forty days. forty stories.
Fun filled 4 weeks of strange food, beautiful granite, no westerners, rusty ring bolts, urban camping and Asian cities.
by Andy Tyson
After meeting Joolee on a NOLS rock-climbing course, she headed off to an English teaching job in South Korea, and I went south to instruct a mountaineering course on Tierra Del Fuego. We kept in touch through e-mail, and Joolee said she would welcome a Korean travel companion during her spring break – a place I had never considered for adventure. It was a random enough adventure, something I was craving at the time, that just before I left Puerto Natalis for a month in the Patagonian wilds, I got on the web and bought a plane ticket to South Korea. When I landed in Seoul on April first, Joolee had a vision, if not a plan. We hopped into her friends little red car. She tossed me the maps. “All these maps are in Korean.” I said. “Yup” said Joolee “and unfortunately it’s rush hour and we need to get to the other side of Soul. You are navigator.” We ventured into oncoming traffic occasionally and missed a few exits but the adventure was on and we were going… somewhere.
When Bill contacted me about this birthday project, I dug out some sparse journaling I did from the trip. Following are some vignettes.
Our first grocery shop was at the ubiquitous trailhead mini-mart. Joolee quietly gathered our ration while I oggled the funny looking food items in the shop. When we got into the hills, I quickly realized that Joolee’s provision intent was as much to sample and shock as it was to sustain us. So we had plastered squid for breakfast and pickled quail eggs for lunch. Our snacks were “Squid Balls” – squid flavored, peanut filled puffs of crunch. I was happy she hadn’t had a full Korean street market of goods to choose from! Food oddities continued to be a theme of the trip – liberally supplemented by ice cream, vending machine coffee and beer (Hof).
Our first camping and climbing foray into the granite world was actually in Seoul, the capital city. Insubong state park on the northern edge of the city has beautiful granite domes noted in the western world for the couple routes that Yvon Choinard established while serving in the military. After enjoying the camaraderie route information and mayhem on a beautiful wall closest to the park entrance, we ventured off to the many other walls and domes. The trails were teeming with hikers but when we bushwhacked to the distant rock walls the only evidence of climbing were occasional rusty ringbolts. It seemed as if all climbing spots except the popular wall had been abandoned. We happily sampled the fine granite and even clipped a rusty ringbolt now and then.
After three days of hiking, climbing and camping around the (urban) wilderness of Soninbong and Insubong we ventured back to the park entrance to head to the next destination of Ulsan Bowi in the Eastern mountains. Our exit was delayed however when we tried to leave the parking lot.
The parking attendants couldn’t comprehend that we actually understood why they wanted so much Wan. And they persisted in trying to explain. We merely didn’t want to pay 83,000 Wan ($65USD) for three days of parking. They said “police coming” we said “good”. This surprised them since they hoped the police threat would make us quickly pay up. The sign clearly said (in Korean) that parking cost 400 W every 10 minutes. I felt a bit conflicted about fighting the posted price though it wasn’t just because we couldn’t read the sign. We had asked the park office where to leave our car for three days and they pointed here. We now suspected the ‘three days’ part had been misunderstood. 400 Wan every 10 minutes day and night to park in a deserted lot during the Korean workweek seemed excessive, and we really couldn’t read the sign. We offered 400 an hour. When the cops showed up, Joolee appealed to the nicer one (who couldn’t really understand her, he was just more compassionate then most officials we encountered). “We have the money though it is food for a week” she pleaded. Besides $65 would have paid for 3 nights in a hotel with hot shower rather than 3 nights camping while our car sat in an empty lot. The cop pleaded our case to the parking guys. They didn’t budge. We were sitting in Joolee’s’ friends’ car now barricaded in with heavy steel sawhorses. The polite thing to do would be to pull out the $$ and pay up. We were feeling a bit cheated though, and kindness was not flowing from anyone except the nicer cop. The other cop was checking out the car and its license with his pencil pad and radio. Jane, the British car owner, was 1,000 miles away teaching English in Kumi City. She had bought the car from another foreigner and we were getting worried that it might not be completely legal. The good cop was now asking for Jane’s phone number. Hmm, had we held out too long… just then the parking guy asked for the offered sum (15,000 Wan $13USD). Barricades were moved and off we peeled.
“Doesn’t that say “yogwan” its got the fire bowl symbol then those other two characters” I suggest. “Yup” confirms Joolee. We enter. All the buildings seem to be newly constructed in the immediately decrepit 60’s box style so everything seems a bit seedy. The language mystery combined with the architecture made me feel like I was always entering a brothel. Indeed in this case the alley entrance, second floor little booth office window, pink curtains, no staff, and porno filled video rack, were all still inconclusive. “Is this a place to stay for the night?” “Yes yes you stay fine fine” – and it was. Other places were less suspicious until we finally gestured our sleeping intent… “OHH!, you want to stay for the WHOLE night… that costs 25,000 Wan then….”
