Its been eleven days since we left sedentary life at Hwabang Pass just north of Taebaeksan. After four days of rain, we recovered and dried out in the beautifully rugged Mureung Valley. Descending off the ridge from 1100 meters to essentially sea level wasn't ideal as far as the hiking goes, but it was necessary from a psychological perspective. Getting fully dry after a rain event usually requires going inside. It simply resets things.
The Mureung Valley from Samhwasa Temple
Returning to Mureung early in the morning, the sky promising a mostly sunny outlook, and with the sweat, dust and stick of the previous days having been washed away, we settled back into our routine. Samhwasa temple provided a wonderfully peaceful centerpiece around which the morning developed in the valley. We meandered around in the quiet calm, gazing up at the steep granite walls and the lush foliage of the valley. The trail back up to the ridge was steep and unrelenting, but not after offering up some raging waterfalls and bubbling granite bedrock bottom stream beds. It was a week day, but it remains a mystery why these little valley gems remain so desolate.
Back on the ridge, the weather provided day after day of blue skies and cool breezes. In stark contrast to the first portion of our hike on the Baekdu Daegan in 2008, this season has been delightfully cool. We don synthetic puffy jackets every morning and eve at camp. It has not, however, been what a New Englander raised in the definition of Autumn would call "crisp". Every morning's a damp one; our camps ensconsed in fog flowing through the passes, dew dripping off the trees and covering the rain fly on the tent. Yet I'll take cool and damp over hot and sticky any day of the week and twice on Sunday. So, life on the trail has been great. As any hiker worth his weight in oatmeal knows, enjoyment is a delicate mixture of weather, companions, and attitude. Right now we seem to have above average numbers in all three categories.
Here's a slideshow of some of the photos.
One of the great joys of our journey along the Baekdu Daegan has been the opportunity to discover a country, her people and their culture through the backdoor, without the "go see this and do that" prodding of a guidebook. As we've written here before, it is not merely the mile after mile of footpath through the woods, the repeated roller coaster ups and downs of the topography, or the scenery that make the Baekdu Daegan what it has become for us. It is in the daily interactions and encounters with people we meet on the trail, in the towns and villages along the way and the temples, villages, streams and other little bits and pieces that combine in a mosaic to create a whole experience. These folks greet us in many ways; they're helpful, curious, inquisitive, excited, gracious. Hiking clubs share food on mountain tops, day hikers help with logistics, restaurant proprietors serve up smiles to accompany their dishes.
One college student we met happened to be the only other backpacker -- as opposed to day hiking -- that we've seen in almost three months on this trail. He completed hiking the Baekdu Daegan from south to north with his team of five in 50 days. That's moving. Then, while the rest of his team climbed into the van and sped off to civilization, he turned around and started walking back along the trail, north to south. We met him 10 days into his southern journey. Unless someone passes him (it won't be us), he'll be the first person to walk the Baekdu Daegan continuously in both directions. And then he's going to write a book about it. The word dedication comes to mind.
Just yesterday, two Vestas engineers picked us up along side the road. We'd been walking down from the ridge after completing a section of the trail that runs through a 98 megawatt wind farm. Vestas is a Danish-owned wind turbine manufacturer. These guys work in the wind farm everyday and we were likely the only people they'd ever seen walking on this road since the introduction of the automobile to Korea. It really wasn't a great road to walk. We swapped stories and tried to figure each other out. They offered to drive us a ways out of town to get our bags, then back to town, dropping us at a nice hotel. The driver said he'd done it because someone had taken care of him when he was traveling in Seattle. We'll certainly pay it forward and return the favor, keep the wheel spinning.
This morning we laid out the remaining maps, numbers 20 through 24 in the set, and plotted out the remainder of the trail, working the logistics. At present count, there are 5-6 days of hiking left, the final number dependent on our ability to rise to the occasion of three consecutive 12-mile days. Unfortunately, there are a number of trail closures along the way around which we'll be required to come down off the trail, transit, then climb back up to the ridge and continue. This is somewhat annoying but part of the challenge. Beyond the closure issue, there is excitement and that somewhat saddening end-of-vacation feeling starting to creep in that typically accompanies the completion of something. For now, its determination and resolve to enjoy and soak in the last stretch of this great cultural journey.