Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Book #6: 힘말라야의 선물

As a coffee drinker and a sucker for the romance of the Himalayan footballs, this Korean-language book (Gift of the Himalayas) was an easy read for me. The book is about coffee farmers in the Nepal Himalaya. A crew from the Korean TV station EBS lived in the village for 80 days to film a documentary called Himalaya Coffee Road. The book documented their experiences.

The book is as much about the lives of the farmers themselves as about their coffee farming. It follows a handful of families, describing their lives, their hardships and the reasons by which they decided to grow coffee in their remote villages. It's worth noting that growing coffee in Nepal, as you might know by having never heard of Nepali coffee, is not a big industry.

One of the most interesting sections in the book is where the author asked the farmers what coffee was used for. The responses ranged from "don't you eat it like corn?" to "I've never had it, so I don't know" to "it goes somewhere overseas, but I don't know where". I'm not sure how plausible it is that someone in the twenty-first century hasn't heard of coffee, particularly considering that all of them were literate adults who had gone to school at least until middle school, but that's what selective quoting is for.

Growing coffee was an interesting way to create opportunity in a village hours or days from a paved road, one where many men left to seek work in comparatively wealthy India or even as far as Dubai. The book points out that even in a subsistence-oriented village, some families did not have enough to eat, and few had the money to pay for education past middle school.

The money from coffee was used for buying school uniforms and supplies, paying school tuition and giving men working overseas a reason to return to their village. The coffee was bought by a Korean fair-trade co-operative, which persuaded them to produce it organically. If you're particularly interested in finding this coffee at a cafe in Seoul, click here.

Organic, fair trade coffee has become a trend in Seoul cafes. Caffe Bene, now the largest of the many chains of coffee shops in Korea, sells a cup of brewed organic coffee for 7,500 won, or about $6.75 Canadian. If you adjust for the purchasing power of the won, however, it's like paying about $10 for one cup of brewed coffee.

As much as I support anyone trying to make an honest living in a developing country, I don't know that fair trade is the method to accomplish this. The reason that coffee prices are low for farmers is that there are simply too many people producing too much coffee, in contrast with, say, gold. This isn't to say that treating developing countries more equitably will not help, nor that unfettered free trade will solve all their problems.

While people will pay high prices for coffee out of the goodness of their heart, large-scale sustainable development of any kind hasn't worked on this method. China, the best and most current example of hundreds of millions of people being pulled out of poverty, didn't get there by asking people to pay extra for iPods and Nikes because they were made by people in less-than-idyllic working conditions.

Koreans themselves know that the path to development was paved with hard work and, yes, generous helpings of well-used foreign aid. A small-scale co-operative targeting relatively wealthy, kind-hearted people willing to pay an extra dollar for coffee to help Nepali villagers send their children to high school can work, but it won't work for all of Nepal.

I remember reading in my Lonely Planet travel guide that while the well-trafficked region of the Himalayas I visited (the Annapurna massif) was reasonably well-off by the standards of the Nepali countryside, the same could not be said for the more isolated peaks in eastern Nepal. I had no problem finding someone to break 100-rupee (worth about $1.50) notes while trekking in the Annapurna region, but Lonely Planet advised that carrying 5-and-10-rupee notes in eastern Nepal and other less-visited rural areas was probably a better idea.

All of us would benefit from realizing just how astonishingly poor parts of the world can be and, consequently, just how astonishingly wealthy most of us are. That's not to say that you're necessarily happier than someone in a developing country, but that it would help us to shelve some of our more egregious complaints ("why can't my $800 iPhone do ____?").

Bearing in mind our wealth and the poverty of others would also help us retain some wonderment at the world in which we live. A great deal of adolescence and adulthood are spent steeling ourselves to the wonder in the ordinary, mundane aspects of our lives. Not only would focusing on this wonder, such as the mountains and the endless crowds of Seoul, make us happier, but it would also help us better understand what we see everyday.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Is a 3:47 1500 embarrassing?

The men's 1500 (video here at the American national championships was won this weekend in a time of 3:47 by Matt Centrowitz, a time that a handful of high school students in America run every year. After watching a race that started out in 65 and 2:11, many on LetsRun expressed their disgust, noting that the women's 1500 was actually faster through the first 800.

Others responded by pointing out that a race which closed in about 1:50 for the last 800 with a half dozen runners in contention until the final 100 metres and a thrilling head-to-head sprint decided only in the final 50 metres is actually very exciting. Races are made to be fun, the argument goes, not to have fast finishing times. It's hard to argue with that if you've ever seen a rabbited race on the European circuit where the winner runs a very fast time in what is essentially a time trial.

Of course, the ideal race would have been a reasonably fast race that closed in a very fast time, such as the 1500 at the Athens Olympics, which closed in about 1:47 for the last 800 after going out in 1:47 for the first 700. Nevertheless, when watching a race, what's probably more interesting is the racing itself than the time. I don't know of anyone who would want to watch the world record race in any distance over 800 metres, but most of us would probably watch the Beijing Olympic marathon again.

