24 Hours in Sokcho

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The bus from Gangneung pulled into Sokcho at 10.30. I spotted the guest house as we rounded the last corner and walked up there, dropped off my bags, picked up a map, and took a local bus out to Seoraksan National Park.

It was too late to think about doing the ten-hour round trip to the top of Daecheongong Peak and back; so I headed, instead, for Ulsanbawi which tops out at a more manageable 876m –  still 50 metres higher than the world’s tallest building. I was as well-prepared as ever with a vague tourist map, no water and ordinary street clothes.

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The path, only gently sloping to start with, meandered past a kneeling Buddha and stone lanterns and alongside a river which had dried to a trickle and was lined with blossoming cherry trees, and over an ornamental bridge, past a temple complex with kingfisher blue roof tiles and exquisitely painted eaves, and on and into the depths of the forest of deep green firs and brighter green deciduous trees from which – in the distance – the jagged peaks protruded.

I followed the path into the trees and over boulders and across more bridges and up and up, as the terrain became more difficult, and out onto a plateau where an ancient hermitage had been cut into the mountainside and up again to a spit of rock which I scrambled up and looked back across the expanse of the park into the floor of the valley way below. The peak, though, still brooded over me, hundreds of feet above. Its upper slopes looked more or less vertical.

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They were. There was an iron walkway up to the top with – depending on whom you ask – 800, 808, 888 or over 900 steps, which in any case is like walking halfway up the Empire State Building. I had aimed to get to the top without stopping but lost my resolve halfway up the walkway and stopped to rest, but only for a moment, because a sprightly old lady in luminous hiking gear surged past me and shamed me into pressing on.

The reward, though, for reaching the peak was a breathtaking view across the park, across the countryside, back to Sokcho and on to the coast and out over the Pacific.

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It was mid-afternoon by the time I got down, too late for lunch, too early for dinner, but I stopped anyway at an outdoor restaurant and ordered the local dish known as squid sundae, which sounds a bit Heston Blumenthal, but has nothing to do with the Western dessert of the same name. It is a squid body stuffed with diced pork, tofu, tentacles and shitake mushrooms, steamed and sliced into rings.

There was a shorter, easier trek through the woods, over rocks and bridges to the Yukdam Pokpo and Biryong Pokpo falls, and that passed an hour so before I got the bus back to Sokcho and poked around the fishing harbour and market and took the hand ferry across to the North Korean expat village (Sokcho was the wrong side of the border before the war and is an hour from the DMZ now).

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Koreans are said to go Sokcho just for the mudeumhoe (raw fish platter) in which the fish is sliced carpaccio-style and served on bean thread noodles with the tableful of side dishes you always get in Korea. There was enough, this time, for a small group: a fried fish, sashimi, oysters, whelks, squid sundae, squash, soup, salad, kimchee (fermented cabbage) and goodness knows what else. Thankfully you are not expected to eat it all.

Then I was back on the intercity bus in the morning, heading for Chuncheon, the last stop en route to Seoul.

© Richard Senior 2015

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

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The train rattled alongside a furious river hemmed in by mountains as Andean flute music wafted from speakers above. Then it stopped, nowhere, just like a British train…except that this one was meant to.

Excuse me, sir, you need for to get off

What?”

You do the Inca Trail, no?”

Oh, yeah.

There was no station, no platform: we just opened the door, dropped to the track and crunched through the gravel until we got to a bridge more rickety even than any I saw in Laos. It swayed and creaked as I hurried across the rotten slats, expecting, any minute, that one would give way and leave me dangling over the river.

It takes three or four days to walk the length of the Inca Trail, but we were cheating and starting two thirds of the way in. That still left a long day’s hike. The trail led relentlessly upwards, snaked round the mountain, and continued upwards, until we had left the valley we started from way below and the river was but a scribble and the train track a toy shop display. We scrambled up Incan terraces, passed waterfalls which plunged gorgeously down the face of the rock, and looked across at the neighbour mountains carpeted with trees, and paused to contemplate flowers which erupted from the ledge in shocks of yellow and orange, and pink and red. Once we saw porters from the four day trail, running down the mountain with mules-worth of weight on their backs. They carry the tents, the chairs, the stoves, the gas bottles and food so the tourists need not worry about weight.

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It started to rain and the clouds slipped down and filled the valley like expanding foam and, for an hour or two, we were walking above them.

Bepe, the guide, kept stopping so we had a chance to catch our breath and he had a chance to share his passion for orchids; but I wanted to press on and did, until I came to a sign with a picture of a bear and some text I did not understand and jumped to the wrong conclusion. I had just read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, in which he worries his way along the Appalachian Trail thinking about bear attacks. But there are no grizzlies in Peru, it turns out, just the spectacled bear: a shy little thing you would expect to have petite-bourgeois manners from the fifties and a bag full of marmalade sandwiches. The sign was urging the walkers not to bother the bears, not warning the walkers that the bears might bother them.

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I went ahead again, and passed a hard-looking man who glared from a step, and I remembered something I had read in a guidebook about muggings along the trail. Three more men emerged from shelter when I climbed up the steps of Inti Punku, the last but one of the ruins on the trail. “Buen’ dias,” one growled and I looked back with relief to see Bepe and the others at the foot of the steps.

Who were those dodgy buggers?” I asked after we turned the corner.

“The rangers,” Bepe said.

“Oh.”

“They’re making sure that nobody is still walking when the trail closes.”

“Ah.”

We would, he said, have had a good view of Machu Picchu by then, if it were not for the clouds. I thought he might have kept that to himself. But as we walked on, the clouds dissolved and the iconic image materialised before us, just as it is in the brochures. It was a magical effect.

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© Richard Senior 2015