Korea, the land of the four seasons

By Nigel Wright [email protected]

Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal five years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s and although now retired, still continue to travel as much possible and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.

Korea is a land made spectacular by its changing seasons. The snow flurries of the freezing cold winters bring tranquillity to the countryside and slow the hectic pace of Seoul’s traffic.

The landscape in spring awakes with a flourish of cherry tree blossom and the brilliant colours of the indigenous wild flowers. The patchwork quilt of rice fields in summer turns a luminescent green and the hot, humid weather encourages relaxation and excursions to the beaches.

As temperatures begin to drop in October, the sky becomes a clear sapphire blue and there is a dramatic transformation on the hillsides as the trees turn red and gold. Traditionally, autumn is Korea’s favourite season with popular holidays, particularly Chusok, the great thanksgiving weekend. The country’s transport network then becomes totally clogged as people visit family tombs and offer food to ancestors.

Tolharubang ‘Grandfather Figure’ - Cheju-do
Tolharubang ‘Grandfather Figure’ – Cheju-do

Buddha’s Birthday

Korean friends insisted that we should enjoy the wonderful spring festival and national holiday taken to celebrate Buddha’s birthday. It is a joyous occasion for Korea’s many Buddhists and temples throughout the country are decorated with millions of paper lanterns, each containing the names of family members. As night falls, worshippers fix candles inside their lanterns, light them, bow and murmur prayers to their relatives.

Our own day began with a strenuous climb through colourful azaleas and magnolias to the shrine on the rocky summit of Mt Kwanak, just south of Seoul. We were accompanied by thousands of others; many dressed in colourful Hanbok, their national dress.

Our lunch, in a shady valley further down the mountain was a tasty barbecue. Korean men have few domestic and culinary skills, so we were amazed when our colleague firmly pushed his wife aside and insisted on manning the barbecue himself – with great success! 

In the evening, we watched a huge lantern parade snake its way through the city to the important Pongun-sa temple. Inside, there was an ethereal atmosphere as the candles were lit and the crowds slowly circulated around the central courtyard chanting Buddhist mantras. It was a spine-tingling experience.

Hanging Lanters on Buddha’s Birthday
Hanging Lanters on Buddha’s Birthday

Cheju-do – Island of the Gods

Korea’s biggest and most famous island lies off the south coast, is known as the ‘Island of the Gods’ and is an ideal beach destination in the summer season. It is unlike anywhere else in the country and because of its volcanic origins and black lava cliffs, it has more in common geographically with the Hawaiian Islands than the rest of the country. Its central peak rising, to almost 2,000m, is the highest mountain in Korea and dominates the island.

Cheju-do has a near sub-tropical climate and is a place to relax and linger awhile through the hot summer days. There are good hotels at popular Chungmun Resort, sandy beaches and the people are friendly.

The island boasts fine folklore museums, picturesque waterfalls, caves and one of the longest lava tubes in the world, a staggering seven kilometres of inky blackness. Wherever we travelled on the island, we saw the strange tol-harubang, or grandfather stones. They are carved lava rock statues and nobody’s quite sure about their origins other than they lie deep within the island’s many spiritual folk traditions.

Waterfall - Cheju-do Island
Waterfall – Cheju-do Island

Scenic Soraksan National Park

Mt. Soraksan National Park, near the country’s east coast, is an area of rugged beauty with mountains rising to over 1,700m and a magnet for Korea’s many hikers and climbers. There are fantastic rock formations, lakes and waterfalls and the many scenic landmarks are eloquently described in legend and myth. It is a five-hour drive from Seoul and we made our journey to this superb landscape under the perfect skies of late autumn to catch the best of the foliage colours.

There are dozens of scenic hiking trails. You can refresh the inner mind at one of the many Buddhist temples on route and feed the inner body at the countless food stalls. It is all great fun and unlike the rather sober approach taken to rambling in Europe, Korean hiking can be very alcoholic and exceptionally noisy.

Weekends are best avoided in autumn as whole armies of enthusiastic young Koreans descend upon Soraksan for their annual pilgrimage to the great outdoors. They travel overnight by bus and burst upon this peaceful mountain paradise at the crack of dawn with vigorous fitness routines and joyful singing before they begin their chosen ascents.

Winter Wonderland

Icy winds from Siberia bring the first snows before the end of November, heralding the beginning of the peninsula’s cold, dry winter. Chestnut sellers set up their warming braziers in the streets, gardeners wrap up the more tender trees in winter coats of straw, temporary skating rinks are created around the city and the skiing season begins. Seoul is surrounded by jagged mountain peaks so when the snow settles, it becomes a true winter wonderland.

Our first ever attempts at skiing were at Chonmasan resort around 30km outside Seoul. We adopted a very cautious approach to the sport, unlike most of the locals. The Korean men went directly to the top of the steepest slope, pointed their skis straight down the hill and descended at top speed. The result was hilarious to watch but often very painful for the participants as they tumbled to the bottom bruised and battered, often without skis and poles. South Korea is steadily becoming an important ski holiday destination with the better resorts on the higher mountains of the snowier east coast.

When to Visit Korea

The gregarious smiling Koreans will welcome you anytime and every season has its own particularly charm. The country is largely unknown as a holiday destination but there are specialist travel companies that offer some fascinating itineraries, including opportunities to stay in Buddhist temples.

One option for a first time visitor is to make a stopover in Korea on route from Europe to Australia or New Zealand. Good deals can be arranged with Korean Air, who fly from a number of European capitals (not Lisbon) to Seoul and there are frequent flights onwards to the antipodes. A few days in ‘The Land of the Morning Calm’ in any one of Korea’s distinct four seasons will introduce you to a beautiful and remarkable country with a rich and unique cultural heritage. 3″>features