Although in my experience, Koreans often seem to be skilled beyond measure at cheapening and vulgarizing just about anything to which they lay their hands, owing perhaps to the mercantilism-at-any-cost modernization of recent decades, Sorak San National Park, and the countryside around it, were a pleasant revelation to me.
An astonishingly beautiful place, organized and modern. The air is clean, the water’s clean, and I was surprised and bemused to observe that, as far as I could tell, at least, the Koreans seem to be better stewards of their forest resources than my fellow Canadians. I saw nothing that could compare with the vast, brutal areas of clearcut in British Columbia. In a tiny little country, with 49 million people crammed into it, there’s more of what appears to be virgin forest in the 275 kilometres or so between there and the smoke-shrouded urban hell that is here than I had ever expected.
We spent some time at Naksan Sa, one of the Buddhist temples in the region. The temple buildings and gardens perch amid fragrant pines on a bluff beside the sea. It is a testament to the upheavals of Korean history that it has been rebuilt no less than eight times in the fourteen centuries since it was first constructed. The entire coast in the region is lined with a three-metre fence, topped with razor-wire, a legacy of the latest upheaval 50 years ago. Sokcho and Sorak National park are disconcertingly close to the North Korean border. Soldiers patrol the beaches, along the inside of the fence. North Korean spies are kept out, but the people who live along the coast are kept in. It was surreal to see a gun emplacement, draped with camouflage netting, hidden in the rocks beneath the hermitage at the temple.
Sorak San itself (‘san’ means ‘mountain’, and derives from the Chinese character ) is as beautiful as any place I’ve ever seen, although even in the shoulder season, it’s mobbed by huge crowds. The day we spent there, bushwalking and generally wandering about, there were literally thousands of high school and middle school students, in enormous groups, repeatedly shouting “hello!” at me, which is always something I enjoy immensely, in much the same sense that I enjoy having my nipples sandpapered.
But it takes more than boisterous schoolkids to ruin my ki-buen. We spent the days in the mountains, and the evenings at the hot springs/waterpark/public bath near our condo, which was incredibly clean, modern, well-designed and well-built. A testament to what Korea could be like with a little more attention to detail, a little more pride in workmanship, a little less focus on the short term. A preview of what Korea will hopefully be, in a decade or two.
Our brief holiday was an unqualified success, and I look forward to going back and spending some more time there when this semester finishes.