Sunday, October 21, 2012

Hiking, Korea Style

Some days here, I have my mind blown.  Today was one of those days.

This panorama was shot from one of the gates in Bukhansan National Park.  Difficult to capture on film how breathtaking a view this was.

I woke up early on a mild October morning today to go hiking with one of my colleagues in this park just north of Seoul.  One of the great things about living in Korea is that you're surrounded by mountains, and a pastime of Korean life is to go climb them.  One of the best parts of going to Darden and living in Charlottesville for me was the proximity to the outdoors, and quite surprisingly it's not hard to get into nature in Seoul either.  Seoul has excellent public transit, and we were able to get from the Hannam-dong neighborhood (where we both live) to the foot of the mountain in about an hour by subway and bus.

Summer's heat was thankfully swept away several weeks ago and autumn's chill has slowly started to creep in here, though the temps are still comfortable.  The days are mostly dry now and it's a wonderful time to visit Korea.  We saw more than a few glimpses of the fall foliage in full display today.

The Bukhansan park is massive and there are hundreds of trails meandering every which way through it.  The park has lots of Buddhist temples — Buddhists fled to the mountains when they were persecuted during the Joseon dynasty — so you can get your spiritual fix in more ways than one.  There are also a series of old defense gates and you can make a good hike out of walking from one gate to the next.

But be warned — the mountains here are not for amateur hikers!  The trail started simply enough, and I was mocking the Koreans for getting all geared up.  Most were carrying hiking sticks and were decked out in everything that REI offers.  But once we climbed towards the peaks, my nonchalance quickly turned to anxiety.  There were some serious rock scrambles up there!  Sadly, I was unprepared.  I own proper hiking boots but I had never needed them on the relatively tame peaks around Charlottesville, so of course I thought my low traction running shoes would suit me just fine.

My buddy De and I were getting tired but we were loving the hike, and we thought we had plotted a good way to get down and out of the park.  But we reached a peak we couldn't ascend, so we thought we could find a path around.  Big mistake.  We started following a group of middle-aged Koreans who were bouncing down but they clearly weren't on a path, and they were far more prepared for offroading than we were.  After a couple slips the Koreans saw our plight and adopted us into their group, scolding us repeatedly for not wearing the right boots (they didn't like my t-shirt and shorts, either).  This was possibly the most intense, macho group of 50-year-old hikers I have ever encountered.  I saw one guy in the group literally climb a boulder with no hands, just to show off.  I don't even know if they sell boots in the US with the grippy material on his soles, but I need to find some!

De did not come prepared for these rock scrambles
Though these macho Korean hikers spoke only about as much English as I speak of Korean (not much!), they were helpful in guiding us down.  We even stopped with them for snack time, and they graciously offered us their scallion pancakes, pickled anchovies, and soju.  That's right, soju...Korean vodka!  I never thought drinking and hiking mixed, but I wasn't able to let down a group of Koreans who already thought we were pathetic foreigners with our shabby footwear.  So I downed about four shots!

Despite the alcohol making our already slippery balance even worse, De and I managed to make it down the rest of the mountain and back to the bus stop for the return journey to Seoul.  Though exhausted from a day of intense hiking, we came away with a unique cultural experience and memories we will never forget.  And we had quite the appetite for dinner — Korean barbeque was especially delicious this evening!

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