Monday, September 22, 2008

Happy Death

"As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so life well used brings happy death." - Leonardo da Vinci

Hiking in Korea is totally different from America (or anywhere else I've hiked).

On Friday night I was in downtown Seoul on a bus. With me was an English teacher from Wales, a Korean girl that introduced me to the hiking group, and 40 other Koreans, mainly LG employees. At midnight our bus left Seoul and headed east, east, and further east, till we'd crossed the entire country (in about 3.5 hours).

We got out of the bus and it was dark. Stars in the sky were actually visible, unthinkable near Seoul. We were at the base of a mountain. Somebody gave me a bracelet of light like we were going to a concert. Somebody else gave me gimbab (food). We stretched. People strapped lanterns to their heads (not me).

Hiking at 4 AM in the dark in a strange land with mostly-strangers is surreal. We hiked uphill for 4 hours and it was steeper than stairs.

Onward upward we went and finally made it to the peak. A marker indicated this was indeed the top. The morning sun began to show through the clouds and I saw a body of water.
The East Sea, someone informed me. A.K.A. the Sea of Japan. Before this it was only words on a map - now it was a reality.

As we hiked we took occasional breaks to rest and snack. I couldn't understand why everybody had such heavy backpacks. After we passed the peak I found out why.

We progressed another mile or two, slowly coming down, and stopped at a rest area. Tons of Koreans were sitting on the ground - cooking! Yes, they had all brought propane stoves and were cooking ramen, duck, and other leviathan from the sea. I sat and ate whatever came my way. They also drank alcohol. I don't usually drink and hike, but everyone else was drinking a little soju or beer so I joined in. Peer pressure.

Onward we rolled, passing Buddhist temples and monstrous stacks of boulders, traversing terrestrial biomes with every change in altitude. Seoraksan is as beautiful as Yosemite and the weather was perfect.

I said Korean hiking is different - here's why: First, it's hella crowded! Okay, it's tourist season and I went on a weekend, but still. We did 12 miles and most of the time I was passing people every ten or fifteen seconds! F'reals.

Second, the trail is not as "natural" as most trails. Everything is kind of engineered. It's an eclectic mix of stones, rails, and wood planking, and I think I crossed about thirty bridges. The amount of work to create these trails is mind-boggling.

I didn't think that nature could have a nationality and cultural bias, but this was clearly "Korean hiking". I had a great time. It was just

After the hike we found a restaurant and had one of the my favorite Korean foods: sam gae tang.

The whole trip cost me 20,000 won (currently $17.73) - crossing the country twice, dinner, and various snacks through the day. Hella good bargain.

Two days later I'm still a little sore. Good trip.

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