Living in the city is a new experience for me. I’m learning how to be comfortable with the immense and boxy architecture of South Korea, the ache in my knees from the concrete jungle, the constant crush of 24 million other souls that I can never escape. In addition, it’s been about a month that I’ve been in Korea. I’m beginning to feel the first pangs of homesickness, which for me manifests as the desire for all my friends and family to move to wherever I am, not the desire to actually go home. It’s more of a loved-ones-sickness than missing a specific place.
Heartache is a pain best worked out conquering mountains.
I boarded the subway and within a half hour I was in Gwacheon, where I promptly got lost. The directions that I got from a delightful blog about traveling in Korea were not helpful (“Walk in the direction of the trail”). Basically, I had to wander toward the mountain a bit haphasardly, only able to find it because I could see the characteristic weather station at the top that I’d seen in pictures. Don’t worry, I’ve created a new Korea Travel Walkthrough page for this blog in order to help others who may want to follow in my footsteps.
This is a fairly popular hiking route, well-covered by the various expat blogs in Korea. Despite this, I was the only non-Korean I saw on the mountain the whole day. It was a bit surreal being adrift in the sea of well-outfitted and noisy hikers, who ranged in age from three to at least my grandparents’ age. Unfortunately, one can never truly outrun the city. It followed me heavily into the forest, the trail teasing me with the fact that I couldn’t escape crowds and concrete even here.
I wandered up the mountain with the throngs, alternately passing and getting passed by ajummas and ajushis. It was impossible not to notice the boisterousness of some of the men traveling in packs with matching hiking pants, poles, and GoreTex jackets in parrot colors. After a couple bumped into me accidentally, I realized why they were so cheerful. They absolutely reeked of Makeolli (Korean Rice Wine). Drunk hikers. Just what we need.
But then the snow started.
It’s been unseasonably cold in Korea this March, and yesterday it snowed in downtown Seoul. While my friends and family who happen to live in Colorado have been basking in beautiful Spring weather with flowers and the mildest winter in years, those of us in Korea are still shivering under temperatures hovering around zero Celsius. The snow reminded me of other hikes, last year in the Chilean winter. In a way I’m happy to have Winter cling on a little bit longer, though even with the snow I can feel the change of seasons coming already. I haven’t had a Spring in over a year and a half, so I’m not sure what I’d do with a crocus if I stumbled upon one.
My day on the mountain was further complicated by the addition of a man about my parents’ age, who spotted the only redhead in the crowds and stuck close to me the rest of the way up the mountain. He wasn’t trying to be creepy, but it was a little weird to have him stopping every time I stopped to make sure I was OK. Given that a woman who looked as though she needed to eat a sandwich nearly collapsed on me on my way to the summit, he may have had a point. At any rate he took this picture:
The beautiful scenery was somewhat curtailed by the presence of several hundred of my closest friends scrambling up the rock at the top, the thousands of buildings of the city spread out below. Mountains are sacred in many cultures, and Gwanaksan has many shrines and a temple. When I reached the break before the summit, a service was underway with chanting, incense, and nuns wandering in gray robes.
629 meters above Seoul, I scrambled up the last rock to the top. It reminded me of my first fourteener in Colorado back in August, down to the biting cold wind and slippery rocks. All the Korean women on the mountain required assistance and made great scenes of swooning and crooning over how difficult the climb had been. The men graciously supported them, and the dichotomy of gender here had never been so apparent to me. I thudded down the rock with no assistance, and only slipped once.
Although I’m apparently not as hardcore as some Korean hikers…
The heartache of missing those I love scattered around the world was lessened a bit by the wave of endorphins. Almost every time I hike the battle uphill brings on anger, frustration, tears, and sadness. The way down brings exhilaration and freedom, the weight lifted. It was true today. Two hours up, forty-five minutes down. Seven kilometers at a jaunty clip. I was very happy that I wore my big hiking boots. One could make it up the mountain with converse, but I’m not sure my ankles could take it.
By the end of the hike, I was happy to head home. The walk back to the subway was a welcome transition from the mountain back to the city. The ache of missing those back home had abated for the afternoon, replaced by the ache at the fronts of my knees. Surely some Makeolli and a warm shower will ease that away.