Go tell it on the mountainWhen it comes to traveling around the peninsula, you can't beat the train. And if you're on a first class Saemaeul train, you're assured a spacious and comfortable seat and good service. The conductors and other staff, dressed in spiffy blue jackets and gray pants, always greet passengers with a bow and a "welcome." Inside the train, the rail employees keep an eye on the temperature, and ask passengers if they're comfortable. Their sincere displays of kindness are what makes the trips pleasant - until a group of unruly drunks ruins the whole atmosphere.
Last Saturday, I took Saemaeul train No. 163 from Seoul Station at 9:50 a.m., on my way to Namwon in North Jeolla province. The trip started off smoothly: conductors bowed and I began to read a novel. But within half an hour, a crew of six men decked out in red outfits, a typical costume for older Korean hikers, took over the car, which was filled with people who had signed on for a Korean National Railroad package tour of Jiri National Park. Half drunk, the Men in Red, as I came to think of them, began belting out songs while wielding paper cups of soju in one hand and dried squid in the other. The other 25-odd passengers in our car endured the unruly display until two conductors came and quieted the group. A Mr. Kim, the ringleader, shouted "sumimasen!" meaning "excuse me" in Japanese. Some Koreans say as a joke that when you do something stupid, you should pretend to be Japanese. I don't care for that theory and I can't say it happened here, but I appreciated the apology. The 3-hour-50-minute trip turned out to be delightful, thanks to the conductors. Upon arrival, I took a tour bus for two hours to get to the foot of the Jiri mountain range, along with the other tourists, including the Men in Red.
The Jiri mountain range, which makes up the largest National Park in South Korea, covers parts of the North and South Jeolla provinces and South Gyeongsang province, a total of some 440 square kilometers. Local myths say the range is invested with divine spirits - its name means "turning the foolish into the wise." There are nine major peaks in the park; the highest is Cheonwangbong, at 1,915 meters. Nogodan, a 1,507-meter peak, was the destination of this tour. The first stop was in a valley called Bamsagol, which features a 12-kilometer-long watercourse with scenic marshes, rocks and waterfalls. The valley's name comes from a legend about an ancient temple in the area, called Songrimsa. The temple used to send its chief priest into the forest once a year to be sacrificed to the local gods, after which a new chief would take his place. One year, a monk, Seosan, who criticized the tradition, gave the chief priest a pouch of poison to carry. During the night, a loud peal of thunder was heard. The next morning the monk found a dead python, and inside its belly was the priest. The monk's cleverness ended the morbid tradition. Bamsagol means "the valley where the serpent died."
We tourists had 30 minutes to explore the valley, which has apparently been made serpent-free. The bus driver and tour guide, a native of Namwon with a strong Jeolla accent, told the Men in Red, clearly hungover now, that winter is not the best season to enjoy the valley. "In summer the colors are better here, with the rocks covered in moss," he said. Then the guide shuttled the group to Seongsamjae Pass, 1,100 meters high, the spot to get out and hike. Suddenly the guide stopped and told the Men in Red not to go any farther, saying "You've been drinking and should stay here and rest." They protested a bit, but I sensed the information was what they wanted to hear.
A round trip from the pass to Nogodan Peak, at 2.7 kilometers each way, takes about two hours. The trail, surrounded by luxuriant pine trees, is gently sloped but slippery when covered in snow. Beyond the forests towers a huge mountain range. At about 5 p.m. the sun began to set. Near Nogodan peak is a stretch of level land where you can bask in the spectacle of sunbeams penetrating the clouds that shroud the peaks, one of the greatest views you'll see on the peninsula. The monk Seosan once said, "If Mount Geumgang is graceful as the most beautiful mountain in the north, then Mount Jiri is grandiose, being the most genuine mountain in the south." Though it's called the sea of clouds, and the guide said "Mount Jiri is protected by a goddess, and the clouds shelter her," Jiri actually has plenty of clear days. The tourists were dazzled by the scenery but couldn't linger long ?the sun sets by 5:30, after which darkness descends and bitter cold sets in. On the way down, many hikers gave up walking on the ice and slid down on flattened cardboard boxes.
Back on Seongsamjae Pass, to warm up, I walked to a small snack bar that offered freshly brewed coffee for 1,000 won (80 cents) a cup. I didn't buy anything to eat, for the food - fish cakes, primarily - looked a tad unhygienic. The Men in Red, who spent the afternoon in the snack bar, had recovered and were digging into those same fish cakes. As I sipped my coffee and gazed at the spectacular view of the mountain range from inside the snack bar's cozy confines, I felt relaxed. Even the Men in Red looked at peace as they stared at the post-sunset crimson-streaked sky.
At approximately 7 p.m., the guide took our group to our lodgings for the night, the Jirisan Spa Land Hotel. For dinner we had a hearty meal of freshly cooked vegetables from the mountain range and thick soybean soup. The Men in Red, I noticed, had returned quickly to form: They washed their food down with several bottles of Hite beer. After dinner, I tried the hotel's spa bath. The waters felt good after hiking, but the spa wasn't anything special.
After waking for breakfast at 8 the next morning, it was time to cross the border between the Jeolla provinces and the Gyeongsang provinces. On the way, we were told to prepare a few wishes, and that one would be granted. Mount Geumsan, near the southern coast, is 681 meters high and faces the South Sea. The wish legend comes from the late Goryeo Dynasty in the 14th century, when Lee Seong-gye, a general planning a coup d'etat, prayed for 100 days at the mountain. He promised the mountain god that he would cover the mountain in silk if his wish to overthrow the king was granted. Indeed, he ousted the Goryeo Dynasty and founded the Joseon Dynasty. Once king, Lee was not sure whether he could keep his promise; a clever assistant saved him by a stroke of inspiration: name the mountain silk. Thus the mountain was renamed with the Chinese character geum, which means silk. The mountain itself is not so high, but it is steep and craggy, making it harder to climb than Mount Jiri. Along the way you're granted spectacular views of the South Sea, the surrounding mountains and a small village. At the peak you encounter Boriam, a Buddhist hermitage that is said to grant one of your wishes. About 200 meters higher is the spot where Lee Seong-gye is believed to have prayed.
After the trip to Mount Geumsan, the guide drove us to Namhae Bridge, nearer to the South Sea. After a lunch of spicy fish soup, we were free for about 90 minutes. The Men in Red stayed on in the restaurant to drink Baekseju, a traditional Korean rice wine. They asked me to join their party, but I said no, I wanted to go to the shrine of the general Yi Sun-shin, who defeated the Japanese navy in the late Joseon Dynasty. A half hour later I left to return to Namwon to catch a 4:54 p.m. second-class Mugunghwa train back to Seoul.
On the trip back to the capital, the Men in Red slept like babies. In fact, so did I.
The package costs 144,000 won per adult. For more information, call the Korean National Railroad at 1544-7788.
by Chun Su-jin