At the elementary school in Korea where I work as an English teacher, we sing songs. Lots of songs. Lots of really crappy textbook songs. One of the most painfully catchy of these songs went something like, “What are you going to do this weekend? I’m going to hike Hallasan.”
So, what did I do this weekend? I hiked Hallasan.
We took the 780 bus from the terminal and got off at Seongpanak a little before 8:00 am. I’d been told by many people to start the hike up Mount Halla early—the Seongpanak trail is 9.6 km (6 miles) up, and if you don’t make it to the halfway point by 12:00 they send you back down the mountain. I’d been told not to underestimate the hike, and I’d seen my friends hobbling around for days after conquering the mountain.
Our hike started in the best conditions possible. As soon as I stepped off the bus I realized how silly my past attempts to find fall had been. Here, everything was instantly in color. The forest was a mosaic of yellows, greens, oranges, and fiery reds, all shifting against the thin clouds. I picked a maple leaf off of the ground and stuck it in my ponytail. Around me, hikers carried leaves tucked like stars into their backpacks straps, and the leaves covered the uneven rock walkway with a thin but brilliant carpet.
One member of our group had hiked the mountain in every season except winter, and he said that fall is by far the best time to go.
The path continued through the deciduous forest at a gentle slope, making it easy to focus on the trees. It continued like this for a while, even after the trees shifted to pines and low-growing plants covered the forest floor. At the last section before the halfway point, though, the path rose into a series of stairs that slowed some of our group down to a crawl.
At this point I started to realize how popular the trail really was. The fact that “I’m going to hike Hallasan” appeared in my 6th-grade textbook suddenly made a lot more sense. There were hikers everywhere. Most hiked in large groups; almost all wore new-looking gear in the same five shades of neon pink, purple, blue, green, or yellow. There were very few parts of the trail where I was out of arm’s reach of another hiker. At times this was rather irritating, especially when some hikers chose to play music on their ever-present cell phones. At other times, though, it was strangely beautiful to watch the line of bright jackets wind up through the trees.
We made it to the halfway point with an hour to spare, which was somewhat of a relief as our group moved at a rather slow pace. This was a popular lunch spot, so we ate our kimbap (think sushi rolls, but with vegetables instead of fish) while other hikers feasted on ramen from the busy but somewhat limited restaurant.
The rest of the hike up went pretty quickly. This trail was very straightforward but very, very crowded. It started out with low, scruffy pines, but then the pines thinned and the low-lying plants gave way to dry grasses, and we emerged onto the open part of the mountain.
The scene was eerily lonely, even more so when so many hikers pressed into a narrow wooden walkway while the whole mountain shivered beneath us. It was too cloudy to see much beneath the mountain, but I could just make out the squares and circles of landmarks below. On a clear day, we would have been able to see the ocean.
I really began to feel like I was on a volcano as we walked up the dry hillside to the ridge of stone that marked the edge of the old crater. When we finally reached the crater, muscling past all the other hikers who posed for shots, it was hauntingly desolate. This, I thought, was the source of the entire island, an ancient cauldron of fire as vivid as the leaves that now flowed along its fringe.
We were at the highest point of the island; everything sloped down beneath us. We were at the highest point of South Korea, in fact, but the mainland seemed irrelevant to the slope of earth beneath my feet.
A man with a loudspeaker came by at 1:30 to send us down the mountain. As we left the clouds rolled in to fill the crater with milky vapor.
We took the Gwaneumsa trail back down the mountain. It didn’t take long to see that this trail was far superior in terms of scenery. Whereas the Seongpanak trail was fairly straightforward in the progression of deciduous forest, to pines, to low pines, to mountainside, the Gwaneumsa trail wound through vistas of jagged rock formations and hilly riverbeds.
We walked down along a small river valley, and just as we reached a bridge at the bottom of the valley the clouds rolled in. There was something truly mystical about the way the hills looked through the fog, allowing just a glimpse of the steep rocks and dusky orange trees. This, I told my friend, is the idea of Korea that I had first brought from the states.
We left the river valley and moved further down the mountain. Soon, we reached the deciduous forest. These views of the leaves were even more stunning than those along the Seongpanak trail, especially when they mixed with the hills and the rocky riverbed to create a tumultuous frenzy of color.
As we moved further down the Gwaneumsa trail, though, the constant gradation reminded me why we had chosen to walk down this path, not up it.
The last section of the trail leveled out along a stony riverbed, but by this point we were beginning to worry about the time. Sunset had passed us by, and we walked the last section of the trail with a cell phone flashlight along the cruelly uneven rock path. By the time we reached the bottom of the trail, it was dark.
There were no colors at the bus stop in the dark. We learned that the last bus had already left, and the taxi drivers told us it would cost an appallingly dishonest 50,000 won ($50) to get back into the city. Luckily, a university senior who dreamed of moving to Austin, Texas after graduation led us on a long walk and a short car ride, back to the Jeju University bus stop where we caught the 780 back home.
On the bus ride home, I sat silently and looked out the window, painting the oranges of fall and the bright colors of Korean kindness onto the dark window.