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Last Saturday I awoke at 5am. The early morning was fresh and dewy and my spirits were surprisingly high after four hours sleep. I cycled through empty streets to the subway so as to meet friends at a bus terminal an hour down the line. 

We were off to Jirisan, the second highest peak in South Korea and apparently the hardest to climb.

 By 10am we were picking ripe persimmons and ascending slopes covered with orange, red, green, grey and rust-coloured trees. There is a Korean word ‘nampoon’ which means ‘the changing of the colours of the leaves’, a word that the English language is missing. Now is nampoon season.

The trail grew less gentle and we reached the shelter just before a cloud descended – not over us, but on us – and the air was filled with a wet mist. We joined another group of hikers in a small windowed room next to the sleeping area, sat on wooden blocks and shared the food we’d brought amongst ourselves – humous, crackers, carrots, rice, sausages, tofu, miso soup and fruit.

Before dark we settled down to sleep, armed with jumpers, coats, sleeping bags and a blanket hired from the shelter. The bunk beds were large communal wooden platforms, men on the bottom and women on the top. No mattresses – for me, in Korea they don’t seem as important for comfort as they did back home.

Sleeping decorum is also different here. We were woken a few times by people outright chatting away, without the slightest hint of a ‘people are sleeping’ whisper. It made me feel less guilty when the five of us exited at 2am to make sunrise at the peak, zipping bags and flashing headlights.

 Night hikes are a new passion – cool air and stars, feeling both in the wideness of the world and the containment of the darkness. We were generous in our estimation of timing, and ended up huddled in sleeping bags and all possible clothes 1900 metres high for over an hour before the sun arrived. I learnt afterwards that it’s possible to see sunrise from Jirisan summit about only 30 days a year, and that day was not one of them. Our early rise did mean we made it down by ten though, and back to Busan early to recover. I’ll confess, it took a few days for my legs to stop hurting like hell… But it was worth every wince.


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