[Seoul Lounge] Reflections on hiking in Korea

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[Seoul Lounge] Reflections on hiking in Korea

Hiking in Korea is a common pastime. It could almost be considered a national sport. Likewise in 2007, I hiked the Baekdudaegan mountain ranger in 70 days to write an English guide book about it. I also hiked the 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) of trail that make up the nine subsidiary ridges of the Baekdudaegan in Korea known as jeong-maek.

Their expansiveness allows me to cover broad areas of this small but largely mountainous country. This experience allows me to form a rather romantic notion on why hiking is so popular here. This notion is concocted from a visual study of outstanding landscapes and many social interactions with Koreans.

As a result of thousands of years of use for trade, war and pilgrimages, Korea’s peaks and valleys have now become a network of ancient and modern trails that stretch all the way back to Mount Baekdu. Proof of this can be found via its gi-maeks, jeong-maeks and the Baekdudaegan. If we then add the folk-myth tale of Dangun that the origins of Koreans derived from the heights of Mount Baekdu (or possibly Mount Taebak), then we can assume that the blood heritage of Korea is in its mountains.

Korea’s last century of subjugation and struggle has seen a new Korea arise, and now it is beginning to re-forge these forgotten trails into popular forms of recreational use. This urge could also be seen as a way for Koreans to reconnect with their landscape and mountainous identity, once depicted heavily in their arts and culture.

My hiking in Korea has provided me with many moments of light-hearted humor while I tried to connect with Korea and its mountain culture.

At the start of the 2007 Baekdudaegan expedition, Andrew Douch and I slept in overcrowded national park shelters.

These overheated places are a mixture of hardship and humor that is shared with at least 200 other hikers, all of us sleeping alongside each other. When able to sleep over the cacophony of snorers, we were suddenly woken from our slumber by the shrieking yelps of an unfit hiker contorting with violent leg cramps.

The same hiker then stood up quickly only to hit his head on an overhanging wood beam. Muffled laughter permeated the dark shelter as the ailing hiker fell back to the floor on top of someone else, causing a chain reaction of jerking and cursing bodies.

Walking in the popular national park areas on a weekend often meant not having to worry about carrying food, as it became impossible for us to ignore the invitations by Korean hikers to join them in their large festive feasts and soju. Indeed one learns to carry a drinking vessel with them all the time when hiking in Korea, as it becomes important for social connection.

Our first jaunt into rural Korea saw us arrive at a small village called Maeyo-ri. We were then invited to sleep in a jeongja, or gazebo. Later that night, we were dragged from our shelter to dance and drink to the wailing tones of pansori (narrative singing) with the aging locals under the full moon. It was a great treat for two foreign hikers.

When not sleeping on the ridge, we would sometimes seek shelter in a minbak (guesthouse). To arrive at an isolated rural minbak on a dark rainy night can be a cautious and then entertaining moment.

Knocking on the door of the minbak, only for the proprietor to almost die of fright when seeing two white, unkempt figures standing in the doorway, can, in the end, be very amusing for all parties. The proprietor would often quickly slam the door shut.

Many roads traverse over the Baekdudaegan, and sometimes when we were standing or resting on one of these roads, a passing driver would screech to a halt, reverse toward us, jump out of the vehicle, run to the trunk, open it and with a big smile, hand us a box of grapes or apples.

Then as quickly as it happened, the driver was gone, leaving us standing there holding a large box of fruit along with our fully laden 20-kilogram (44-pound) packs.

Although the nationalistic connotations of the Baekdudaegan are historically quite serious, the many light -hearted moments I experienced from the people of the Baekdudaegan were always warm and enchanting, perhaps indicating that their connection with the ridge was a happy one. So too mine.

*The writer from New Zealand is an honorary ambassador of tourism for Korea.


By Roger Shepherd
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