Border guardOn our way back to the tour bus after a short hike, my attention was (almost subconsciously) drawn towards an area of scrub extending back into the hill we were parked next to. There was something I couldn’t quite place about the pattern of trees, wild grasses and clearings, but as the faded colours resolved into old machines and branches into rusted metal I realised we’d stumbled across that Mecca of urban explorers and Miyazaki fans – an abandoned amusement park.

The sign at the entrance proclaimed it to be 백암산랜드 (Baek am san raen deu; Hundred Rocky Peaks Land and by a quirk of homophones also Hundred Mental Arithmetic Sums Land), isolated on a rural site which I would have extreme difficulty finding again somewhere near the coastal town of Uljin (울진).

Back to natureGorillaball

Infinitely delayedOur guides allowed us a mere ten minutes to explore, and so we were forced to race around at breakneck speed, only scratching the merest surface. The car park had been appropriated for an area for local farmers to dry and thresh rice, and a flock of goats watched us warily from the safety of some bushes as we tried to decide where to go. I took off up the hill, passing a few defunct rides and buildings, and paused at the bottom of a gently sloping meadow that was once a sledge run. The path wound farther back into the hills, taunting me with its hidden relics as I turned back at the sound of shouting from the bus.

Waiting for winterObligatory Viking ship

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Japanese mapleWith autumn colours in full glow, hordes of tourists and locals participate in an annual mass exodus to the national parks and shoot terabytes of images, probably putting no little strain on sharing sites and supplying a few years’ worth of competition entries. Wanting to miss out on the crowds but not the colours, we opted for a tour with Adventure Korea who have a useful knack for finding quieter places without charging astronomical prices.

PinePine branches
Gyeongsangbuk-doGyeongsangbuk-do

Autumn coloursWe boarded the tour bus early in the morning and, despite reasonable traffic, had to endure a six-hour trip to the central-east coast (not a little baffling, as it’s only five hours to the south coast) before transferring to a minibus for another hour. When we finally tumbled out into the fresh air, just being able to move around again enhanced a short walk through an ancient pine forest to almost therapeutic levels. We took in the peace and quiet (trying hard to ignore the chattering of some of our fellow tourists), the turning leaves, the brilliant sunshine, lots of insects enjoying the last of the warmth and were finally herded back onto the buses for the trip to the coastal town of Uljin (울진).

Valley streamRocky path

Autumn coloursThe stop in Uljin had been billed as an interesting diversion from hiking, taking in the local fish market and a “local minstrels” performance. We arrived in time for a snack, which turned out to be snow crab (rice for us), and then drove out to a nearby jetty for the auction-cum-performance. By now it was fully dark and a cold wind was picking up, and we wondered aloud why a fish auction would be held out on the end of a breakwater with no buildings or heavy vehicle access. As we approached the lighthouse at the end of the path, we could make out a few local fishermen sneaking curious glances at a fully amplified folk guitarist who proceeded to belt out Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer. The auction then took place, which consisted of our guide taking the microphone and soliciting bids for some convenience store dried squid, followed by seaweed. By this time we had retreated to the rear of the crowd, which helped us to avoid participating in a balloon release (watch out for the rubber in next year’s crab catch).

Local minstrelPurple plant

Uljin lighthouseThe original plan for the second day had been to do a longer hike and then set off for Seoul in the afternoon, but our guide announced en route that he wanted to do a shorter walk so that we could set off earlier and thus avoid most of the heavy traffic. After a minor rebellion (not least due to the fact that we had just spent seven hours on a bus specifically to hike here), he relented and allowed the people who wanted to stay out longer the option to do so. Thus mollified, we set out on a rocky path and quickly found ourselves scrambling along a stream, gradually working our way into a heavily-forested valley. Several members of our company turned back at a rock face where we had to inch our way along a ledge, but most made it through and we paused for a break with the valley’s three sides (we were approaching the source) looming over us. At this point our guide said that it was raining farther ahead and turned us round to walk back the way we’d come, conveniently arriving back at the bus around the same time his shorter-route plan would have had us there. We set off the fresher and healthier for the time out of the city, but slightly leery of the fourteen hours travel time for four of hiking.

Forest valleyLeaf eddy