Saturday morning I packed my bags and wandered down to the bus station to buy myself a ticket to Daedunsan national park. I think I had just missed one so had to spend a couple of hours in the waiting room in the company of some women looking for Christian converts and an older man who spent nearly forty minutes showing me the words "hello good afternoon welcome to Korea" he had typed into his mobile phone for me.
The bus itself was a smooth ride through pretty countryside lasting little more than an hour. I got off in a small place that I might call a village. It was mostly a street of twenty independent restaurants, a smattering of gift shops and a couple of other essentials designed to cater for the walking masses who descend upon the park during the Summer months and at weekends. I made my way up to the only hotel and booked myself into a room for a couple of nights. I was pretty short on cash which is generally hard to get hold of in Korea at the best of times so was relieved to find a cash machine in the 24-hr convenience store which catered for my foreign card. After that I found a restaurant who made me a cracking vegetable pancake of a type I hadn't seen before but which must have been a local dish because every one of the restaurants seemed to be selling it. With the important things taken care of, although still early in the evening, I decided to put my tiredness to use by taking an early night via sitting on my room's balcony to read for a while.
In the morning I headed down to breakfast in the hotel dining room. Normally, I am pretty unhelpful by turning up for breakfast five minutes before the hotel stops serving, but surely you must all agree that 6:30-8:30 is an unnecessarily early window, so I make no apologies for turning up at 8:25. They brought me the menu and I am sure the waiter understood me when I explained "no meat" and "no fish". He said there was only one dish on the menu for me, which normally shows that they have got the right idea of what I am saying. I then sat back while they bought me a particularly carnivorous lamb stew plus various spicy dishes I had asked them not to bring. This was an expensive dish and I couldn't get much more out of it than a couple of poached eggs, but as it turned out that it is complimentary for guests, I suppose I shouldn't worry too much.
After a short stroll around the village to stock on on nibbles and warm up my legs, I took the road up behind the hotel to begin the climb up Daedunsan mountain. The first few hundred yards were very steep . . . and then it got harder all the way to the top. Sometimes climbing paths are turned into steps as a way of protecting the ground from crumbling away. Others try to keep to a natural slope where possible and resort to steps only when the incline is too steep for a slope to be realistic. This falls into the latter category, except that the steps are steeper than an old Victorian house
My guidebook had mentioned something about Korean ladies being very fit mountain climbers who will embarrass you be overtaking you on these sort of slopes. It certainly appears to be a national sport for the fairer sex, especially those who are in their forties or fifties. They accounted for most of the few climbers I saw at Moaksin five days earlier and they were out in force by the thousand here today. I like to think that I didn't let any get the better of me, but they were still impressive nonetheless.
The first three-quarters of the height accounted for half the time and nearly as much of the distance underfoot. I mean, I could have carried on along the upwards path, but part of the fun of the climb is to cross the two bridges, which requires a bit of a detour taking you left, right, up and down. All of this was done through slow queuing as the bridges were as popular as they were narrow and because people naturally want to stop on them to admire the view and photograph it.
Both bridges are iron suspension bridges about a metre wide with a lattice floor allowing you to see the disant ground below you. The first of them is horizontal, reaching from one rise in the rock to another. The second, also stretching forty yards from end to end, takes the form of a steep stairway. I have to say that I was uncomfortable with vertigo on both bridges, including the way they shook freely and the way I had to half-queue across them as I waited for the congestion ahead to ease. And after completing the second and rejoining the main path, I'm pretty sure that I was not much further up than I had been when I left the path to go in their search.
Up at the top there was many people admiring the view and settling down in groups for large picnics, the actual summit itself being marked by a small stainless steel tower. I tend to find summits a bit underwhelming. The views are normally great, but only a slightly better version of the view you have been stopping to admire all the way. The very nature of a peak with slopes on all sides prohibits space for anything to do up there. Although there is a natural sense of satisfaction, you are also aware that the physical exertion for the day is only half done as you must now undertake the descent, which I did after finding a spot to sit down to eat some of my own food.
I find retracing my steps a slightly dispiriting experience when walking back from the shops, let alone when climbing a mountain. I would much rather take a new route for the return and fortunately there were other options here. I made my way across a ridge of other lesser peaks until the path took us steeply downhill to a destination just half a mile along the road from the village. It was also pleasing that my knees were not grinding quite as badly as I expected them to. Perhaps my legs were a little stronger after climbing the mountain at Moaksin and so were able to cushion the impact of each downward step a little better.
