Expect the Unexpected
The biggest lesson we've learned while hiking the Baekdudaegan so far is that one cannot possibly imagine what will happen over the course of the day. Every morning we wake up with a general idea of what we might see that day and where we might end up in the evening, but the morning's predictions are seldom correct. We know this, but the flow of the day's events frequently take us by surprise.
This past Sunday we awoke on a helipad above Ehwaryeong Pass, put away our tents in the pre-dawn, watched the sunrise and munched on a meager breakfast of Korean rice cakes and crackers. The previous evening we'd arrived at the pass, grateful that the rest stop on this small, windy road was even open, as we've come to question all ammenities noted on our maps. The rest stop had commanding views of the valley, but somewhat limited culinary offerings. We had taken a day longer than planned to hike this section, leaving us short on food. The three of us pieced together a dinner of snacks and scavenged the convenience store for suitable breakfast items. That morning our stomachs were not appeased by the beautiful sunrise and grumbled about the lack of caloric intake they've come to expect and require.
The upstart of the small breakfast is that for once we actually started hiking before 7 am (instead of just talking about it). This afforded the opportunity to enjoy the cool morning air and the additional beauty of the forests and ridges glowing in the early morning light. As we started up the long climb up from the pass, our legs take over the protest chorus from our stomachs. Our motivation for the day was the little bit of rice, potato, carrot and garlic gloves we had saved for the scheduled fried rice lunch. The three of us are all fat-kids at heart and we've all mentioned aloud at one point that on some days it feels like we're hiking from meal to meal. Early on this day, we weren't hiking to a peak, we were hiking to fried rice and hopefully on to a restaurant in the evening.
We reach the first peak of the day after a couple of hours of hiking and run into the hiking club we met on the trail on the way up. We had missed the proper ridge trail and taken a spur trail that went by a spring, where these guys easily left us and our large packs in the dust. Missing the ridge turned out to be a blessing. Upon reaching the peak, we meet the hiking club again just as they were pulling out breakfast. It's 9 am, but of course breakfast included rice wine and a couple of bottles of soju. We politely refuse their offerings which only deepens their resolve to get us to take something, so from their backpacks--like Mary Poppins' carpetbag--comes a never-ending buffet of snacks that they keep handing to us. First come boiled eggs (Jeff labels them 'little batteries of turbocharged energy'), then a small bag of Clementines, of which we take three and then try to give it back but they won't hear of it. Finally comes a lunch box of little rice balls filled with meat and such. We can only offer some sugar cookies in return. We've been offered lots of food on many summits along the trail--hardy candy, cookies, choco pies, and the ubiquitous yellow wrapped mystery sausage--but this one took the cake. When in need, one is often provided for.
Conversation centered around our through-hiking project, and they eagerly pointed out what we would be hiking that day. In our minds, we were hiking four or five hours (a 'short day') and then would be walking off the ridge to a town and heading towards a much needed few days of rest. We were so overwhelmed by the sight of the hiking club on the peak we hadn't even looked at where we were heading. Our jaws dropped at the sight of the classic Korean painting-like rocky ridge line that lay ahead.
We set off from breakfast and were immediately scrambling over rocks and rappelling off ropes tied to trees. At the beginning of the day, I checked each tree, the knots and the rope then carefully rapped off keeping both my hands on the rope. By the end of the day and thousands of ropes later, after watching all the Korean hikers practically run down the rope several on it at a time, I would just pick the rope up without looking and climb down. The next several hours involved challenging scrambling with full packs (luckily at the end of the section without the weight of food) in dramatic exposure balancing on airy granite ridges. Scenery alternated between the beginnings of fall on the southern exposures and the full bloom of peak foliage on the north sides. Trying to take in all the breathtaking views of the steep exposed granite peaks, amazingly beautiful autumn weather and colors was almost too much to handle while being passed and cajoled by hiking clubs of 10-20Koreans at a time.
One mental adjustment we've had to make on weekends is getting used to seeing people again. Our somewhat remote location and the lack of vagabond through-hikers on the Baekdudaegan means that we see just a few hikers during the week. But on the weekends we see people by the score. It's good contrast and gives a couple of days of Korean cultural immersion. On this day it was a balance between being absolutely grateful and absolutely scared by the sheer number of people trying to pass you in places that didn't seem particularly safe.
We cooked our eagerly anticipated fried rice on another peak filled to the brim with another large hiking club. The smell of frying garlic and potatoes in sesame oil, and our foreign looks draws a lot of onlookers and lots of encouraging (I think) comments, smiles and more offers of food. Koreans know how to picnic, but I think we showed them up on this occasion. Recharged and with lighter packs now completely empty of food, we continued climbing up rock faces and down ropes, stopping at each precipice and cliff to take in the views, let a hiking club pass, and take photographs. About nine hours into our five hour hike, we are completely alone. The rocky scrambling ends abruptly, and we walk down a well built stair case along an old fortress wall and pop out onto a groomed lawn with an old gate, hoards of hikers, tourists, kids and old Korean music pumping out of a speaker in a mountain restaurant. Just like that, suddenly all the ruggedness and exposure of the ridge melts away into memory.
We walk down the road a couple kilometers to find a small cluster of restaurants. We find a "pension" (a vacation condo) which turns out to be a two-room steal with a small kitchen and two bathrooms. The evening consists of dinner at the restaurant downstairs, a hot shower, some hot tea and watching the third Lord of the Rings movie on TV. Not at all what we had imagined that morning, but so completely satisfying and exactly what we needed. This was truly a stand out hike - one of the top ridge hikes we've done in any country - but simultaneously another typical day on the Baekdu Daegan.