Sunday, January 10, 2010

No, you can't!/안돼!

"안돼!" That's what the man at the convenience store next to my building kept telling me. He was nice and friendly, but when I walked in and held the door open for him as he followed me back inside, he took this as an invitation to critique everything I was doing.

"What're you looking for? There are some hot drinks here."
"Oh, uh, no, I'm okay."
"You know, it's really cold today."
"Yeah, it is cold today."
"It's cold today." Then he pointed to the thin jacket I was wearing, the outermost of about five layers I was wearing.
"Oh, yeah, I'm going hiking today."
"Hiking?! Bukhansan?!"
"Yeah, right."

He looked at the shiny running shoes I was wearing.

"No way! It's too slippery!"

He proceeded to give me a long explanation for why I couldn't possibly climb Bukhansan, the crown jewel of Seoul's 800ers. Real mountaineers have their 8,000-metre peaks, but the closest I've come to that is catching a distant glimpse of Muztagh Ata and Kongur Tagh at around 7,500 metres and doubting whether they were really 4,000 metres above where we were. As far as my conquests go, I'll have to settle for the 800-metre Bukhansan.

After that was done, he asked if I was going to buy any food. I said I wasn't. "Didn't you have breakfast?" I lied and said I did because I was scared of his response if I said no. Then he lectured me some more about the perils of snow and ice before finally asking me just what on earth I was doing in his country anyway. As I walked out the door, he yelled out some more advice about how to handle myself against the forces of nature.

Today was nothing like the first time I went to Bukhansan. That day was a scorching summer holiday, and I climbed right to the rocky, imposing top after using a well-situated rail at about a 75-degree incline to guide myself to the top. Today was a trip up a remote, snowy pass that was used by North Korean commandos in 1968 to try and kill the South Korean president. The pass was closed right after and only reopened last year.

You can actually see North Korea from land on Bukhansan. That's why the Uiryeong pass is accessible only by reservation and entry requires identification. The text message telling me this was in Korean, however, and I read "be sure to bring identification" as "be sure not to be late". So, I arrived with two pieces of ID: my citizenship card and my student card from the University of Toronto.

After some dithering, we finally arrived at the checkpoint where putative North Korean infiltrators trying to head back north by traversing a small mountain that doesn't actually take them home were scrutinized by what looked like hapless high school students. One of them asked me if I had reservations. I said I did, but that they weren't in my name. That was either so comical or so charming that the girl giggled and then ran inside to giggle and point some more. In the ensuing awkward silence, no one even bothered to check my identification.

The pass itself was easily the quietest, cleanest part of Seoul I've ever been to. There were birds that sang and if you didn't talk, you could hear them. The snow was deep and fresh, the well-worn path was only wide enough for one person and the silence was overwhelming. Forty years of exclusive military use did some wonders, though it also got them to leave the front door to their base wide open.

By the way, "no, you can't" was the suggested slogan of John McCain's presidential campaign.

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