Tuesday, November 13, 2012

One route on Hua Shan

[retrospective - this is an account of a trip in China in 2003]

It was still dark as I walked up the road from the hotel towards the start of the mountain track, but the vendors were already out. Seeing my backpack, a lady called me over to her stand, and showed me her range of white cotton gloves. These weren’t for cold, she signed, but to stop my sweaty hands from losing grip and allowing me to slip to my death. To emphasise the point, she pointed to postcards with photographs of climbers following planks precariously suspended over an abyss, grasping rusty iron chains with cotton gloves identical to hers. I decided to keep with my trusty polyprop gloves, but bought some dried fruit to sustain me, and headed up past the temple, under the rail viaduct, and up to the park entrance, where a sign greeted me with “Mount Hua warmly welcome the brave climbers from home and abroad” and the cautionary note “no sightseeing while walking; no walking while sightseeing”.

Hua Shan (2160m)  is one of the five sacred mountains ("Shan") of China. A Chinese saying is "There is one route, and one route only, to the summit of Hua Shan", meaning that sometimes the only way to achieve something is the difficult way. But in the new China, a rising middle class  is demanding that technology overcome the constraints faced by their forebears. Now there are two routes to the summit of Hua Shan - the traditional walking route up steep paths with chain handrails and steps cut into the rock; and the Austrian built cablecar that whisks tourists to the temples and snack bars of the North peak for 110 Yuan.

I'd biked for two days from China's old capital Xian to get to the village of Hua Shan at the base of the mountain, so I decided to brave the traditional route. Some travellers take two days over the climb, spending a night on the summit to see the sunrise, but impending airline flights meant that I could only spare one day, so I was making an early start. At first the path was wide and an easy grade, following an alpine stream up a pretty valley, past small temples and resthouses. Porters were making their way with wicker baskets of souvenirs and supplies for the cafes further up the mountain. A number of vendors sold padlocks - I was puzzled at these until an English speaking tourist explained that further up, it was traditional for couples to have their names inscribed on the padlock which was then locked to the climbing chains, ensuring a long relationship.

Soon the track became steeper, entering a section called the "eighteen bends", with steep staircases winding between overhanging blocks of granite, and tiny dwellings clinging to scrubby ledges. It was cool beneath the shaded valley sides, but eventually I broke out onto the ridge by the North Peak, and into sun washed rocky slopes. Here also was where the tourists from the cablecar arrived, and the snack stalls and souvenir stalls clustered around the saddle. Hua Shan has five separate peaks, sometimes compared to a lotus flower opening out - hence the name "flowery mountain". I paid a brief visit to the temple surmounting the North peak, but the higher peaks to the south along the rocky ridge beckoned.

From the saddle, stairways and chains led along the narrow ridge. On one particularly auspicious stretch, the climbing chains were festooned with padlocks, with several engravers busily inscribing names - clearly Hua Shan has been doing its bit to stem the divorce rate in China.

When I stopped to catch my breath, Lu, a Chinese student keen to practice his English, started to chat with me, and joined me as we worked our way up through the forests of the centre peak. Lu was well equipped, with pristine white gloves and, already, his commemorative medallion of the climb. Soon we arrived at the approach to the East Peak, which is where the famous "plank road" runs along the cliffside over a thousand metre drop. This was the route that the stallholders in the village had wanted me to have cotton gloves for.  Lu and I sat on an outcrop overlooking the narrow path leading to a solid but rusty chain ladder descending the face to the plank road - weathered beams hanging off the rock face.

At this point I have to admit that, despite some climbing experience (Aoraki and Aspiring among others) I'm not keen on excessive exposure. Even if I'd had the regulation white cotton gloves, the idea of traversing the equivalent of the face of Yosemite's El Capitan, without a decent belay, gave me the shivers. Lu however was still keen, so he checked the fit of his gloves, and set out towards the ladder. By this time his parents had arrived, having kept in touch by mobile phone. I watched their faces as their son started the descent. I also thought about China's one child policy, and thought  they were remarkably sanguine as their only son edged over the drop. However they looked a lot more cheerful when after a short distance Lu decided that he wasn't up to the adventure either, and returned to us.