When we arrived at Soraksan (Ulsan Bowie) National Park we were told by an official looking guy who spied our gear that much of the park was “closed” and we were not allowed to climb on the rocks. “The park is closed to climbing?” “Oh yes” he said. “And it is closed to camping as well.” He added. “That is funny,” we said “because we came here from America to camp and climb for a five days!” “Ha Ha Ha” He heartily laughed. I started laughing. Joolee eventually managed a chuckle – she was a bit more wrapped up in the meaning than the classic situation. Soon we were all belly laughing that this guy had told us that we couldn’t camp or climb in the place we had made our major destination. A little more conversation reviled that he “wasn’t sure” that the park was closed to climbing and suggested we ask someone else. He also said he owned the hotel whose lot we were parked in and would give us half off the room rate. We decided that proposition lent suspicion to his no camping statement. After winding up our hearty laugh session we cashed in the parking permits we had bought, moved chancha (the car) to a different lot and carefully avoided asking anyone else about the current park rules. The trails were teaming with visitors but there were incredibly few westerners (we saw maybe 20 total during this whole trip.) Even though we did not want to be ugly foreign travelers we occasionally bumbled into a situation, like this one, where the “stupid foreigner” card could be played (or at least was happily in the back pocket.) Our days at Soraksan National Park were spent climbing five pitch granite rock routes and living in the shelter of an immense overhanging boulder. Idyllic.
For our last Korean excursions we returned to Joolee’s town and used her motorcycle (jin-ja) to explore some local areas. We found three within about forty five minutes of her apartment. The best one took two visits to find the actual climbing but once we found it we also discovered it was popular with American GI’s stationed at a nearby military base. Joolee did her first lead rock climb there in the hills outside of Kumi (Gumi) city.
Joolee needed to renew a Korean work visa by leaving and returning to the country. A jetboat to Fukuoka Japan seemed like a relatively easy option and we decided to spend a couple weeks traveling around there. We met a couple on the boat that was doing a one-night trip to do the same visa thing. We all rented a room in the cheapest Japanese hotel we could find. $90 USD a night. Pretty spendy for our budget. We figured the four of us could share the expensive (and certainly luxurious for that price) “business” hotel room. When we entered we found a room that had a foot or two of floor space surrounding a twin size bed. The bathroom was the size of an airplane bathroom, with a showerhead above the door. We decided to head out on the town and enjoy the nightlife enough to not care how we wedged into that room later that night. It must have worked because I don’t remember.
We were told the mountain was closed. The April days seemed nice enough to us and we wanted to check out Mt. Fuji, but on the way there, everyone said it was “not possible” to go there. We took the public bus to the mostly deserted tourist stop at the base of the mountain and ducked the gates on the approach trail. Nothing exactly said “closed” that we could read. We post-holed up the 11,000 ft. peak in out tennis shoes and circumnavigated the summit crater taking in the valley views through scattered April clouds. The only other sole in the backcountry that day was a lone skier who got in a quick lap low on the peak. I guess they were right that nothing on the mountain was open – all the lodges and restaurants on the summer trail were indeed closed, and we had the whole place to ourselves, which I gather is something hard to imagine during a summer ascent.
Hitchhiking and urban bivy was the general plan in Japan and it served us well. Somehow we decided on spots to camp each night – I remember feeling that the bar was so low, it felt like we were just pitching our tent anywhere we felt like it with the plan to feign ignorance if anyone questioned us. Our own urban Japan Occupy movement. But occasionally Joolee would decide that one town park or deserted street was unacceptable and we would walk into the night to pitch the tent in an acceptable spot. We were never harassed for our camping choices in Korea or Japan, though one time a Japanese couple found us on their morning walk and hustled off, only to return with breakfast for us from the local mini-mart.
My favorite hitch was from Kyoto to Hiroshima. We stood on the road with a piece of paper on which we had someone write the Japanese character for “Hiroshima”. Eventually some guy came running down the road toward us. We wondered if he was going to bust us for hitchhiking, but he just said “come Mickey Mouse car!” Turns out they had passed us awhile back and stopped out of view, eventually deciding to change their weekend plans and destination to take the hitchhikers to Hiroshima (a five hour drive). The young couple were indeed in a weird looking vehicle for 2002 – think Nissan Cube or Scion Xb. We had a great time on the drive – they were young and dating, spending their weekends going to collect castle stamps by visiting castles all around Japan. They needed stamps in Hiroshima so that was why they were happy to completely change their destination to take us where we wanted to go. After getting to Hiroshima, Joolee and I checked out the sites – powerful Peace park on ground zero – a place I recommend to all. We then met back up with the young couple and went out to their favorite spot for the local delicacy – a fried egg omelet with beansprouts, veggies and hot sauce thing cooked in front of you at a bar served with lots of beer. Oh yeah the guy was a rep for a beer company! We then all took the elevator from the floor in the skyscraper we were dinning, up a few to the Karaoke rooms. The rest of the evening was spent with them in a small room with a HUGE book of songs to choose from (half in English) and lots of whisky. I am pretty sure we actually got out of town and camped that night somewhere – not sure how we did that.
Plenty of other fun snippets in the brain from that adventure Joolee! Happy 40th!