Monday, February 10, 2014

Climbing the Halla mountain

I can camp on Jeju island! And it's not cold, that's some great discovery. I like it so much that I just pitch my tent in the first foresty place that I find. It should be noted that forests and real wild nature is not that easy to find in Korea. It is slightly easier on Jeju island but still, not as obvious as walking in a random direction for a long time.
I came to think that South Korea is quite similar to Turkmenistan in terms of describing the country's landscape.
"Come and take a look at our grand buildings!," the Turkmen people were saying with pride. But besides a few buildings the country is a great landscape of wild desert which natural beauty is undoubtable.
"Come and take a look at our nature!," say the Koreans locked in their landscape of urban constructions.
So Turkmenistan is the beacon of modern civilisation and Korea that of nature and wilderness and everybody is just living in their own fairy tale.

Anyhow, I end up finding a nice place on a small hill above the sea in the north of Jeju island and set camp. I also buy a lot of candies and I'm set for the night. I have no mission here, just rest.
The only annoying thing about Jeju island is the weather.
Jeju harbour

It is cloudy and raining from time to time. The beautiful colors are faded a little bit by the grayish mist.
Soon I realize that I can't live like that forever. Some of my clothes are wet, some are dirty, I'd better find some civilized place to get myself into shape. The best candidate is Jamie and Leah's place, these two people were amazing enough to reply to my panicked couchsurfing request just a few hours after I sent it when most people take three days to a week.

Since I've discovered camping is possible and Jamie and Leah are living on the other end of the city, I decide to climb the Halla mountain, highest peak of the island.

The Halla mountain or Hallasan is the highest peak of Jeju island and of Korea overall. It's not really that high, just under 2000 meters but since it's in the center of a small island, you climb it from zero and you have infinite visibility in all directions, you can see the sea.

My plan however is not just to climb Halla mountain but to see the sunrise from it. Therefore I have to camp there. I didn't read all the regulations but my general impression of Korea so far tells me that this is probably not allowed. If you believe the inscriptions and signs you will have the impression of being about to climb mount everest.
I start by ignoring them, interpreting them as casual Korean over-safety but after a while of Hallasan propaganda, I too, start wondering weather I should also take crampons or at least decent walking sticks.

As I make my way a bit higher, snow begins to appear and I am not even in the national park. I didn't expect so much snow so fast. And the snow quickly grows as I follow the road up.
The night falls and the moon shines.
The moon shines
 A car stops to see if I'm allright. That's a nice and caring thing to do. After a good deal of walking I arrive to the base camp. Yeah, there actually is a base camp for a 2000 meter mountain. But since you can start from zero that makes sense. A korean-style base camp has little to envy to a five start holiday resort. Not only is there sleeping accomodation, electricity and wifi but also a small shop, kitchen and drinking fountains. I also see a ticket office. Everything is closed now and I don't want anyone forcing me into that ticket office, whatever it is for.
I pass by the base camp and build my tent a bit further, in the middle of the trail.

The roughest of all trails, warns the sign.
The trail looks as if it were built for my grandmother. Well-maintained path with rope ramps in  case you lose the trail and instructional boards reminding you where you are every 500 meters as an encouragement that: you can do it!
It is a beautiful trail, no doubt about it but your individuality will be crushed by it. You, as every other person climbing that trail will see exactly the same thing, walk texactly the same path in the exact same timeframe (there is only a certain time when the mountain is accessible). Nothing is left to chance. Korean turists push the dehumanisation of hiking one step further by wearing exactly the same clothes. Pictures taken on Hallasan also loo all the same. There are special, carefuly selected spots from which the view is nice, there is a little wooden accomodation that allows you to take a picture.
So you might either hike mount Halla or ask any other person who has hiked it; you'll have the same result. Because your experience will be the same as his or hers with the precision of a milimeter.

The trail is well organised
I go to sleep in my tent in an attempt to test the temperature. I want to see the sunrise on mt. Halla so I have to sleep near the top. If I am to sleep at the top without freezing there then I should be able to withstand the cold at the bottom with half of my warm clothes on. I can expect a -10 temperature drop because of the altitude and another -10 temperature drop because of the nightfall, bringing the temperature to a total of -16 dregrees celsius. While this is a reasonable temperature to sleep in and I have done it in the past, I have to test the wind and humidity which also comes into play. So I am sleeping on this trail, let's see how it goes. The night isn't so bad, I get a little cold during the coldest phase but overall, it is allright. I get woken up by tourists at 6:30 AM. I thought nobody would climb that mountain winter; in fact, after reading all the warnings and seeing the too organised trail I started wondering weather Koreans were really pussies but turns out that they were braving the cold, wind and morning to climb fast and tirelessly, like a column of extremely well-fit, nuclear-powered grandmothers; I could hardly follow. Actually, with my heavy bag, I just couldn't follow and I got outran by everyone.

Walking the snowy trail
On the trail, I was quite a funny sight. Everybody was wearing crampons and carrying light walking sticks and small backpacks and I was there with my more than 20kg bag filled with random stuff (some stuff was even hanging from the sides), a wooden stick and my trekking cramponless shoes.
Needless to say that I recieved encouragements from everyone as well as an endless flow of deliscious candies. As I was approaching the top, a man going down gave me his walking sticks.

