[Seoul Lounge] Mountain after mountain

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[Seoul Lounge] Mountain after mountain

One of the things I love most about Korea is her mountains. Like Korean women, they may not be the tallest in the world, but their beauty is unmatched. Consequently, one of my favorite Korean expressions is san neomeo san, or “mountain after mountain.” It vividly describes not just when we face a difficult situation but also reminds me of how wonderful Korea is for hiking.

Let’s start with Seoul. My hiking buddies and I disagree on which mountain is the best, but no other major city in the world is blessed with so much great hiking nearby. From Mount Dobong in the north to Mount Gwanak in the south, you are rarely more than 15 minutes from a great mountain to climb.

I live at the base of Mount Inwang. For someone with long legs like me, it takes 30 minutes from my front door to hike the 1.5 kilometers (.9 miles) along the fortress wall to the top. Like most Korean mountains, it is short, but steep - making for a great morning workout and spectacular views of Seoul. On weekends I like to add Mount Bukak behind the Blue House.

One of my dearest teachers, Hanyang University’s late Lee Young-hee, introduced me to what remains my favorite mountain in Seoul, Mount Bukhan. With entrances less than 20 minutes from downtown, there are dozens of peaks to climb (some requiring ropes) and temples to explore. Turn your back on Seoul and you will feel like you are in the middle of an endless mountain range. For the less ambitious, a trail and fitness parks encircle the mountain.

Hiking is a great way to reaffirm friendships and that we are not over the hill yet. Last weekend I went with two of my oldest and dearest friends for our first temple stay at Mount Odae’s Woljeong Temple, the largest temple in Gangwon. The monks are extremely friendly and the food and facilities amazing. From there we hiked to another temple and hermitage and then summited Birobong, one of its five highest peaks.

Last month I was able to carve out time during official trips to hike two of Korea’s most beautiful island mountains. There is nothing like seeing water in every direction from the summit of Mount Halla, but even if you don’t feel like hiking the 7-10 kilometers to the top, Jeju Island also boasts a set of more than 20 interconnected walking trails that now encircle the island.

At 984 meters, Seonginbong Peak on Ulleung Island is just over half the height of Mount Halla, but it is still an impressive peak in its own right and helps make up for the lack of exercise one gets when making the five-hour side trip to Dokdo islets. From the main port, take the trail that passes near the Dokdo Museum (a worthwhile side trip) and hike down the other side to a peaceful valley where you can sample the island’s special beef (yakso), unique mountain herbs and famous homemade pumpkin makgeolli, or rice beer.

If only the North’s leaders would cease their belligerent behavior and embrace reform and reconciliation with the South, I could revisit the two most impressive mountains I have hiked on the peninsula. Mount Myohyang was disappointing, but Mount Kumgang and Mount Paektu are unlike any others I have ever been to.

Although I didn’t think the proverb was true that it had to be viewed after eating, Mount Kumgang’s Manmulsang is truly unique. You really can pick out countless formations in the rocks and there is no better way to do so than while relaxing in the nearby outdoor hot springs.

As a foreigner, I did not expect to be impressed with Mount Paektu, but the extinct volcano’s massive lake appears to be bigger than Mount Halla’s and America’s Crater Lake put together. Of course, you can still visit from the Chinese side, but I offer one bit of advice: Walk to the lake and then hike up to the rim. I saw my life pass before my eyes when I took one of the Chinese bullet taxis, so I told my driver I would walk down.

I would also love to find out if Mount Chilbo really contains seven treasures. In the meantime, I am waiting for the opportunity to climb Mount Jiri. Even after living in Korea for almost eight years, I still have plenty of new mountains to climb.

* The author is the Asia Foundation’s representative in Korea.
By Peter M. Beck
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