Saturday, September 27, 2008

Hitting Our Stride

It's been a week since we left Deokgyusan National Park, and three weeks since we stepped off at the trailhead to start hiking the Baekdu Daegan. We're finally settling into a rhythm of sorts -- the pace seems manageable, and we're adjusting to the challenges of the trail. We've established and accepted that our timeline will not allow us to complete the trail at the rate we're moving, and embracing this has brought a sense of calm. No longer are we concerned with trying to push 20 km per day for days on end. Instead, the Baekdu Daegan is the road along which we're walking from one experience to the next in rural Korea.

The first two and a half weeks here were incredibly sunny, but hot and humid, making for great views along the ridge but leaving us spent and sticky at day's end. The last week saw a dramatic change in the weather. Clouds and then rain moved in for 3 and a half days, soaking every square inch of gear not tucked inside our packs, and unfortunately even some that was. The rain was mostly Northwest-like -- light but persistent and often wind-driven. Most problematic, however, were the thick swaths of overgrown shrubs and tall grasses that seemed to be holding gallons of water on their foliage. The section of trail on which we were traveling during the rain appears to see very little usage, or at the least, very little maintenance. This left us pushing through overgrowth for much of the day, every bit soaking us further.

Spirits hit new lows. Setting up camp in the rain and crawling into the tent wet is never fun. We did have a few saving graces along the way though. On recommendation from one of the two New Zealanders who completed the trail in 2007 (they're now authoring an English guide book to the Baekdu Daegan), we descended steeply off the ridge, somewhat reluctant to loose hard earned elevation, to a wonderfully surprising "mountain place" guest house. The Haein Sanjang was built of rice thatch mud bricks and large timbers by on old mountain guide and his wife alongside a bedrock-bottom stream in a deep, narrow valley, and offers accommodation, meals, and hospitality in a beautiful setting. We ambled around the property enjoying the numerous sitting places along the brook and taking in the first sun and visibility in two days. At dinner, there was some miscommunication about whether we wanted to cook our own meal, or if we wanted to buy dinner off the menu. When it was clear that nothing was coming out of the kitchen for us, Liz asked again, and established that we did indeed want dinner. The woman disappeared and 20 minutes later we were invited into their home to eat with them, although the amount of food seemed to suggest that she had just decided we'd eat with the family. It felt imposing at first, but it was obvious from her demeanor that it was not a problem, and we settled into a comfortable, delicious meal in the cozy main room of the home. Breakfast the next morning was the same story. We're pretty certain that this wasn't standard procedure, and were incredibly thankful for our hosts' show of grace.

We left this beautiful place - luckily getting a ride halfway up the road, saving us some climbing - back into the rain. We camped at a pass near a dairy farm, fitfully listening to the rain and the sound of unhappy cows. The rain continued the next day and this time spirits really did reach an all time low. It was a short day, we were again heading off the ridge to Jikjisa temple. We tried not to have any expectations, but hot showers and a big meal (we had just finished the last of our food) were on our minds. We descended the ridge as the rain let up, and by the time we reached the bottom, the sun was breaking. The temple was huge and amazing, and outside of the temple there was a gigantic manicured sculpture park. A lady selling roasted chestnuts sized us up real quick and suckered us into buying a box. We found a bench in the park, munched on warm chestnuts while soaking up sun, all in a bit of a daze wondered how on earth just an hour ago we had been pushing through waterlogged overgrowth.

We found a motel, hung up all our stuff to dry, then set out to check out the little park village full of restaurants, motels, souvenir shops and "supers" (old-school Korean convenience stores). We found one that had Frosted Flakes, so we bought a box and a quart of milk, sat on some chairs outside right by the stream and ate the entire box right there - grins stretching from ear to ear. Imagine the looks from passers-by.

The Baekdudaegan is quite the roller coaster, both literally and figuratively in terms of the trail's endless elevation gains and losses and in it's ability to lift or lower our spirits and deliver amazing delight and adventure.

The three day rain storm blew out upon our arrival at Jikjisa temple, and the next day it seemed as though autumn had come all at once. The air has been remarkably cool and crisp, and leaves are blowing around in the breeze. This is hiking weather at its best, and we were especially happy to be cruising along on the ridge in the breeze with views once again.

Next we're headed to Songnisan National Park to meet a friend whom we haven't seen in 5 years. Hopefully he's been able to navigate Korea successfully without much to go on other than his red hair & foreigner credit.

Pictures from this section:

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Pictures from Dokyousan NP

We've spent almost five days in this national park, some hiking, but a lot of relaxing. We've experienced calm serene mountain shelters and hoards of Korean hikers in groups of thirty or more all in the same day. We've also finally gotten some time by the mountain streams in, in addition to fully experiencing the full on gearhead-ness of Koreans and car camping!

Here are some of our pictures - as always click on it to see a larger slide show:

To Finish or Not To Finish?

One of the bigger debates Chris and I have been having as we schlep our 16-kg packs up and down the ridge over and over again, with achy feet, while sweating off liters of water is this: are we having fun?

