Gwanaksan: First Korean Summit of Many

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. 

Unaltered. Just look at that color!

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.

For some reason, Koreans find it necessary to carry a week's worth of gear on a day hike.

Why? Why does one need a thumping internet connection while hiking?

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.

Former outpost from the Korean War...now a public toilet

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. 

The shrine above the city

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:

It looks awkward because it was. Mr. Helpful cleared out the fifty people around me to take 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.

No, that is not a Nazi Swastika. The symbol is still sacred in many parts of the word and doesn't have the terrible connotation that Westerners associate with it.
I love the contrast of the mountain and the wires here. It's like we ants are trying to tie the mountain down like in Gulliver's Travel's
The summit

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…

What.

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.

Broken Ankle City

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.

3 Comments

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  1. Great post. I truely enjoyed the photos and writing. I was especially pleased to hear that the lonliness was abated. What’s refreshing to see is that you acknoledge the lonliness and do something about it. Too many people don’t. Take care. -Max-

  2. Anne-Marie Colwell 25 March 2012 — 3:15 PM

    Once again Coleen, thank you for sharing such an entertaining, well-observed, and beautifully written self reflection. You made my (sick) day.
    Happy you have conquered your homesickness wave until the next fit of nostalgia comes again. I so totally understand. Keep on writing about it. I do love the way your write 🙂 and I learn so much through your pieces

  3. JOHNNY THANH NGUYEN 26 March 2012 — 5:09 AM

    The views are so splended.Thanks for your pictures.(Thanh from Viet Nam)

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