You’re standing at the base of Mount Hallasan. You’re carrying a water bottle, a granola bar and your DSLR camera. You know you should’ve left the heavy Canon in your apartment back in Seoul, but you wanted to document this adventure. You certainly couldn’t leave it in the hostel dorm room this morning—so it’s strung around your neck, about to climb a volcano with you.
Mount Hallasan is an active shield volcano in Hallasan National Park on Jeju-do, an island south of the Korean peninsula. At 1,950 metres, Hallasan is the tallest mountain in the country.
You’re taking the Seongpanak Trail. After figuring out the notoriously difficult public transportation, you walk under a banner to officially begin the hike. It’s a 9.6-kilometre one-way, out-and-back trek. It should take seven to eight hours to complete.
This hike isn’t anything like the trails you’re used to trekking back home. Those narrow dirt paths meander through the forest. Deciduous trees offer shade and pine needles freshen the air until you pop out onto an exposed rock with jaw-dropping views of lakes, rivers and waterfalls.
This trail is comprised of stairs, boardwalks and uneven stones that challenge your balance and stress your knees. Rope railings create a boundary between you and the bushes. You’re not used to having nature fenced off.
Most different of all, there are strict rules: you must reach the third checkpoint by 12:30pm to continue your climb, and you must begin your descent by 2pm. You and your hiking buddies arrive at the checkpoint with 30 minutes to spare. By this point, your tank top is discoloured with sweat and you’re considering leaving your DSLR to be picked up by the crowds that swarm the jarring rocks.
Maybe you’ve been spoiled by Canada’s incredible mountains, but even the view from the summit leaves something to be desired. While the sun burns brightly overhead, the horizon is muggy. Pollution and smog hug the hills. You can’t even see the ocean.
With dimming expectations, you look towards the crater lake Baengnokdam, which means “White Deer Lake.” On Google Images, it’s full of stunning blue water; in real life, it’s shallow and brown.
Fighting disappointment and secretly wishing to be back on Jungmun Beach watching surfers tackle the waves, you pull on your bright red bucket hat with an obnoxious Canadian flag and pose for a photo. Younger hikers roll their eyes and look away, but older Koreans smile and try to spark up a conversation with you in a language you can’t speak.
The way down the volcano is long and tedious. You pause to rub your knees and, for a moment, you can see green hills stretch into the distance. You fumble for your DSLR to capture the scene.
That evening, you’ll return to Seogwipo City and sample Jeju’s famous BBQ Black Pig. Or, at least, you think that’s what you ordered. It also might be horse. Soju will be shared, laughter will speckle the restaurant and your legs will ache with that familiar strain of a hike well climbed, no matter where in the world you are.
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