I only went there three weeks ago, but I knew the mountain would be perfect now that the lingering winter patches of brown forest would be gone. It’s too easy to travel around Korea, and I just couldn’t help myself. And I was right! Seoraksan looked unrecognisable, bright green hues bursting out from the trees and shimmering down the sharp peaks, crawling all over the grey stone and hanging over the river valleys.
I took a different route along one of the valleys to the rocky pool at Biseondae and up to the Geumgangul cave shrine. Even on the weekend, at 7am there were hardly any hikers and I was splendidly alone for much of the walk. The few early hikers I passed were mostly couples or lone men, and they all greeted me as they passed. Older Korean men in particular seem to like busting out the ‘hello, good morning’ whenever they can. That, and ‘tankyou’ seems to be the extent of their Enlish.
It was only a short hike and I had time to take in the Biryong waterfall, a series of falls which ran down quite rapidly, crashing into grey rocks and forming small, blue pools of incredibly clean looking water. Unfortunately the cable car up to the Gwongeum fortress remains was closed due to the strong winds.
I took the bus back to Sokcho and walked along the beach and up across the heavily built-up harbour, where the only sand is in the concrete blocks. The beach created mixed feelings – the water was once again clear and bright, but the sand was full of scraps, abandoned shoes, random plastic tubing, boxes of take-away fried chicken and burnt out fireworks from the night before. The sight of so much careless, deliberate littering from individuals – you can’t blame ‘the corporations’ or the government for beer bottles! – is infuriating. I wandered why no one was swimming but a quick dip of the toes gave me an arctic answer – my feet went numb within seconds.
I walked back up to the town through the ‘Abai village,’ a curious mix of old houses and slum-like shanties along Chongcho Lake, where people of North Korean descent, who fled from the north in the 1950s, now live. Apparently this is what Seoul looked like until the 1970s. Sokcho’s harbours are confusingly interlinked and at one point I realised I was stuck on a spit of land with no way to cross over the water except a long walk back. Luckily there is a small gatbae – hand-operated ferry – that takes people across. It was packed with tourists, apparently the female lead in popular Korean drama ‘Autumn in my Heart’ used this ferry in the show, and the whole Abai village has become a popular tourist spot. People were very surprised to see a foreigner riding it, although I did spy another waygookin crossing the opposite way. They probably assumed I was a fan of the show, but there was no other way across the water.
I finished up with the obligatory raw seafood and squid sausage, which I ate at a nearby park while Koreans grinned and quietly laughed at the strange sight of a tall white man eating alone. You don’t eat raw fish alone in Korea.