you don’t get in touch with mother nature very much in an urban environment.

Along the way we also saw quite a few temples and Buddhist statues, such as this one here. It’s right in front of a temple, and there was a small slope we had to walk up (which was very slippery).

You will also see quite a few of these little pebble formations. A stone stack like this is actually a practice of asking for good fortune. For every stone you stack, you make a wish for yourself or your loved ones.

And we made it to the rest stop! This little spot is more than a kilometre’s trek up the mountain, and apparently the folks who make a living running these food stalls here climb up and down the trail every single day. I wondered: how do they get their food stock up the mountain?? Do they carry it up? What about heavier things like cans of soda or rice?!
I was seriously contemplating giving up here at the rest stop. This was the hardest I’ve ever pushed myself physically. Just climbing and climbing and climbing. And finally taking a breather at the rest stop made me feel like quitting – I was halfway up! Close enough, right? But that rest also restored in me the energy to keep on going. Plus, Ulsanbawi was in clear view from the rest stop! There’s no stopping us now!
And so we were back on the trail…
Slightly further up there is another temple. This one is Gyeojo-Am, a hermit temple for ascetic monks I believe. Also, there’s another landmark here, a large rock called Heundeul-bawi. There’s a legend behind it about its origin that it came from another region and settled here because of its beauty. And refuses to leave, so no force can move it. Thousands have tried… but failed. If you’re into weights, try to move this next time you’re here. Unfortunately I didn’t get a picture.
Here there is a mini “cliff” of sorts, a rock formation looming above the trail. It’s a really picturesque spot to sit and enjoy the view.
Chinese words carved into the surface of the rocks.
As you near the last kilometre of the trail, staircases like the one below will be what you will be stepping on (for safety reasons I presume). The rubber stairs are easier on the knees and feet, but gosh they seem like they never end…
Almost there!
Once you hit this 0.6km ahead sign, there is this really steep rock you can climb onto for a quick rest too. Like seriously, it’s reeeeally steep – check out how much my feet are slanted here. I don’t really have a fear of heights, but I was really afraid I’d fall and die here on this rock.
There was this couple we met here on this rock. And the guy decided to climb off down the rock and head off into the wilderness below, off trail. Lol.
Anyway, at this point you can already see some awesome views of the surrounding mountains. I took a video of the view.. check it out 🙂

PS. I said “we’re at the top of the mountain, yaaaay!” But we are so not there yet.
PPS. I sound really tired. I was.
From this viewing point, you can also see the rest of the mountain.. Yep. Still a long way to go.
Once again, those dreaded stairs. But this was the last stretch before we would make it to the top… But the higher you got, the better the views were. It kinda pushes you to keep moving, just to see how much better the views can get.
Lots of stairs. And just a tip: Don’t. Look. Down.
Don’t stumble.
Here in this picture you can see two ahjumma climbing the stairs as well. Plenty of elderly folk along the way, and they were all way fitter than me! They were actually egging us on, telling us to keep fighting (화이팅) every time we crossed paths. Once we sat down for a rest together and the ahjummas were asking us where we were from, and with my minimal Korean I tried to make conversation. Should have gotten a photo with those lovely ladies, darn.
The great pine, another flagship species exclusive to Seoraksan.
And.. *drumroll* WE ARE FINALLY AT THE PEAK! I was so exhausted, but the people who were already there were cheering us on. Felt awesome to have fellow humans, whom you have never met before, encouraging you on your last step towards success. Faith in humanity restored 🙂
And here it is. The famous stegosaur-like rock formation, Ulsanbawi, in the flesh. Beautiful and so awe-inspiring.
The tip.
There’s even a medal shop here!!! OMG. Spoke to the owner of this little makeshift store, and apparently they make the hike up and down the mountain every single day. And we saw them close shop and head down as we descended too – they were all decked out in hiking gear, with trekking poles and everything.
Here they offer photography services, and you can also buy customized badges, keychains or medals to commemorate your trip to the Seoraksan Ulsanbawi peak!
The amazing view from the top.
The view from here is just breathtaking. Simply breathtaking. All the pictures in the world can’t accurately portray how amazing everything looks from up here, where you have a bird’s eye view of Sokcho, the East sea, and the rest of the Taebek mountain region. I read that on clear days you can also see into North Korea from here, given that the DMZ is just an hour’s ride north from Sokcho.
Now I can add “climbed a mountain” to my list of accomplishments! I can’t begin to tell you how proud I was of myself, for pushing through and not giving up. :))) The climb down was difficult with wombly and tired legs, but I had a smile on my face for doing something I never thought I could do. It’s not Everest, but it was a challenge I overcame. And knowing that I achieved that really put a smile on my face.
PS! If you look at this picture on the left, there is another short trail near this peak. From there you can get a closer view of Ulsanbawi.

And yes, I did get myself a medal, for memories’ sake 🙂 We’re all winners here, at Ulsanbawi!

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