– Sokcho, South Korea to Seoraksan National Park –
I could be wrong, but since this is really the only nature we will see on our South Korea trip, I’m going to go ahead and say that today was the best day of our trip, and it is really only the second day. Today, as you might’ve guessed from the title, we visited Seoraksan National Park.
We were up at 6am this morning, feeling a little more refreshed than yesterday morning and ready to tackle our day. We finally got to run today, so I was pretty excited to get out of bed. We could actually see our entire run from the balcony of our hotel room- we ran from the front of our hotel, out to the lighthouse closest to us, then ducked around the curved sidewalks along the inside of the bay and out to the other lighthouse nearest to us, then back again. It was nice, if a little fishy-smelling. That’s how I will always remember Sokcho: fishy. It was at least a nice run, and the clouds kept it from getting too warm.
Back at our hotel, we cleaned up the room a bit and showered, then dressed to start our day. Since we didn’t really have things for breakfast yet, and the weekend breakfast buffet at our hotel cost a whopping ₩32,500 ($27) a person, we decided to skip it and head back to our current standby, Paris Baguette, to get some carbs. Whee, more sugar! Actually, I had a croissant and a giant milk, and Mark had the same giant milk carton, but got some strawberry pastry bites and some kind of cream horn thing instead. He was still ok with riding the sugar train. It’s better than starving, I guess.
I should add, we sort of knew eating in Korea would be hard for us coming in. Korea’s cuisine is notoriously meat-based, and many travelers from the past warned online that it would be very difficult for vegetarians in Korea, so we haven’t been totally surprised. If you’ve ever visited a Korean restaurant in the US, you’ll have a relatively good idea what it can be like, though most of those are Korean barbeques, which so far don’t actually seem that common here. It would help a little more if we had a better ability to decipher the signs, even when they do have an English translation. Hopefully things will be a little easier in Seoul. Usually big cities are relatively vegetarian-friendly places, and Seoul is one of the biggest cities around.
Seoraksan National Park is just outside the city of Sokcho, and given that our Ramada Inn is just south of the city, it was an even shorter drive for us. It only took about 15 minutes to get to the park gates. When we drove up, it wasn’t really clear to us what was going on, so we just sort of followed the flow of traffic into the park. We paid for parking, then paid a park entrance fee, then cautiously drove up a little driveway with very little guidance until we found some people waving us into parking spaces. We had arrived, and we were parked, so we didn’t worry too much after that. Unfortunately, we should have worried just a little more. But we will get to that later.
The main area of Seoraksan National Park is a bit theme-park-ish, I guess is what I would call it. Upon entering from the upper parking lot, where we ended up, you walk into a little plaza filled with tiny restaurants serving very minor variations of the same 6 dishes. Breakfast here is the same as lunch and dinner, which I think I mentioned yesterday, so everyone was already out serving big bowls of meaty noodles and tons of seafood. It was also already packed, We saw people everywhere, and it was barely 9:30 in the morning. I have read that fall is their most popular time, but the leaves aren’t even really changing yet. Still, it is the weekend, so I should not have been surprised by the crowds.
Upon our arrival, we looked around for a bit, trying to get our bearings. The signs are not too bad, because while they are all in Korean, some of them have English translations, or at least symbols and numbers to help you figure out what they are getting at. We actually spotted a handful of other foreign visitors today, which was interesting since we only saw one other Westerner at Odeasan yesterday. That, as well as the crowds, really indicates how popular Seoraksan really is.
Eventually, after looking at signs about the temples and hiking trails, we tentatively decided to definitely see the temples, maybe hike up to some waterfalls, and to start with taking the cable car. Seoraksan has a cable car that goes up about 500 meters in altitude to a platform on a mountain, which is called Gwongeumseong. The platform is the location of a former fortress, which was originally built around 1253 AD to fend off invasion by the Mongols. We didn’t actually spot any, but apparently you can still see some wall ruins in the area.
