Monday, June 19, 2006

Songnisan National Park

***I have more pictures to post but they wouldn't load. Later.***

I love beams of light when you can see air particles floating around...

I spent Friday night in Suwon and then ended up at Suwon train station Saturday morning deciding where to go. I was going to randomly buy a ticket but I wanted go some place I hadn't yet visited so I briefly consulted my Lonely Planet and chose a KTX ticket to Daejeon, where I would take a bus to Songnisan National Park. According to LP, Songnisan means "remote from the mundane world mountains".

I love trains. I wouldn't mind taking a train trip for an entire day only to end up where I began. I don't mind bus trips either but trains are definitely my favorite. After my late start and then train/taxi/bus journey I finally arrived around 3:30 pm at Songnisan bus terminal.

As I walked towards the entrance of the Beopjusa temple I walked by a path of yellow ocher pebbles that you are supposed to walk on bare foot. I decided against it when I read this on the sign at the beginning: "It is good for festered wounds, athlete's foot and eczema..." Disgusting. I'll pass on festered wound pus-coated pebbles, thanks. I almost changed my mind though when I read that the yellow ocher, "can prevent various adult diseases such as old age..." Amazing, the possibilities for the remainder of my life now seem endless and... attainable!

I walked around Beopjusa temple and saw the giant bronze Buddha that was built after a previous giant stone Buddha began to deteriorate. After some time spent at Beopjusa I began up the trail, my destination being a mountain hut I noticed in the Lonely Planet where I was planning to spend the night. I followed two Buddhist nuns up a trail that led to a hermitage and then went back to the split in the road and took the right hand side towards the mountain hut. I stopped along the way and had dinner at one of the mountain places where amazing amounts of supplies are carried up on A-frame carriers by hunched-over men and women. It was a delicious meal of sanchae bibimbap, kimchi, cold cucumber soup, and these yummy peanuts in some sort of sticky maple syrypy-like sauce.

I got to the mountain hut, which was surprisingly nice looking. A woman came up and offered me a glass of water and a growth stunted banana. She said (I thought) sa cheon won (4,000 won) for the night (breakfast included!) but then after I was pulled out the third crinkled note and went for the coins she started saying, No, no! Sa man won (40,000)! Not good, not good at all since I only had 12,000 won on me. She asked for my travel guide and I pulled out an my 2001 Lonely Planet (I had lent Barb my more recent Moon Guide for her week trip to Busan). She yelled at me for having an old book and showed me the new Lonely Planet guide that clearly lists the price for her father's privately owned sanjang. No sleeping squished up in a big unheated room with a bunch of strangers here! Private rooms, ondol heating, showers and free breakfast (no wonder it was free) all for the price of 40,000 won per room. She laughed at me and said, "30,000 won discount, you tell all your friends to stay!" So here is the promised plug: If you're going to Songnisan, stay at Biro sanjang for a great room and even greater hospitality! (30,000 W Monday-Thurs, 40,000 Fri/Sat.)

The owners daughter knocked on my room around 9 pm and invited me to come out to the fire they had just built. I came out and shared a beer with a couple other hikers. They were 30 years old, had gone to university together and both majored in philosophy. They were cooking samgapsal and couldn't understand why I wouldn't eat it (who doesn't love pork?). A very choppy lesson on Seoul/Busan language differences, a couple shots of soju and some kimchi later I headed to my very comfortable and private bedroom for the night.

The next morning as I was getting ready to leave a Korean man asked if he could hike with me to the top. He ended up being my hiking buddy for the entire day. His name is Mr. Kim, he's 50 years old (but looks closer to 30), a bank manager, and has a 21 year old son and a wife who doesn't like to hike. If I was quiet too long he would say, "Say something!", like he was either uncomfortable with silence or wanting to practice his English language skills.

It was a fun day. Mr. Kim and I had an ice cream for breakfast and then before even 11 am we had an impromptu picnic of kimbap and Cass with a friendly ajumma going the opposite way. Ice cream, kimpab and beer: breakfast of champions! When I heard maekju (beer) in their conversation I thought I had mistaken it for miekju (chewy candy). I used to wonder why my students talked about beer so much.

The hiking was good on Songnisan. We made it to the top of some rock, I saw a freakish squirrel and then we went back down the "not-common way". On the way down we saw three foreigners going up and Mr. Kim got excited and told me to talk to them. "Hello," I said.

"Hi," they responded.

"Where were they from?!" Mr. Kim wanted to know. I started laughing and he didn't know why.

Freaky squirrel

A weird observation I get from Korean people is that I have "a very small face and small features." They seem to be fascinated with the smallness and I get comments about it fairly often. For some reason my face must have shrunk this weekend because I heard it from about 10 different people on Sunday. It makes me think of these really old shrunken heads I saw in a museum in fifth grade that were decapitated and filled with hot sand. Their faces were perfectly proportioned and their eyes were sewn shut. Creepy. But I digress.

A good day had by all on Songnisan mountain. Or at least me. Mr. Kim finally learned the difference between "clergy" and "clerk" and what it means to "have a short fuse". (I have a long fuse, he said.) I said goodbye to Mr. Kim (who stopped by a convenient store and then stuffed 2 beers in my backpack) and then walked to the bus terminal.

I hitched a ride on a charter bus full of a very enthusiastic Seoul hiking club. I had met some of them at a rest area on the mountain and they said they were going to Sadang station, which is 20 minutes from my apartment. They offered me a ride on their bus. Sweet. Nice people. Good weekend.

Another sunset from a bus.