Fortunately, despite legends surrounding the plank road, there is in fact more than one route to the highest point of Hua Shan, the South Peak.  I followed the relatively straightforward steps, and stopped for a snack at the Yangtian (Black Dragon) pool, a natural rock pool on the summit.

From here a clear trail led north to the West peak, up a spectacular rock ridge, supposedly the result of the loyal son Chen Xiang splitting the mountain asunder with an axe to save his mother from the Black Dragon.

The West Peak hosts several Taoist monasteries. In a courtyard of the main temple, an old monk dressed in dark cotton jacket and cap enjoyed a smoke, oblivious to the smartly dressed city tourists around him. Here it's common to spend the night, to see the summit dawn, but I wanted to get back before dark, so started descending the pleasant paths that weaved through pine forest, passing newly constructed hotels, catering for the increased traffic from the cablecar. Soon I was back at the north peak, and eschewed the cable car again to follow the steep paths down into the valley.

Despite the tiredness of a long day, I felt steady and confident as I descended, until a polite cough behind me alerted me that someone wanted to pass. I paused, and let a sinewy porter dash past down the slope, balancing a pole across his shoulders with two huge sacks of rubbish, clearing the mountain of the day's tourist excreta.

I carried on, more slowly now, but it was still just light when I walked back under the railway line and down the street. On the corner the market woman was still there, hawking her postcards and gloves to tomorrows climbers.

The next day, I loaded my bike on to the bus back to Xian and eventually, a plane back to New Zealand, and on Hua Shan another bevy of travellers began their one route to the summit.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Kimchi power: cycletouring in Korea

When planning a trip to Korea, kimchi (fermented cabbage) as a staple diet doesn't sound that attractive to a westerner. Similarly, the notion of cycling in Korea doesn't appeal with guidebook advice such as "cycling in Seoul means almost certain death" (Thanks, Lonely Planet).

But after a while in Korea, a meal without a side bowl of Kimchi seems bland, and Korea boasts some excellent cycle routes.

When I first started planning the trip, I'd contacted Jan Boonstra, who maintains the excellent website Bicycling in Korea and provided good route advice and maps by email. James at Dirt Merchants  overhauled the transmission on my bike and gave me a box for packing the bike, and I was ready to go.

After the 13 hours flying from Wellington, it was a surprise to wake up in Seoul and through habit turn on my radio at 101.3 FM, to pick up Morning Report. Only thing was, Geoff Robinson had acquired an American accent and was interviewing someone about the best places to see Autumn colour in Korea. Turns out there is a Seoul English language station on the same frequency as NZ National Radio, which eases the transition!

After a bit of exploration to find a 1:150 000 scale map book, I headed for the Han river, with the aim of picking up the cycling trails that follow the river to escape the urban sprawl of 10 million people. I thought I'd worked out a straight forward route, but after a while hit a guardhouse, and discovered that a fair portion of south central Seoul is occupied by the US army, who don't take kindly to cycletourists passing through without high level security clearance.  After some frustrating climbs and false turns, I finally made it to the Bangpo Bridge and the cycle trail.

This was a revelation - a 5m wide trail, 2m each direction for cyclists and a metre for pedestrians. Taking advantage of this recreational cycling bounty seemed to be a fair portion of that 10 Million people, on bikes ranging from folders to serious full suspension rigs (to be frank, I never found any cycle trails that justified these bikes, but they seemed to be common), not to mention scooters, roller blades, and high class running shoes. Rather than climb to the vehicular Bangpo Bridge, I could cross the Han on a cycle only bridge at river level. I headed East on the trail, passing all sorts of weekend events: fun runs, picnics, baseball games. There were plenty of food outlets to restock at, and frequent toilets, water fountains and bike rental places.

