Garden of the Morning Calm – Seoul Hiking Group

After an exhausting day and faux-rescue on Wunaksan it was time to relax at Korea’s Garden of the Morning Calm.  This colorful light show reminds many foreigners of Christmas and is fitting to visit in the winter.  Multicolored lights adorn trees and bushes throughout the massive garden.  Its a popular spot for Korean couples who can be seen frolicking hand-in-hand and posing for romantic photos.

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They have everything from love-struck bow & arrows to giant mushrooms, butterflies and other crazy concoctions.  The brilliant display mixes a rainbow of colors with our imagination to create a fantasy wonderland.  Its best to go after sunset so you can get the full experience of tunnels & lighted pathways.  Give yourselves an hour or two to explore but you don’t need all night.  It really is the perfect way to relax after spending your day on the nearby mountains.

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Taebaeksan’s Winter Wonderland – Seoul Hiking Group

Taebaeksan National Park boasts a startling 1567m of vertical making it among the highest mountains in South Korea and crowning Taebaeksan as the 5th highest national park.  More importantly its known for being full of snow-capped splendor, a key reason we were happy they got fresh snow the night before!  Seoul Hiking Group set out for another sunrise hike and we were immediately rewarded with the best night sky I’ve seen in Korea.

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Taebaeksan is remote.  Like really remote.  So frigging remote that our bus driver only took 2 hours to get to the region and was rewarded with another hour and a half of weaving through mountain roads.  Luckily that meant a few hundred meters of elevation that we didn’t have to climb oh yeah and we were hundreds of kilometers away from the city lights.  The starlight reflected beautifully off of our snow carpeted path as each branch was illuminated by its snowy coat.

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Donning crampons almost immediately we began the steep climb.  Each step brought out a warm sweat in spite of the frigid temperatures.  The first 2 kilometers were well sheltered; I found myself unzipping my jacket and alternately removing & replacing my hat in a futile attempt to keep from sweating.  Winter hiking can be stunning but if your clothes soak through things can take a sudden turn for the worse.  Hypothermia & frostbite are no joke and you shouldn’t mess around so be prepared with layers.  To keep my temperature down I took off 2 of my 4 layers before reaching the top of the main staircase.

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Our trail looked more like a ski slope than a path and for better or worse the temperature dropped the higher we got.  It meant I didn’t have to worry so much about sweating and kept the layers but my toes and fingers were less ecstatic.  Another kilometer later we caught our first glimpse of the red sun beyond the valley creeping over the mountains in the distance.

It was 6:30 AM, we had another 700 meters of trail along with a decent climb ahead as the clouds rolled in bringing more snow and minimal visibility.  Knowing that the sun wouldn’t rise until nearly 7:30 we were happy to slow our pace and give our legs a rest.

Koreans bring massive plastic bags to protect them from the wind

Koreans bring massive plastic bags to protect them from the wind

Frozen brush at the top

Frozen brush at the top

Moments later we reached Janggunbong, the summit most famous for Cheonjedan, the “altar of heavenly fires.”   A handful of Koreans had beat us there and were set up with tripods and doing their best to stay warm with a chilling wind whipping around us from all directions.

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As more of our group reached the summit the clouds persisted at the peak and prevented the stunning views we were promised.  I was debating between heading down for a lower potentially cloudless view when an faint orange glow appeared amid “ooo’s” and “aaaah’s” mixed in with my “holy shit!”  Over the next 30 minutes we would witness a handful of cloud partings.  Just enough for me to capture a short video and snap a few photos.

Sunrise from Taebaeksan!

Sunrise from Taebaeksan!

This guy sold ramen & other goodies near the top.  What a lifesaver!

This guy sold ramen & other goodies near the top. What a lifesaver!

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Taebaeksan Panorama

Panorama (clicky!)

 

Realizing that I already wanted to come back to this park I decided to head back down to warm up at the temple with some ramen.  Over the next few hours we trekked down the slopes slipping and sliding with childish enjoyment when we noticed a handful of Koreans using massive rice bags as a sled.  I giggled and stole a quick video before the ajjushi came over and handed me his bag!

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I jumped on at the next clear path and started what was by far one of the best experiences I’ve on a mountain.  Sledding down the trail I couldn’t have been happier!  We took turns on a few different trails breaking the language barrier and becoming instant friends!

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Sledding! (video coming soon)

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Sledding! (video coming soon)

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Just before our dreaded staircase descent we found them sledding again and were offered a second bag.  Us foreigners promptly joined kids & grandparents for this youthful adventure!   Truth be told this was one of the most exhilarating and enjoyable times I’ve ever been frozen solid and I can’t wait to come back!

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Continuing down the trail we were in awe at the natural beauty of Taebaeksan.  It was hard to believe how we’d missed this on the way up but then again the midnight stars stole our attention and only give off so much light.

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We ended the day eating some traditional Korean food, hanging out at the sauna (jimjilbang) and with a few hours in Taebaesan’s winter festival!  I can’t wait to head back to Taebaek, hopefuly the clouds will behave next time.

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Nothing like a delicious kimchi jiggae to warm you up!

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This is my new favorite winter hike, what’s yours?

A mildly snowy Christmas in Bukhansan

Brian and I woke Christmas morning ready to hike Bukhansan National Park!  We met in the subway and half slept through our 70 minute ride to Dobongsan station.  The plan was to hike up the same path I took in my first excursion to Bukhansan National Park and then head over to Jubong and come down the path my brother and I took.  We hoped that the recent snows were still blanketing the forest floor in the mountains.

Our dreams of snow were quickly diminished as we started up the crowded street. It looked just like Omok-ro, our street at home with a little ice and snow on the fringes of the sidewalk.  The route looked the same as my last hike except no one was wearing shorts and a t-shirt.  We weren’t expecting it to be completely snow covered but were longing for a few traces of that wonderful white fluff!

Stopping at the ranger station to check on our trail our hopes grew a little.  The ranger’s English wasn’t that great but she highlighted the main path up.  When I showed her that I wanted to hike across the ridgeline from Juanbong to Jubong peak she glanced at our shoes.  Spouting something in Korean I shook my head; I knew she was asking if we had crampons (spikes that you can attach for extra traction).  That meant it must be icy up there which means SNOW!

Maybe we were acting like our kindergarteners playing in the snow, we really were two grown men excited for the glory of this winter treasure.  When we got on the trail we were quickly rewarded with a semi frozen stream flanked by a snowy forest.  _DSC7802

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The occasional snow-covered staircase was replaced with a bouldering path that led us to the first Buddhist temple.  Juanbong silhouetted the many buddhas in front of this vibrant shrine.

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While inside the temple we appreciated the storytelling artwork and adroitly designed meditation rooms.  A passerby invited us to join them for a light meal in an antechamber but we politely declined.

“감사합니다 gamsahabnida (thank you) we have 김밥 gimbap.  먹어요에  주안방 Mogoyoe juanbong (We eat at juanbong).”

Well, my Korean is getting better but I guess half of what I said was in English.  I think the only thing she actually understood was that we didn’t want to eat with her.  We didn’t dwell on our lack of communication skills and got back on the trail!

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Continuing upward the path crept back and forth between a beautiful white carpet and crunchy brown leaves.  At one point there was a clear divide showing where the looming mountain kept half the trail perpetually engulfed in shadow while the other side still shone with the days’ sun. Continue reading