With a week off from school for Chuseok, we woke up at 5am to try to beat the Seoul traffic, but found the roads cluttered with other holiday bound travelers. After about 4 hours in the car we arrived at the Nogodan Guest House near the town of Guryre. There must have been a downpour right before we pulled up as the array of wildflowers had beads of sweat dripping from their pedals. We immediately felt a sense of peace at the base of the mountain range. Our room was not ready so we decided to explore the area and stumbled upon Jirisan Garden (Naver Map). Because it was chuseok holiday and everyone was visiting their family home to remember their ancestors there was no one around. I’m unsure if the garden was temporary closed for the holiday or due to COVID, but we found complete solitude wondering around the park. Sometimes your soul does not realize you have been deprived of nature until you are to breathe in the replenishing air. We settled back into our guest house and found that our host had been trekking all around the world. In 2014 they hosted in Iron Man competition and all of the competitors stayed at the Nogodan Guest House (Naver Map). The room was a simple box, with a small fridge, large tv, and a firm mattress. We did not need much as we planned on spending the next 4 days in the area hiking around in the mountains. Our accommodations boasted a reception area that had books and pictures from out host’s travels, an attached cafe that served up Korean style BBQ, and a roof top deck that peered up at the lush ridges scaling across the sky @nogodan_guesthouse (Instagram).
After a chance encounter on the rooftop, we found ourselves having dinner with Mike and Jiyoung. They lived outside of Busan in Yongman and were celebrating Mike’s recent retirement with a trip to Jirisan. Jiyoung had organized a sunrise hike up Nogodan peak and when I told her we had planned on hiking there as well, she told me we needed reservations. When Jiyoung checked the site on her phone, she found all of the spots had been booked. This was a recent COVID related precaution and one that caught us off guard. Jiyoung called over to the host of the guesthouse and he confirmed it was not possible to hike. Earlier that day we had noticed in one of his many pictures of global trekking adventures, that he had been to Nepal. So, I proceeded to show him a picture of when Ashlee and I had hiked to the base camp of Anna Purna and he looked at us in a different light. Through Jiyung’s translation, he explained that he was leading a trip that was leaving at 350am and we could join. With our bloodstreams infused with a mixture of makgeolli and plum wine, we happily agreed.
As imagined at 3am when our alarms sounded, the plan seemed less than ideal but we were pot committed. We piled into our host’s van along with a family of 4 and two women. The curvy drive to the parking lot had the previous nights alcohol swirling around in our stomachs and we could not get outside quick enough. Once we started moving and breathing in the soothing air our bodies adjusted to what our minds had previoulsy concocted under the influence. The site of the stars beating in the sky stopped us in our tracks as they were perfectly cluttered in contrived shapes centered in the galaxy. On the walk, our host Mr. Jung, talked about loving hiking since he was a little boy and how he opened up his guesthouse with the dream of sharing that with others. Over the first 6 years in operation, tourists from Germany, France, the UK, and US as well as Koreans flocked to his establishment as a base camp to Jirisan. These days that has slowed to a stagnant stall and he relies solely on Korean travelers to maintain his operation.
Mr. Jung had timed everything on our hike down to the minute as we reached the summit as the sun was smoldering in the valley below. The peaks of Jirisan were glowing in a sea of embers on one side of Nogodon and on the other was what Koreans call Ullhe, meaning Ocean Clouds. There could not be a better description as we were seemingly gazing down on sirrius whites caps pressing up around lush islands that dotted the sea. The 7 and 10 year old children who were ready to hike at 330am without any sign of protest were still jumping for pictures. The two women turned out to be professional hikers and left us to traverse the ridge connecting the nearby peaks. Ashlee and I reflected that for the first time since last Chuseok, we truly felt like we were traveling. Random conversations with strangers sharing a common desire to find adventure led us to connect and create a experience that would stay imprinted in our lives.
After our 3am wake up the morning before, we were in no rush to leave Nogodon Guesthouse. We found a hike that was shaped like a horseshoe and would allow us to climb to the top of Baraebong and Segeolsan (All Trails). The start of our hike came with complimentary bug dope as there was a machine with two spray nozzles distributing a concoction that would keep us safe from the local ticks and mosquitoes. A former road was converted to a walking path that was lined with cobblestones. Unlike previous hikes in Korea, we found only a few flights of stairs at the very top of Baraebong. We were at a lower elevation than Nogodon and were surrounded by shoulder high bunches of grass fluttering in the breeze and the occasional wildflowers that dotted the hillsides. The size of the stone signifying the summit must reflect the amount of people as we were alone at the top. The forested mountains of Jirisan encircled us and whisky clouds were draped over the ridge lines. We have become very fond of hiking with gimbap and had picked up some fatty rolls at Gimbap Cheongug (Naver Map) in Gurye.
We crept back into the woods and traversed through thick brush and bamboo over to Seoglsan. In Korea, we have become accustomed to sharing the trails with the masses and found significant solitude on this route. With bears and boars known to be in the area, we tried to make a little more noise as our legs were being thrashed by the foliage that had overgrown the path. Although we were following a ridge line, we were mainly kept undercover and occasionally porpoised through the vegetation for air and a view. To our astonishment we found a summit without a stone on the peak of Segeolsan and took a break in the clearing before heading making our way down. We slowly meandered through the woods until popping out ‘a youth training center.’ I’m unsure what this facility is used for, but there was a state of an art obstacle course that included a zip line.
Our original plan was to arrange for a taxi using our Kakao app as soon as our feet hit pavement. However, all of requests failed and so we walked down the road until we reached a farming community and it became very apparent there were no taxis that stretched this far! To say we stuck out as foreigners with backpacks would probably be an understatement but no one paid us any mind. I have learned to appreciate that about Korean people as unless you appear to be in distress or reach out, Koreans simply let you go about your way. After stumbling through fields of chili peppers and pumpkins, we eventually landed on a random bus stop. We jumped on the next bus that happened to swing through and in a round about way, we wound up back in the town of Unbong where we then walked back to our car. By the time we had reached Jeongsan Village we were more than ready for dinner. Unfortunately, my Korean leaves something be desired and instead of ordering dakgalbi we received dakmari which is the entire chicken. It was still incredibly good as they sautéed up all the pieces of the chicken with hot chilies and onions. The cook then made a rich broth with all of the bones, green onions, turnips, and more spice. We did our best but the spice overcame us and we had to concede the meal.
The remnants of a typhoon poured into the area that morning so we sat around drinking coffee and talking about traveling with Mr. Jung. I showed him pictures form our hike the day before and he showed me albums from his time in Nepal which included treks to Annapurna and Everest Base Camp as well as his summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Mr. Jung had worked at Shinhan bank for 24 years before retiring and moving down to Jirisan. Even though that was 9 years ago, I believe he actually looks younger today as he has invested in his passions. We stopped and warmed our souls with piping hot bowl of gamjatang which succulent pork bone soup at this spot (Naver Map). On our way out of town we went for a rejuvenating soak at the K Hotel which has a public spa piping in the healing waters of the thermal springs around Jirisan. We found it difficult to leave Jirisan, but the idea of traveling to a new place was just as thrilling!