Autumn flowers added a TDF dimension to the ride

I passed Gangnam (the affluent home of Gangnam Style, which might explain why Korean recreational cyclists in this area were impeccably lycra'd) and a path side bike gear market.
I soon crossed back to the north side on the high Paldang bridge and stopped for lunch of skewered pancakes under a riverside awning.

Then the route picked up an old railway line past the Paldang dam. Although Jan had supplied me with a route guide following the Han river trail all the way to Busan, he'd suggested as  more interesting a route crossing the mountains to Sokcho on the East coast, so I headed north on a road that although bearing a fair bit of weekend traffic, had an adequate shoulder.

After being accosted by two seminarians (actually drumming up custom for a restaurant, I think) I made a stop about 60 km riding from Seoul, at an upmarket riverside hotel. The family had spent time in South Africa, so dinner was a Brai, making for a truly multicultural evening.
A nice Korean touch, though was the cotton gloves to prevent your fingers from being burnt by the hot meat, with disposable gloves on top to stop the cotton gloves from getting greasy.
Next morning I headed up the river in a cool fog, initially resigned to riding on a busy 4 lane expressway, but after a few kilometers discovered the Gangchon cycleway running parallel to the highway. Following Jan's advice, I kept on the true right of the valley past the Chuncheon Dam and lake. At this point I met Mr Kim who was keen to escort me up the cycle path and point out the sights - given that Kim is the most common surname in Korea, and Smith the most common Anglo-Saxon surname, there seemed something very appropriate about Mr Kim and Mr Smith riding together.

By now it was a fine sunny day, and plenty of cyclists were out on the path which ran beside the calm lake, reminiscent of Lake Como in Italy. The path was frequently cantilevered out over the water, necessitating warning signs.

We met two Dutch cyclists traveling the other way, also following Jan's directions, which gave me some confidence about the route - although these were the only westerners I saw between Seoul and
Sokcho on the east coast - one thing that surprised me was the lack of western travellers.

At the park by the Animation Museum, Mr Kim and I shared his coffee and my chocolate bar. (Why an Animation Museum? Think about where all the animation cels for the Simpsons, Futurama, etc are done...). I learned that Mr Kim and I were a similar age, but he had a much stronger climbing record, having climbed in Nepal, including Everest, and showed me the scars to prove it.

Regretfully, Mr Kim had to turn off to complete his circuit through Chuncheon, and I headed up valley. Crossing a pass, I got a reminder of how close to the border I was, when I saw this structure.

The big blocks are designed to topple onto the road and block North Korean tanks when the explosive charges in the small supporting blocks are fired.

Near Hwacheon, cycling and walking paths ran through fields of yellow flowers, and a stall gave out cups of tea brewed with the flowers.

Hwacheon was seething with 18 year old national servicemen on weekend leave, taking me back to 1971 Waiouru. I spent a while trying to avoid a hotel that was also catering for the sex trade, but it looked like the national servicemen were actually more heavily patronising the "PC Bangs" - computer games rooms that are a feature of every Korean main street. At the hotel I selected, the woman figured out how to explain to me where I should store my bike overnight.

Next morning was cooler, and I had to watch for ice on the trail as I followed along the misty river.

I warmed up as I climbed to the 2km Haesan tunnel. I'd been warned that tunnels were a feature of Korean highways, and an issue for cyclists. However Haesan, and the subsequent tunnels I rode, were well lit and had adequate shoulders, so with a tail reflector and a flashing rear light I felt fine.

The road dropped down through forests starting to show their autumn colour, to the Peace Dam. On the way, a sightseeing taxi stopped to chat - the woman asked me "how do you know about this place? Most Koreans don't even come here!". The Internet has a lot to answer for.

The Peace Dam is an interesting structure, as this photograph of the upstream side shows.

