Monday, 19 April 2010

Korea - The first pink azeleas

Hello everyone!
First weekend excursion this weekend, down to the south of the country. We went to a place called Yeosoo, which looks like this - 여수 - in Hangul. It's the furthest I've ventured in Korea thus far, and was a 5-and-a-half hour bus ride from central Seoul. I didn't bother reading up on the trip too much before going - I was sent a link on facebook by Annie on the Monday, and had paid up my 67,000W on the Tuesday. I figured that it would be a nice change of pace to get out to the country, that it would reduce my alcohol intake as I have the half-marathon on the horizon, and also that it would be great fun. One of those trips that I will look back on in years to come and remember how great it was. It didn't disappoint.

I knew there was some hiking attached to the trip. With hindsight, I should have realised that hiking would be a substantial part of the trip, and that running 18km after school on Friday wasn't going to put me in the greatest physical shape for a weekend of being more active than usual. 18km done though, and with less pain in my knee than expected. We left Siheung at around 9.30 to head into the city to catch our bus and meet the rest of the group. There were about 70 of us in total, spread over two buses. The leader was a Korean called Warren. He seemed a bit eccentric.

We left just before 12. I figured that I would get tired at some point and get a few hours kip before we got to Yeosoo. The aim was to see the sun rise from some hill, which was going to happen at around 6. The problem was that, due to a combination of me not being able to shut up and being on public transport which I always fail to get sleep on, I probably maxed out at about 10 minutes. We all struggled to get any meaningful sleep which, as you can imagine, made us all feel really upbeat and cheery when we rolled to a stop shortly after 5.30am. Pitch black outside, and not exactly warm either. We hopped off the bus and all stood around whilst Warren belted out instructions that we didn't really listen to. Really should have listened to him telling us to stretch.

En masse, we set off up a hill. A rather steep hill. Certainly not the gentle introduction that we all needed. I've done stuff like this before, and my muscles weren't actually that stiff from my run, but I realised that it was a difficult section. A lot of people struggled with it, but we all survived and moved onwards and upwards.

The view wasn't what we were expecting either. I'd been expecting flowers, and there were loads of them. This mountain is the 'third largest mountain covered by the pink Korean azaleas'. Scratching the barrel a bit there, if that's the selling point. Should have just said its a nice mountain with a temple on it, that would get enough people here. But the backdrop beyond off of these flowers wasn't quite so aesthetically pleasing - a power plant. It was pointed out that it wouldn't look out of place on Sim City, and it was a fair point. Odd that a place of such beauty was tarnished in order to put in a power plant, but I guess there isn't much room for stuff in Korea. After all, most buildings are over six storeys tall and have different amenities on each floor. You have to look up as well as around when searching for a bar in Siheung.

The sun rose. We missed the immediate sunrise, but it was still nice to feel the sun's rays on our weary bodies. It soon became warm enough to start removing layers, which was good. Supergroup, as we had named ourselves, soon made it up towards the top of the mountain. There was a concrete ruin at the top, which seemed like an army pillbox. When we were jumping across it, Jon suffered the misfortune of his jeans ripping in a rather central area. Harsh. But funny. Our sense of time was very warped at this point. It felt like it was mid-morning, but it reality the clock had only just passed 7am. This bizarre feeling accompanied us around all day.

After seeing the token temple, we meandered back down a beautiful stretch of the mountain. Cherry blossoms initially lined the trail, with flakes of the flowers dropping down airily to the floor. The sun shimmered through the trees and off the small stream which we were following. The stream got a bit larger at one point, and me and Jon decided to try to jump across it. It was a reasonable distance. Jon just about cleared it. As you can see from the picture, I...well, didn't. One very wet left foot.

At the bottom we decided that we needed some food, and stopped in at a small outdoor restaurant. It felt like it was time for dinner - in reality, the imaginary chime of the clock in our minds had just struck 10. Because our table was so big and desiring food, our waitress brought out a special complimentary treat - a bottle of makkoli. For those who can't remember what this is, it is a rice wine, slightly stronger than beer, and with a nice but slightly sour taste. It helped to wash down some of the strange side dishes, amongst which we found a flappy fish tail, and stuff that looked like a part of the male anatomy (sorry Mum!).

We were soon back on the bus, and drifting in and out of consciousness. Our next destination was Odongdo Island. Being an island, it was by the sea, so we got a nice look at the southern Korean coastline. It was a very nice place, and the locals seemed a bit more liberal and relaxed than what we're used to in Seoul. How liberal, I hear you ask. Well, we sat on top of two very wobbly plastic creatures and when an important man from inside the building came out, rather than telling us to get off, he asked if we wanted a photo. There was a group of older Koreans happily singing along quite loudly as they walked across the bridge. It was a fun, vibrant atmosphere down there, which we appreciated. We climbed up the hill on the island, and halfway up noticed what resembled building work, with a sign that blatantly said not to carry on in that direction. Feeling adventurous, and armed with the knowledge that we could play the innocent foreigner card, Jon and I clambered along the metal girders, picking up some rogue hard hats on the way.