Of course we didn't engage in a through hike expecting it to be like hanging out on a beach Thailand. Chris and I engaged in plenty of what we would dub "Type II" fun - fun that happens afterwards. Things like bushwacking through alder and devil's club looking for snow, or skiing in the rain, or curling up in the public shelter at Camp Muir waiting for the sun to come up so you can ski down on bulletproof suncups. Kind of funny at the time, definately funny later on.

We've been trying to figure out what exactly brought us here to Korea to hike the Baekdu Daegan in the first place. What type of fun were we looking for? We both enjoy hiking, although the longest either of us have ever been out is about a week. We both wanted to see the more rural and mountainous areas of Korea. We are getting plenty of both. But our bags are heavy, it's hot, and we feel like we are making very slow progress - 140 km in thirteen days. If we were hiking the Appalachian Trail, it would take us over 8 months to complete it at that rate!

But this isn't the Applachian Trail - it's a crazy adventure of searching for water, trying to communicate in broken English and Korean, trying to figure out in a small supermarket what on earth you can possibly make for dinner with the goods in front of you, and of course it's hiking up and down, up and down. Plus, we're kind of wimpy northeners and 80 degrees with 85% humidity leaves us confused, sticky and addled. But for every one of those questionably "fun" moments, we've had so many amazing encounters I feel could only happen along the BDDG. Like the many rides strangers have offered us, or the funny scolding we get because my bag looks bigger than Chris's, or the kind offering of drinks, food and candy from many people we meet along the trail.

We've been struggling with our Type A personalities that for some reason feel the need to complete this ambiguous project we have started, but I think reason has won out and we have decided to be slow travellers, hiking as slowly as we need and taking as much time as we need to take it all in. Its likely that we won't finish hiking the Baekdu Daegan, but hopefully we'll have more fufilling memories and plenty of both Type I and Type II fun because of it.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Silence and Chaos in Rural Korea

The Baekdudaegan has certainly served up its share of rewards and punishment, and the last few days have been perfect examples of that. There are two facets to the trail. Some portions are in the national parks and are well maintained, populated and include services (and available water) at fairly regular intervals. The sections in between the national parks have so far taken us through the rural countryside and hills, where the trail has seen comparatively little maintenance, has much less access to water and supplies, and offers many opportunities for the birth of adventure. Here's an account of one of our days.

The day began with arduous work climbing through tall grasses and dense shrub overgrowing the trail up a steep grade with poor footing for a couple hundred meters. The sun was already making its persistent heat known at 7:30 am, and the humidity added exponentially to the sticky, sweaty feeling we're wearing like a permanent base layer from the two previous days of hiking in the heat and camping in humid conditions. We'd been talking about how difficult it'd become to push through when the conditions weren't making it fun. Defeat was setting in, and although neither of us voiced this outright, you could read it all over our faces.

Stopped to look for the water source shown on the map in a stream, and again didn't find anything. This is the second water source in a row shown on the map that didn't pan out. Water has proven to be probably the most difficult logistical challenge to through-hiking the Baekdudaegan. Well, geniuses, its a ridge. There's no water on it by definition. Yes, sometimes I'm a slow learner.

Cooked some breakfast and discussed strategy. We may end up ditching the tent and sleeping bags and just trying to hike further each day and stay in minbaks (guest houses) every night. We'd do this sooner but it will stretch out budget. So the days go.

We had some nice stretches of views on both sides of the ridge, and could see back to the south from where we'd come, and further ahead northward. Its great to finally have the sensation of movement along the ridge. Covering ground feels like progress, and watching the country move by slowly is an interesting feeling. Nice breaks with snacks and views in the shade will lift the mood, and things seem great. Then a particularly hot uphill comes along and you want to throw in the towel.

And the craziest things keep happening on the spur of the moment. We reached the road and the end of the trail for the day, started walking towards the village to look for a minbak. Two minutes down the road a guy pulls up and offers us a ride. We squeeze into his car and off we go, with only minimal communication established. He quickly shrugs off our minbak suggestion in Jit-Jae, and proceeds onward through the small village in which we were planning to spend the night. On a corner, he pulls to a short stop, looking as if he's just realized something important. He gets out of the car, sprints across the street and returns with three bags of grapes fresh off the vine for us! More confusing discussion (to me anyway, Liz seemed to know a bit of what he was saying, but I'm totally lost at this point), and we stop in the center of the next village down the road. This time he goes into a bank and brings out three coffees for all of us. Yep, a bank. Weird.

We'd been asking him to find a motel or minbak in the Ayeong area, but he just keeps driving further south, back towards where we started hiking for the day. He's convinced we want to go to the national park where the Baekdudaegan starts. Liz and I are both thinking, "Oh great, there goes today's progress". Finally, we pull into a large building that looks like an old school. Apparently its a restaurant, hotel and bath house. We eat a huge lunch while he explains what he's gleamed of our situation to the hotel proprietor. She seems to understand and appears not only accepting of the transfer of responsibility for us, but happy to do it. After gorging ourselves, and our driver getting us set up with a room, he departs quickly with a smile. We move into the room, shower, do laundry in the sink and set it out to dry on the heated floor, then head outside with beer and snacks.

