Sunday, June 07, 2009

The mountains are everywhere in Korea. In a country where you can't swing a dead cat without hitting two public buses, six middle-aged women and a dozen middle school students eating meat-on-a-stick, the mountains are lush green oases of calm. There are a few here in Suwon and about a dozen in Seoul. None of them are especially big (between 2,000 and 3,000 feet), but they're a fantastic addition in a very crowded, urbanized country. Namsan is right there in centre of Seoul, as obtrusive as can be.

Hiking mountains is very popular in Korea, and even that's an understatement. When I was in Japan, I spotted a few Koreans by how they dressed: they were dressed to go hiking. Ordinary people back home dress like professional athletes by wearing jerseys and baseball caps. Koreans dress like they're going to go hiking even if they're just going about their daily business.

The outfit is very distinct: a meshy, polyester blend golf shirt, black pants, immaculate hiking boots, topped with a jacket unless it's hot, hot like over 30 degrees, in which case a vest will suffice. On top, you wear a hat and on your back you wear enough equipment to last about two weeks on the mountain. In one or both hands is a ski pole. If you hike by yourself or don't like to talk much, you can bring a radio that plays all the Korean songs you've never heard, largely music dating to the Korean War. So far, I'm halfway there in assembling this outfit.

Once you get to a mountain, you realize that they're lush and beautiful, but not really oases of calm. In fact, mountains are really like any other place in Korea, most of all like a subway exit. There's a neverending procession of people going up and down, all of them dressed the same, which is to say that they're dressed better than you.

At the summit, it's common to drink beer, smoke a cigarette, drink coffee and generally eat the foods least suited to the occasion. I thought strawberry-flavoured milk in 30-degree temperatures was a good choice. The largely middle-aged crowd then engages in good-natured banter and grunts at you to get out of their way or, if you're not being obstructive, laugh and give you a thumbs up while bellowing "OKAY!"

What's humbling is that whether you're climbing up a well-maintained trail or facing death on a cliff, you're not going to do it nearly as well as a 70-year-old woman carrying her weight in supplies. I once climbed two mountains in one day and felt reasonably proud of myself for hauling myself up steep cliff after steep cliff to reach the impossibly distant summit (the tower in the picture), only to find out that my friend's father climbed the two mountains twice as fast, and he was twice as old.

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