A couple of minutes of scrambling later, and we emerged on top of a rock. To our right was a sharp cliff face with a small cave at the bottom. Directly in front of us was a drop of several metres to the cold-looking sea. And to our left was...Warren?! And about ten other people from the trip. Geniuses think alike, I guess. Great views, though the melancholy vibe was interrupted by a helicopter swirling around the boats beneath us. We scrambled along the rocks to get back up to a different part of the trail, and reconvened with the others at the top.

We returned the hard hats on the trek down, and were soon back on the bus. Only after Jon had scared a little Korean kid and we had come across some rather sexist noodles. Segregation of noodles into pots for men and women? Incredible. And stocking up on makkoli, of course. The stuff we were buying was 2,000W for a big bottle, so we weren't exactly breaking the bank. Another semi-comatosed session on the bus and we were at our next location, a place called Suncheon Bay.

We went to an eco-reserve. Not quite as impressive as the other places, has to be said, but still good fun. Mainly because me and Jon, on yet another bottle of the rice wine, decided to race to the temple at the end. It was a reasonable distance, and pretty hilly as well. My legs finally decided to give up on me at this point, and I don't blame them. Good practice if this race has any inclines, though. The views were pretty cool, but I was too busy trying to stretch out my legs to fully appreciate them.

After this we were back on the bus and on our way to the beach! How very exciting, as I've yet to see a Korean beach. According to the itinary I should have read but didn't, we were supposed to be at the beach for 7pm. However, they have an expression out here called 'Korean time'. If a time is set, it is very uncommon that it is strictly adhered to, due to the business of the average Korean person's life. 7pm could mean 6.45pm, 7.05pm, even towards 8pm. Kinda like 'Fergie time' if you believe in such a thing. Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that 7pm was ambitious.

We rocked up sometime after 9.30. It was pitch black, so we couldn't really build too much of an image in our minds, but it seemed quite nice. It was more like an enclave, with a small strip of sand that constituted our 'beach'. We dumped our stuff in the rooms (I'll get to that bit later), and then set about cooking. We had about six barbecues set up, and destroyed a ton of beef, pork and bulgogi. The organisers provided beer and makkoli, but as Jon and I were the only people consuming the latter, we got a pretty good deal out of that. I played chef for a while but soon got bored of being responsible, so went and chilled by our makeshift campfire.

Most people decided that they were tired after a long day of hiking and travelling, so went to bed straight after we ate. A group of about ten of us stuck the course. I didn't realise that the sand would be cold, which was a bit silly of me. We optimistically decided that we would stay up for sunrise, which was supposed to happen at around 6. How we were still awake at this point was a mystery, so staying up through the night (again) was ambitious. Overly ambitious once we realised that it had just passed midnight.

I don't know what time we finally called it a night, but I was pretty much the last person into our room. Aah yes, the rooms. There were about 70 of us on the trip, so the organisers hired out a place and we all piled in. Most rooms were big enough for between four and six people, but there was one larger room, in which the the remaining 25 of us would sleep on the floor. When we initially dumped our bags, we realised that it was a bit on the cosy side. When I returned the floor wasn't visible due to the mass of bodies. It resembled a mass grave, but with more blankets and pillows. There was a small spot of wooden floor by the door, so I set up shop there and drifted off.

For about fifteen minutes. Then BANG! A dull thud against my skull. Someone wanted to use the toilet, and hit me on the head when opening the door. They apologised, and I drifted away again...BANG! Oh right, of course that person had to get back in the room, and in the two minutes they'd been away had totally forgotten that I was in close proximity to the door. You may ask why I didn't rotate so that my legs were by the door. I considered this, but one of the heaters for the floor was directly under my ankle, and very, very strong. It felt like my ankle was on fire. The lesser of two evils was thus my head being thwacked constantly throughout the night. Not a fun night of sleep, though I slept through sunrise. Everyone did.

Sunday was not nearly as active as the Saturday. We skimmed rocks on the beach for a while before heading to a restuarant for some Korean food. We'd had breakfast about two hours before, so hardly touched it. On the bus, Warren randomly came over. We talked for about two minutes, and then he decided to pass out right next to me. Bizarre. It started to rain just as we got off at our next location, which was somewhere on the outskirts of Jirisan national park.

We went to a market. I got conned into buying green tea icecream, which wasn't great. The guy selling it was an interesting one, full of tricks and fancy flicks. He gave me my cone and then quickly did something, and all of a sudden my cone had no icecream in it. He'd given me two cones and then whisked the inside one away. Har di har har. We also saw a tub of fermented wasps. Maybe their local version of kimchi? We wandered around some cherry blossoms, and then were finally on our way home.

The only problem with our location is that it takes us forever to get back to Siheung, so we had to add on an extra hour or two to our journey. We got stuck in traffic as well, so pulled up at a service station. Bit different to Britain, this. No Burger King or Little Chef in sight. Instead, this is the domain of the humble street vendor. We bought one of the nicer treats, which was potatoes covered in sugar. Those things are gooooooood. And expertly modelled as well. Back at midnight, and straight to bed.

Great weekend in all. Very different to the usual, and we all had a great time. I'll definitely fit in another hike or two as the year progresses, but the way my legs felt on Monday, I might leave it until after the races. I fell asleep on my desk in school on Monday, and still haven't fully caught up yet. Though I'm writing this after orientation, so there are reasons for that... Sorry for this being so long, but it was a fun-filled, exciting weekend, and I wanted to get that point across.

Love you all


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