Train travel is a great way to see Korea – you speed through tunnels cut into mountains, past ramshackle farm towns nestled in valleys. Going this fast the countryside becomes a series of flickering images – forest, mountain, town, bridge, tunnel – and the occasional grassy lumps of ancestral tombs resting on the hillsides. It was autumn and the leaves were turning red.
Chiaksan is overshadowed by its bigger mountain brethren in the province, Seoraksan and Odaesan, but Koreans will tell you the hiking is very difficult here. Mountains with ‘ak’ in the name are especially famed for strenous trails, they say. Though the smallest national park in Gangwon-do, the peaks are high and the slopes are steep.
I started at the entrance to Guryong-sa, a small Buddhist temple with a mysterious line of mossy, vase-like graves and carved dragon-heads on the bridge. The temple’s name means ‘nine dragons’ and while not particularly impressive for veteran temple spotters like me, it was a nice prelude for the approaching hike. Black towering peaks looked down upon the tiled roofs of the temple, waiting obscured and silent in the mist.
The first few kilometres were flat and the rain was light and cool. The paths were thick with fallen leaves just beginning to brown, but the trees overhead were still filled with the final raiment of autumn colour. White mist, grey rocks, brown paths, bursts of red and streaks of yellow. The path followed a stream filled with floating leaves. I was the only person in the midst of this perfect scene, and it was all such an easy, effortless walk. This is how Chiaksan charms unwary visitors, all the while concealing its sharp peaks like a dagger beneath this leafy, misty cloak. Well, on rainy days anyway.
The flat valley gave way abruptly as the mountain proper began, and from then on it was hours of constant upward hiking. The wooden stairs led to a line of smaller peaks, connected by a narrow path across the mountain tops. The trail was hardly two metres across in parts, with a steep fall on either side. The mist drew thicker and thicker around the mountain as the trail rose higher and higher. Soon the mountain was nothing more than a brown path swathed in grey cloud, groves of thin trees sticking out of the mist, clinging to the mountain slopes.
At the top of Chiaksan, the mist was so thick you could hardly see thirty metres in any direction. The highest of Chiaksan’s peaks – Birobong – is 1288 metres high, and while it was a shame the view was obscured, Korean mountains are often clouded with haze anyway. Far better this foggy, impenetrable mist, where the hikers were rain-jacketed silhouettes on an island of rock, lost in an endless ghostly sea.
As expected, a group of ajosshi hikers had broken out the makgeolli and fruit, and were pouring out paper cups full of Korea’s favoured hiking drink. They offered me some – in between taking photos of themselves on the peak – and I tried to explain in broken Konglish that while I loved the gentle cloudy beverage, alcohol and hiking are an obviously stupid combination and it was a long walk down.
And it was a long, hard walk. The mountain was mistier and spookier than ever on the way down – I was completely alone in the ghostly shrouds with nothing but a scrap of autumn woods to stand on. It could have been the haunted realm of some Victorian Gothic novel, and if a headless horseman or the hound of the Baskervilles had bounded past, I would have been the one breaking the mood.