* This post is written by Roger Tyers, one of the Korea Blog’s Worldwide Korea Bloggers.
When I tell my friends back in England that I often go hiking in Korea these days, they often respond along the lines of “What the hell happened to you?, you’ve changed.” Which is understandable. In England, I wouldn’t really associate myself with hiking. It’s not a terribly cool hobby is it. Even less so when you call it ‘rambling’ (though I still don’t really get the difference). To be fair, on occasion, I could be tempted to go for a stroll around some national park in Yorkshire (as long as there was a promise of a beer at the end), but Hiking? No thanks, that’s for strange fitness fanatics who (a) have an unhealthy fascination with Ordinance Survey maps, (b) have beards, and (c) don’t understand that getting up early at the weekend is just weird.
But Korea is different, for two main reasons. Firstly, topographically-speaking (don’t get to say that very often): if you live in or near one of the big cities, there is very little green space – almost all available flat ground has been built on. Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds Seoul (and is where I live), is one of the most densely populated areas on Earth, so if you want to get away from the busy roads and the claustrophobia of the never-ending apartment blocks, you can’t just go for a stroll in a park, you need to hike up a mountain. And there’s no shortage of mountains in Korea. No Sir.
Secondly, the negative connotations associated with hiking in the UK, alluded to earlier, don’t really exist in Korea. Hiking is perhaps the most popular outdoor hobby here, and whilst it is undoubtedly most popular with older generations, you will find all sorts of people taking to the hills every weekend: men and women, children as young as ten, and old men (or ‘Ajussi’) some of whom look about seventy. People often go hiking in groups of friends; they usually take some kind of picnic to eat at the summit; and the more hardy ones will take a supply of Makgeoli or Soju for some alcoholic refreshment. I wouldn’t go as far to say that hiking is ‘cool’, but it certainly has more of a social, relaxed, almost party vibe to it, than back in Blighty.
So, it’s a spring Saturday morning, I get up at 7am when I don’t have to (and yes, it feels highly unnatural), I take the subway to Sadang station, on the outskirts of Seoul, and meet my friends and co-hikers Mark and Josh, and we hit the trail of Gwanaksan, a pretty small mountain (by Korean standards) at 632 meters high. It’s March, it’s pleasantly warm, and, apart from a few patches of ice near the top of the mountain and a few tricky rocky parts, it’s pretty straightforward stuff, even for me, a relative novice wearing trainers. And when you turn around, you are greeted by some pretty breath-taking views of the Capital, like this…
At the top we are greeted by the usual groups of hikers taking photos, drinking water and the odd bottle of Makgeoli (yes, at 10.30am), and a couple of guys selling Ramen Noodles and lollipops. Near the summit, there is a Buddhist Temple with some great views. By now, the sun is hot enough to warrant putting on some sun cream: a nice place to stop, eat some brunch, listen to the (rather soothing) buddhist chanting coming from the temple, and catch our breath before the descent.
Korean hikers do amuse me. Gwanaksan is hardly Kilimanjaro, but you wouldn’t think that by looking at the groups of people fully kitted-out: hiking jackets, boots, gloves, hats, rucksacks, walking sticks – it can’t be cheap. I think I’m being well prepared by not wearing jeans, but fashion-wise, these guys really take it seriously. There does seem to be a broader Korean inclination for always wearing the ‘appropriate’ clothes for any given activity – skiing, or biking, playing whatever sport – it’s like a uniform, part of the ritual which almost everyone takes part in, and pride in.
But there is something about hiking, walking, or just being away from the city, which I think is kind of universal. Wandering up and down the hills and mountains, people actually say ‘hello’ to each other. On particularly difficult stretches, people encourage each other, and, at the top, it’s not unknown for strangers to share food or drink. It’s the same in the UK, in Korea, and I’ll guess, most countries: in cities, people often don’t really seem like humans, they just appear on the pavement or on the bus as obstacles which need to be negotiated. But add some trees, grass, the odd mountain, replace the smog with fresh air, and hey presto, people are actually nice to each other. Fancy that. Turns out hiking is pretty cool after all. That’ll be another lesson that Korea’s taught me. And that first beer at the end is the best one you’ll have all week.
* The original piece can be read at http://rogertyers.blogspot.com/2011/03/walk-like-korean-hike.html