I'm still really enjoying living in Korea, but after a rough patch including a bad haircut and loathing my city, I know it's time to be more proactive. I'm slowly accepting getting 6 months of hair growth chopped off into a Renaissance page-boy look, and also embracing hats as the temperature drops.
And as for Gunsan, it's more bearable as long as I can get out of town regularly on the weekends. Last Saturday a group of teachers went to Jeonju for the day, which is about 45 minutes away, and the capital of our province. It's still a small city, but much livelier and more cultured than Gunsan. We watched the last soccer game of the season, the drizzle and 0-0 score not dampening our spirits.
We went out for galbi, a type of Korean BBQ, in the university district, with plenty of side dishes and soju. It wasn't much different from a meal we might have in Gunsan, but it was just refreshing to be somewhere different, ya know?
Then we went to Art and Travel, a cafe-bar in the same neighborhood that has Western-style drinks, hookahs, travel photos on the wall, games to play, and hosts open mike nights. There is NOTHING like this in Gunsan. We played Scrabble while listening to poetry and live music, and Cherie and I even got up on the microphone to do an impromptu duet.
On Sunday I went to visit my friend Alex who is a new mama. Congrats to Kenton and Alex! They already have an ADORABLE one-year-old daughter, and just welcomed a son.
This past Saturday I went to Jirisan National Park. This is a place I've been wanting to go for months, as it has the tallest mountain in mainland Korea and many other peaks as well. I thought visibility might be better in the fall when it's not so hazy, and indeed it was better but not great. We still got a few vistas and the autumn foliage was beautiful.
I was with my 3 favorite hiking buddies, and we were making good time up the mountain. We stopped at Jangteomok Shelter for a lunch break. Instead of wraps or sandwiches that we might have hiking at home, as foreigners our fall back food is usually kimbab (seaweed/rice rolls). That plus "trail" food like nuts, granola bars, apples, and crackers. But Koreans always bring a stove and are eating hot ramyeon and kimchi side dishes.
After the shelter, the trail was really crowded. Maneuvering the foot traffic, we finally made it to the peak, along with masses of other people. We snapped a quick picture before descending down another trail. We thought it would take us about the same amount of time to go down as up, 3.5 hours. We had gotten a decently early start, and would have no trouble getting down by dark, and possibly in time to catch buses back to Gunsan.
But the trail was really hard to navigate. I have never seen switch-backs in Korea; they just build the trails straight up the mountain. Then to avoid erosion (I'm guessing) they line the trail with large, uneven stones. What it creates is a steep, inconsistent, and slippery path. It's really quite trecherous in parts. We were taking it pretty slow. Then one of my friends slipped on a janky staircase and slid down, dislocating both shoulders. It was a very frightening moment, though it definitely could have been worse. So after that we took it even more slowly. Soon after, a helicopter flew overhead, sending leaves and residual water pelting down on us. In the distance, we could see it lower a man down to do a medical evacuation.
Then, less than an hour later, some rangers passed us, leading a man carefully by the elbow. He was walking stiffly with a foam sleeping pad wrapped around his torso like a brace. Another helicopter flew over us, and the rangers stopped us on the trail. We couldn't pass until they evacuated this man, so we waited in the incredibly strong double-blade chopper wind and roar. Clearly, this was a fairly dangerous trail. We continued cautiously, watching each step. Eventually it started getting dark, and the last 1.4 kilometers were in the dark with headlamps and flashlights.
We knew that the exit trailhead had restaurants and hotels, so we weren't worried about that. It was just a matter of pushing through tiredness, and not losing patience on a trail where you wanted to move much faster but simply couldn't. When we finally reached paved road, it had never felt so good to just walk, full strides, without watching our feet. We got a room and a hot dinner and all crashed out early, exhausted. We agreed that we weren't sure if we conquered the mountain or it conquered us, but it was definitely an epic day that none of us would forget.