Cheonwangbong hiking, Jirisan, Sept 2010.

There’s a three day holiday in Korea called Chuseok where if it falls on weekdays, you get three days off work. My friend Paul had been keen to visit Korea and so Chuseok seemed an ideal time for him to nip over and for us to do the sort of hike that needed at least three days.

The hike that I had in mind was in a National Park in the south of the country, Jirisan. It has the highest mountain in mainland Korea, the 1915 metre high Cheonwangbong and there is a trail that follows the mountain ridge from east to west and vice versa. I’d recently bought an excellent book on the Baekdu-daegan trail, a 735km route that runs from the Cheonwangbong peak right up to the border with the North and beyond. I suspected that I wouldn’t ever get around to walking the entire trail, particularly the bit in the North, but the first section in Jirisan seemed ideal for the Chuseok holiday.

Jirisan - looks well worth a trip.

I’d been warned at work about the transport mayhem at Chuseok as Koreans head back to their home towns to honour their ancestors and I’d seen photos in the paper of the massive queues at the railway station for tickets. It wasn’t surprising then that when I tried to book rail tickets they only had standing ones left. Normally I wouldn‘t mind three or four hours standing on a train, particularly with a can or two of beer. Paul and I had done plenty of that when inter-railing around Europe twenty five years ago and it all worked very well then. But with a three day hike up a big hill to do, I thought we might just benefit from having seats this time.

That meant travelling by bus instead, which in Korea isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There’s a great public transport network and you can travel in posh buses that have wide reclining seats in them with plenty of leg room. The only drawback is that as a foreigner you can‘t book your seats online. Fortunately, the lad at the next desk to me is Korean and he very kindly made the arrangements. We were booked on an ’excellent’ bus from Dong Seoul Terminal to Jinju that left on the Monday lunchtime and if the Chuseok traffic wasn’t too bad we would be in Jinju about four hours later. The plan was that we would meet a couple of people from one of  my walking groups there, Connie later that evening and Matthew the following morning after his overnight bus journey.

I’d also booked some mountain shelters for the trip. That was a bit more difficult than the buses as they tend to fill up very quickly. You can book them fifteen days in advance on the Korean National Parks website and I was poised at exactly 10am on the opening day, refreshing the page every few seconds as if it were Mott the Hoople reunion tickets on sale.

At 10.01am the 135 place Jangteomok shelter was fully booked. Fortunately I had managed to get us the four spots necessary for our first night. As an alternative option I also reserved four places at the less popular Seseok shelter that was 3.4km further along the trail. That gave us the option of pushing on a bit further on the first day if we were making good progress and cutting down the planned second day distance from 23km to 20km. The next morning I successfully got us into the Nogo-dan shelter for the second night on the ridge. The shelters are pretty basic, you sleep on the floor or on raised platforms and are packed in like sardines.

Jangteomok Shelter - The solitude of the mountains.

So, to recap. The plan was;

Day 1 – Bus to Jinju, overnight stay in a hotel.

Day 2 – 6.30am bus from Jinju to Daewonsa, hike 13km to the top of  Cheonwangbong and then get to one of the two shelters, Jangteomok (1.7km from peak) or Seseok (5.4km from peak) that we had previously booked.

Day 3 – Get up early and make use of the twelve or so hours daylight and hike along the ridge to the next booked shelter at Nogo-dan, a distance of either 20km or 23km, depending upon where we had stayed the night before.

Day 4 – Swing north along the ridge and exit at Gogi-ri after 14km. Catch a bus to Namwon in time for our pre-booked connection to Seoul at 17.10.

And the actual?

Well, the bus to Jinju went pretty well. The Chuseok traffic was heavy but the dedicated bus only lanes meant that we made good progress and we arrived at Jinju Express Bus Terminal only half an hour behind schedule at ten to five. As the bus the next morning to Daewonsa departed from the Inter-city Terminal we walked the fifteen minutes between the two bus stations and found a hotel near the the Inter-City one. Naturally we selected the hotel on the basis of it having plastic palm trees on the roof.

