As promised, I bring to you the second part of my mountain tale. Climbing Naejangsan was a completely different experience from Dobongsan and I sincerely cherish them both.
The journey to the top began on a Friday night at a bus station in Seoul where myself along with a handful of foreigners and a great many Koreans loaded onto a bus southern bound. The bus tour that we S.H.I.T.Y. hikers (again, I don’t know what the acronym comes out to be, which kind of defeats the purpose of an acronym, I know, but it is far too punny to insert S.H.I.T.Y. into sentences) joined was incredibly cheap (20,000 Won for round-trip bus fare) and apparently a tour for Korean singles looking for a hiker to love. This naturally brought about a few funny moments with older Korean men being half-jokingly flirtatious with whatever English they could muster.
Random tangent, one of my favorite parts of the hike is crossing paths with friendly Koreans (of which there are so many) that say “hello” or “hi” in English and get a big grin on their face when I (or any foreigner) respond with “annyonghaseyo.”
Anyhow, back to the bus. So, it’s midnight and we have about four hours until we get to the base of the mountain and start hiking. That’s right, this S.H.I.T.Y. hike (I promise I’ll stop now) was to commence with the light of the moon as our guide. Well, the moon and a flashlight. Unfortunately, I jinxed myself into not sleeping a lick on the bus when I made the comment to my friend Spenser that I can basically sleep anywhere–buses, trains, planes, park benches, cars, etc.. Nearing the base of the mountain, the bus made a pit-stop around 3:30 AM and most people used the time to get some breakfast in. Spenser, Andrea and I had a food party of fruit, crackers, kim bap and all sorts of other goodness while the rest of the folks on the bus either continued sleeping or went inside for a full-fledged Korean meal.
Once the bus got moving, it didn’t take long to get to our destination and in the pitch black of night we exited the bus bound for the peaks of Naejangsan. Aside from being mildly excited to see my own breath, I was immediately taken aback by the dark sky filled with stars. You’ve got to understand, in Seoul there are no stars to be seen–the city is simply too bright and they don’t come here anymore. In whatever mountain wilderness we had driven to, a mere four hours south, the sky was filled with the little jewels I nearly forgot still existed.
Hiking in the dark is oddly exhilarating. To not be able to see that far ahead of you or what’s surrounding you, and yet to have to be so careful and precise with of your footwork was, to say the least, a thrilling contrast. Feeling like we were on a mission, which I suppose we kind of were, we S.H.I.T.Y. hikers busted a move directed for the top, quickly passing our bus companions. We were absolutely speeding up the mountain, taking few breaks and constantly moving; this was one of many aspects of this hike that were quite different from my experience at Dobongsan where I took my sweet lazy time getting to the top. About an hour in we noticed that our visibility was increasing and that the sun was bound to show herself soon, which only made us move faster. At the first of eight peaks we would conquer that day, we were given a taste of what the morning looked like from up above the world.
I took my careful time soaking up this sight; it really was something special. Being out experiencing the wilderness and nature in this way was and is something that I don’t think I do nearly enough. Everything about being up on that peak and watching the sun rise, hot and bright, made me feel alive in a way that honestly few things can.
Continuing onward, we made our way down steep, slippery leaved inclines, across rocky ridges and up formidable formations to eight peaks in total. This hike was a bit more treacherous and difficult than Dobongsan, which made me a bit uncomfortable about totting my fancy cam in, so the majority of the hike my Canon was tucked away in my bag, significantly limiting the number of photos taken on this jaunt.
We made it to the first three peaks rather quickly. The traffic on the mountain was null as it was so early and the distance from peak to peak was rarely ever more than a kilometer. Despite our speedy hiking, we did take our time to rest, share in some delicious food and even burst into song. I’m not sure what brought it on, but at one point Andrea, Spenser and I began singing Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.” I’ll let you imagine the looks we received. One aspect of Korean culture that I absolutely love is their communal nature; Koreans love to share with others. At one peak, the whole gang was sitting on a ledge and a group of Korean men came by of offering their Makguelli (Korean rice wine) and Kim Bap to all of us. This kind of instance isn’t unusual in Korea and it’s something about this place I really love. It reminds me of the generosity and kindness I found so surprising when I first moved to the Midwest.
The rest of the hike went pretty smoothly, up until about the last hour when the mountain began getting wildly crowded and much of the group got separated on our way to the bottom. On my way down I met a few Korean men that had lived in Seattle and we had a great conversation about the Northwest. There English was excellent and the conversation certainly helped my shaky, worn muscles get to the bottom.
After hiking for about eight hours we were all pretty beat, but I couldn’t resist snapping some shots of the temple as well as the mountain we has just defeated.
Despite having made it to the base of the mountain, we still had to walk a few kilometers to get to the bus. This walk felt like the longest walk EVER. Fortunately, there were some sights to see along the way including a persimmon tree, which looked to me like something imaginary:
When we did finally make it to the bus, we all immediately took our shoes off, put on a fresh pair of socks and passed out. That was some of the best bus sleep I’ve ever had. Though the majority of us headed home to Seoul, a few hardcore hikers moved onto another town with yet another mountain to put them to the test. I may not have been as sore this time around, but still, there was no way I’d be climbing a mountain the next day, let alone a few flights of stairs! Color me impressed by those S.H.I.T.Y. adventure seekers. My Sunday was filled with West Wing watching, yoga posing (mostly stretching, let’s be honest) and coffee drinking.
Well, that pretty much sums up my first two hiking forays in Korea. Until my next detailed Korean experience, stay gold.