Seoraksan is one of Korea’s legendary mountain ranges – a vast national park of sharp, vaulting peaks, bulbous rock formations, sweeping forest glades and calm temples nestled in the sides of the mountains. Even the huge numbers of hikers, long rows of restaurants and a giant cable-car are unable to destroy the cavernous, majestic silence of the place.
It was the middle of spring, which in Korea means late winter these days. The cherry blossoms were still out, about a week after the trees in Seoul had shed their last petals. The green mantle of the forest was gleaming like a new fur coat on a grand old dame, but the layers behind were still brown and faded. The grey creek beds had more boulders than running water. Beautiful, the mountain was sluggishly waking up from a powerful rest. A month from now it will be gorgeous beyond compare.
Seoraksan is far too big to ‘do’ all in one go. We only had a day and my companion has little legs, so we chose Seorak-dong, the eastern and most accessible part of the mountain. It starts in a flat valley beside a river, and the mountains seem so tall and terrible and wise you wonder how you were ever impressed by a bridge or an office tower.
Our walk was a short four hours up to Ulsan Bawi, a smaller outcrop of rocks with great views, a kind of mini-Seoraksan challenge for day-trippers. Understandably it’s one of the mountain’s most popular trails. About five-hundred metres in and still only a flat walk, we reached Sinheung-sa, a Buddhist temple that marks the turning point in the trail – left takes you on a huge two-day hike up to Daechong-bong, the highest peak: right goes to Ulsan Bawi. The temple has some nice painted panels, and viewed from the right angle the arched roofs and red beams of the temple look spectacular with a jagged peak rising high behind it.
The walk gets steeper from then on, gradually winding from a rocky path into a proper hike. It’s not too steep though, until you go past Heundeul Bawi, a big boulder that everyone tries unsuccessfully to push off its perch. If it did fall though, it would have landed on hikers coming up the trail. Ulsan Bawi looms ahead of you the whole time, a squarish mound jutting out from the earth. The final ascent involves some eight-hundred steps along steep staircases and some very thin, vertical trails that get crowded with hikers. At the very top, the wind and crowds – and the bastard with a blaring megaphone selling coffee and handing out medals to children – do kill the thrill of your achievement slightly, but the views of Sokcho below, and the rest of Seoraksan, make it well worth the pain in your calves. And it makes you realise how much bigger the rest of the mountain is.