A crowd of friendly white people gathering outside the 8th exit of Seoul’s largest bus station waiting for a bus to drive us to Korea’s most popular hiking mountain, discussing small talk trying not to dive right into the triumvirate of expat questions. 1) Where are you from? 2) How long have you been here? 3) Where and what age do you teach? It’s not that these are bad questions; they are great questions and give a good bit of information about the person. But as go the inevitable, information gathering questions of global backpacking, these questions, if you are around the person long enough, may be answered through normal conversation or gleaned through accents and story settings.
The 11 p.m. bus arrived at Seorak Mountain at 2:30 am. I imagine most people were like me and the pretty blond girl next to me, (who taught me about some great new music) and just closed their eyes, unable to sleep but unwilling to not try. The stars were set in their requisite ebony blanket and the air crisp, fresh and healing. Crowds were gathered, buses idling, chatter all around, and the hill sat invisible but palpable.
We began the hike with the fifty or so foreigners that came on the buses meandering through the trails with our tiny torches in a seemingly endless midnight parade through the rocks and trees. We were NOT the only ones with this early start idea. Koreans were ready and rearing to go with their expensive gear and fancy hiking sticks. I was fully prepared except that I had forgotten to fill up my water bottle at the rest stop.
Thankfully, this mountain’s entrance came fortuitously equipped with a vending machine that saved my day. The night hike doesn’t have the same atmosphere of a night dive. In water, you see things that only come out to play at night and aren’t always aware of your presence, because that is their world. But on terra firma, those animals are always hyper-aware of humans and can hide even better at night. So, besides the massive, glowing, human inchworm slowly climbing this mountain, we were all alone with the dark.
I started hearing groups talk about getting wasted at parties and how terrible their drunk friends acted, how they want to be a sexy stewardess for Halloween but can’t find the right shoes, how they brought takeout Thai food (in their backpack) on a 14 hour hike, and how funny their friend is who couldn’t come. One girl suggested to play “What movie is this from?” and I jumped all over that with a “Baby…Ruuuth” and somebody got it quick. She said, “No nap!” And we were all stumped. Turns out, after she gave us hints that it was a sci-fi sequel with a boy enamored of his babysitter, that it was Honey, I Blew Up the Kids. I thought, oh my god, I can’t play this game with you. Who quotes that, I mean, was Rick Moranis even in that one; was Anty? No, then you don’t quote that. Don’t you know the rules? It has to be a movie that everyone has seen and possibly re-seen every sick Sunday of their life.
I hiked onward. Then I found a guy in a colorful soccer jersey. “Is that West Ham?” I asked. “No, it’s Aston Villa,” (over accentuating the L’s in the peculiar British manner) he replied between gasps. We were 40 minutes into the hike. My light showed a man sweating profusely, wearing jeans and tennis shoes. We talked about European football for a moment before he staggered behind me still clutching for air. He probably brought a beer for the top and then will complain that the shelter doesn’t have a proper pint glass in which to pour it. British people love to complain.
I hiked onward. I found a girl from Jim Thorpe, PA that I met at the subway stop. She and I talked and were soon joined by a curly headed guy who had slight B.O. The kind that you notice and think, I can tolerate this, but over-saturation of anything soon leads to repulsion. He talked too loud. You know that person? He was in no danger of being interrupted, but continued in his clamorous verbosity. He was heard to say this: “There are two paradigms of the status quo that need to be challenged and thereby have a chance to change: the two party system of America and the standardized tests of our schools.” It’s like ‘The Dude’ said, “No Walter, you’re not wrong, you’re just an asshole.” He was onto politics; therefore, I hiked onward. People started resting, taking water breaks, eating snacks, retying their shoes, stopping to catch their breath, and I hiked onward.
Soon, I was alone with the Koreans only. It was my preferred method of hiking. There was nothing to overhear and disagree with, no reason to slow my speed to keep pace with a conversational brunette. The trail thinned out and I reached the top exactly at sunrise. The clouds were thick and puffy below us, blushed pink by the sun, creating a hazy peace among the throngs at the summit. The wind was unbearable as it cut through my jacket biting my damp skin.
I ran to the shelter visible below us and found a completely swarmed beehive of activity. Ramen soup steaming in small pots, people checking maps and a long bathroom line. I didn’t stay long and found my new path downward led to a place at the bottom called “Hangaeryeong-한개령.” I memorized it and found its three syllables soothing and rhythmic. Han. Gae. Ryeong. I started singing it, mouthing it, humming it, adding it to lyrics: instead of Zeppelin’s “Wanna whole lotta love,” I put in my new destination. I would put a step to each character, left, right, left, han, gae, ryeong. It took around 5 hours to reach the top; it would take another 6 to reach the bottom. I needed a mantra. It (poorly) translated to “one dog command.” It is nothing to reach enlightenment through, but a good sound nonetheless.
