Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Caving Adventures in Hwanseongul

Entrance to Hwanseongul

I'm not seriously into caving, but having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, I definitely have an appreciation for a good cave adventure. I grew up in a town not far from the Ape Caves in southwest Washington, which are pretty great, and also got the chance to crawl through some of the amazing cave systems in southern Oregon near the border with California. But in terms of beauty, Hwanseongul in the Gangwon Province is definitely one of the best I've seen so far.

I went up there on a regular weekend with a friend who'd heard about it from another friend. We caught a bus into the nearby city of Samcheok with the intention of just spending the night in a jjimjilbang, or Korean sauna, something I've done on other trips, which you can read about here. But when we arrived in Samcheok we couldn't find the right kind of jjimjilbang, just small, local bathhouses that had were literally baths and nothing more. No big rooms to sleep in, like we were hoping for. Samcheok is a big enough city that it probably has one somewhere, but as it was getting late and we still couldn't find it, we just decided to rent a room in a hotel and split the costs. In the end this still worked out pretty cheap.

From town you can catch a local bus out to the cave. It will let you off in a parking lot next to a cute bat-shaped gate, where you can either hike up to the cave (I think it takes about 40 minutes?) or take a gondola. I was recovering from a bad cough that had lasted about 2 months, so we opted for the gondola option. As you enter the cave, you'll be warned not to take any photos, but the minute you enter all the Korean tourists will whip out their phones and cameras regardless, so don't worry too much about taking pictures. But for the sake of preserving a beautiful natural place, PLEASE DON'T USE YOUR FLASH.

By the bat gate

Walking to the gondola

Cave entrance - funny to see the hanja for "seon" is the same as the "sen" in Sendai, where I lived in Japan

The Hwanseongul cave system is actually quite large and extensive; only a small portion of it is accessible on the walking tour, as a way to protect the caves from too much light exposure. But you still feel like you see a lot just on the tour. The cave is full of platforms that guide you through them, with everything mostly following a loop so there's no danger of getting lost.

The rock formations within the cave are lit up in the typical Korean style with, you guessed it, LED's. There's even a giant LED map of Korea on the floor of one of the main caverns, a rainbow bridge and of course the requisite cutesy romantic spot for couples to stop for a selfie (in this case, it's a natural hole in the rock shaped like a heart.)

Korea map

Sooo many LED's

The Rainbow Bridge

The walking tour will probably take you between one and two hours, depending on how much you stop for photos or to admire the cave. It's surprisingly warm inside. We went in the winter and it felt warmer in the cave than it did out of it.

Hwanseongul is not the kind of caving experience where you have to get down and crawl or climb through any tight spaces, so if you're looking for something really adventurous it might not be for you. But if you want to see a truly beautiful cave, it's much more lit up and visible than most caves so you can really see the amazing geology around you.

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