Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Hiking, Korean-Style

Several weeks ago I enjoyed a day hike up Kwanaksan, in southern Seoul, with my friend Mrs. Kim. Hiking in South Korea is an extremely popular leisure activity; you are likely to find hordes of people on any reasonably accessible trail in the vicinity of Seoul, especially on the weekends. Koreans like to go up the mountains in large groups of 20-30 people, always dressed head-to-foot in brand-name hiking wear and equipped with those high-tech walking sticks and various other gear, as if prepared for a trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The Saturday we visited Kwanaksan was somewhat overcast, and Mrs. Kim assured me that the crowd on the trail was much thinner than usual, but to me it felt like a concert was just getting out all along the side of the mountain. There were so many people that the crowd wound up the trail in a nearly continuous line, and I could hear the conversation of the person behind me, who was chatting absorbedly on his cell phone all the way up. Nobody seemed to want to pause or look around at the scenery at all until we reached a series of rocky promontories along the ridgeline which offered goods view of the city. I've heard it said that, for Koreans, the objective in hiking is to "conquer" the mountain - in other words, rush as quickly as possible to the top, savor the victory, and then rush back down. On low mountain trails around Seoul, it is common to find little parks equipped with exercise equipment, for those who crave a little extra exertion than what they can get from mere walking.

Mrs. Kim opined that hiking is the poor man's alternative for retired people who are looking for a hobby and can't afford golf. There may be some truth in that, but it's undeniable that most Koreans feel a genuine affinity for the mountains. Among my Korean acquaintances, there are few who don't list "hiking" as one of their favorite means of stress relief, and several are accomplished international hikers. Mrs. Kim herself is a member of a walking club that meets three times a week just to walk for miles and miles around the parks of Seoul, sometimes after dark on weeknights.

I've often wondered if North Koreans feel the same draw to get up into the mountains in their rare snatches of leisure time. After all, the northern half of the peninsula is where all the most spectacular peaks are, and they presumably haven't paved over so much of their wilderness in a frenzy of overdevelopment as the South has. I recently found a sort of answer while listening to Free NK Radio, whose website I frequent as a way of studying Korean. They have an intriguing series called "North Korean Defectors' Views of South Korea," and in one recent episode a defector recounted his coworkers' frequent attempts to get him to join them on hiking trips around Seoul. This defector said that he initially was not very enthusiastic, as he associated mountains with the arduous task of collecting firewood and undergoing harsh wilderness military training, so mountaineering in North Korea is generally not seen as a fun leisure activity. However, over several pleasant weekend hikes with his co-workers, he came to appreciate the activity for the easy camaraderie of his companions and for the sense of achievement felt upon reaching a summit.

But back to my hike with Mrs. Kim. When we reached the top of the ridge, we came to a broad flat area capped by rock, where people were sitting around in their groups having picnics and enjoying the view. On group hikes, each person typically brings a dish, or some fruit, to pass around - and there are always several bottles of beer, makkoli, or soju. On a previous hike, with Mrs. Kim's walking club, I completely stuffed myself as everyone wanted "the foreigner" to try their dish. For those who need additional refreshment, there were also basic food stands periodically spaced along the trail - even right up near the top of the mountain - selling all the essentials at only slightly marked-up prices. I'm always amazed at the enterprising spirit and sheer physical fitness of such people, who make their living hauling food and drinks up the mountain every day.

As a solitary sort of hiker, I have to say I personally prefer the quiet trails around Kyoto, where it is sometimes possible to hike for an hour or more without seeing another person. The trails there were mostly well-marked and well-maintained, but not pounded into mud by a thousand boots like the trails here in Seoul, and they were full of quiet, lovely little spots to enjoy - sometimes marked by a little Buddha statue or a small shrine under a waterfall. Though one must always watch out for snakes and leeches over there.

It's tough to decide where to assign the advantage for this one. As I said, I personally prefer quiet trails where I can go off and get lost in thought. But that's just my personality. My Korean friends seem to genuinely enjoy being surrounded by hordes of happy hikers all along the trail, and claim they would go nuts from solitude and boredom if no one else was around. So I have to acknowledge the merit of the 'social hiking' argument, even if I can't relate to it myself. Besides, if I'm honest I must admit there have been many times when I have been privately critical of the Japanese, particularly the residents of Kyoto, for failing to get out and appreciate the natural beauty in their own backyard. Now I'm in a country where people do appreciate it - way too much, in fact - and still I'm complaining.