The alarm rang at 5:00 AM, waking us up to the cold air, stale and bitter from decades of indoor smoking, in our room at the Greece Motel in Jinju. Despite the sunny Mediterranean name, the establishment didn’t provide much heating and the previous day’s rain had spread a damp blanket over the town, difficult to escape even indoors. We prepared quickly and in silence, nerves a little bit tense ahead of the day’s project.
The first bus heading north to the village of Jungsan-ri at the edge of South Korea’s largest national park Jirisan was due to leave at 6:10 AM. We had bought our tickets and I had started to decipher a strange-looking missing person’s ad, when a woman wearing sunglasses and a bright pink jacket touched my arm and urged us to come with her. The bus wasn’t going to leave for another 15 minutes but she seemed adamant we get in.
We sat down just behind her and she kept turning back to show us pictures of bus timetables to and from Jungsan-ri as well as another shuttle. She spoke Korean but didn’t seem bothered by the fact that we didn’t. And why should she? A natural communicator with a clear body language, she made it easy for us despite the lack of a common language. Two more people got on and we settled in our seats, happy for the heating, and watched the sky gradually become lighter during the hour something drive. The calm was interrupted just before we arrived by a team of rescue personnel fighting to put out a violent fire in a two-storey building.
Jungsan-ri reminded me of a French alpine village, but with some Korean touches. Maybe it was the stone church and the mountain setting. It was small and seemed completely deserted early in the morning. When we got out, the lady with the bus timetables was waiting for us together with a younger man she had taken under her wing when he almost got off one stop too early. Sanghwa, we later learned she was called, motioned us to follow her and set off slowly up the hill by the church. Passing the park entrance, she gave the guard a wave and he nodded back but gave us a surprised stare and a comment we didn’t catch. We had been expecting a 20-minute walk to the trailhead, but all of a sudden, our self-appointed leader began running. We just caught one of the shuttles uphill, crammed with retired Koreans in colourful hiking gear, although at that time we had no idea where we were going or if our companions had the same plans as we did.
At the start of the trail, our leader told her three juniors where to pick up wooden walking sticks put out for hikers that come unprepared. Sanghwa herself was kitted out to perfection with backpack, purpose gloves and state-of-the-art sticks. She checked that the two foreigners wore hats and gloves. And so we were off, a team of four heading up South Korea’s highest mainland peak together.
“How old are you?” Sanghwa must have asked, but since we looked confused she showed with her fingers that she was 47 years old and that our fourth member, Jeong Heon, was 27. Sino-Korean numbers are about the only thing I know apart from thank you and hello, so I slowly mustered up a 32 (I think). “Ok.” She smiled and moved on. Now that we had settled the age introduction, oh so important in Korea, we all knew where we stood.
Sanghwa and Jeong Heon walked a few paces ahead of us and chatted occasionally, but most of the time our team was quiet. The other bus passengers had either sprinted up the path or trailed off behind us so we were left to enjoy the forest on our own. It’s amazing how different the air can be outside of the city. It was the first time in Korea that I noticed how good it smelled around me, how fresh, clear and sharp the air felt. Cold, but not in an unpleasant way. The rain in Jinju had fallen as snow in the mountains and it didn’t take us long to reach it. The first snow of the season, made sparkle by the sun rising above the trees. Something brown ran past us and I told Christophe to look at the squirrel. A second glance showed that it was a marten, pausing for a curious look at us before he dashed off, away from the trail and the intruders.
The calm pace of our first walk in the village was gone. Sanghwa was no novice hiker and Jeong Heon had no trouble keeping a high tempo either. We realized we wouldn’t have to worry about not making it up and down the mountain before dark, just about not slowing our group down. Luckily our companions stopped for regular photo shoots.
The scenery was gorgeous. In late autumn, when the trees have lost their leaves and a lot of their colour, the hiking background can get a bit repetitive, but the snow made this experience something different. As we climbed, the nearby mountain tops became visible and the sky was a great mix of blue and dramatic clouds. The white was broken up by the occasional group of hikers heading down, probably on the last leg of a multi-day trip.
The path uphill meant constant climbing, but it was only some 100 meters from the top it got really steep and we began using stairs more regularly. The hiking trails in the national parks here are well maintained and sturdy metal stairs are put in place where the rocks are too difficult to climb without equipment. The uphill trip was supposed to take four hours, but we reached the top in about three and a half, thanks to Sanghwa’s discipline.
A strong, icy wind that made you instantly cold to your bones hit us at the top. I didn’t envy the people walking up on the other side. We hurried to take some pictures with the stone marking our ascent to Cheonwangbong, 1,915 meters above sea level, while trying not to step on the celebratory soju (Korean alcohol) bottles some ladies were unpacking. When we felt we had sufficiently admired the 360-degree view of mountains and more mountains, we took a few steps down to take a break in the sun, shielded from the wind.
I used to wonder why Koreans bring such big and sturdy backpacks with them on hikes. What’s in them? How much stuff could you possibly need in three or even eight hours at altitude rarely above 1,000 meters? Well, they carry an extra sweater or jacket to keep warm while picnicking and enough food to feed a garrison. We’re always treated to food on our walks by hikers suspiciously eyeing our meagre rations, wondering if we’ll make it down alive on a few power bars. Luckily, we had upped our game this time with bars and sandwiches. Our little group shared food, which made it bars, sandwiches, gimbap (filled rice roll in a nori leaf), cakes, nuts and hot coffee. Actual coffee. It all makes so much sense now.
Heading down, Sanghwa had us stop for snack breaks, once at a Rotary shelter half-way down near a temple where she whipped out instant noodles and more cake, and where Jeong Heon purchased sugary canned coffee. We sat by wooden tables together with at least a dozen other hikers all munching on massive picnics, enjoying the sun that had begun melting the snow.
It took us about as much time to go down as it had taken us to get up. Getting a later start was obviously quite popular and we met a lot of people as we made our way down. More people and more sun meant the snow had become slippery and we were grateful to have picked up our wooden sticks for support in the steep sections.
Waiting for the shuttle, we chatted with Sanghwa and Jeong Heon. Both of them had started using more English words and we talked about hikes, travel destinations and family. Sanghwa showed us pictures on her phone of her two daughters and her husband. It became obvious she really was passionate about hiking. Not to be outdone, Jeong Heon took out his phone to show his girlfriend and Christophe jumped in with some Mongolia pictures.
On our way back, we passed the burned-out ruins of what looked like it had been a grocery store, which hopefully meant no one had been asleep inside during the morning drama. We made it to Jinju before sunset and waved off Jeong Heon who headed back to Daegu and Sanghwa who walked home. Just like that they were gone, as quickly and suddenly as they had arrived.
Christophe and I had chosen to hike Cheonwangbong because it’s the highest peak on the South Korean mainland. We won’t go to the island of Jeju, where the country’s tallest mountain Hallasan (1,950 m) stands and it seems unlikely that we’ll make it to Paektu (2,744 m or 2,750 m – my sources disagree), the Korean peninsula’s highest point on the border of North Korea and China (although you could climb it from the Chinese side as well), so South Korea’s number two will have to do for now.
There’s a bus approximately once an hour from Jinju to Jungsan-ri (5,900 won), after which you’ll have to walk 10 minutes along the asphalt road to the park entrance. Here, you can take a shuttle (2,000 won) to the trailhead. There are regular busses back to Jinju until 19:40. From Cheonwangbong you can continue to hike via several other peaks towards the temple of Hwaeom-sa at the western edge of the park, a trip that would last approximately three days. Jirisan is the only place in South Korea where you could come across wild bears.