This is the story of two attempts on Chiaksan, the 1,288-metre tall mountain that resides about an hour’s ride by bus from my former home in Wonju, South Korea. Once upon a time, Chiaksan was known as Jeokakasan. Then, based on a myth about a man who saved a pheasant from a snake, the mountain became “Chiaksan” and the meaning became “Pheasant Peak Mountain.” You’ll find Chiaksan National Park in Gangwon-do, central and north within South Korea’s borders.
My first experience in Chiaksan was in September of 2012, just one month after I’d arrived in South Korea. Meeting up with several other English teachers, strangers to me, Tim and I caught the No. 41 bus for 1,100 won (about $1.14 CAD). The air was still muggy with the humidity of a Korean summer, but nothing compared to the 40-degree heat wave that had thankfully passed.
Arriving at the park, the Americans who accompanied us proceeded to perform exaggerated stretching routines–to the delight of the locals around.
A leisurely hike along a relatively flat path took us to Guryongsa Temple, an area we spent around an hour exploring. After leaving, we approached Seryeom Waterfall. Here is where the real hike would begin.
There are two routes to Birobong peak, one expert and one advanced in name. The truth is that both have pros and cons that are all their own. The expert path is steep, lined with steps most of the way. One would think that these lengthy staircases would make the path easier, but climbing stairs gets hard after a couple of hours. The advanced path is, of course, also quite steep. However, it is a rugged and less-maintained path, that does have moments of dips and flat path between steep climbs.
On this day in September, we would take the expert path, climbing up and up with speed but stiff joints. I found myself lagging behind, aware for the first time that my level of fitness was not as great as I’d thought. Here is where we would find the hour spent in the temple area would come back to haunt us. The views from the mountain were spectacular, afternoon sun cascading in patterns through greenery that would soon turn yellow, orange, and red. The day was getting late, we were out of time. We headed back with a sense of disappointment, but feasted on the best mountain bibimbap (rice, vegetables, chili paste, and an egg), dotorimuk (acorn jelly salad), memiljeon (Korean buckwheat pancake), and fresh makgeolli (sort of a low-alcohol rice wine). The day was salvaged.
The second attempt on Chiaksan
In May of 2013, I was desperate to find my way to Chiaksan’s Birobong Peak. By this point, we’d done a lot more hiking in South Korea, and Tim and I decided to go it alone to set our own pace. We left Wonju early, arriving in the park in the morning. We skipped through the first hour towards the temple quickly, and decided to take a wager and make for the previously unexplored (to us) advanced route.
As we gained altitude, snow and ice made more frequent appearances. Fatigue set it. We’d brought food to eat, but felt determined to make a steady trek to the peak (not advisable, but tempting in the mountains). Finally, the top was in sight. A last set of staircases help us gain momentum and reach the peak. The stone pagodas appeared as we ascended, greeting us in our arrival.
At the peak, groups of Korean hikers lit up propane stoves and shared in shots of soju (the famous rice liquor, tasting like a slightly weak vodka–to me at least). The weather would have been nicer that day in September, but we rejoiced in the views of Korean hills, mystical in the haze. After a few quick photos and time to revel in success, we headed back down the expert path. Two things came to my mind: chocolate and soda. I’m not usually that big of a sugar person, but at this point, my body was pretty depleted.
We arrived at the shops near the entrance to the park just minutes before the next bus back to Wonju would pull up. We quickly bought a few snacks and jumped on the crowded bus, luckily making our way to two empty seats at the very back. Tim ate an ice cream cone as a young Korean boy laughed at us and gestured his jealously for our snacks. Tired and content, we were on our way back home.
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