Coming back through the village I met an older Italian traveller who had just arrived. He had come to escape the crowds of the city and was horrified to discover the place overrun with walkers. I suggested that it was likely to be a lot quieter the next day as a Monday was sure to bring fewer people, but he had seen that the park was playing host to a festival commencing on Tuesday, so wasn't so sure that it would quieten down that much. He went to the hotel to book in, after which we didn't find each other as intended when I went back to my restaurant to get another pancake.
Food settled down and back at the hotel, I bought myself a ticket for their sauna. These are a common feature of Korea which I had yet to sample. There is a large bubble pool, various shower facilities for standing or sitting and a cold water pool for a plunging to open up the pores at the end. All of this is done in your birthday suit. I was very careful to check this fact, both before going in and at the point of undressing, as I figured that to make the wrong assumption in either case, or simply to remove the last of my clothes at the wrong point, could make for an embarrassing international incident. However, it is difficult to ask any question casually with no shared language so it was still slightly embarrassing to ask in a way that I'm sure came across as bit like I was shocked by the prospect and wanted to check if it was compulsory.
It was a very relaxing experience, although sad that I didn't get there until 17:15 and found that they closed it at 18:00, so I had to rush in and out a bit. I planned to go there again the next morning after breakfast but, after getting all excited by the prospect of soaking my tired muscles some more, was informed that it was shut this day. Probably they only open it at weekends when the hotel is busier.
After another reading session on my balcony followed by another early night, I was back downstairs at 8:25 for breakfast. This was not my day to be loved, I think. Whereas Sunday had filled the room with diners, today there were just a few people seated at one of the four long tables. I headed over to join them but was intercepted by a waiter who pointed me to the empty long table on the other side of the room. Instead of being allowed to pick food from the buffet that everyone else was enjoying, I was given a glass of water before waiting for them to present me with the 'American breakfast'. It was not like any American breakfast I have seen before. Furthermore, it seemed to involved a wide variety of drinks with no nice food. I was brought a plate of crappy cookies and two long slabs of plain cake of the type that you can buy in conveniences shops, which is presumably where they brought it from. This was accompanied by a glass of milk (cookies and milk - is this were the American connection comes from?). The drinks-a-rama continued afterwards with a glass of orange juice before being finished off with a fourth beverage when a cup of tea was brought over.
With a hole in my schedule caused by the closed sauna, I decided to use the time between then and my bus by riding the cable car to its upper station halfway up the mountain. I had enough time to get up there to eat a bad ice cream before catching a return car back down again to collect my bags from my room and head down to the bus stop.
My plan was to catch a 12:10 bus to Daejon. I bought my ticket from the shop that doubled-up as a travel counter and was ready to ride with thirty minutes to spare. Immediately, a likely-looking bus rolled up and everyone got out. I showed my ticket to the driver to see if this was going to be my bus and he examined it before letting me on. A few minutes later, the lady selling tickets came running out waving and talking frantically about something. A long debate took place that I didn't understand, but the upshot was that I had to drag my heavy bags back off the bus. She explained that I needed to wait until the next bus at 14:30. Even when I had made clear I understood, she carried on repeating this point. I figured that the 12:10 service must be for weekends only when there were more passengers and that this bus was for a completely different service. She also explained that I now had to pay a small extra fee, which I figured might because she had accidentally sold me the wrong ticket before.
I was less than impressed with all of this so sat down in a foul mood to wait two and a half hours for my bus. While waiting there, who should arrive but my Italian friend from the day before. By chance, he was going to Daejon as well. Somehow though, his ticket cost less than mine did, whether or not you include the extra I had been asked to pay afterwards. He was told to get on the bus outside, which was indeed the 12:10 service. We both argued that I wanted Daejon as well, and both of our tickets were identical, but the woman firmly insisted that he had to get on this otherwise empty bus whereas I had to wait for the 14:30. He persistently argued the point, bless him, and at the last moment she lost her patience and waved us both aboard. God knows what this whole farce was about, she certainly knew we wanted the same destination.
We rode for forty minutes and got off where the bus terminated at the bus station in Daejon. We both wanted to head to the train station, me to go back north to Seoul, he to go south down to Busan. We toyed with the idea of getting a taxi or going via the local metro (just for the novelty of seeing what it was like) before opting to figure out the local bus services, which proved to be harmless and quick. Once there, I bought myself a ticket and some food before departing for another very impressive ride on Korea's high-speed rail network. From Seoul, I planned to stay a couple of days before taking the boat back the way I had come into China for the second half of my visa.