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July 03, 2018, Korea South

Away to the mountains

Michelle Chin scales South Korea’s hiking trails and highland paths

Michelle Chin

I CLIMBED 40 floors up a block of HDB flats six times to prepare for a hiking trip to South Korea.

The training proved to be grossly insufficient — something I discovered during the three- to five-hour climbs I did in South Korea in spring this year.

During a six-day special-interest tour organised by Korea Tourism Organization and Korea NTC Travel, I tackled flights of staircases, steep terrain, uneven paths and loose rocks while scaling the 675m Mount Gamaksan and 836m Mount Bukhansan.

The tour also covered two other hiking destinations of the Jeollanam-do province in South Korea’s south-western region — the 763m Mount Naejangsan and the mountain path to Hyangiram Hermitage, a Buddhist hermitage located on the crevices of Mount Geumosan.

But two mountains were enough for me. While many of my fellow travellers were seasoned and passionate hiking enthusiasts who took pride in ascending to the peaks of mountains, I was a rookie.

Mountain paths

We climbed Mount Gamaksan the day we arrived in South Korea.

We walked across a suspension bridge near Paju City as we headed towards the path that would take us up the mountain.

The Gloucester Heroes Bridge, 150m long and 170m above the valley floor, honours the soldiers of Britain’s Gloucestershire Regiment who fought Chinese troops during the Korean War in 1951.

The scenery was a sight to behold. We were surrounded by mountains and chirping birds, but little foliage.

The trees were brown, and lush greenery was scarce. The fresh air, tranquillity and wide-open spaces were a balm to my weary city soul that had been bombarded for years by crowds, traffic and noise pollution. I felt happy to be in the mountains.

If you are a hiking enthusiast, you will love this mountain path. Most of my fellow travellers — who ranged from fit ladies in their 30s to active retirees in their 60s — were in high spirits and navigated the landscape with agility.

It was about 24 deg C and sunny, and the ascent was mostly on steps that were easy to climb.

The estimated time to ascend and descend the mountain was around three hours, but our group of about 40 took five.

We took our time to soak in the picture-perfect views, but to be honest, some of us were less fit and found the hike tough.

My regular exercise routine is 45 minutes of swimming once a week. I found that hiking required more lower limb strength and agility. I was breathless by the time I reached the peak and my legs were wobbling like jelly.

The descent was more challenging as we took a different route.

Some of the paths were uneven, steep and strewn with rocks. Navigating the terrain required the skills of a seasoned climber.

It was not easy for my feet to get a good grip and for me to stay balanced. I had to figure out which rocks to step on, how to avoid tripping over barely visible tree roots and how to use my hiking pole effectively.

I was on the alert, as one wrong step could have resulted in a twisted ankle.

I was panting and sweating, but my adrenaline was flowing and kept me going as I pushed myself to complete the course. At the end, I felt a sense of accomplishment as I was new to the pastime of mountain climbing.

The next day, I had an easier time. We trekked up part of Mount Bukhansan, a national park about 47km away from Gamaksan where the foliage was lusher and greener.

The route we took at Mount Bukhansan was easier to hike than Gamaksan. While Bukhansan is known to be a difficult mountain to climb, our tour guide chose easier and shorter paths for us to navigate.

The terrain was not as steep as Gamaksan, and it was a shorter climb.

As it was less challenging, the trip also turned out to be great for people-watching.

Climbing in South Korea can be a social activity, with families and friends enjoying banter, music, a picnic and exercise all at one go.

I had an interesting time observing what the locals wore, what they ate, how they posed for photographs, what they carried and how cheerful they looked.

Floral pursuits

I was in South Korea during the cherry blossom season. Lady Luck was smiling on us: Pale pink blooms lined the roads we travelled on from one mountain to another. There were many opportunities to stop and get off our tour bus to snap mementos.

It was lovely to see middle-aged couples from our group pose for photographs amid the romantic hues of spring, like newlyweds would for honeymoon keepsakes.

My most memorable cherry blossom viewing was along the Seomjingang River at Seomjingang Train Village in the Jeollanamdo province. While the Seomjingang River Drive is about 13km, the train trail — from the old Gokseong Station (Seomjingang Train Village) to Gajeong Station — is about 10km.

Stretches of pale pink cherry blooms were a gorgeous contrast to the blue skies, as well as the yellows of the flowers of other trees.

In a single photograph, we managed to capture the splendours of nature in a mixture of colours.

Temple stay

We also visited Mount Naejangsan and got to stay at the nearby Baekyangsa Temple in Jeollanam-do province.

The temple, built in 632 during the Baekje Dynasty, is a tranquil place in a stunning setting, where blue skies meet mountains, valleys and streams.

In autumn, the foliage turns vivid with colours and the area is a major tourist attraction.

I walked up part of Mount Naejangsan, stopping midway up the mountain trail to enjoy a swig of tea and seaweed rice balls from my lunch box while taking in the scenery.

There was lush greenery, rolling mountains and spots of pale pink of cherry blossoms in the mountains.

While most of my group continued uphill, I took a nap in the cool, fresh air with three fellow travellers at the sheltered outdoor patio of the monastic living quarters.

I like simple, relaxing moments like these that do wonders to recharge our batteries mentally and physically.

After our rest, we walked back down and returned to the tranquillity of Baekyangsa, where travellers seeking a slower pace of life can stay for a night or more, enjoy the beauty of the countryside and experience the zen of a temple.

A temple stay, days of hiking and lots of fresh air — I got plenty of antidotes for my city-polluted soul during this trip.

THE WRITER’S TRIP WAS MADE POSSIBLE BY KOREA TOURISM ORGANIZATION AND KOREA NTC TRAVEL

GET INTO SHAPE

Here are some tips for people who do not exercise more than once a week.

- Before you set off, to build stamina, pick up jogging at least two months before the trip.

- Learn how to use a hiking pole and visit Bukit Timah Nature Reserve a few times to hike.

- Buy a pair of hiking shoes with good grip.

- Sunscreen, sunglasses and caps are a must as the ultraviolet rays in South Korea may be strong in late March and early April.

GUIDELINES

- I flew direct on Korean Air from Changi Airport to Incheon.

- There are three airlines flying directly from Changi Airport to Incheon — Korean Air, Asiana Airlines and Singapore Airlines.

- Mount Gamaksan and Mount Bukhansan are about 47km apart; Mount Bukhansan and Hyangiram Hermitage are about 390km apart; while Hyangiram Hermitage and Mount Naejangsan are about 162km apart. It makes sense to travel with a tour group as the hassle-free travel arrangements give you peace of mind.

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