The extensive walks and exploration trails we set on, during the course of our Jeju trip, were in preparation for our Hallasan hike. Blogs and tourism sites warned of possible injuries out of exhaustion, if you aren’t adequately prepared for the hike. And I’m well aware of how (Great Wall of China Hike) injury can crush your morale — during and after a hike. Now, Hallasan is Korea’s tallest mountain (1950 m) and definitely a gem you can’t afford to miss. I didn’t doubt Basil’s ability (he’s been hiking and trekking since college) for a bit, I had second thoughts of my own ability — to push my mind — to want to do this hike. During our 10 day Jeju trip, we clocked anything between 10,000 to 17,000 steps, on an average day, and I felt sufficiently prepared, and reasonably confidant to hike with those numbers.
We woke up at 5 AM and left our hotel (near Jungmun Beach) by 6 AM in the morning. We had to change two buses to reach Hallasan National Park. We had decided to take the Yeongsil Trail, popular for its fall colours, though we knew it wouldn’t take us to the summit of the mountain. It was a trade-off Basil conceded to — to ensure I could complete this hike. Everything seemed to be working as planned, we got our first bus immediately, and reached the next stop (bound for 1100 intercity road) within 15 minutes. And then, we waited and waited. As precious minutes flew by and I started getting anxious (much like that feeling at the dentist’s waiting room), we knew we had to probably opt for a cab. A group of Korean hikers came and left within 5 minutes and we realised the bus timings must have changed. We were lucky to get a cab on an otherwise deserted road. The fare to the trail entrance was 25,000 KRW and is a base rate most cab drivers will charge you, after showing you the rate card. Given the distance from the main city and time taken to reach there, it’s a reasonable deal.
I’ve never been very good with mountain curves and as our cab swerved around those changing planes — I thought I’d throw up. We’d read that you could either get down at the main entrance and walk up toward the trail or alternatively, you can get down at the trail entrance itself. Since, I was feeling sick, we chose the latter. It seemed like a mistake in hindsight, because the forest was bursting in flames of autumnal reds and yellows. And even if, you don’t want to hike, a walk along this route (roughly a kilometre or two long) is worth it. At the entrance, of the Yeongsil trail, there are restrooms, a cafeteria, and a shop selling hiking gear. Basil bought a hiking staff for me and I’m so glad that he did.
The first leg of the Yeongsil trail takes you through the forest and the ascent is gradual over wooden steps. It took me a while to appreciate the beauty around us and once I did, I didn’t feel as anxious. The sudden change in temperature must have caused the leaves to fall earlier, at this altitude, and there were few traces of fall here. The trees were either bare or decaying. Spots of green were knee high and added colour to a silent forest. Signboards give a description of the trail, at regular intervals, and the flora you can spot at a given instant.
After 20 minutes of hiking through the forest, the trail narrows to an acsending line of stairs, with ropes for support on either side. We were lucky to have very few hikers, along the trail, so we could take our time here. The stairs take you closer to the ridge of the mountain and there are many scenic viewing points here.
It was a warm, sunny day and the sky couldn’t have looked better. Byeongpung Bawi Rock is also called the folding screen rock because of the similarity with a folding screen. Often touched by clouds, these rocks are also known as the, ‘Abode of Gods‘.
I’ve realised, no matter where you travel in the world, there’s always a legend built around a strange rock formation or a jagged mountain line. Imagination is a common thread permeating cultural conditioning and the passage of knowledge. At the far end of the mountain, the (Yeongsilgiam) rocks get jagged, and some form strange shapes protruding outside the face of the mountain. These rocks are named as the 500 generals. According to one local legend, a grotesque tale of cannabilism, a mother fell into the soup she was cooking for her sons; unaware they all ate it. When the youngest brother came home and learned of the tragedy, he left his brothers and went away. The rest of the brothers came here and were turned into stones. I guess, mother nature and the mountains can summon the inner writer out of anyone.
Strangely, I didn’t find the wide expanse of the mountain side or the depth of the valley to be overwhelming. In the far distance, away from the ridge, oreums (parasitic volcanoes) dominated the barren landscape. In summer, it would have looked more scenic. We took many breaks at this point and were offered oranges by different hikers. Some even volunteered to click a photo of us together — for our memory. So far, so good!
The next leg, takes you along the ridge of the mountain, and is pretty rocky. I remembered reading why hiking shoes are essential here. My sneakers were no match for the porous volcanic rocks. Fortunately, this part isn’t very long. The foliage of trees — stunted and bare — with silvery barks, is very different from the flora at the base of the mountain.
Finally, we made it to the wide open space of the furthest point in the trail. A boardwalk leads you to Witse Oreum Shelter.
En route, a detour of stairs take you up another small peak. I didn’t want to waste my energy and stayed down, while Basil climbed up to investigate. I was eventually coaxed by a Korean lady to climb the stairs — it will be worth it, she said. And I’m so glad, I did. To one side, there are vantage views of the oreums and to the other side, we could see the clouds slowly rise and engulf the mountain. This is when you realised why it is one of the holiest of Korean mountains.
At Witse Oreum, there are restrooms and a small shelter to eat hot ramen noodles. With few instructions, in English, I waited outside and an ajusshi guided me to the counter. Inside, a family of four was eating their meal. After the customary questions, I got my first, “Welcome to Korea”. Although ironical, especially after spending nearly 6 months, in Seoul; it was heartening to hear those words, even if, we were mistaken to be visiting tourists. That’s what I like about the mountains — they’re always welcoming and attract the best of the lot.
Ravens cawed ominously, in the background, as we ate our hot noodle soup. It was amazing to sit outside, enjoy the blue sky, and be surrounded by hikers (from different trails). After our meal, we had to click photographs with the rock marker. Now, I’ve never understood how some hikers (including Basil) can look so happy after a 2 and half hour hike (one way). I tried smiling, but resembled a dead duck who’d just made it to the finishing line.
I never kept track of the time, but it must have been anywhere between 12 PM and 1 PM, because announcements started warning hikers, who might want to carry on further through the other trail, to start hiking. We thought of descending (next post) from the easier trail (Eorimok Trail). Although, I felt gutted for not being able to reach the top (it’s restricted to maintain the natural diversity of this section of the mountain), I was happy to have made it so far and feeling reasonably energetic to want to carry on.