Hiking Mt. Hallasan, Jeju Island, South Korea
Hallasan is a dormant volcano and the highest mountain in South Korea.
Hallasan is located in the center of Jeju Island and it is considered to be one of the three most sacred mountains in South Korea.
The others are Seoraksan, which we hiked at the beginning of our trip, and the third is Jirisan, which we plan to hike in a few days’ time.
We chose to hike the Yeongsil Trail, mostly because the other two trails start at the northern part of the island by Jeju city, a part of the island which we tried to avoid visiting, except to return our rental car or to take the ferry to Wando.
The other trail that starts from the southern part of the island is a very long one and it requires that you start at sunrise, if you wish to complete the hike by sunset.
We started our day with breakfast at Kasan Tobang Hanok (also spelled Gasan Tobang). At exactly nine in the morning, everybody made their way out of their rooms and into the central area where they sat around low tables on the floor and were served Abalone porridge.
By nine fifteen the pre-made abalone porridge was already getting cold and less tasty.
Nobody was late for breakfast.
We did not attempt to eat this Korean delicacy, and ate cooked whole grain rice that I brought with me and some roasted and salted seaweed nori sheets, which are my favorite snack.
Jules ate some leftover spaghetti which we warmed in their microwave.
We drove along a scenic forest road up to the parking lot where the trail started.
Only a dozen cars were in the parking lot on a weekday, which was a great relief to me.
I was ready to give up on hiking Hallasan if the parking lots were full of buses and cars were overflowing to the road.
I have vowed not to hike on weekends in Korea if we can, and I was mentally and emotionally prepared to change our plans, and instead of hiking Hallasan, to go walking along one of the many long Olle trails, which circumnavigate Jeju island and are less crowded.
But the parking lot was not busy and we put on our hiking shoes, suntan lotion and backpacks full of water and a lunch, and made it to the beginning of the trail.
Yeongsil Trail is a 5.8 Killometer hike each way (we did about 11 km round trip).
It started with a nice hike through a pine and maple forest, and then we climbed up and up steep stone or wooden steps.
The steep climb was the hardest part of the hike, but of course it was also difficult to find your footing on the stony steps on the way down.
The views were wonderful.
The green valley stretched bellow us.
We crossed bridges over flowing streams and got great views of the stone pillars that are called the “500 Generals.”
Local legends tell different stories about the volcanic rock pillars that seem to resemble human forms.
Some say that they are the sons of an old woman who lived in this area.
She had 500 sons, and the task of preparing their daily food occupied all of the hours of her days.
She used a huge caldron to make a soup that was big enough for all of them.
One day, while her sons were out, hunting or working the land, the mother accidentally fell into the soup caldron and died.
Her sons returned home hungry and tired.
Their mother was not around, but she had prepared a delicious soup for them full of meat.
The sons ate the soup and when they understood that the bones in the soup were those of their mother, they were despondent and totally devastated.
In their grief, they turned into stone pillars.
Other Jeju residents still believe that the winds that howl down Yeongsil valley are the doleful cries of the sons.
It is somewhat easier to understand this myth when an eerie mist covers the valley and the pillars seem to move through the mist, but on a sunny and bright day like the day we hiked Hallasan, I felt more inclined to believe the second legend.
The second legend says that the human shaped pillars of the 500 generals standing alert and guarding Jeju island are actually 500 Buddhist disciples, who have reached enlightenment and experienced nirvana in this region.
On a higher elevation, the tree line disappeared and the landscape became one of desolate beauty, with a deep blue sky and driftwood trees standing leafless with stretched sun-bleached arms like monumental sculptures.
Pink azalea blooms dotted the landscape and black crows circled above us, looking for scraps of food left by hikers who stopped to enjoy their lunches.
On the top, the area flattened out and the path was beautiful, with a wooden boardwalk to minimize the impact of hikers in this National park.
The fields on both sides of the path were full of many species of subalpine plants.
In past years, the trail terminated at the Witsae-oreum Shelter.
Today, we were able to walk an extra two kilometers towards the summit along the Donnaeko trail, but we could not summit Hallasan from the Yeongsil trail, because the remaining short distance was closed for restoration of the path.
The Witse-oreum shelter translates as a “Noodle Shack,” and it is a rest area where the Yeongsil trail meets the Eorimok trail.
On weekends, hundreds of hikers from both trails stop at Witse-oreum to dine on ramen noodles or picnic lunches.
Because it was mid week, we shared the shelter with only about a dozen people.
Workers were repairing and extending the outdoor deck, which was built to accommodate many hundreds of weekend hikers.
I had brought with us a picnic lunch of tomatoes, cucumbers, and boiled potatoes, along with some nuts and green tea cookies.
After the break, we walked up towards the summit, and turned around when we felt that we needed enough time to make it down the mountain before sunset.
The walk back down the steep steps and the rocky path was difficult.
Fortunately the path was dry and we did not need to worry about slipping or being too careful.
It was Jules’ birthday, and it was a wonderful way to spend his birthday, hiking a holy mountain, enjoying nature and remembering how blessed we were.
That evening, we got back to our comfortable and most pleasant Hanok.
Right as we pulled into the parking lot, a bus full of people unloaded and checked into our mushroom shaped Hanok.
The tradition in Korea is that the whole family sleeps in one large family room, on the floor on blankets, so even though our Hanok was small, it could accommodate many people, if they all were to share a large family room.
Jules told me that we must hurry into the communal showers, before they filled with people.
We left our shoes at the entrance, as you do in front of all hotel rooms and guesthouses in Korea, and rushed to the showers.
I had just finished scrubbing my body from the sweat of the long day of hiking, when the women started streaming into the showers.
As always in bathhouses and communal showers, the women were curious about me, the foreigner who travels in their country and loves their traditional ways and rural places.
They spoke only a smattering of English, and as we all scrubbed, towel dried or shampooed, they asked me where I was from? was I on a honeymoon with my husband? What was I doing in Korea? Do I like it here? Why are we traveling alone? Do I like Korean food? And many more such friendly questions.
At the hotel’s restaurant, they serve the local Jeju speciality of grilled black boar.
They serve it raw which they roast on a grill in the center of the table.
It comes with soybean soup and an array of vegetables and pickles.
We were able to ask for a vegetarian option of soybean tofu soup, a large spring green salad and steamed rice.
I also ordered a dish of wild mushrooms, but what came was a bottle of alcohol made from wild mushrooms.
Luckily it came unopened and I was able to send it back, explaining that I thought it was food, not a drink.
I am getting so used to sleeping on the floor, that the clean sheets felt heavenly that night.
I could feel my muscles relaxing after a long hot day of climbing, and I slipped into a sweet night’s sleep.