No, that’s not a way to smoke pot, it’s where I hiked. But before I start, I need to mention the many shiny grey suits I’ve seen this week. I hope the fashion stays in Korea. It makes guys look like they wanted to keep the street parade alive at work.
So I went hiking. There’s a national park just north of Seoul called the Bukhansan national park. The mountains there reach up to over 800 meters; Seoul itself is close to sea level. I thought I’d attempt the Baekundae peak, the highest at 836 meters.
That was Friday. Saturday I got up tired, ate late, and figured that I should probably aim for Bibong, 560 meters high. Bibong is closer to the metro and would allow me to return conveniently and quickly. I took the metro to Bulgwang station, where I followed other hikers until they turned off the road. They’re easy to spot, Korean hikers: they wear hiking boots and hiking backpacks and hiking clothes that wick away sweat and they carry hiking sticks and wear gloves and some sort of outdoorsy head covering. Every single – well, not quite, I did spot one other person wearing jeans, but I’m sure I was the only one hiking with a laptop backpack. I was also wearing a T-shirt I won’t describe because some people don’t like it.
I figured I’d buy water on my way to the trail, but there was no store. The gas station sold no water, though the attendant was nice enough to give me a cup of water in return for my improvised sign language for buying water. I think the word for water is “mul.” Finally, where the trail left the road, there stood a little store on wheels. I asked for three bottles of water and the guy gave me three with a frozen core. Neat, I thought, I’ll have cool water all the way. That proved true, but misleading. I carried the water in my backpack, and all the padding for the computer insulated that water well. Each time I stopped for a drink, all I got was three mouthfuls. (I would finally return to my hotel with ice still clanking around in those bottles.)
Soon I realized that trails in Korea are different from our manicured paths in Switzerland. They don’t switchback up the mountain, they head straight up the ridge, sometimes straight up bald rock face at what must have been a 45-degree angle, exposed to the noontime sun. Sweat ran down my arms and I soon understood why the Korean uncle with the calves of steel kept going on about the heat, but I’m not sure why he insisted on talking to me all the way up even though it was very soon apparent that we didn’t understand each other.
At the top I got a fresh burst of energy when I realized I was near the peak and scaled the last rocks. I was a bit worried by the sign that said “safety restricted area,” but everyone else seemed to be going up and I wasn’t going to miss the view because of an indecipherable sign. For a few moments I stood on the summit just rotating and taking in the panorama. To the south, in the haze, lay Seoul, the Han river glistening in the sun. At the foot of the mountain, too, lay Seoul – houses and apartment buildings everywhere. Seoul is a concrete cornucopia pockmarked with green mountains and gashed by a river, and off to the southwest there was obviously a new construction project going on to make Seoul even bigger.
To the north the peaks of the national park rose in their speckled brown and green, exposed rock and pine trees intermingling like some sort of camouflage print. Two or three sky-blue power line masts marred the park’s perfection, but I’ve learned selective vision in Japan. The steely uncle called me down to an oddly formed rock and climbed onto it. I took his picture, and then he said “Jokduri-bong.” I made my face the question mark to my unspoken question: “You want to take my picture?” “Jokduri-bong,” he repeated and made hand motions above his head. My question mark remained: “You’re so hot you’re smoking?” “Jokduri-bong,” he said again, this time crooking his elbow, marching two steps, and singing a few notes from what I figured must be a wedding march. “Jokduri-bong,” he said, and I finally figured out he meant that we were standing on Jokduri-bong, and that the name of the peak came from the term for the Korean women’s traditional wedding headdress. (I later, after much internet search frustration because I can’t remember Korean words well, found that the headdress is just “jokduri,” and I suppose “-bong” means peak. I also found out Jokduri-bong [bottom left, the triangle below “Eunpyeong-gu”] was only about 360 meters high.)
So I wasn’t on Bibong, but I knew I wasn’t going further. Steely uncle took off down a rock face that turned around a boulder and dropped out of sight. I sat in the shade of the malformed boulder and rested, with the water bottles in the sun in an attempt to melt the ice. I took a picture of myself next to the boulder and another steely uncle in pretty much the same uniform offered to take one for me. Then I walked with him a ways to the other uncle’s path, where steely uncle #2 asked me to show my shoes. He gave them a skeptical look and pronounced them unfit. “Ridgi,” he said, leaving me wondering whether he meant the shoes lacked ridges or were unfit for ridges. “Dangerousu. Bye-bye.” And he cautiously walked down, then crossed the rock face using his hands and feet and passed out of sight. I walked back to the shade of my boulder and lay down. A little beyond the boulder the rock face seemed to drop more steeply and I could see the dark marks left by water run-off down a few gullies. I’d just finished thinking man, that’s steep, I wouldn’t want to fall down there, when the head of a Korean woman about my age appeared. Step by unwavering step she walked up the rock, hands on her hips, heading for the peak.
My pride was piqued. Unfit soles, pah! I looked at them again. They were perfectly fit, and the material made for good grip. I decided I’d try them out by climbing my funny boulder that steely uncle had climbed. At first it looked difficult to get on the first step, but that was because I’d missed the lowest one. Once I’d found that getting up was easy, thanks to what little I’d learned two weeks ago on my first rock climbing outing with Valda and some of her friends. I’d learned patience, mostly, taking time to find the next grip and the next foothold. Up on the boulder I realised that I didn’t know how to get down. I tried another side, which went well for two steps and then I got scared. I wasn’t sure of the next hand placement, I wasn’t sure of whether I could reach the next foothold, and it looked like no matter what I’d have to jump off at the end onto the inclined rock. A bad landing would send me off the mountain, adding in meaning to my T-shirt statement what it detracted from my life. Shaking, I climbed back up and decided to try the way I’d come up. At least there I was on the uphill side of the boulder. I somehow got my left foot into the foothold I’d used for the right coming up and vice versa, which made for a more awkward descent, but I managed. Again, I rested in the shade of the boulder for a while and took three sips of water from my bottles.
