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I've just survived a couple of days in Jirisan national park, and managed to get to the top of mainland South Korea's highest peak. It has been a very mixed experience with some high-points and some low-points. Korea is a strange country, perhaps the strangest that I've visited.
I took the train from Seoul down to Namwon, the nearest town to the West side of the national park. The train was cheap, reasonably fast and on time - South Korea is a definitely a contender for the trip's "Best Public Transport" prize. Then I had to find somewhere to stay. A chap in the tourist information booth at the station directed me to the "tourist area" where, with the help of a young lady from another tourist information booth, I found what looked like a respectable and fair-priced hotel room. (Another great thing about Korea: unlike almost everywhere that I've been, they have the same idea of Tourist Information as we do in Britain. Not the tour operators passing themselves off as tourist information offices that almost all of the rest of the world has.)
So my room had what looked at first glance like a conventional bed. This was a good sign, I thought, as in some of the cheaper places you have to sleep on the floor. But then I took a closer look. On top of the slightly-more-sturdy-than-usual bed base there was no matress, but in its place a massive great slab of marble!!!!! Rock hard, literally.
Just as I was recovering from that discovery I got a knock at my door. It was the young lady from the tourist office, come to ask me to come to dinner with her and her family. How kind! Such contrasts between the totally ghastly (more of them to come) and the wonderful. Anyway we had a pleasant traditional Korean meal - rice and various dishes including copious gimchi, fermented raw vegetables with chilli. And then she took me out to see the sights of Namwon. It seems that a famous legend involving a young woman whose lover saves her from the evil local lord is set here, and there are various shrines and the like at which one can pray for (a) getting a man, (b) keeping your man, and (c) having a son. (More of (c) in a moment.) So we took in the shrines, I failed to throw a coin into the pot that plays a tune hence failing to be granted any wishes, saw a traditional old Korean village complete with loom, and then saw a totally untraditional new Korean laser show and synchronised-music-fountain-contraption. Luckily the chicken pedaloes were closed for the evening. A lovely evening.
An aside: apparently for every 1 woman of "peak marriage age" in Korea there are 1.28 men. That's an incredible discrepancy, and it's attributed to selective abortion of female foetuses. Couples must have a son and don't want more than two children. I estimate from that that 42% of couples would be willing to abort a second healthy female foetus - a really chilling number. Whether this is still going on I don't know. Perhaps things have changed since the 70s and 80s when the current generation of "peak marriage age" were born. I hope so.
I took a bus from Namwon to the national park and set off up the mountain. It was quite a hike from the bus stop at about 600m to the ridge at 1650m, especially with a bag full of camping stuff. But the path was quite good, all of it in the trees, and I did it in about 4.5 hours. At the top there is a big hut, very much like the ones you would find in the Alps or elsewhere in the world, and quite inexpensive:
I was the only non-Korean on the mountain. There were at least a couple of hundred people spending the night up there, but I was the only foreigner. Many of them were in big groups (I counted 80 in one) with others in parties of half a dozen or so. I was befriended by a medical professor from a local university, there with a few of his students. (Interestingly, it is normally the older people like this man who speak reasonable English. The students with him will undoubtedly have spent a long time learning English at school, but are unable to actually use it in practice. The professor, presumably having travelled abroad, can manage a good conversation.) They were sharing their food and drink with me and generally being very friendly.
"Lights Out" was at about nine and we retired to our sleeping spaces - very much on the small side compared to similar places that I've stayed, but a bit wider than my thermarest. The Koreans, used to sleeping on rock hard surfaces, had brought neither mats nor sleeping bags with them, content to sleep wrapped between a couple of blankets. It was to be more than five hours before I got any sleep. The man on one side of me played music from his personal MP3 player for the first hour or so, not through earphones but through speakers. He subsequently edged into my space - not entirely his fault as the next man along was getting progressively more diagonal. My neighbour on the other side seemed to fall asleep quickly, but kept thrashing about with his limbs. I got his elbow in my ear - or worse - every half and hour or so. And the snorring! I have observed that snorring seems worse in the Northern hemishpere than the Southern. I can't think why but it seems to be true - I was never disturbed by snorring in Patagonia, New Zealand or Australia. I must have finally fallen asleep after 2, but was woken up at 2:50 by the first people getting up! (Presumably they wanted to see the sunrise at 5:15, and needed two hours to prepare themselves.) It was quiet again by 4 and the music-man had gone, so I slept for probably an hour and a half until the rest stirred at about 6. I got a few more minutes sleep then until, a little before 8 and as I was hoping that I'd finally be able to get some rest, the radio was turned on. AAARRGGHHHH!
I had been planning to spend a few days at the top but after this nightmare I couldn't face any more. So I walked to the summit and back (not a bad view) and then set off down the other side of the mountain.
At the bottom I put up my tent in the campsite and finally started to catch up on my sleep. I slept from about 7PM until exactly 3:22AM when I was woken up by the noise of the rain. Not a problem: my tent is waterproof, especially since I seam-sealed it in Australia. But I now realise that the lovely terraced campsite (which I had entirely to myself!) was probably an old rice-growing terrace, and designed to retain any rain that falls on it! So by 8 in the morning the water was about an inch deep all around. I was still dry inside of course, but things got a bit damp as I packed up.
So that was the end of my visit to Jirisan. I took a couple of (fast, cheap, excellent) buses from the foot of the mountain to here, Busan, Korea's second city and one of the world's largest ports. You'll have to wait until next time to read more about what I've found here, but I'll tell you now that the second language here is Russian!
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