After the questionably organized ski trip, we were a little weary to book plan another excursion with WINK. But we really wanted to go to the Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival and they were the only group organizing one for the opening weekend (March 31 - April 1st), so we decided to give them a second chance... and we are sure glad we did!
The event description really put an emphasis on the Cherry Blossom Festival, but it also included what they advertised as an "easier" hike on Saturday (you can find the even description here). Friday night after school, we got our things ready, traveled up to Seoul to take an overnight WINK chartered bus down to Tong Yong, where we would then jump on a ferry, taking us to Sa Ryan do. (My co-teachers call this type of voyage an "owl-trip" and say it is very popular in Korea for weekend trekkers.) This is where we would get our first taste of ridge hiking. (We had already gone hiking at Seoraksan in the fall, but it had been rainy and foggy then, and while we'd enjoyed it, we still weren't completely sold on the whole Korean hiking scene.)
When we docked on the small island, we were blown away by the scenery surrounding us. All around, small green islands sprouted out of the ocean and made for a nice panoramic. Add to it the rustic fishing vessels and nets scattered across the water and you had postcard material! Needless to say, this part of the country thrives on the fishing industry and restaurants on Sa Ryan do had the freshest seafood, perfect for a recovery meal after the hike! But we had to start before we (I) would be able to enjoy it. It should be a walk in the park right? WRONG!!!
To say that the event description was misleading would be an understatement. The hike actually turned out to be slightly over 7km, filled with technical aspects that we couldn't have had anticipated. The first half hour to 45 minutes was a steep incline to the first 400m high summit, which provided us an amazing 360 view of the island and its surroundings... and that was the easy part! After a quick break, we continued our trek atop the mountain, going from peak to peak. The rest of the way was filled with narrow paths along the ridge, extremely steep declines and even a few spots where ropes were necessary to climb or descent. The paths were also overflowing with Korean hikers. All decked out in the newest and flashiest hiking gear, they looked like mountain goats as they negotiated the technical climbs and passed by, making us feel even more like the true beginners that we were. I have to admit that Koreans take their hiking seriously! But they also seem to be more relaxed and friendly up on the mountains. In the city it's unlikely that random Korean people will approach you to strike up a conversation, or even simply say 안녕하세요 (hello) to you for no apparent reason. However on the mountain, they will do just that. It's almost as though they feel a stronger bond with you if you are willing to partake in their favourite pastime. Whatever it is, it's a nice change from the societal "microaggressions" that foreigners face daily in Korea.
So after just under five hours, we were back at the wharf, feeling good about ourselves with a true sense of achievement. Although the hike was not as advertised, it had turned out to be even better and became the highlight of our trip. Some were a little angry (and rightfully so) that they had not been warned about the difficulty and technicality of the hike, but overall, most were pleased with how the day had unfolded. For Jen and I, it ignited a new spark of happiness! We finally found a physical activity that we can enjoy together. (I am more of the hockey/contact/extreme sport variety while Jen is an avid baseball player.) Now, we shared hiking as a hobby (even if Jen is technically terrified of heights, she pushed through and actually enjoyed herself thoroughly on this exciting, bordering dangerous hike... don't worry mothers, we were extremely safe!)
Once the whole group was reunited (some got lost along the way), we were Tong Yong bound, where some of us got dropped off to relax at a jjimjilbang before heading to the pension for dinner. A jjimjilbang is sort of like a public bath house where you pay to get it, get a special set of clothes then proceed to get naked and relax in a variety of saunas and "pools" of varying temperature. Of course, it is separated by gender! While they might be considered a bit strange in the West, jjimjilbangs are engrained in Korean culture and are a fabulous way to relax and recover after a hard day of working. After you are done "bathing", you put on the special, and extremely comfortable, clothing and go into the common room where there is usually a restaurant serving up food and drinks, and more hot and cold rooms with special salts and aromas. When you are done just change back into your street clothes, return the key and walk out the door. Going is a must for anyone in Korea (although Jen refuses to go because of her disapproval of nakedness ;p)!
Back at the pension, William had orchestrated an assembly line to prepare dinner, which consisted of either cheeseburgers or unlimited pork BBQ. Jen picked the former while I chose the latter. Both were delicious and absolutely filling. The best part was that it was included in the price of the trip! After dinner, the group split up into smaller factions as everyone found their niche over beer and soju. At some point during the evening, a few Koreans enjoying their dinner brought us a plate of the freshest mussels I have ever tasted. Discussions continues, but by midnight, mostly everyone was pooched and retired to their respective rooms for the night. Our room was a brand new, beautiful two story loft which we shared with about 10 people. When we woke up the net morning, we even got to enjoy the stunning seaside scenery from our window. Downstairs, WINK had organized breakfast sandwiches for everyone (again, included in the price) before packing and heading over to the Tong Yong wharf to check out a Korean turtle ship (made famous by General Lee). William, the organizer, had us try some locally renowned special squid-kimchi kimbap that was absolutely scrumptious. Then, it was on to Jinhae for the much awaited Cherry Blossom Festival!
A two hour bus ride later, we were there. The whole Festival was rather anticlimactic. The beautiful cherry blossoms we had heard so much about and had anticipated with high expectations had decided not to bloom and instead stay hidden from us. So still walked to the famous picture spots, snapped some photos of flower-less trees and proceeded to the main festival tents. At least here, there was a lot going on. First, we stopped for some roast pork on a spit, maekgeolli (rice wine), and other delectable Korean dishes. Then, we visited the carnival game booths to practice my sharp shooting skills. Finally, we walked around the festival grounds, grabbing some ice cream here, a kebob there until it was time to meet back at the bus for the trip back home.