Our hotel.

There was a festival due to start a few days later in Jinju that looked like it was celebrating the old television programme ’It’s a Knockout’. I was expecting to bump into Stewart Hall and Arthur Ellis, but obviously the BBC stay well clear of hotels with plastic palm trees on the roof.

If you look closely, you can see Eddie Wareing stood on the bridge.

We met Connie, went for some bibimbap at a cafe and then had a couple of beers at a bar that featured live music.

Mercifully, they took plenty of breaks.

Next morning we met Matthew at the bus station. He looked pretty tired after his overnight journey, but he had managed to get us tickets for the first bus to Daewonsa at 6.30am. The journey took an hour and with the exception of one other hiker we were the only ones to travel all the way to Daewonsa.

Rush hour.

We set off walking at 7.50am, making our way along a road initially and then passing a temple on the left.

Daewon-sa Temple

 After just over an hour we turned left onto the trail that leads to the Cheonwangbong peak. The signpost reckoned that it was  6.4km to the Chibatmok shelter, where we expected to be able to get some more water and then a further 4.1 km to the peak. According to the guidebook we were already above 800m, so we had a further 1100m or so to ascend.

A very useful map at the start of the trail.

I was fine in the early stages of the trail, where we passed plenty of signs warning of bears. The signs started off with fairly cuddly images, but the further along we got the bigger the bears teeth seemed to be. Fortunately none of us spotted any of the forty or so bears that live in Jirisan Park, although Connie did see a snake at one point. It was notable just how quiet the trail was. We passed maybe ten people in total all day, which is remarkable in Korea where quite often you have to queue at busy parts of the paths.

I was walking pretty slowly and it soon became clear that I’d been a bit overambitious in estimating the distances that I could hike on this terrain. It was steeper and slower going than any of the other trails I’d hiked in Korea and I clearly wasn’t as fit as I needed to be. A lot of the sections were scrambles and of those that weren‘t it was still a case of carefully placing your feet. I slipped a couple of times, which I think sapped my strength a little more. We reached the Chibatmok shelter at 1.40pm, with 4.1km still to go to the top and then a further 1.7km to the first of the shelters that we had pre-booked. That doesn’t sound very far, but I’d only covered 6.4km in the previous four and a half hours and was slowing down after nearly six hours hiking. It would be getting dark at six o’clock and I was doubtful that I’d make it to the Jangteomok shelter by then.

Matthew catching up on his sleep at Chibatmok Shelter.

We decided to revise the plan and stay at the forty person Chibatmok shelter for the night before pushing on to the peak in the morning. Fortunately the shelter didn’t take advance bookings and as we were the first people to arrive that afternoon, we were in. Five thousand won a head plus a further thousand to hire a blanket. I ate my peanut butter straight from the jar and had a tin of anchovies mixed with peanuts.

We had a chat with a Korean bloke who had been to Everest base camp. Not that morning, mind, that would have been impressive. He’d made his way to Chibatmok from over on the ridge via Cheonwangbong. He reckoned it would take us between four and five hours to get to the peak in the morning. It looked as if we had made the right decision not to have pressed on further that day.

By 6pm there were only six people at the shelter so it looked like it might not have been too crowded. There was a little bit of rain and a fairly strong wind and by the time it got dark at about 6.30pm we were happy to go to bed. Fortunately we were able to spread out a bit more than the markings on the wall suggested that we should. Each allocated space on the wooded floor was probably only about eighteen inches wide. We took the equivalent of two places each and hoped that there wouldn’t be a sudden influx of hikers. A few did arrive over the next couple of hours but fortunately not enough to make us bunch up.

The next morning I was up at quarter past six, just after sunrise. Apparently someone had been snoring pretty heavily in the shelter, but as I’d worn earplugs I didn’t hear anything and had slept quite well.