It takes about 2.5 minutes or so to go from station to station. The attraction was already so popular that we couldn’t get tickets until the 10:30 car, so we bought our tickets and wandered around the very front park for a little while to kill some time while we waited. The mountains here are lovely, and a little strange looking. I can’t name another mountain range off the top of my head that really looks anything like it. The forest, on the other hand, seems completely familiar, and only one or two odd trees seem even remotely different from the sort you see back home in the U.S.
When 10:25am rolled around, we went back to the cable car building to wait for our ride, as requested. There were close to 50 people packed into the cable car with us, though it did not end up being terribly crowded in the end. Everyone had their own space, at least. Mark and I stood in the middle, not only because it was hard to get to the windows, but also because we could see over literally everyone else’s heads. Have I mentioned how tall we are here? At 5’10 and 6’4, we are both taller than most of the tallest men here.
Anyway, being in the middle of the car kept some of my fear of heights at bay, so I wasn’t too concerned as we ascended in the cable car. We got some cool videos and photos of the mountains on the way up, though pictures aren’t perfect when you are enclosed in glass like that. It was only a 2.5 minute trip, too, so we didn’t have too much time to linger over our pictures. When we got to the top, we climbed off, and were surprised to find that not only was there a platform at the top, but that we could hike around from there.
We took multiple pictures from the platform first, then turned up the mountain to hike to the top to look at the surrounding mountains. The top of Gwongeumseong is called Bonghwadae, and the climb up is somewhat challenging. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it for the elderly or inform, though we did see multiple children making the climb. In addition to some rocky portions (all of which are uphill, of course), there’s quite a large number of stairs on the way up, and it’s a good walk to the top. I think it took us about 20 minutes.
You can really see how many people were there with us in Mark’s pano above. That’s not even all of them, as the rocky platform right there continues on to the right out of the frame of the picture. I was pretty nervous during the climb, and I wouldn’t get close to the edges, but Mark was pretty proud that I’d made it to the top. I can frequently ignore my fear of heights, as it is really a fear of falling, if I’m relatively sure I’m not going to fall down or off of something somehow, which was the case up there. Still, I did sit down on a rock while he monkey-climbed up to the highest part to get a few more pictures. Monkey-climbing is not on my list of fun things to do.
After about 15 minutes at the top, we hiked back down to the platform. From there, we noticed that there was a temple beneath the platform, so we decided to head down that way to look around. The path down to Anrakarm Temple is much less popular, and also quite a bit more rugged. The stairs are just cut stone instead of wood with anti-slip treatments, and the handrails are just a bit of rope looped through some posts. It isn’t exactly hard, it is just a little rougher than the other path.
The temple at the bottom was a small, single building, and the chanting at this temple, while still melodious, was only a recording. We didn’t go inside, but we took some photos outside and Mark, of course, ventured over to a cliff edge to take some more photos. I stood back a ways, watching and wishing he’d stay a little further back, too. He could be a little less brave about it, and that would be fine with me.
Walking back up to the platform only took a few minutes, though we were breathing hard at the top. Steps that were rough on the way down were pretty difficult on the way up, but we managed just fine. Back at the platform, we got in line to take the cable car back down. The internet tells me you can hike up and down this mountain as well, though we never saw the path. I’m sure it is around somewhere.
Back on solid ground, we took the path to the temples, having decided that we had done enough hiking for this area of the park and that we would likely head out after visiting the temples and maybe having lunch, if we could find somewhere to eat there. The temple area is beautiful, with long, wide concrete paths lined with statues and large trees. The river, which was mostly empty today, has multiple bridges spanning its width. It is clear that the water can come through this area quickly, judging by the tumble of stones visible in the river bed.
