Last week we went to Wolchulsan, a mountain about an hour and a half away from Gwangju, with Mel and Jocelyn. We'd heard all manner of different stories about how long it could take (anywhere between 4 and 8 hours depending on who you ask...) and how tiring it could be, so we decided to leave bright and early to ensure we didn't end up stranded up there in the dark. We arrived at the base of the mountain at about 9am and were greeted by a helpful man who, using a smattering of English and lots of gesturing, explained that there were two routes. We could go up to the Cloud Bridge (large suspension bridge) and then on to the main peak, before heading back to the start on a circular route, which would take 4 hours total. Or, instead of coming back, we could do the full 6 hour route across to a big temple, passing an 8 metre high Buddha along the way, then stay in a minbak overnight or get a taxi from the end back to the bus station. Hedging our bets somewhat, we decided to head to the top and see how we felt when we got there.
The hike started quite steeply, and we quickly arrived at metal steps which ended up making up maybe 80% of the way up. This may make it sound easy, but the steps were terrifyingly steep in places and there were points where they were either very far apart or very close together, making the walk really awkward. At other points of the cllimb were knotted ropes tied to the rocks, where we had to pull ourselves up, almost like actual rock climbing! Helpful signs along the way kept shocking us with the distance remaning until we reached the top, as well as constantly being convinced we could see the peak, only to turn a corner and find out that we had to go back down another 100 metres to reach the next upward stretch! The scenery all the way up was incredible, despite it being quite a misty morning when we started. The weather cleared gradually as we got closer to the top and gave us amazing views across the surrounding countryside. Also, as we're still in the midst of autumn (I'm trying to remember to say fall so as to not confuse our students or the other teachers, but I refuse to write it. Must hold on to my Englishness!) here, the colours of the leaves were spectacular. This lead to constant and very welcome photo stops along the whole route.
We eventually reached the top just short of the two hour estimate given by the helpful chap mentioned above and settled down with the soju drinking, kimbap eating Korean hikers to have our lunch and enjoy the view. After some discussion we decided that although we were still feeling pretty good, we may not be up to another four hours, so took the easier option of heading down. Sadly, after about 30 minutes of descent, we started to wonder if we might've been better of going for the longer route. The 6 hour route would've led us across the tops of the mountains and certainly would've required some up and downing. But frankly, it seems like that would've been a breeze in comparison with the way down. Gone were the terrifying steps and ropes, only to be replaced with a random assortment of variously sized rocks in no discernible pattern. There were many places I had to really stretch or jump to get between some rocks, grabbing hold of the nearest branch to maintain some semblence of balance. Gone too, were the majority of the views, although the colours of the leaves continued to amaze us. The helpful signs suddenly became hugely depressing as they appeared to show little to no difference in distance remaning. Despite all this, we reached the bottom before the predicted four hours were up and were thus very pleased. It was an incredible hike and the views more than made up for any whinges. We are already planning to do it again in the spring. Next time we may actually bother to do some pre-hike stretching, as both Becky and I were suffering somewhat in the leg department. In fact, my knee has been highly troublesome for most of the 7 days since we returned. Very annoying, but thankfully it now seems to be all better.
Also worth mentioning is the park we passed at the bottom, containing a great many bizarre statues with an alarming array of genitalia on display. Although in many ways Korea seems very conservative, they do seem to go in for some truly suprising exceptions to the rule. It certainly bodes well for our Christmas trip to the somewhat infamous Penis Park...