The alarm set off at 4 am. Outside our window, it’s pitch black, there’s no sight of the peak, and the wind howls in the stillness of early morning. In less than half hour, we’re ready, and walk towards the parking lot of the Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak. The parking lot resembles a deserted old town after a zombie attack. Empty cola cans are carelessly tossed around by the howling wind. As time passes, the hazy outline of the peak appears, though, not clear enough to spot the steps. None of the coffee shops are open and we try to find a spot to shield ourselves from the wind. Half an hour later, three Chinese women tourists arrive. Like us, they wait for the ticket booth to open. Finally, a 7 eleven opens, and the attendant advises us to start the climb — without a ticket. I’m still unsure, we couldn’t see what’s ahead of us, and the wind showed no signs of waning. The peak is surrounded by the sea, on three sides, making it more deceptive in low visibility.
15 minutes later, 3 professional (my guess) Korean photographers (a man and two women) approach the entrance. Armed with flashlights, we follow them blindly, and three women follow us. The hike along this peak isn’t challenging, finding your footing, in the darkness, is what makes it unnerving. With the wind wildly blowing, it’s easy to believe that it might want to carry you along. After I managed to calm my nerves (I’ve never been good with heights), and breathe a bit, I began to get a feel for the view. Basil got to work immediately and tried to capture the stunning view. We still couldn’t see what we were climbing (rocky outcrops jutted out of the sides), but the steps are pretty easy, once you focus your eyes on the path ahead. Below, the port town slept in silence and lights twinkled across the sea.
It takes 20 minutes to reach the top. If you take breaks, you could add another 10 minutes. In quick succession, a lot many tourists reached the top, and it got noisy with cameras and cheers. Meanwhile, the sun sulked below the horizon, and showed no signs of appearing. We could see clouds drifting in the wide open sky and it wasn’t a good sign. Crowds patiently waited for a grand sunrise viewing. All we saw — was light struggling to pass — through empty gaps between cloud spaces.
After 7 am, many tourists gave up and began their descent. And strangely — those who had waited — were rewarded. We saw the sun peek behind the clouds and light everything up. It was a brief moment and then again, the clouds engulfed the fiery ball of gas. The team of professional photographers had stayed behind as well.
As sunlight flooded the skies, the artificial lights dimmed below, and the plains were bathed in green. The waters glittered and changed from turquoise to azure blue. Occasionally, clouds cast shadows below.
We started walking down and this time, I could see more clearly. The staircase uncoiled slowly and the view took our breath away. The wind decreased in intensity — as we reached closer to the base.
The ticket booth was now open and tour buses were making a beeline for the parking lot. We walked towards the far edge of the cliff. We could see Udo island in the distance. And, as the sun played hide-and-seek with the clouds, the water below, also changed in colour.
Further away from the peak, you can see the effect of the elements on the rocky face of this ancient volcanic formation. And my mind tried to imagine, how this gigantic rock formation must have erupted, from the sea, thousands of years ago. Each side told a different story, and you realise, why it truly deserved a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Haenyeo women divers give a performance, in the afternoon, and we thought of coming later to see it. After soaking in all the sights around us, we finally walked towards the main gate.
At the entrance, etched in stone, are the timings for sunrise through the year. It makes sense, to make a note of this, before your hike. Signboards give a description of the history of this site and the life of the Haenyeo divers.
It was nearing 9 am and we had a whole day remaining. So, we entered Paris Baguette and, over breakfast, chalked out the next trail for the day.