A man gave me his walking sticks
The views get really beautiful, shame the weather is so bad. Trees covered in snow dissapear into the clouds and behind them is the endless blue sea.

Almost at the top

Trees covered in snow
The weather is getting worse and worse and I am approaching the top. People are all going down now arguing that it's passed 13:30 and therefore the mountain closes.
You can close a door, a window but in Korea appearently, you can close a mountain. I wonder how would a closed mountain look like. Probably like in the lord of the rings, with a heavy stone door and a riddle written in runes which only the worthy can open.

The top of mount Halla

View of the sea.
So I'm going to get kicked out, no big deal. If the kyrgz didn't throw me into prison, if the chinese didn't force me to pay hotels, I won't get my plans disturbed by a bunch of law-abiding Koreans.
On the top of the mountain there is a shelter. It has electricity and free wifi. Damn you Korea, seriously? The most inaccessible place in Korea has high-speed internet.
A friendly guard comes to me and asks me, in a very polite way, to get down the mountain.
"No. I am going to camp here."
"I am going to camp here. I want to see the sunrise"
"Sorry sir but it is impossible."
"Why? Is the sun not rising tomorrow?"
Pitching a tent sounds like a very possible quest for me. In fact, I have done it a number of times and the snowy ground provides a soft mattress to sleep on. I wonder what could make putting up a tent impossible.
"It's against the law."
"I know it is against the law!" I reassure him, "But I am going to do it anyway."
"You can't do it!"
"It's against the law!"
Appearently the concept of being against the law is so strong here that it should put an end to any argument. While being unaware of the law may be a possible outcome, knowing and ignoring the law is something Koreans don't seem to understand.
Usually when dealing with the authorities, I try to play dumb, pretexting that I don't know the law but in this case, it would make an already unclear conversation even more foggy.
So I put in some good will and I try to clarify the cultural difference between us.
"I know that it is against the law. I understand that by pitching up a tent I am breaking the law. However, I stick with my decision of pitching up a tent."
Appearently, this kind of statement doesn't compute.
He calls his superiour with whom I have the exact same conversation. Except she gets a bit more inventive.

"If you do not get down, you will get a fine."
"But I don't have money."
The woman on the phone seems embarassed, I feel sorry to have put her in such position; she seems like a nice and polite lady but as many koreans, she lacks imagination. So I try to help her out.
"You can call the police on me, maybe you can arrest me, put me in prison for example"
That's the kind of threat the corrupt Kyrgyz cop would use. Unfortunately, the poor lady is thrown off balance even more.
"Do you want to get arrested?"
"No I don't but that's the point. It's a better threat than just saying it's the law. That just will get you nowhere."
"Ok, we will arrest you."
"Allright. Come and get me."
This whole conversation is both amusing and extremly ironic. I am just sorry for the guards of the national park who really feel bad and embarassed about the whole thing.
"The police will arrest you"
"Will they shoot me?"
"Of course nobody will shoot you! Don't worry about such things!"
"Ok, I'll build my tent then."
The lady pauses for a bit.
"If you don't go down, he'll lose his job."

Damn she got me. Here I was, thinking that I am so smart, that I can face any threats. In many countries including and especially the western world we have power-hungry security guards who like to place themselves above their victim, to show their strenght and legal and physical superiority. They'll point guns at you, beat you, scare you, it boosts up their ego. But here in Korea, security forces don't have this small penis complex. They are ready to communicate, they can get things done and today, they just got smarter than me.
Maybe it is true that this guy would lose his job, maybe not but I can't take that chance and she knows it.
She has read me, she understands that I like to play american hero and martyr facing forces stronger than me and the real way to win is to put the security forces in the victim position. Today, I am the bully and I hate it.
"Allright, I am considering going down but can we find a compromise?"
"You can go to the Jindellabat shelter and we will accomodate you for a night. This is already exceptionnal treatement."
I get accomodated in the radio communication cabin. It is heated by a small electric heater, I have electricity and a confortable bed. Last but not least, I get deliscious dinner with a room with wifi.

My room on Hallasan!
In the morning, my cabin is lost in deep snow. It's snowing, the tracks are covered in white and the visibility is really bad. I feel that I am not seeing any sunrise today. There is still hope that the peak will be above the clouds or that the weather changes but hopes are slim.

My cabin is covered in snow.
It is dark because it's 5:30 AM, my light is out of batteries but the markings on the paths are so obvious that I can still follow it. Up there, the wind is insane. I just build my tent next to the shelter which is now empty and locked and I hide inside. the wind completly dismantles the tent, the sticks that support the construction freeze, it's just a big mess. I wait in there a couple of hours until I decide that it's not going to get better: I am packing my stuff and going down. I am seriously frozen at that point. It's not too cold but the wind and wet air isn't doing me any good.
Just as I prepare to get down, the rangers from Jindelabat reach the peak and open the shelter. I get in and warm up a little.

Shelter at the top
After a while, I hear voices. I can't believe my ears. Endless columns of korean tourists with their crampons, bags, sticks and shiny ugly clothes are going through the hellstorm with nearly zero visibility, taking a useless picture on the top of the white peak (they could as well photograph a whiteboard)  and going down.
I thought I was the only one crazy enough to get up there in this weather. Not by a long shot. Korean people are capable of way crazier and more extreme things than me. The reason they don't do it is that sometimes it's against the law. And what's against the law, well, that's impossible.

Me and a snowy tree