We only visited a few of the temple areas today, and unfortunately, we weren’t taking pictures of signs, so I can’t tell you for sure which temples they are. It was only the temples at the front, though. The path back continues to several more, at least 2km, and maybe more. Further along that hike you eventually arrive at Ulsanbawi Rock, which you can climb. According to some other travel blogs online, the hike up takes about 2 hours, but it doesn’t seem like it would be any harder than the other hikes we did today, so maybe we will come back again someday to do that one, too.
After we finished looking around the nearby temples, we decided to try to find some lunch at Seoraksan, since we weren’t sure how the other restaurant we were considering for the day would pan out. We wandered from restaurant to restaurant, trying desperately to find something without meat that wasn’t bibimbap with wild vegetables, because those include seaweed, and the last time we tried that, I couldn’t even eat half of it. Unfortunately I think I’m going to have to give the dish another chance at some point, to give it a fair shake, and see if maybe it was just the preparation of it at that first restaurant. I’m not really looking forward to a second experience.
Luckily, today, we eventually found one place serving two vegetarian things, and while they weren’t perfect, at least they weren’t pizza, which was an option, too. We ended up getting rice cakes with citron sauce and a potato pancake, neither of which is anything like you might be expecting. The rice cakes are basically very tightly pressed patties of rice, steamed and served with a citrus-y sauce. The potato pancake is a thin, starchy pancake made mostly of potato that is spread thinly over a grill. Don’t imagine a pancake like you’d see in the US. It’s only shaped like that kind of pancake. It isn’t bready at all. These were served with pickled onions and cucumbers, kimchi, and soy sauce topped with spicy pepper slices. I ate all of the peppers. Mark didn’t want anything to do with them. Wuss. He ate all of the kimchi, though. He said it tasted fishy and I would want no part of it.
The food was good, if once again a little carby for my taste. At least we found something we could eat. With lunch, I had a sparkling apple juice, but Mark, who was feeling adventurous, bought a bottle of what looked like tea with a picture of corn on the front. It turned out to be some kind of sweet, corn-based drink, which was super strange. It wasn’t terrible, it was just… odd. I can’t get used to the sweet vegetable drinks here. At least it wasn’t awful like the tomato juice fiasco yesterday.
Given the photo above, I’d also like to comment here that in Korea, it seems very common for people to make peace signs with their hands while taking photos. I don’t mean a little common, I mean incredibly common. Kids do it constantly, but it isn’t just them. On top of the mountain from the cable car trip, we saw a woman making what appeared to be her mother and mother-in-law each stand on one leg, hold hands on one side, and kick the other legs out into the air while holding up peace signs with their free hands for a photo. It was pretty funny. You hear that, Mom? Vicki? I want my mom/mother-in-law hand-holding, legs-kicked-out, peace-sign photo stat!
After lunch, we made our way to our little white car. When we arrived, we were surprised to discover that we had been deliberately blocked in. And I don’t mean it was some jerk blocking us in, either. The parking was apparently designed to work that way. You see, when we arrived, we had noticed that our parking space was long enough to be an RV parking space back in the states, but we didn’t think anything of it. They directed us to park there, after all. Unfortunately, what we couldn’t see, since we’d arrived early, was that they stack the parking. On purpose. So, we were parked at the front, by the wall, then another car parked behind us and all of the other cars in our row, to fill the spaces.
They did have spaces that couldn’t be blocked in, which we probably would’ve taken if we had known that we were going to be blocked in in the first place. Some other cars were parked in places where the cars were three deep, and the first car couldn’t leave until both of the other two had left. Can you imagine? They might have even had signs about it, but we couldn’t read them.
So, we were essentially stuck in the park, with no way to leave, and it was clear that we would have no way of knowing when we would get to leave. We changed out our gear, picked up our water bottles, and turned back into that portion of the park. If we weren’t going to get to see another portion of the park today, the least we could do was make the best of being in that part.
There are a number of hikes you can take from that side of the park, and in fact, you can hike clear to the other side on some of the trails, from what I can tell. That wasn’t what we wanted, of course, since it would take more than what was left of our afternoon. Instead, we decided we would take the waterfall hike that we had considered first thing this morning, which was about 2.5km one way and went up to two different waterfalls.
