Along with drinking soju, the traditional Korean alcohol that tastes like nail polish remover, hiking is a national past time. Given historical, social and geographical factors, it’s not surprising that it is still so popular (and also one of the most popular activities enjoyed by expats).
My Korean friend once told me that back in the day hiking was the core of Korean social life. It was how sweethearts ran away to be with each other, how men networked, and families and colleagues bonded. There was a period in Korea’s history, not too long ago, when the country was very poor, devastated by war. People shopped at traditional markets for necessities only and most people didn’t have any money to spend on frivolous entertainment. Luckily there were, and still are, so many beautiful and accessible hiking trails scattered both along Seoul’s mountainous terrain and further afield, deep in the countryside to provide some respite from the daily grind.
I like to exercise and I like nature, so it would stand to reason that I would indulge in a bit of hiking here and there. I have explored some of the trails around the city and been endlessly fascinated and curious by the quaint temples, ancient rock formations and other remnants of the country’s rich history which dates back thousands of years.
However, it wasn’t until this past weekend that I went on my first big hike (think 6 hours) out of the city. My friend, a lovely Canadian woman with more energy and stamina than an entire Olympic sports team introduced me to the event through meetup.com, which, who knew, has all kinds of cool events happening around the country for like-minded English speakers. I decided to challenge myself to do it, and I’m glad I did.
We woke up early in the morning, met the bus and drove at a snail’s pace, stuck in traffic for a few hours. Finally, once at our destination, Chiaksan National Park in the east of the country, the bus abandoned us. I looked up and felt a sense of doom – the peak that we would be climbing to was so high and so, so far away.
I trudged and stumbled up thousands of steps, over rocks and along uneven pathways. I was sweating and cursing, my calves burning. My thoughts were an endless, repetitive loop of, ‘People who try to climb Mt. Everest are fucking insane.’ But eventually, I fell into the zone where I was present and felt a sense of peace and calm at being surrounded only by the sound of fluttering birds’ wings and the sound of my own footsteps.
There was a huge sense of relief at making it to the peak and when we’d taken in the view of layers of mountain ridges, taken a few pictures of ourselves standing on precariously situated rocks and devoured some Snicker’s bars, it was time for the descent. The relief, however, was short-lived when it became apparent that going down was almost as arduous as going up. Soon enough, my legs were like jelly. But I soldiered on. My fatigue and dehydration were appeased a little bit by the pink flowers that dotted the trails, the random, agitated squirrels that dared to cross my path and the dense green trees that towered over us. Slowly, the sun began to set as we made it back to our base. In the last thirty minutes, we were encouraged along by the gushing of the pristine, peppermint coloured river that snaked around the trail.
The sense of accomplishment was great. Even better was how happy I felt the next day, no doubt a result of all the endorphins. I will definitely join this hiking group again, albeit for a shorter, less difficult climb.
Being immersed in nature is hugely beneficial physically, emotionally and psychologically. It’s easy to forget that when you live in a metropolis and are participating in a quasi-rat race. Also, as an expat, it’s easy to get trapped in my own little introverted bubble and forget about all the adventures to be had and interesting people to cross paths with.
Hiking is one tradition I hope Koreans continue to cherish. It’s cheap, it’s challenging, it’s beneficial and it’s a heck of a lot healthier than drinking that hideous soju.