Friday, January 16, 2009

Blow, Blow, Winter Wind . . . (South Korea Part 2: Nami Island, Mount Sorak, Gyeongbok Palace, Ski grounds)

As we got off the ferry at the wharf of Nami Island, it seemed like we stepped into winter wonderland. The sight that welcomed us was almost magical. There was a naturally formed ice sculpture, made of tree branches that grew out in different direction that appeared to be calling out to us to explore this beautiful island. And that was what the kids did as they made a dash in all directions towards the snow covered grounds, everyone wanting their own private spot in this winter heaven, curious how snow actually feels like in their hands. And all parents were as quick with their cameras to capture the wonderful time the kids had in the snow.

The central path of Nami Island

J on a respite from all the walking

Mount Sorak was another place that provided lots of snow time fun for the kids. Also known as Soreaksan in the native language, it is the third highest mountain in the country, with the main peak (Daechung) at 1,708 meters above sea level. It is one of most popular Korean tourist spot, and understandably so because of its breathtaking scenery, beautiful temples and numerous walking and climbing trails.
Snow had built up on the ground, soft snow that reached almost knee-high,
perfect for making snowballs and snow angels.

Our real adventure on this mountain began as we rode a cable car that took us to the viewing deck high up near the peak. The Sorak Cable Car goes from the park entrance area to near the top of a mountain called Kwongumsong. From the upper cable car station, a hiking trail leads on up to the top of the mountain . Another trail goes left from the cable car station to Allak Temple. The ride to ascend rewarded us with a spectacular view of the wintry forest, hundreds of feet below us. The foliage of trees with snow covered branches and the snow capped mountain range was a beautiful canvas of browns, slates, grays, blues, and winter whites.

view of the forest below from up on the lift

at the cable car station

As we step out of the lift, the crisp and chilly air that enveloped our bodies roused us from our state of inertia. The amazing spectacle that unfolded before our eyes tempted us to explore this mountain. To do this, we would have to determinedly climb up on foot. I looked up to the peak and saw that there were several hikers ahead of us. I was confident that the kids would be able to manage it, familiar as I am with their unending bursts of energy. The first part of the climb was effortless as steps were carved out along the mountain. As we got higher and the incline got steeper, the ascent got grueling as we only had the steel rails to hold onto. To make matters worse, the snow turned everything very slippery. This was something I did not anticipate, and made my climb harder since I had to make sure each step was made with caution. I tried very hard to maintain my footing, lest I drag R down with me, which would have been painful (and humiliating). I was embarrassed when I realized that my singular self-absorption to not fall over has resulted in delaying everybody behind me.
Look at the long line of people! I am sure every one of them wanted to overtake me. :)

A couple of guarded steps later, we reached another viewing deck. At this altitude, the atmosphere was decidedly hostile -the wind was fiercer and the air thinner. C prudently opted to stay behind with the two younger kids.
The peaks are so high at Mount Sorak that the top few hundred meters are bare rock.

As we climbed higher and it got colder and colder, I easily got out of breath due to the markedly decrease of oxygen in the air. I noticed the trees eventually thinned out. At the second viewing deck, all forms of vegetation disappear as a result of the harsh climate. The peaks are bare and rocky, with patches covered in snow and ice.
the hugeness of the rock is magnified by the comparison in scale to the hikers

The sight of the mountain range from this height emboldened J and I to complete the climb to the peak, if only to get an encompassing view of this dramatic vista - and the bragging rights, of course! :). We made our final ascent to the summit using our hands and feet to move over the huge and cold boulders. Finally after about an hour of climbing we were rewarded with a sight so dramatic that it was just like staring into eternity. I stayed as long as I can, wanting to preserve the scenery forever in my mind. The granite rock formations are so huge and dominant and the snow capped peaks made the whole area almost mystical.
taken at the highest peak of Mount Sorak

We were on a natural high afterward that the descent was just like flying down the mountain.

J sliding down a few meters of her descent

God smiled down some more on the kids as He made this a winter vacation in the true sense of the word. What could be more authentic than fresh falling snow on the day we visited the Gyeongbok Palace.
The Gyeongbokgung, as it is called by the locals, is the place where the affairs of state were conducted and numerous kings had lived in for 500 years during the Joseon Dynasty. This former seat of power is probably Korea's most famous royal palace. The palace was built in the late 1300s, and has been destroyed and reconstructed numerous times. The National Folk Museum of Korea can also be found in the northern section of the Gyeongbok Palace. It uses dioramas to illustrate the wide selection of folk and cultural history of the Korean people.

As we strolled around the pavilions and halls within the palace's spacious walled grounds, the kids ran around with tongues sticking out, happily enjoying their first ever snowfall.

Although I have tried sledding down an ice-covered slope a couple of years back, this was my first ski experience. Having shared that, I had no idea that the shoes and the ski plates were THAT heavy. We deposited our belongings on the ground floor of the ski resort and proceeded to change to our rented ski gear. Only, C and I had to walk with our ski shoes up to the slope's entrance located on the second level. Imagine us going up on the escalator clutching 5 pairs of ski plates and another 5 sets of poles between the two of us - and holding the two younger ones, as well. As it is, those 2 rascals still needed assistance stepping on and off the escalator using their regular shoes. I cannot begin to tell you, without sounding so terribly clueless, how we managed to bring the kids safely up, while walking like ducks ourselves - no thanks to our ski shoes. Even writing about it now, the recollection makes me roll over with hysterical laughter.
Skiing lessons were given to the whole group and everybody had a turn to go down slope once with the instructor's assistance. After that, it was each one for himself. If you pay close attention to the instructor and do as she tells you to, you will take to the snow the way a fish takes to water. I successfully managed to make a straight run down (no turns yet) 3 times , my barometer for success being: one, not falling over; and two, not causing anyone to fall over. What I found to be a problem in this overly populated trail was that almost everyone was either having lessons themselves or was an edgy novice skier. Personally, I think the most important thing for every beginner to learn before they hit the slopes is being able to control when to stop their downhill movement. Navigating the crowded slopes was actually more dangerous than a blind man crossing EDSA during the rush hour. tsk! :) I saw several unsuspecting people taken down from behind by reckless newbies who forgot how to stop.

Since the kids were completely equipped with their skiing gears, they naturally wanted to make good use of their skis as well. Being in no position to offer any guidance, I took off their ski plates and we hiked up. This made the uphill climb easier for them, and anything that's easier for them ultimately makes my life easier, noh? :) Once we reached a considerable distance, I had them hold on tight to their poles and I pulled them down the slopes that way. Easy!

riding down a sled at Everland