We’re on the island of Jeju off the south coast of Korea. It may be the favoured honeymoon destination of Korean couples, but we’re here to climb Hallasan Volcano. Jeju is compared often to a combination of Disneyland and Hawaii, but we haven’t found it remotely like either.
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Jeju is home to the largest national park in Korea, and it’s also the highest, as here you’ll find Korea’s tallest mountain – Mount Hallasan topping out at 1950 metres and a number of extinct volcanoes, including the very picturesque Seongsan Ilchubong, which we visited yesterday.
The sunrise is supposed to be spectacular and so too are the views from the air, but we missed both and were just vaguely disappointed at the 3,300 KRW bus ride to the 2,000 KRW entrance fee to the 20 minute hike up to the top just to walk down again.
No wandering around the cone, just a saunter back down steps to see the famed Jeju women divers and watch a lone Octopus be caught, displayed and put on sale.
Today promises to be better. Today we are hiking Hallasan. There are two routes to the top of the mountain, Gwaneumsa which is 8.6 kilomtres and Seongpanak which we’re taking at 9.7km. We’re taking the Seongpanak route, because the entrance to the trail has a bus stop and Gwaneumsa doesn’t.
This National Park is free, which is a welcome relief after those pesky Chinese ones what threw us well over budget, and the website of both the Korean Tourist Board and the National Park itself are very clear that you MUST be at a certain check point by 12:30 in this shoulder season, and off the summit by 14:00. The trail is closed summit-bound at the final rest stop, some 2.7km from the summit at 12:30, so we set the alarm for 06:00.
I haven’t tried that hard to understand the bus system on Jeju. We have to get on the bus, which goes up the 5.16 road, which is also the 1136 road. Good eh? It turns out (when we give up and ask the bus driver) that we actually need the 780- 5.16 which was clear as mud from everything that we’d researched, but the trip is reminiscent of the road to Shangri-La and it’s clear that the speed bumps mean GO FASTER to bus drivers on Jeju Island.
It’s chilly as we arrive at the entrance to the trail – which is incredibly well signposted. You couldn’t miss it at all. And we set off. The parking lot is pretty quiet and there were only four others on the bus that we took who got off here. Perhaps all those hiking robots were here when the trail opened at 0530.
The trail here is a mix. There’s some boardwalk.
There’s some wooden stairs. There’s rocks.
And then there’s puked up pyroclastic flow. This is hardened nasty spiky painful lava. Yup, this is no walk up a dried streambed. This is a hike up a lava flow.
The signs tell us how much altitude we’re gaining. We started in the parking lot at 750 metres and the summit is at 1970 metres. Over 9.7 kilometres. The first 4 or so kilometres are “easy”. The next 2.9 km are “normal”. I wonder if that means normal for me or normal for a hiking robot?. And then the last 2.7km, the push to the summit is “difficult”. My last question stands.
The boardwalk is a welcome relief. This hike is giving not just my calves and thighs a work out, but the soles of my feet and my ankles too. I’m convinced I’ll sprain or break an ankle even before we get to the top. That’s if the lava doesn’t pierce a hole in the soles of my shoes.
That said. It’s a very pleasant environment. Most of the hike is within the treeline and there’s cover from the sun, although it’s not supposed to be completely clear today, there’s a lot of cloud cover. We top up our water from the “potable water” about two thirds of the way up.
We use the hut at the final station for a break and a biscuit – there is hot water and there are noodles for sale (take all your garbage with you) here and most people have taken off their shoes to rest, but we decide to lunch at the summit.
This is the point that you have to have reached by 1230. And we’ll need to be off the summit by 1400.
The hike is estimated to be 4.5 – 5 hours one way. Our round trip ends up taking us 8 hours and 5 minutes, which included a side tour to the Saraoreum Canyon and about 30 minutes of rest break.
The last 200 metres of altitude is hard work. The tree cover has gone and the clouds have disappeared. They’re now below us. It’s pretty warm now. Any steps are uneven, not secure and the rocks are the same.
Occasionally there are rope by the trail to haul yourself up on, but that just seems to make it harder. I’m not quite crawling up some of this like I did on the Great Wall of China, but it’s a tough last push.
But it’s worth it. There are perhaps 60 people at the summit, but it doesn’t seem overly crowded. There’s the hint of autumn in some of the trees in the crater and the crowd is generally quiet.
A quick lunch and then we make haste to get out of the sun and back down to the treeline.
My feet have not yet forgiven me (nearly two weeks later as I write this). If I thought that that uneven, pointed, solid volcano vomit was hard to walk on going uphill, then try walking down hill on it. This is where the hiking robots come into their own.
I reckon that they go so fast, so that their feet don’t even touch the lava. That’s why it doesn’t hurt them. Just the clack clack of their walking poles as they zoom past. During the rebuilding of Korea after the Korean War, the culture of “ppalli, ppalli” or “Hurry, Hurry” was used to drive the early finishing of building projects and so on. That “hurry, hurry” attitude is still embraced by today’s Koreans. No more so than the hikers. We only pass one couple of the way down (we passed perhaps 5 groups on the way up), yet we’re overtaken by 4 or 5, literally yomping down the mountain.
We take quite a few stops on the way down. Mostly as I embrace my inner Asian hiker and just stop in the middle of the trail, unable to see the next step or convince the soles of my feet that jumping down 30 centimetres is a good idea.
The hike in total was 21km. About 13 miles. Obviously 50% of it was up. Up from 750 m to 1970m. Generally these days we probably walk 4-5 miles (up to 8km) a day anyways. But this was a hard hike. Especially on the way back down, every step had to be thought about. And it hurt. It actually still hurts the soles of my feet.
It was a magnificent hike. Because it was so different. And I’d recommend it to anyone, but you’ll need thick soled shoes, plenty of time, a decent amount of water, strong ankles and a high pain threshold.
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