Thursday, November 08, 2007 Korea (South) South Korea

Hiking in the mountains

Leaves at Bukhansan [Enlarge]

The weather's growing cooler, and the trees in Seoul are a beautiful autumn-brown. We decided to take a much-needed trip out of the city to one of the nearby mountainous national parks. Korea is a very hilly country. From almost anywhere in Seoul you can see the tree-clad slopes of one mountain or other. The shortage of flat ground explains (in part) the food shortages in the North and the overcrowding in the South: much of the land is unfarmable and unlivable-on.

Early Sunday morning we boarded a subway train heading north from downtown Seoul towards Dobongsan station on line number one. The train was packed, just like rush hour on a weekday morning—but instead of being surrounded by be-suited commuters, either slumbering or watching the telly on their mobile phones, our travelling companions were all dressed in full hiking kit. Koreans take some things very seriously, and apparel is one such thing. It felt like we were going to a Gore-Tex convention.

These were the same sunlight-starved businessmen we teach every day, and their perm-headed wives. But this was them in Weekend Mode. Korean culture is all about social acceptability. You must go to the right university, get married at the right age to a person from the right family, have a child or two (no more), be promoted and attain as high a salary as your talent permits. Then, with the security of the next generation ensured, you must take up golf or hiking for your health so that you won't become a burden on the state. So it is easy to see why having the right hiking clothes is of vital importance. From the sun visors, to the neon-patterned body warmers, knee-length socks and leather boots, these Koreans were not just going hiking, but hiking for Korea, and being seen to do so.

Hikers at Dobongsan Station. [IMG_3062]
Going for a quiet walk in the country [Enlarge]

There was no mistaking when we had arrived at our destination station, about an hour out of the city centre. As the doors opened a river of hikers gushed out of the train, and down the stairs in a fluid but orderly mass. As we looked over the barrier we could see this river had joined the one from the previous train a few minutes earlier, and was flowing across the road and into the foothills of the national park. Having taken some photos, we joined a tributary of the river and started walking.

The path from the entrance to the national park into the mountains proper was lined by restaurants and shopportunities. This, seemingly, was the place to buy your hiking gear, as well as essential provisions. As we shuffled forwards in the queue we were able to look at some of the bargains on offer. Most intriguing was the amount of alcohol on sale. The hiking beverage of choice is, it seems, makgeolli (rice wine). Thousands of bottles of the stuff were being bought, presumably for consumption on the summit. The perennial Korean favourite, soju (a bit like vodka) was also popular.

Seoul suburbs from Bukhansan [Enlarge]

Is there anywhere else in the world where you have to queue to go for a stroll in the country? Just outside Seoul in the autumn you do! Actually to be fair it's not like this every weekend—we had, it seemed, picked the busiest weekend of the year, when the leaves were at their best and the weather perfect. As we filed into the park we were filmed by Korean TV news who seemed particularly interested in the strangely-dressed foreigners (us) who had joined the locals to partake of the motherland's natural beauty. We managed to find a less-busy path branching off the main one and took it—passing wonderful temples and mountain streams on the way to a summit of sorts. At the top we ate our picnic lunch sitting on the only free square metre of mountain we could find, with a great view over the northern Seoul suburbs. It was all very friendly, with a real party atmosphere. We were overtaken by a lot of very old Koreans, who had clearly been up and down this mountain more than a few times. And Glenn was given a very tasty apple by a Korean lady—the Asian women still love him!

Life here provides its own entertainments. The culture is fascinating. The city is vibrant. We wouldn't want to settle here long term, but as a place to spend a year it's perfect. The simplest activities give rise whole new perspectives, and a surprise is waiting around every corner.