The trail to the waterfall is very easy and flat for the first 1.5km. It feels like a little forest stroll. From there, it ramps up considerably. Once you finish the forest stroll, you suddenly start climbing, first up rocky stone paths and rock steps. These are fine, if a little challenging, and some of the hikers are rude and don’t make space for the people coming from the opposite direction from themselves, but that happens everywhere, and isn’t unique to Korea.
Then, you start crossing the river. Back and forth over weird bridges with metal steps spaced across the span that don’t quite meet together, so you can see the rocks way underneath you. And sure, there’s a rail, but it is way too low for Mark or me to use comfortably. This is where I think you should start being proud of me, because I didn’t once panic and try to turn around. You see, these heights feel like they come with much more danger of falling than some of the others.
Finally, you get to the stairs, which are as special as you can imagine, looking at the photos. And there are hundreds of them. So. Many. Stairs. And railing on only one side. The last, and possibly worst obstacle, is that monstrosity of a cable bridge, which swings around while you walk over it. Yes. Swings. I thought I was going to die. Mark stopped to take some photos from the bridge, but I steam-rolled across back to the dubiously solid ground on the cliff edge. I would say, if you are afraid of heights and not in excellent shape, do not do this. It isn’t worth it.
So, what did we see at the top? Well, the first waterfall, Yakdam Falls, is visible just behind the bridge in the photo with me in it above. It’s a long waterfall, and not too impressive. The second, Biryong Falls, is a slender tail that falls into a clear pool at the base, which you can stand next to and even touch. But it isn’t spectacular. You can keep going up to an observatory, but Mark and I had only planned to do the two waterfalls, and we were a little tired of climbing (and I was a little scared, yes), so we decided to go back down. Down was worse. Down is always worse. I would rather climb up all day than go back down. Eesh.
When we finished a little over an hour and a half after we started, our car was finally free, and we hustled out of the parking lot before anyone could park behind us once again. We drove back into Sokcho, feeling tired and not wanting to try to find anything too fancy for dinner. In the end, we elected to go to the grocery store to pick up something to eat in the room.
We lucked upon on E-Mart in town. I say luck because we really had no way to locate a real grocery store, since Google maps doesn’t work here and we didn’t have internet to search the Korean map apps we do have. The E-Mart in Sokcho is a monstrous, multiple-story store that not only has your regular supermarket things, but also has an automotive center, hair salons, furniture, electronics, toys, and really anything else you can imagine. It’s a bit like the Korean version of Walmart, but totally different at the same time.
Imagine parking on the fourth floor of a Walmart, right in front of their tiny automotive garage, where you could get your oil changed. You walk in, and on that floor of the store, they have household appliances and a small coffee shop. To go down to the next floor, where the hair salons are, you hope on a series of escalators that are stretched flat and go down at an incline, so you can take your shopping cart between floors. You have to take perhaps 6 of these escalators to reach the groceries at the bottom, then ride back up with your cart after you’ve paid to get back to your car. But oh, maybe on the way you’ll stop at Auntie Anne’s (yep, the same one we have at home) to get a pretzel. It’s a wild place.
Back in our hotel room, we had dinner and watched an episode of Pysch on my iPad. I love that you can download shows offline on Amazon Prime Video (this ad totally not paid for my Amazon, by the way). We ended up with yogurt and pepper jack cheese with crackers and some bananas and a few other odds and ends. Not terrible, but not exactly local cuisine, either. At least everything turned out to be tasty. We bought some almonds that Mark is obsessed with.
Tomorrow we will try to visit another area of Seoraksan National Park int he morning, then head out on our train back to Seoul tomorrow evening, after turning in our rental car. I am not looking forward to heading back into the city. It’s just not as much fun as visiting national parks.