I walked around the peak to try to scope out the steely uncle trail. There was one spot where I could see nearly all the way down, and I watched two guys help another find his way down a part I couldn’t see that was near where the trail leveled out. Only trouble was that the reason I could see was that I was standing on a steep incline, and somewhere in between the incline dropped out of sight. There were no ropes in sight, and no trees – nothing to hold on to in case I slipped. The Korean woman, hands on her hips, headed down there as if nothing was the matter. I retreated to where the uncle had gone down and gave it another look, and let it be. My shoes were okay, but a size too big and you don’t want give when you’re climbing. I was weak from the climb up and couldn’t entirely depend on my left knee, and I had no experience on rock and nobody to guide me. I’d left my organ donor card at the hotel. Besides, I was afraid. So I chose life over pride.
But even so, I still had to find a way. I’d seen people come up another way than the one I’d taken and figured it might be a bit easier. I asked a couple if it was steep by inclining my lower arm at various angles and took the answer to mean it was manageable. It turned out to be true, for the most part. I took one detour when I followed a solo woman hiker (you’d think I’d learned something about solo hiking Korean women) which took me across a slippery rock face that one could only cross because of the steel rope railing. Now I knew why our distributor had asked me if I had gloves.
The rest of the path was pretty much a staircase of logs and here or there patches of gravel or rock. I passed a few hikers coming up: some ignored me, some said “Anyeong haseyo,” and some tried to strike up a conversation. In one case, just as we’d approached to about three meters, I slipped with my left foot on the gravelly dirt and sat down on my right haunch, left foot extended to touch a rock, left hand grabbing a tree and right hand breaking the fall. But guess who exclaimed “Ohhhhh?” That’s right, the other hiker. I remained mute. Sometimes I think my “esprit d’it’s already over” can be a blessing. I wonder if I’d think quickly enough to scream if someone pushed me off the Eiffel tower.
At the bottom (of the mountain, not the Eiffel tower) I filled an empty bottle I’d picked up on the way down at the bathroom that had won best Seoul bathroom in 2001. I hope it looked better then. A few steps beyond stood two restaurants with shady terraces. The terrace floor was bare dirt, the chairs a jumble of styles and all the furniture looked like it had never been new, but the beer was cold and the fan trained on me a delight.
From there I walked toward the metro by walking to where oncoming hikers came from. Then I followed two returning hikers until they got sidetracked at an open market. I followed another, this time asking him, who led me to the metro even though apparently he didn’t need to go there. I got home, lazed about, went to the gym to loosen my muscles on the bike, and finished it all off with the lavender hot tub. I had another buffet dinner and again stuffed myself with the lamb leg with the mint jelly.
I thought I’d go to bed early, but somehow the internet refused to work after I’d written half this entry, and so, frustrated, I watched TV and read until midnight.
In the morning I went to the Seoul International Baptist Church, where I yawned aplenty. I should have just gone to bed earlier… After the service I went out for lunch at Itaewon with Jeff and his family. I’ll not explain how I know Jeff, because it’s a bit complicated, but it was fun to have someone to talk with and spend time with. Solo travel can get lonely.
From Itaewon I took the metro to Anguk near Insadong, because I was to meet up there with a business partner and his American guest whom he was showing around Seoul. I was early, so I decided to head to the palace the name of which I always need to look up – Gyeongbokgung palace. (It’s not really a distinctive, because I need to look all of them up.) A little signpost on the way changed my mind. It read: Seoul Museum of Chicken Art.
Chicken Art, I thought. Art brut taken to its logical extreme, with chickens doing the painting? A kitchen museum – I’ve already heard a few Koreans confuse “chicken” and “kitchen?” Servile art under dictatorial regimes? Or something like the “Körperwelten” show with chickens? After getting lost and getting help from the friendly girl at the World museum of Jewellery I found it, and it turned out to be a private collection of painted and stitched and blown and formed and moulded and carved chicken, mostly our of wood and for Korean funeral purposes. Apparently, the chicken symbolises four things in Korean tradition: fertility, success & wealth, fatherhood, and salvation from evil spirit. I’ll quote from the note I received:
“On this exhibition, we are focusing on the fourth meaning of chicken in Korean culture. […] The wooden carved chicken that decorates the traditional Korean funeral bier are called Kokdoo. Kokdoos are usually various symbols of animals or generals and priests who are believed to protect the dead pperson over his/her long journey to the other world. Of these Kokdoos, Chicken Kokdoo notices the other world the dead person’s departure and guides the dead person to the other world with safety.”
It was a small museum, just right for my purposes, bright and quirky.
I met my acquaintance and the American, Nancy, as agreed. We had a traditional Korean dinner of many courses and many dishes, with lots of different tastes assaulting the palate. I can’t remember how many variations of Kimchi I tried. After dinner my acquaintance wanted to take us to Gyeongbokgung palace, but it had closed, so instead he drove us up Buk’ak mountain, from where we had a neat night view of Seoul. Then, because he and Nancy have to get up early tomorrow and she’s still jet-lagged, we headed home.