On my drive from Jirisan to Naejangsan, I left solitude in the rearview mirror and began to settle into loneliness. The midpoint of my week-long road trip had me longing for a little conversation or some laughter to break up the constant introspection. Tom Petty is a solid co-pilot while driving, but he’s not necessarily writing new music these days. Fortunately, I had plenty of gorgeous scenery to keep me company as I weaved through the lanes of cherry trees that lined the roads pulling into Naejangsan. So much is made of the cherry blossoms in Japan, making it a major tourist destination in the Spring. However, I could not imagine anything outshining the stunning blooms that I witnessed in Jeollabuk. I had entered a tunnel of limbs that were flowering into bursts of powder creating clouds of crystalized pedals that filled the sky. I avoided hitting the people that were posing for photos in the road and pulled into a completely vacant parking lot at Gain Campground (Naver). There was one other tent in the entire site and I set up my camp in a spot that bordered a babbling creek and had views of the mountains. I walked into the village that fringed the entrance of the National Park looking for a spot to grab dinner. I did not have a clue what I was looking for, so I picked the busiest spot figuring all of those patrons were on to something. When I walked onto the patio of Gongwon Minsok Restaurant (Naver), the woman began talking to me and the only word I understood was bimbibap. I shook my head yes and then she seated me on the edge of the parking lot. Apparently, the only dish she served was bimbibap and even though this is traditional Korean food, in Jeollabuk they are known to specialize in making it exceptionally well as it customary to serve it with 10 different sides in this region. The area is one of the more fertile in Korea and the bimbibap varies on the season and what has been foraged on the forest floor. The spread looked like I was eating for a family of four and I sweated my way through the spice filled culinary encounter that was one of my favorite meals in Korea.
The following morning I was packing up my tent again to move on to the next adventure. As I was walking out with my bag, a woman who had been staying in the other tent with her husband approached me. She had made me an iced coffee in a to-go cup and presented me with a bag of, what I would later discover, the juiciest oranges I’ve tasted! The kindness that Korean people showed me on my travels became a constant theme. I do not believe it is common to see people traveling alone in Korea as they have such a strong sense of family and I believe some may have felt sorry for me. I gladly welcomed the gestures of good will which served as a reminder of even when you are feeling totally isolated, you are not completely alone. Leaving the campground, I followed the windy road that snaked through the mountains to the Naejangsan National Park Visitor Center (Naver) where I started a hike. The path (All Trails) followed a purring stream in Wonjeok Valley, in an openly wooded area, before passing through a temple and ascending Bulcholbong. Many of the temples have been constucted in the mountains stemming from Korea’s spiritual roots in Shamanism. Over 40,000 years ago, Shamanism came to the peninsula and still exists in many aspects of Korean culture. This is an incredibly fluid spiritual practice that is closely tied to nature and was very accepting when Buddhism was introduced during the 3rdcentury. When Buddhism was suppressed in Korea during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) many of the Buddhist monks found sanctuary in the mountains. Therefore, on just about every hike we have been on in Korea, there is some form of a temple or acknowledgment of the site where a temple had been burned down during the Korean War. Once on top of Bulcholbong, I could see the vastness of the fields and farmland created by Dongjingang River and Naejangho Lake that existed beyond the mountains. This particular trail followed the knife edge that traversed over the Manghaebong, Kkacibong, and Yeonjabong. The ridge formed a perfect horseshoe shaped amphitheater that had me feeling like I was walking on the scales on the back of a dragon’s curled up into a ball.
Amazingly, I was only an hour’s drive from the West coast of Korea in Byeonsan-bando National Park where I soon had my feet, that were locked in hiking boots, cooling in the sand at Gosapo Beach (Naver). The West side of the peninsula is protected by the Asian continent meaning the waves do not have the same power that they do on the East coast. Because the surf is not pounding the coastline of the Yellow Sea, the strands of beaches are much shallower and therefore have dramatic tidal shifts. With the shoreline waxing and waning with the currents, the one constant in my vision of the horizon was Haseom Island. The picturesque plateau was perched like a beacon in the distance with the sun fragmenting in a prism through the clouds. Even when I headed back to my campsite to cook up dinner, the magnitude of the view was amplified as the sun crawled down the skyline. There were a few more people camping in this area and their tents were decked out with lights, comfy padded chairs, and full-sized outdoor kitchens. I felt small with my one burner stove and our backpacking tent that was a spec in the footprint of my assigned site. One car pulled in fairly late that evening and I noticed the person struggling to set up their tent in the dark. I went over there to help him as wrestling with a heap of nylon and tangled poles at night is a difficult exercise in mindfulness. The next morning the man sheepishly came over with a can of tea and a packaged pastry. He was a professor at Seoul University and explained that it is customary to provide a gift to someone who is visiting and was sorry that he did not have more to offer. I spent the start of the day hiking along the shore, that had grown in size, collecting all types of shells and beach glass that were exposed from the receding waterline. As my fingers rubbed over the beach glass I mused how it starts off as a broken object with sharp and jagged edges. After being tossed around in the salty sea, it survives by being buried deep in the sand until rising to the surface. Through this process, something that was once so fragile is strengthened, smoothed over, and luminates in the natural light. I probably would have stayed on the coast for another couple of days if I did not book a place in Jeonju. As I was having my lunch at a picnic table, an older couple brought me filberts and strawberries to add to my meal. I decided that the next time I travel in Korea, I will not need to bring anything as all the strangers I come across would provide me with everything I need!
Jeonju is the capital of Jeollabuk province and is where the Joseon Empire was founded. I rented a space in the traditional Hanok Village amongst the wooden homes tightly wound in a maze of alleys, shops, and eateries. Over the next two days, I did my best to sample as much of the local cuisine as possible as I waddled around in the steady rain that settled into the area. Because Korea is incredibly mountainous, people were more isolated from each other and so specific regions established their own specialties in food based on what was readily available. The first evening in Jeonju I wandered upon a rooftop café that had splendid views of the tiled gables and nearby hillsides dusted with sprouting cherry blooms. From there I gladly settled for another version of Bimbibap, this one with pork ribs, and a bottle of Moju which is more healthy than boozy. The following morning presented a break in the rain, motivating me t I wonder up to Wansan park (Naver). Along with being the high point on a ridge that overlooks the city, Wansan park is also the site of the Tonghak Battle where a group of farmers and pheasants staged an uprising and overthrew the King in 1894. From the pagoda perched on the butte, I could see the next wave of storm clouds marching in. Accompanied with the front, the wind was whipping around and redistributing the blossoms from the trees and piling them up into snow drifts of pink pedals. Just as I was coming out of the forest, the rain came down with a thundering force. I was looking to escape the downpour and stumbled into a restaurant called Veteran (Naver). I had a marvelous of bowl of Kalguksu soup which was bursting with flavor as noodles were soaked in a sesame oil and seed broth. They took the spice down due to my whiteness, but, I was still sniffling and sweating along with everyone else in the fogged-up shop. Later that afternoon I enjoyed another café, Gonggan Bom (Naver), with a groovy atmosphere, piping hot churros, and a comforting glass of soothing mulled wine to relieve the afternoon chill. I finished off my day of eating with a bag full of dumplings from Daurang (Naver) where the steamed morsels of tender goodness were stuffed with every magical culinary combination one could imagine. Jeonju is a foodie’s paradise and after a week of camping and hiking, I could not think of a better way to finish off a trip than to indulge in the local fare like an absolute glutton for gastronomy!