I got a flight from Osaka to Jeju (350 USD return) aiming to hike up Halla-san (1950m), the highest mountain of South Korea, when I was in the "neighborhood" anyway after the climb of Fuji.
Immigration at Jeju International Airport took no more than 10 seconds, and a local bus (No. 100) got me easily to the bus terminal in Jeju City for 1000 won (1 USD). The hostel was booked through www.hostelplanet.com and cost 22,000 won (20 USD) per night. Yeha Guesthouse is one of the best western style hostels I've ever stayed in, and also great value!
The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering around town and getting something to eat. It is ridiculously cheap compared to Japan. Back at the hostel I enjoyed the nice communal area, which has free internet and a mega-sized television screen. It was low season and only a few guests, I was the only foreigner except from a guy from Holland and a girl from England. The 3 of us went out for dinner in the evening.
Next morning I wake up at 6:30, have a quick breakfast before I walk over to the bus station. There is a bus every 15 minutes passing by Seongpanak (1500 won), where the normal route starts at 750 meters elevation. Can it be easier and cheaper?
The bus drops me off in Seongpanak. I start to hike at 8:05, and the trail is superb. Simply impossible to get lost here. After a few kilometers the trail starts to get very slippery (snow and ice), so it would have been nice with some spikes under the shoes at this time of year. I arrive a checkpoint at 9:35 not far from the top. One must get here no later than 12:00 to be granted access to the upper part of the mountain. From the checkpoint it's another half hour to the summit, which I reach at 10:10 am, e.g only 2 hours after starting from Seongpanak. The normal walking time is more than twice as much (4.5 hours), so I've probably been very fast on the 10 km long trail. I have bypassed dozens of Koreans, I estimate perhaps 200 people on the mountain today. That was surprisingly many people for a day in low season and also midweek. I can't even imagine how crowded it will be in weekends and high season....
On the "summit" I can see that the other side of the rim probably is 10 to 20 meters higher, but it is blocked everywhere with fences and warnings in Korean language. I jump over the fence and after I have covered 1/3 of the distance to the highest point, somebody starts to yell. I keep on walking for a few meters, but when I hear a very loud "NO, NO!" I stop immediately. I turn around and see an uniformed guy with a white shouter running after me. I understand that this is "Game Over". I can just forget about continuing over to the highest point. The western side of the volcano has been barred for public use since 1994 and is still off-limit because of environmental reasons (re-vegetation). The guards at the false summit will ensure that no one walks over to the western side. The only possibility would be to head up this mountain on a cloudy day, when dense fog makes it possible to sneak around the rim. I just wish I had been aware of this "false-summit" issue on Halla-san.
Normally I would have recorded this as a "no-summit" since I didn't put my feet on the highest ground. Still I'm tempted to record this as a successful summit due to the very special circumstances. The mountain did not win me, the weather did not turn me around, it was just a stupid guard denying me access the last few easy meters because of environmental reasons. For me it's out of the question to return back to South Korea, if/when the west side of the volcano opens up to the public again. Besides, I'm not entirely sure the west side actually is higher, but it certainly looks so from the eastern edge of the crater.
Halla-san at EveryTrail