Getting high on mountain grass

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Getting high on mountain grass

POCHEON - The sight of a field covered in purple-hued eulalia grass swaying in the autumn breeze is a sure sign that the enervating humidity of the summer has drawn to a close and fall is close at hand.

On the chilliest day of the season so far, I decided to forgo other destinations for a glimpse of this autumnal grass.

It was too early to take in the changing colors of the foliage anyhow and I had heard that the sight of a field of eulalia was equally as impressive as the sight of the leaves on the trees turning red and yellow as the fall deepens.

Eulalia grass, native to East Asia, is also known as Chinese silver grass, Maiden grass, Zebra grass, porcupine grass or pampas. An old Korean saying jokes that women are as hard to figure out as eulalia grass - you can never be sure which way the grass will bend in the wind.

My destination was Mount Myeongseong and Sanjeong Lake in Wuncheon, which is located near the city of Pocheon in Gyeonggi.

The tourism people who maintain the Pocheon Web site are probably not too far off the mark when they claim this area is one of the top five eulalia destinations in the country.

The bus ride to the lake area from Dong Seoul Terminal in Seoul takes just 90 minutes. The journey was relaxing, long enough to chill out but not too long that you get uncomfortable. The only distraction was a bunch of rowdy college students heading to a military base in Gangwon to see one of their G.I. buddies.

One arrival at the Wuncheon bus terminal in Pocheon, I decided to forgo another bus ride to my destination and instead took a taxi. As I paid my 10,000 won ($8.20) cab fare upon reaching Sanjeong Lake, the driver in his thick Gangwon accent told me to try the marinated grilled beef ribs. He said the beef ribs were a regional specialty and that the dish had become popular over the past couple of decades.

Sangjeong Lake is surrounded by mountains, a scenic location for families to spend an afternoon on a picnic and taking in the fresh mountain air. Its proximity to the capital means that inevitably the place gets crowded, especially at this time of year.

According to a tourist pamphlet I picked up along the way, the lake attracts 1 million visitors every year, which is about 2,700 people a day. It was used as an agricultural reservoir from 1925 to 1977 before it was designated a national tourist zone by the government.

The shores of the lake are artfully decorated with sculptures, and there are restaurants and a small number of amusement rides close by.

I wasn’t much interested in rides and opted for a stroll around the lake. The entire walk took approximately an hour and the serene atmosphere and wooden bridge over a waterfall along the way was enjoyable, but I got the feeling the walk would be much nicer in late autumn when the leaves had changed color.

I’d worked up an appetite and so I headed for a restaurant with a nice view of the lake for a bowl of pasta. Yes, I know the taxi driver had recommended the ribs, but the pasta sounded like a healthier option.

But even though the large windows allowed for a clear view of people on pedal boats and motor boats, having to wait for close to an hour for the food was a bummer. The sappy Korean ballads from the 1990s flowing from the speakers were a bit depressing to say the least. Maybe I should have gone for the ribs.

My stomach full and my legs ready for the hike to the top of the mountain, I headed to the start of the trail, which is just five minutes from the lake.

There are two trails to chose from. One has stone and wooden steps and starts from Jain Temple; the other starts from the western slopes of the mountains. I decided to take the latter path, which is a little longer, because of the promise of views over the waterfalls and the gurgling brooks running beside the path.

The small road leading to the start of the trail was full of restaurants serving potato pancakes and spicy fish soup, which intensified my regret over choosing the pasta option. I should have waited, I thought, breathing deep the tangy aroma wafting out of the food stalls.

The course I had chosen was the recommended path. Having gone hiking only a handful of times and dressed in jeans and beat-up sneakers without much traction, I began my ascent.

The way up was steep with plenty of rocky terrain to circumnavigate. Having found my way to the gate of the mountain late, at approximately 3 p.m., I began at a brisk pace. I didn’t want to get stuck in the dark on the side of a mountain.

After a brief rest at the Deungryeong waterfall, I pressed on. The waterfall was a bit of a disappointment - there hadn’t been much rain of late and so not much water to fall.

After about 60 minutes of hard slog I was drenched in sweat. I paused and noticed that the soil had darkened. I asked a few climbers making their way down the mountain how much further to the fields. Each group answered the same: “I’d say about 10 more minutes.” I swear that was the longest 10 minutes in my life; more like an extra half hour.

If not for the tight schedule I was on, the hike would have been much more enjoyable. I felt rushed and didn’t have time to take in all the sights.

But then the fields came into view, a breathtaking panorama that made the effort worthwhile. I took some pictures and contemplated the grass swaying in the wind.

It’s true, you can’t really predict which way the grass will bend in the breeze. But the sight is very soothing, hypnotic even. I checked the time and knew I would have to get my skates on to get down in time to catch the bus back to Seoul.

Reluctantly, I headed back down the trail, taking the easier path this time. Along the way, I met an old man selling makgeolli (rice wine) in stainless steel bowls for a reasonable 1,000 won.

Quenching my thirst with a bowl of cold rice wine capped off a rewarding autumn trip out to Mount Myeongseong and Sanjeong Lake.


[By Jason Kim Staff Reporter jason@joongang.co.kr]
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