Since spotting a reference in the Lonely Planet guidebook to an organisation called WWOOF (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) The Bat and I have been planning to try out the scheme where-by you do volunteer work on a farm in exchange for bed and board. We phoned the organisation and got directions to their office in Seoul to go and join up. The young lady running the show admitted the website is not up to date with the farms available and neither is the book she gave us, however at her suggestion we booked a stay with the Jiri Mountain BioLand farm near Gurye over the long holiday created by Federation day national holiday on Oct 3rd and Chusok on the 5th. Since Chusok is a variable date every year this holiday is not always as long. When we booked the train tickets on 5th September they had already sold out of tickets for the Saturday and Sunday, so we bought tickets to return on Friday 6th.
On booking tickets: Korail have a very good website for checking train times and availability. To be able to book tickets on-line you need to: go to Seoul Station, go to booth 23 with your Alien Registration Card and 7,000 won and you can get annual membership. This gives you a membership number for the site. It also gives you a 5% discount on tickets bought via the internet and upto 20% discount on tickets bought on the day "according to the ticket early phase" whatever that means.
I have not found anything similar for the Express buses, but the KNTO site has an excellent page where you can at least find out which of the five Bus terminals to head for, how long the journey is, how much it costs and how frequent the buses are for long distance trips.
Mr Choi greeted us at Guryegu station on Tuesday evening after our first train journey in South Korea. The farm is not far from the station and as he drove he told us he is a keen exponent of WWOOF and has had over 300 visitors from more than 40 countries. When we arrived we met another WWOOFER staying on the farm, a young Japanese student who spoke Korean. The farmhouse was clean, well maintained and warm. We were given a room with a decent double mattress.
Wednesday. Up at 7am (a bit of a lie-in for us, since we normally get up at 5am) and after Kimichi for breakfast, we started our job for the day: watering the radish plants. We soon figured out an optimal trajectory with the hose and it was quite a relaxing Zen like task in the hot sun. The leather gloves posted to us by a very good friend from the UK proved invaluable in saving the delicate hands of The Bat. You cannot buy decent gardening gloves for love nor money, all they sell here is cotton gloves dipped in a bit of red plastic!
Thursday. Mr Choi generously invited us to share Chusok with him at his parents house not far away. There we met his two brothers and their families, who had come from Seoul for the holiday. We visited the Hwaeomsa temple in the Jirisan National Park in the morning with the family and admired the large gold statues of Buddha and the famous five storey stone pagoda. In the afternoon we played a gentle game of 5 aside football and other games before taking a very brisk walk up to the top of Osan, the mountain that overlooks the farm, which, probably because it is not in the national park, was very quiet. We had excellent views over the valley just before sunset from the temple at the summit.
On Friday we left the farm thanking Mr Choi for his excellent hospitality, we felt like he had got a very bad deal out of us, as we were there for such a short time, but the WWOOF experience was very intersting and I hope to visit further farms.
We were still unable to change our train tickets for a seat at the weekend, but we were able to purchase bus tickets back to Seoul for the Sunday afternoon, so we got a refund on the train tickets (less an small admin fee) and headed towards the national park. We chose the Jirisan Swiss hotel from the Lonely Planet book, which had good things to say about it. [Though quite why having shower curtains was felt to be worth mentioning is a mystery to me. In fact our room did not have any shower curtains!]
We went bird spotting in the NP near the temple and saw three species new to us : a large flock of vinous throated parrotbills, one brown dipper and a flock of azure winged magpies. Just after sunset we were still in the temple and listened to some very powerful drumming by the monks on the enormous drum, it was an impressive performance of great skill and rhythm.
Saturday we were out of the hotel and into the NP before 8am, too early for breakfast at the hotel. Heading up the valley for the Nogodan pass the path of granite rocks was wide, even and not too busy, we paused at the Hermitage temple. From there on up it was a very hard slog up a much steeper more rugged path for 4km until we finally hit a wide gently sloping path where everyone who drove up to mountain round the other side was walking and we could make the final assent to the Nogodan Pass. The view looking east towards the rest of the mountain range was well worth the effort. It is a completely unspoilt vista of trees that were just starting to turn autumnal and in the distance we could see the second tallest peak in South Korea Cheonwangbong.
Sunday after the hard day we didn’t get up until just after 9am, too late for breakfast! Luckily we found alternative sustenance before going to the other temple in that area of the park the Cheoneunsa temple. It is smaller and quieter than Hwaeomsa. Our trip back to Seoul by bus was uneventful. There were a couple of short traffic jams at one point in the journey but the predicted heavy traffic did not materialise for us.
Due to an unfortunate accident I dropped our camera at the railway station just before we left, so I have no photos to share with you. It is going to take at least three weeks to get the part to repair it, but in the meantime the very obliging shop have leant us a replacement camera!