Tuesday, September 27, 2011

We just started - and we're almost there!

After rough start in the rain, the weather cleared and we've had a beautiful stretch of perfect fall hiking. We were so enthusiatic about nearing the end and the weather that we hiked for 11 days in a row. Our bodies finally told us we needed to take a break, which brings us to the quaint ski town of Hwoeingye, part of Pyeongchang county - a candidate city for the 2018 winter Olympics. We splurged and are spending two whole nights in a wonderful (as in not shady love motel) clean inn with a kitchenette. This morning involved sleeping as late as we wanted after an evening spent watching bad movies on tv and not doing any laundry or logistics planning!

We've figured out we have about four or five days of acutal hiking left, with a couple of days needed to get around the various closures in the national parks. It's a weird feeling that we are actually nearing the end. This ridge holds suchs a huge place in mind my and continues to draw me back into Korean culture, the language and the food. I can easily see how our friend Roger Shepherd became so drawn into the Great Ridge and all of the subsidiary ridges. Something about not just Korea, but the trail itself pulls and continues to pull harder the more you explore it.

There are so many things to describe about the past couple of weeks. A lot of the hiking has been in fairly remote areas, the northern part of the trail being higher and further away from habitation. We have encountered larger farms - especially cabbage farms, some so large we've seen backhoes being employed to till the poor soil up here - and a lot more industrial activity such as logging, a cement factory, numerous mines, a rock quarry, wind farms and a sprawling ranch that has converted the landscape into something more reminiscent of Scotland or Wales. It gets the mind going alot about the effect of economic growth, human population growth and the growth of consumerism has on the landscape. In a country that is still so closely connected to the landscape - we frequently meet foragers and see the effects of selective gathering on the understory of the forest - it is an interesting contrast on older and newer ways in which humans interact with and affect the landscape. It's also interesting to see how that plays out in another culture - to see their constant back and forth between conservation and economic growth - especially in a country so rapidly growing and moderninzing as Korea.

There is lots to say, especially about all the amazing people we have met over the past week, but I think I will save that for later, perhaps once we are back in Seoul. For now I will leave you with some pictures - for those of you not on Facebook. Enjoy.

Moving Onward - Taebaeksan to Odesan

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

From Baekdudaegan - Taebaeksan to Odesan

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.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Back on the Baekdudaegan

After a rather trying flight in which Liz discovered that airplane food leads to airsickness, we arrived in Korea to the smiling face of Liz's Incheon emo. There is a new bridge that seems to span about 20 miles of ocean between the airport and our aunt's house cutting the drive time between the airport and her house more than in half. You would understand what a joyous discovery this was if you ever spent more than five minutes in the van with our aunt driving. We went straight to bed, got up early the next day, did a little grocery shopping, had a fun tour of Korea's back roads and in less than 24 hours of arriving in Korea we were back on the trail.

Oddly - it's three years later, but it's like we never stepped off the trail. No more than one hundred yards after leaving the road, an overwhelming sensation of familiarity set in. The feeling of walking along a ridge with the terrain dropping off to either side of the narrow footpath at your feet becomes engrained while walking the Baekdudaegan. We only hiked a couple of hours that day, but everything felt like a familiar rhythm - the flora, the trail, the steady up then back down, looking for a campsite, and looking for water.

We fell asleep to cool breezes and the sound of locusts (and this crazy ground bird that haunts us at night). We awoke the next morning to dense fog. The next four days of hiking are easily described as such: It rained. We hiked up. We hiked down. We put our tent up in the rain and hid. We took our tent down in the rain and hiked some more.

Luckily we came down from the ridge and it stopped raining, although looking up at the ridge from town we think it might still be raining up there! Hot showers and hot Korean meals never felt so good.

Back in the saddle! We'll post pictures next time we're back in town!