In Korea, I am used to the idea of being an oddity, or something to be confused by or in wonder of. People watch us eat delicious Korean food and ask with a mix of bemusement and confusion, “Do you like it?” Of course we like it, it’s pickled cabbage in a delicious pepper sauce, who wouldn’t like it? It is cute and I’m happy to indulge as long as they keep my kimchi plate filled.
Hiking is a little different, in that they are now surprised to see you hiking. They assume all Americans are too fat to even squeeze their hefty asses into a gondola to reach the top, let alone hike that far. So, they are excited and perplexed to see me passing them along the route. I found that if I smile as I pass, (or sometimes even look at the ground) I am met with some form of “Annyeong haseyo!” or “Hi!” They are so friendly and nice.
It’s a good feeling to be alone with your thoughts and alone with the world in such a public yet private place. I take a few perfectly scenic pictures for families and groups, they return the favor for me. I talk a little broken English here and there. “Ahnry?” he asks. I say, “Ahnry?” trying to think what that means in Korean. “Ahnry you?” he asks again. “Ohhh, yes, only me.” It’s too hard to tell him, “no I came with a group, but I like to go fast, so now I’m alone.”
There are cute little chipmunks beside the trail with stripes on their backs, and I can hear them singing Christmas songs in my head. I throw them a few peanuts and every time, they find it among the dry, fallen foliage. When they eat it, I can hear Eddie Murphy’s voice in the background “Damn, what’s this, this ain’t no regular cracker, what’s this a saltine, no this is a Ritz?”
There were also little blue birds. They hopped among the rotten logs eating little white grubs. At times, a large black bird would squawk overhead. It was a primitive bird sound. There was no singsong quality; there was nothing to whistle back. It was just, “Hey! Hey!” I yelled in return, but he didn’t even look. Seorak is very scenic and beautiful. The ridges definitely resemble a dragon or a dinosaur or a crocodilian animal of some sort.
The red flush of dying leaves scattered among the green pines cover the hillsides, and the bare rock faces look like stalagmites poking out from the inner core of the mountain. I thought of the fact that you can probably see North Korea from the top and that they can never hike this mountain. They have plenty of great hikes across the 38th parallel, but something about the dichotomy of Korea is never lost on an American. We know so little and are taught even less about this peninsula, that even after a year, it’s hard to understand how these two brothers could be so incompatible, yet sprung from the same mother.
Hangaeryeong was getting closer, my food stash was disappearing and my legs were starting to hurt. The bag getting lighter as you move along a hike is a simple metaphor for life. Not in the fact that the more you go forward the less heavy your troubles or emotional baggage become, but rather just that time is passing. If age was weight, you would float away on the breeze when you die, having achieved a full life, like a helium balloon—lighter than air.
Seoraksan is funny in that, you don’t just get to the top and head down, you continue going up and down while approaching the bottom. I do have my father’s legs and thus, his knees. Anyone who’s seen my dad’s parlor trick of moving his shinbone away from his kneecap knows how bad they can get. So, the steady down and up was getting brutal. One nice young man asked me, “How far must I go before I reach the top?” The teacher in me wanted to tell him “Good English,” the tired hiker in me wanted to tell him, “Turn around, you still have time!” Instead I replied, “Well, probably three hours, but, the peak is very cold. Annyeong haseyo.” The bottom came eventually, as all things do, in time. I was in no mood to sleep on a pension floor with four other strangers and their sweaty socks breathing beside me, so I hitched a ride with a nice family to the bus stop and bought a ticket to Seoul.
I made my favorite meal of dumplings and broccoli, drank a beer, ate some chips watching The Daily Show, took a few Advil PM and passed out for the next 12 hours. Today, I treated myself to a well-deserved massage. I also stuck my foot in the bathtub that contains those little hungry fish that eat skin. I saw this conspicuous bathtub and asked the girl (actually mimed it, the way you’d motion Pac-Man) if they eat your skin. She looked in her smartphone quickly and said, “It tickles.” It did. They really just go to town on your feet and after the initial giggles go away, it felt lovely that I was able to give these little guys some food in return for a fish massage. I felt like those sharks that open their mouth and let the little fish clean their teeth. “I won’t hurt you, but can you get that spot between my big and middle toe, ah yeah, that one.”