Notice something odd? Remember this is the upstream side, which in most dams is usually filled to near the top. Here, forest, roads and buildings are sited below the top of the dam, and there appears to be no intention to fill the dam. The answer lies upstream, in North Korea, where a large dam is perceived as a threat. If by accident or design, the water from the North Korean dam was released, the result could be a flood that would extend down river to Seoul. The Peace dam's sole purpose is to intercept that flood, and protect the cities downstream.

I rode on to the small town of Bangsan, stayed at a small hotel and walked around the village which features a pleasant river, and several traditional porcelain furnaces.

Next morning my hosts farewelled me,  and I headed north through Haen and back down the river to rejoin the main highway at Wontong where I stayed. The next morning marked the end of the golden weather, with a drizzling rain as I headed up the expressway towards the coast. I had a moment of panic when the expressway headed into a series of tunnels, with a large "no cycling" logo. However I eventually spotted the "cycle path" - the old main highway, which has been preserved with the addition of cycle logos.

With the adapted Crocodile Dundee line of "Call that a cycle path? THIS is what I call a cycle path..." going through my head, I had a pleasant ride up the forested gorge before rejoining the main road. Although I had to ride the highway from here, construction of a cycle path was already under way, with an information board showing cyclists next summer heading up valley shaded by vine covered pergolas that were being erected over the route - a nice touch that Nga Haerenga might want to consider for a Marlborough Vineyard ride.

At the turnoff to the Misiryeong Tunnel to Sokcho and the east coast, I met three young radiographers fixing a puncture. After a chat about cycling, I headed off, confident that they'd be passing me soon, which they did.

Through the tunnel, the sun came out and the road descended swiftly to Sokcho, with the jagged "dragon back" peak of Ulsanbawi in Seoraksan National Park towering to the south of the road. I spent the afternoon exploring Sokcho city, taking the ferry across to the fishing village of Abai Island which used to be a picturesque fishing village until an expressway overpass was built over it (Basin Reserve, anyone?). The ferry is a nice bit of technology - the ferryman pulls on the cable with a special hook  to move the ferry across, and since the ferrymen are getting on in years, there are spare hooks for passengers to help out with.

From Sokcho, I rode the short distance inland to Seoraksan National Park, where it looked like a fair proportion of Korea's 50 million people had rolled up to see the autumn colour.

The numbers eased off a little as I headed up the trail to the top of Ulsanbawi - many people made their days objective to queue for a chance to rock Heundeulbawi, a finely balanced boulder.

But when the trail reached the final cliffs leading up to Ulsanbawi, waiting for traffic jams to clear provided frequent excuses for me to stop and catch my breath.

Finally on top I could get the traditional photograph with the Korean Taegeukgi flag (I'd inadvertently forgotten to bring an NZ flag for the occasion) and look across to the road that I'd cycled down the previous day.

Ulsanbawi's origin has echoes of our own Taranaki; Ulsan was apparently a mountain that traveled north with the aim of joining a prestigious mountain range on the Chinese border, but when he arrived there wasn't any room for him. In a huff he headed south again, but after his exertions fell asleep at Seoraksan and has stayed there ever since.

A nice application of mobile technology was the QR codes on emergency points along the trail - if you're in trouble, scan the QR code with your smartphone, and your location will automatically be transmitted to SAR.

Koreans are enthusiastic photographers, and appreciate others' photography. I spent a while composing this shot of a temple roof with autumnal vines draped over it. Just as I was about to take the final shot, a passer by thrust their mobile phone into the shot. Bemused, I decided to take it as a complement to my choice of composition.

I lodged at a hotel near the park entrance, so next morning was ahead of the crowds as I headed up the valley to Geumganggul, a Buddhist hermitage cave half way up a rock face. The resident monk appeared to have fled the crowds, but his sleeping platform, with only some wire mesh protecting him from a several hundred metre drop, gave some idea of the lifestyle.

In the afternoon I biked back out to the coast, and headed south, doing my best to avoid the main highway by keeping to side roads and cycle paths. Folding bikes are popular in Korea, and I'm sure Dahon and Brompton devotees will be pleased that the bike path markers of Naksan have eschewed the normal full-sizist bike path symbol in favour of a folder-friendly version.

