Soul-traveling, backcountry style“I’m addicted to backcountry traveling. It’s truly a whole new experience. Meeting the aborigines, who are so naive and honest by nature, my heart feels purified,” says Kim Sang-suk, the section chief of the Folk Museum at Lotte World, who calls himself a “backcountry travel maniac.”
Backcountry travel means visits to out-of the-way places, off the beaten track, and it is becoming a popular fad among Koreans. For the last 15 years, Ms. Kim has traveled to 30 different backcountries, including the deserts of Egypt, the ancient villages of Iran and alpine Tibet. She explored the deepest corners of the Silk Road by bus for eight days in her latest trip in late August. “Once you get a taste for backcountry traveling, more famous places full of other people fail to be of much interest”
Ms. Kim is not the only one crazy about backcountry traveling. Almost 40 online clubs have been established in Korea at sites like Naver (www.naver.com) or Daum (www.daum.net). Interest in the phenomenon can be seen in many blogs, like Lee Jun-won’s, who posted pictures from his travels at Cyworld (www.cyworld.com). “Two hundred sixty thousand people clicked on the picture of the South American deserts and more than 2,000 replies were posted,” he says.
Backcountry packages are soaring in popularity. According to Hana Tour, the number of people traveling to Myanmar last summer was around 400, up from 10 per month in 2005. “Compared to a year ago there has been a 50% increase in the number of people seeking backcountry travel packages in the Middle East and Africa,” said Jang Yeong-bok, the section chief of Shoestring Tours. Korean Airlines has also begun operating a regular service to Kathmandu, Nepal once a week since Oct. 13 to meet the increased demand. They plan to operate a service to Yangon, Myanmar, from the beginning of next year.
For some, the appeal of this form of travel is mostly spiritual. “Being completely free of any form of civilization gave me the space and time to reflect back on myself and my life,” says Kim Dae-yong, a businessman in his early thirties. Others are seeking the unusual. Chung Seong-jin (58), who is planning a trip to Africa this winter, says “There’s really nothing new or exciting anymore about going on a tour to Europe or the United States. Everyone else has been there already, and it’s overly traveled to. I prefer the backcountries even if it means that it won’t be easy.”
Land of God ― Himalayas
Baek Gyeong-hun, a 49 year-old poet, is in love with the Himalayas. He has already traveled there seven times and he recommends it highly. He is especially entranced by some of the natural features, although the peaks are not on top of his list.
“Have you seen the innocent eyes of Himalayan girls?” he said. “The moment I saw them, I was amazed to find such devastating eyes.” Mr. Baek also envies the Himalayan people. “They live a simple life,” he said. “They are not obsessed with possessions.”
The Himalayas was a “secluded land” ten years ago, when few people visited Nepal except for mountain climbers. Mr. Baek was a director at an advertising company then and saw pictures of the Himalayas while producing a commercial.“The moment I saw the place I was head over heels.” He asked for 9 days vacation, which was unprecedented for a director. “The news spread through the company. An employee I had never met asked me why I was going to Nepal and seemed concerned that I would not make it back. That was the general impression of the Himalayas.”
Mr. Baek’s first glimpse of the mountains came after a short snooze on his flight to Katmandu.
“I woke up to find people standing by the windows on the other side.” A breathtaking view lay beneath him, with snow-capped peaks over 26,000 feet high looking like white islands amid a sea of clouds.
He headed for Pokhara, a village close to the Himalayas. “Pokhara is convenient for travelers who have a tight schedule, since taxis can go up to 5,500 feet. Trekking for another 1,000 feet will bring you to the Sarangot Mountain.” When Mr. Baek arrived at Saran, the mountains overwhelmed him. “Himalayas is like a gigantic God of water.” He can never forget the night he spent there. “The tour guide pointed to a full moon, with snow-covered mountains beneath it. Tears welled up and I felt all my secrets had been revealed. It seemed like a different planet.”
Since this first trip, Mr Baek has returned to the Himalayas many times and recently published a book “Mustang, the last secluded land on earth,” about a trip he took to Mustang, Nepal (Homi Publishing company, 18,000 won).
Deserts, the Land of Beginning
Lee Jun-won is a Hanyang University student majoring in advertising. He shares many similarities with other students, except few of his peers have spent six months in the backcountries of South America and Africa. “I originally planned on a course in language studies after I left the military, but I changed my mind and decided to travel. At first it was just Asia, but I changed my mind and decided to travel around the world instead,” he said. He started out with 20 million won, originally earmarked for language study fees. Then he plotted his path, intentionally leaving out the United States, China and Japan. Instead, he included places that aren’t normally visited. The places that left the greatest impression upon him were the deserts.
Mr. Lee crossed six different deserts: Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, Namibia’s Namib Desert, Jaisalmer in India, Peru’s Wakachina desert, Wadi Rum in Jordan and Egypt’s Siwah Desert. “When I first reached the deserts, I thought to myself, ‘so this is what the end of the world looks like.’ It was bleak and desolate and I thought no living creature could survive. But then I saw a gold beetle digging and lizards moving over the scorching sands, creatures who have adapted to the harsh environment; it taught me a lot.” Mr. Lee said.
The hardest part of traveling through the deserts was the climate. During the days, the heat from the sun and the sand was suffocating. When the sun went down, it became bitterly cold, with a frosty wind blowing sand across his skin. Traveling across the stark landscape was hard, as his feet sank deep into the sand. At times, he needed the assistance of a four-wheel-drive vehicle or a camel.
In the Namib Desert of Namibia, he did have some fun when he went sandboarding (similar to snowboarding, but on sand instead of snow). He’d climb up two steps to slide down one, with the sun sizzling above his head. “I had to walk up for more than 20 minutes, to enjoy a minute of sandboarding. The weather was scalding hot and the climb was extremely grueling, but skating down the sand was exhilarating.” He said.
Of all the deserts, Mr. Lee ranks Salar de Uyuni, a salt desert in southwestern Bolivia, as the best. The thin salt top layer creates a world of white that stretches far across the horizon and blurs into the sky. He visited Salar de Uyuni in December, which happened to be the rainy season. “A thin layer of water would form above the salt, creating a vast mirror reflecting the sky and the horizon It made me feel like I was floating across the skies.”
Mr. Lee found the sunrises and sunsets of the desert to be unforgettable experiences. He was stunned by the way the scene would gradually blend into bright shades of red, uninterrupted by any topography as the sun rose from the end of the earth. “It was as if I was on a different planet. It made me think a lot about my life, and what I was going to do with it after graduation.” Upon his return, he began posting his traveling experiences on his blogs at www.cyworld.com/june57th and paper.cyworld.com/june57th. “The trip around the world has changed my life and my outlook on everything. I dream of traveling to the backcountry again someday,” he says.
by Hong Joo-yun,Baik Sung-ho