One of Paul's sunrise shots.

A cup of coffee and some more peanut butter and we were away by 8.10am. We made good progress in the first couple of hours as although the trail was steep in places, the conditions underfoot were quite good.

Pausing for a photo after about half an hour.

There were a few staircases to help with sections that would have required climbing skills and the odd rope to help with sections where installing stairs would have been impractical.

By about 10.30 we reached Jungbong, which at 1874m is comfortably the highest mountain I’ve ever walked to the top of. Hopefully, with Cheonwangbong only 0.9km away though,  I’d beat that record in the next hour or so.

Jung-bong peak, 1874 metres

 Unfortunately the weather wasn’t as good as the previous day and we had to contend with heavy rain. I had my waterproofs with me but because of the humidity and with my clothes being already soaked with sweat, I didn’t think that I’d be any the drier after putting them on. Paul put his on, which was probably the right thing to do.

Big jessie.

Three hours after setting off from the Chibatmok shelter, we reached the 1915m Cheonwangbong summit. The rain was still pretty heavy and the clouds were low which meant that we couldn‘t see much apart from Korean hikers posing for photos at the top. We did the same and as the wind was fairly strong, we soon dropped down a few metres from the top for a bit of shelter.

Cheonwang-bong peak, 1915 metres.

After about half an hour sitting around, eating and taking photos we decided to head off the mountain and make for the village of Jungsan-ri. The weather wasn’t really conducive to ridge walking and we would have been gambling on finding a shelter with spaces later in the day. If we got back down to Jungsan-ri instead we could get a bus back to Jinju where they had hotels with proper beds and beer. It wasn‘t too difficult a decision to make.

The route down to Jungsan-ri was one of the alterative routes up to Cheonwangbong that I’d considered and discounted before deciding to on starting from Daewon-sa. As we descended I was pleased that we hadn‘t used the route on the way up. It was only 5.4km and therefore a much steeper slog, with far more stairways to tackle. The scenery wasn‘t anything like as good as that we had encountered coming from Daewon-sa and it was probably twenty times busier.

It took about an hour and a half to reach the first landmark on the way down, Rotary Shelter, which was two kilometres from the peak. Again the slow progress was mainly down to the conditions underfoot which were extremely slippy due to the continued torrential rain.

Part of the Beopgye-sa-Temple next to the Rotary Shelter.

After a quick break for another snack at the shelter we set off for the final 3.4km down to Jungsan-ri. At one point on the trail, when I was walking alone, I could hear ghostly singing behind me. For a long time I couldn‘t see anyone and I did start to wonder if the singing was something that you heard just before you died. It wasnt though, it was a Korean women with a haunting voice and she passed me a few minutes later, still singing.

At the bottom of the hill.

Two and a half hours after leaving the Rotary shelter I got to the bottom. The others, who were walking a little quicker were already there and we went for some food, before catching the bus back into town where after a bath and a change of clothes I didn‘t feel quite so worn out. We ended up in the bar with the singers in again where at the end of the evening I fell over as I stood up to leave. I’m blaming it on muscle fatigue rather than the numerous vodka and oranges that I’d re-hydrated with.

The next day my legs felt as if they belonged to someone else. Paul seemed fairly tired too as I had to wake him in the afternoon by getting reception to ring every room on the floor I knew his room was on. Once outside, he was soon asleep again.

We were able to get a bus back to Seoul from Jinju late afternoon that even with the Chuseok traffic made it in under five hours. I was a bit disappointed not to have done the ridge walk as well but the reality is that I just wasn‘t fit enough to have managed the schedule that I’d planned, particularly in poor weather. Still, it was a mountain about six times higher than Roseberry Topping, so thats not too bad I suppose.

9 Responses to “Cheonwangbong hiking, Jirisan, Sept 2010.”

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    Nice stuff, glad to hear that the Baekdu-daegan Trail book was motivating and useful.

    Roger Shepherd.

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