Naejangsan Hiking, Sunday 28th October 2012.

I haven’t managed as much hiking as I’d have liked this year, partly due to visiting Oman once a month but mainly because of my reluctance to hike in the hot summer whilst carrying more weight than I felt comfortable with. The temperatures are getting that bit colder now though and going for a walk in the mountains is a much more appealing prospect.

Jen and I had been to watch Jeonbuk Motors play FC Seoul the previous day and I’d identified Naejangsan National Park as somewhere that would be easy enough to get to afterwards. When the game finished we took a taxi to Iksan and then caught the KTX to nearby Jeongeup.

I’d marked Jeongeup down as a ‘one-horse town’, probably, I suppose, because it doesn’t appear to have any sporting teams. It’s not necessarily the most logical of assessments but in my book that’s the sort of thing that counts. As even the quietest of towns always have plenty of places to stay though, I was confident of having the pick of the motels around the station.

When we are hiking we will usually book the motel for two nights even when we are only staying for one. It means that we don’t have to check out and carry all of our gear with us and we can return to the hotel for a shower and change of clothes before travelling back to Seoul. It seems a bit extravagant, but with rooms usually costing around forty to fifty thousand won a night it’s not such a big deal.

The first place we tried quoted us 120,000 won per night. I was astonished, especially since we’d be paying double. We tried another motel and they were full. Apparently the ‘one-horse town’ of Jeongeup has a three or four week period in the autumn when it is swarming with visitors keen to see the changing colours of the leaves.

We tried a third motel whilst pondering whether or not we should have stayed in Iksan instead. The motel had one room left and quoted us 80,000 won per night. Despite being twice what they would normally have charged it seemed like a bargain. The room was fairly good too, if a little oddly decorated.

One of the rare remaining rooms in Jeongeup.

It was raining and so we decided not to bother going out to eat, instead getting by on a takeaway of kimchi mondu and kimchi fried rice. The bottles of wine that washed it down meant that we didn’t manage to achieve the early start that we’d planned the next morning and it was after nine thirty before we set off in a taxi for Naejangsan.

It’s a journey that should take around fifteen minutes, but the lure of the leaves caused so much congestion that after half an hour the driver dropped us at a car park a couple of miles from the National Park. There were dozens of coaches, hundreds of cars and thousands of people. It seemed that most of latter were queueing for the shuttle bus that would take them the remaining two miles, despite them being togged up in their best hiking gear.

Lazy gits. The bus is in the distance.

It took us half an hour to walk to the park entrance whilst I suspect that it took those on the bus a good while longer. There was a market at the entrance selling everything from soy beans to twigs for putting in soup. We noticed that a few of the restaurants were roasting half pigs and mentally filed the information for later.

Naejangsan map.

Whilst a lot of the crowd were only there for the shopping, a fair proportion of them kept walking once the stalls had petered out and followed the trail towards a temple and a cable car. There were so many people that marshalls with batons and whistles had to be deployed to keep things flowing. Everytime someone stopped dead in their tracks to photograph the foliage someone else would walk into the back of them and the bottlenecks would build up.

This was once of the quieter sections. Really.

After a further half an hours walking we reached the start of the trail to Janggunbong, a 696m peak a couple of kilometres away. We branched off to the left to follow it and immediately left ninety-nine percent of the crowd behind. Within five minutes we didn’t have another hiker in sight and we encountered far fewer on the way up than you would expect on a normal day’s hiking in Korea.

That’s better.

It was a steep climb and it took us an hour to reach the Yugunchi Pass, which is the start of the main ridge and the place where Korean Master Monk Huimuk gave the Japanese a pasting in 1592. Forty minutes later we got to the Janggunbong summit where the crowds of hikers made it difficult to find a place to stand. I suspect that a lot of them had approached from the opposite direction after taking a ride to near the top in the cable car. It’s a shame that there aren’t any Master Monks around these days to keep the crowds down.

It’s an ideal place for a picnic.

We hung around at the peak for ten minutes or so taking in the views. They were pretty much the only ones that we’d seen all day as the trail never really rises above the tree line, even when on the ridge.

We did think about pushing on to the next peak, but the volume of people made us wary about whether we would have enough time to be able to get back to Jeongeup to catch our train. Besides, there were half pigs being roasted at the bottom of the hill.

View from Janggunbong.

We retraced our steps and a little over an hour later we rejoined the crowds on their way to and from the temple. Despite it being mid afternoon the number of people arriving didn’t seem to be getting any smaller.

Still busy.

We had time for some roast pork before we made our way back to the park gate to flag down a taxi. It took us an hour to cover the distance that we had walked in half that time earlier in the day and then a further thirty minutes to get back to Jeongeup. It’s a journey that would normally take fifteen minutes.

There’s enough for a decent sandwich there.

All in all, it was a good day. The foliage was spectacular if you like that sort of thing and the trail that we took well-marked. It was also great just to get out into the hills again. It would have been a completely different experience though if we’d turned up a month earlier or later and had the place to ourselves.

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