My stop that night was in the rather prosaically named fishing village of "38", so named because it sits exactly on the 38th parallel, the original demarcation between North and South Korea.

The red sunrise is almost a symbol of the east coast, and helped me get going next morning, but the after affects of a dodgy Bibimbap (fried egg on stir fry) kept my energy levels low, so I stopped at Junminjin, where a medium sized ship has been dragged onto a hilltop to make a hotel. Needless to say, I stayed at one of the standard 30000 won hotels on the beach below.

Although the coast was very pleasant, it was becoming hard to avoid periodic stretches on busy highways, so I decided to take a bus back over the mountains to rejoin the Han River Trail. At Donghae I located the bus station and enquired about buses to Chongju, on the Han river. The ticket seller and I had an "if I were you, I wouldn't start from here in the first place" conversation, the upshot of which was that my best plan was to start by getting a bus back to Gangneung, 50 km back up the coast. This was fine: the bus left in 15 minutes, and the driver happily stowed my bike in the cavernous cargo hold. At Gangneung, I enquired about buses to Chongju - "sure, there's one leaving in 10 minutes". I bought a ticket, found the bus, loaded my bike and settled back in a comfortable window seat, congratulating myself on mastering the Korean bus system. It was only then that I looked more closely at the ticket, and found that my Kiwi accent had betrayed me, and I was on my way to Cheongju - a different place! As we crossed the mountains, I divided my time between appreciating the multicoloured forests the road passed through, and planning alternative bike tours from my new destination. However near Wonju we stopped at a rest area, that I realised was relatively close to the Han river, and decided to de-bus. Helpful folk at the rest area gave me advice on which road to follow, but in fact a few hundred metres from the rest area I stumbled on yet another brand new cycle trail.

This led painlessly down to the Han River trail, and a hotel at the small town of Buron. At the local school, the Buron soccer team were playing a visiting team, and the ubiquitous Mr Kim invited me to join a group of Buron supporters, who were dividing their attention between the match and the consumption of rice wine and barbequed chicken.

The rain returned the next day, and kept up as I sloshed down the River Trail to Yangpyeong, passing a few dedicated cyclists in plastic ponchos. At the hotel in Yangpyeong, I was grateful for the traditional ondol underfloor heating - I could dry my wet gear by just laying it out on the floor.

The last day into Seoul was brilliantly fine but cold. The trail followed an old railway line, on a level gradient with numerous tunnels and causeways. An interesting prohibition on the Han River Trail is dogs, although this young puppy wasn't old enough to read the sign, and was keen to run away from home.

When I reached the urban area, I decided to take a different route into the centre, following the bike path that leads up to the Cheongyecheon, a reclaimed stream that flows through central Seoul. As I followed up this path, I stumbled on a dance band playing in the shelter of an overpass, with scores of people of all ages (and even a cyclist in Lycra) joining in.

Unfortunately the actual river path eventually becomes pedestrian only, so I had to take to the street running parallel to the river, but with patience and a bit of inventive interpretation of traffic rules I made it back to Namdaemun and my hotel, to switch into conference mode for WIS/COLLNET meeting that was my official reason for being in Korea.

So is cycletouring in Korea worthwhile? Definitely yes - cycle paths are being constructed at a rate that puts Nga Haerenga to shame, and with a good map you can generally identify routes that use low density secondary roads. Getting out of big centres such as Seoul can be a problem, although I subsequently discovered that you can take bikes on the Metro, which could an option for escaping the centre. Language is less of a problem than it might seem - road signs are almost always in western script as well as Hangoul, and many people understand some English. Accommodation in traditional "motels" (more like European basic hotels) is ubiquitous, standard and economical. So if you're looking for a cycle touring adventure, why not give Korea a go. You might even enjoy the Kimchi!

Google Map of the bike route