Korea in the clouds

mountains-3

Sorry about the misleading headline. The sky has been perfectly blue, but I’ve heard the phrase used and I thought it fit since I wanted to tell you about the Cloud Bridges we’ve recently visited.  The name refers to the altitude they are at. I’m not sure it’s high enough for you to actually walk through any clouds, but come on a misty day and it will certainly look like it.

It was one of my Korea goals to see at least one of these, so we headed for Wolchulsan National Park, about 1.5 hours south of Gwangju. We started out at the temple Dogap-sa in the west of the park, heading east towards Cheanhwang-sa, some 8 km away across the mountains.

I don’t think we’d been walking more than 30 minutes before I announced that this was a stupid idea and that we shouldn’t go hiking again. I usually say that at the point when we’re still in the forest bit, where it’s just uphill, uphill, uphill, without much of a view. Chocolate tends to help. When we got up to the first top I shut up and started taking photos. It was a beautiful day and the views were gorgeous above the silver grass bending softly in the wind.

The downside was the smog. Out of a 360 degree view, an ugly belt of shit-coloured air hung over at least three quarters of the land. It was only the southeast that seemed to escape it. One month and some into our Korea adventure and it’s clear there’s air pollution here. Domestic coal power and pollution from China are said to be the main culprits.

It was quite a walk before we reached the peak, the 809-meter Cheonhwangbong. From memory, I’d say it’s one of the lower mountains we’ve hiked on this trip, but it felt a lot higher than it was because of the steep, bold cliffs in all directions.

The next goal was the bridge. So down we went, then up, then down, then up, then more down and more up. I expected to see it just behind that corner, just over that hill, but it took time. It was a fun hike, though, with lots of scrambling to get where you wanted to go.

Finally, five hours later, we arrived at the bridge: 120 meters above ground and 52 meters across. We only had a little breeze and the bridge was very sturdy, so no slinging from side to side. Still, it felt exhilarating to stop and look down mid-way. There’s the thrill, the construction is beautiful and the setting is extraordinary. I understand why it’s popular.

Take two: Bridge and staircase in Daedunsan

About a week later we went in search of our second bridge, this time in Daedunsan Provincial Park an hour north of Jeonju. You could tell we’re travelling out of season as we had the bus all to ourselves for most of the trip. Two pensioners got on in a village before the park.

It was a surprisingly quick, but heavily uphill hike to the bridge. It couldn’t have taken more than an hour. The first bit was so steep you had to bend forward a lot not to lose balance. The bridge looked much lower and smaller than the one in Wolchulsan, but it’s still 50 meters long and 81 meters above ground. Maybe it was the strong sunlight that made it seem friendlier than the other one, which had been in shade, ominous-looking. The crossing was fun, as you could look straight through the mesh down on the ground, whereas in Wolchulsan the floor had been covered and you had to look over the railing.

But this was just the warmup. The interesting bit in Daedunsan is the staircase that leads from one rock pinnacle to another. I have read it has 127 steps at a 45-degree incline, but I didn’t count or measure. It didn’t look like much from below – it’s stairs, you use them all the time – but when you’re halfway and the wind picks up and you turn around to have a look at the view, you feel it. I did, at least. This warm, nervous, bubbly feeling of excitement and fear and happiness and freedom. A feeling that makes you laugh. I was happy to be up and done with it, went down the “back door” and walked up a second time to check if it would be different. Nope, still great.

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