I wake up in the morning and grab a can of iced coffee from the mini fridge. I arrived here in the dark, having rushed to catch a two-hour bus on a Friday night after work. The door to the balcony has a sticky door knob that I fumble with for a second before opening. Walking out onto the third-story balcony, I look down and see families pulling hiking gear out of their cars. I look up and see mountains, monopolizing the scene before me. This is why I chose to stay at Seoraksan Tourist Hotel, the only hotel in Seoraksan National Park.
Sokcho is a Korean city of less than 90,000, tucked away in the northeast corner of Gangwon-do–the province I called home for a year. There are many reasons for one to visit Sokcho, it is a cultural and historical city with a popular beach and hot springs. Although it may be seen as a “sleepy city,” the centre is well-equipped with shops and restaurants for money-spending and time-wasting. However, the real reason to visit–and the reason I did–is because Sokcho is the perfect gateway to Seoraksan National Park.
After a quick breakfast, I’m heading out the door. I’m going to hike up Ulsanbawi today, a 4-km hike over 800 steps, up granite peaks, the ones you’ll pass as you arrive in Sokcho. I’ll pass two temples along the way, and fall into line with a string of Korean (and several foreign) hikers, as the stairs wind up precariously along the steep, smooth granite cliffs.
Legend says that Ulsanbawi is named for the city Ulsan, to the south. This is where Ulsanbawi comes from. As mountains formed to the north of Seoraksan, Ulsanbawi walked up to join, but unfortunately was too late and there was no more room. Walking back, Ulsanbawi slept a night in the Seorak area, and loved it so much that it decided to stay.
My vertigo sets in as I near the peak at Ulsanbawi. Korean hikers traverse a small bridge over a vast drop before reaching the final lookout. My body rejects, but I’m here now, I hold my breath and do the same, though the railing is so short I have to bend down to reach–and I’m the only one who makes the effort to do so. The wind hits like a wall. At the top are men selling water and souvenirs to a couple dozen visitors who crowd a space that is far too small. I wonder how awful it must be to tote all this stuff up those stairs, and how often they do it. I take my photos quickly and get out of there.
Food is expensive in the park, so I take a bus for a dollar into the city. A small restaurant in Sokcho’s centre serves me cheap dolsot bibimbap with a few sides. I’ve brought a towel and swimsuit, so make my way to Sokcho beach. It is a hot day and the beach is crowded. I walk past a long line of umbrellas for rent and spread out my towel on a free space of sand. The beach is long and wide with fine sand stretching the length. Nearby a tent is blown over in the wind and two women chase it down before it gains momentum, leaving a path of irritated beachgoers in its wake.
After a while, I head back to the city centre to walk the main street of shops. I stop to grab some food to take back to the hotel for my dinner–remember, food in the park isn’t cheap. I pass a convenience store and decide to grab a few Cass beers as well. It’s a struggle to carry all of this back on the half-hour bus ride.
Finally, I’m back at the hotel and it’s getting late in the day. I turn on the TV, though the channels are in Korean and I can’t understand. Some reality TV show where two young girls are trying to grab a piece of fabric sticking out of the back of a guy’s pants. Colourful expressions pop up once in a while, I guess this is a standard in Korean television. Supper is Korean fried chicken (with accompanying pickled radishes and green onion) and Cass beer. It’s not glamourous, but it’s exactly what I want.