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.
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