Sitting in the shade drinking and writing in complete, clean comfort, its difficult to imagine how different the segments of the day have been in only a few hours. The transitions in mood and energy are usually abrupt and dramatic. But the strange thing is the lack of control we have over these changes. We're along for the ride, but we're not always driving this thing. Who is driving this thing, anyway?

Photos from the last few days...

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Four days down!

We now have four days in the bag - and despite our huge bags (20kg each) we had a great time with perfect weather, aside from the humidity. I'm not going to lie, we're exhausted, but we're having fun! The mountains in Korea aren't especially high, but the terrain is up there with Alaska in challenge. Koreans seem to have no need for switchbacks. The trails go straight up and then straight down and years of erosion means at times you are climbing hand over hand on large boulders grabbing roots and anything that will help you pull your self up.

On top of the physcial exertion, we have the cultural challenges, mental exertion and stress associated with being in a foriegn country. Most everyone we've met has been soooo helpful, kind and generous. First my aunt, who picked me up at the airport, braved traffic and then hauled me all over Seoul to help with some last minute errands, then drove me all the way to Suwon to meet my host family. My host family totally rocks - they put us up for several nights, fed us lots of good meals and then drove us to the trail head and hike with us to the first shelter. Then there have been the countless people along the trail, sharing advice, food and lots of smiles.

Last night we made it out of the park to a guesthouse with the "good cop/bad cop" hosts. One lady was glad we were there, the other we were pretty sure was going to kill us in the middle of the night. But we showered, washed clothes and had meals and beer! Now we're in a large city catching up on e-mail before we head out for another week or so.

Click on the slideshow below to see it in full screen:

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Hiking the Baekdudaegan -- Backbone of Korea

Our intent coming to Korea was to explore other portions of the country that we hadn't seen much of five years ago. We wanted to see the rural country side and experience more of the mountain village lifestyle that is prominent away from Korea's urban centers.

A hiking trail called the Baekdudaegan runs along a series of high ridges through the country, and is something of a spiritual backbone of the peninsula. Liz has done more research on the topic than I, but that is the basic idea. Here is a website that contains some information on the trail, including an overview map and the concept of the Baekdudaegan.

We hope to cover as much of this trail as possible, discovering what we can along the way, and no doubt having an adventure.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Blog Updates

Many of you have asked for e-mail updates in addition to blog updates. We've set up an RSS feed on the site for those of you using RSS readers (think of it like a customized newpaper in which you choose the content - Google reader is a good one to start with because it's easy). Just click on the button in the column on the right to add our blog.

The other way to keep up to date is to e-mail me (lizzyyungATgmailDOTcom) with "Keep me updated" in the subject line and I'll add you to an e-mail list. We'll send out an e-mail with a short update every couple of weeks with what's been happening and reminding you to check our blog.

Also I would love to hear from all of YOU! It's kind of sad leaving home for 9 months so we would love you to keep us updated on what is going on in your lives!

Greetings from Korea

I hope this doesn't become a theme - waiting for weeks to post and being in a completely different location posting about places I've been previously...

To recap - I got back from Alaska then had a few days to tie up loose ends and pack. Then my dad and uncle came out and we attempted to climb Mt. Rainier. The weather gods did not smile kindly on us and we were "lulled" to sleep in the public shelter at Camp Muir by howling winds and awoke to quite a bit of fresh snow the next morning. The sun came out but the wind kept cranking. We hiked up to Ingraham flats intending to return to Muir and camp out for the night and assess making a summit attempt from there. The hike up to the flats sufficiently scared the bejezus out of everyone except Chris - that and avalanche conditions were more than scary. So we slept in the next day and headed back down - into the rain. So while we didn't summit, Bill and Dad got to experience the full range of what the Mountain has to offer - they can look at is as more bang for their buck! Bill and Dad were both in great shape, and I have no doubt they would have made it up weather permitting so we'll all have to attempt it again when we return! Unfortunately all my pictures are on my computer - because I forgot to upload them before I left, so you will have to use your imagination on what it all must have looked like!

After that Chris and I returned to Seattle and had about a day to pack up before I left for Korea - which is where I am now. Chris will be over here in a couple of days. It's hot, it's humid, there are crickets and locusts (which is REALLY exciting because it's one thing I really miss about the US), and there is LOTS and LOTS of confusion because my Korean is TERRIBLE. Luckily my aunt is about the most patient person in the world (which says alot because I don't believe Koreans are genetically predisposed to that) and we've been having lots of fun running errands together.

Pictures from Alaska

I have so much more to say about my trip to Alaska, but for now some pictures will have to suffice:

Sea Kayaking in Prince William Sound

Backpacking in Wrangle-St. Elias National Park