Try comparing this to another sport. A 3:47 1500 at a national championship is a bit like a 1-0 baseball game in the baseball playoffs, but a 3:47 with a 1:50 for the last 800 is like a 1-0 baseball game that was unbearably dull up until the eighth inning. We would rather get a game that was thrilling from the very start, but it's not like the 3:47 was evenly-paced, with laps of 60, 62, 60 and then a 45 for the last 300 with only two runners in contention.

For people who are supposedly serious about running, it'd be useful to actually watch a race rather than just look at the results and head straight to LetsRun. A football fan who complained about a 13-10 game wouldn't have much of a leg to stand on if he found a tense back-and-forth game between two strong defenses to be boring. He would, however, be justified in yawning at a 13-10 game between two lousy teams where one team jumped off to a 13-0 lead, didn't get another first down, gave up ten points in the third quarter, and then held on in a scoreless, unevenful fourth quarter.

As an aside, the Canadian national track and field championships were also this weekend. The results were slow as they always are, but anyone who expects a championship race to be fast doesn't know anything about time. To return to football, it's like caring about the yard-per-attempt of a quarterback in the Super Bowl.

What was painful, and always is unfortunate, is how few people participated in the distance races. I know that there are reasons for this, but it is abysmal if a grand total of eight people, six men and two women, participated in the 10,000. Six women finished in the 5,000 and, most shocking of all, there were just ten women in the 1500, which (according to the results) went straight to a final without any rounds. That means a grand total of eighteen women participated in those three events.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Movie review: 풍산개

(이 글의 내용에 풍산개 스포일러가 있어서 알고 싶지 않으신 분이 더 이상 읽지 마세요.)

I had a chance to watch the movie 풍산개 (Pungsankae) on Friday, timely because it was the day before the 61st anniversary of the Korean War. For the most part, it is a well-made, brutal, often cryptic description of North-South antagonism.

The story is somewhat bizarre, at least from my perspective of having missed the first five minutes and not really understanding what was happening. A man (Yoon Kye Sang), who doesn't speak once throughout the movie, is given three hours to cross the DMZ and sneak back across the border with the girlfriend (Kim Gyu Ri) of a well-off North Korean defector (Kim Jong Su).

He brings the woman across exhibiting considerable skill in averting both North and South Korean soldiers, but problems start when the woman develops feelings for the human smuggler over her sleazy, much older and domineering boyfriend. Yoon, not fully trusted by the South Korean intelligence agency NIS, is arrested and tortured, but is broken out by a spy he had rescued.

The movie up until here had decent if often annoying, but most of the really interesting scenes happened afterwards. North Korean spies in South Korea are able to kidnap Yoon and the North Korean woman for whom he has now developed feelings. Her boyfriend is moved to a safehouse by South Korean intelligence.

Yoon is brutally tortured by North Korean spies who seemed (my understanding of this scene is fuzzy) to have let him go on the condition that he retrieves Kim, a very high-value defector. He does so, and Kim is killed not long after. The next day, Kim (the woman) and Yoon are to be executed Al Qaeda-style by North Korean spies who invoke the name of the Korean People's Republic, its Kim dynasty and the crimes of Kim.

My recollection of the next scene is fuzzy, but one of the North Korean spies suggests hanging on to Kim's jewelry, to which the leader is furious, switching the gun from Kim's head to his head. The spy, a stereotypical weakling, says something to the effect of "Before I die, if I can be honest, I envy South Korea. The jewelry she has is a year's, no, two year's salary for us."

I didn't understand what happened after, but two of the underlings are shown walking in a forest with Kim, possibly with the intention of raping her. She reaches a cliff overlooking a river and, seeing the men advance towards her, chooses instead to fall backwards, dying what was depicted as a beautiful, painless death.

The movie then gets bizarre. Yoon escapes from the North Koreans, finds the dead body of Kim and flies into a rage. That night, spies from both the North and South are out celebrating in what I thought was one of the funniest scenes from the movie, though maybe not to a South Korean.

The South Korean spies were at a very expensive karaoke bar or room salon, being entertained by North Korean women who posed as either South Koreans or Chinese-Koreans. The North Koreans were at a lower-end karaoke bar, being entertained by South Korean women who found the men to be annoying hicks, at one point asking, "what are you, North Korean or something?" to which one of the spies replies in a stereotype of that dialect, "no, I'm Chinese-Korean".

Yoon kidnaps the spies from both countries one by one, locking them in a room. At first, when it's only a few of them, they have some hilarious fights. When it was one-on-one at the start, the North Korean put the South Korean into a submission hold and forced him to recite an ode to North Korea. When South Koreans outnumber the North Korean, he's forced to sing the South Korean national anthem, but changes the line that says "long live our country" to "long live the Korean People's Army", earning him some punishment.

Eventually, the odds are even for all the men and Yoon throws rifles into the room, producing a tense standoff, made tenser still when someone shoots out the lights. Some of the men are killed, but they make it out alive. Yoon is shown trying to cross the border on another mission, but is killed at what is presumably the border (in reality there's no fence, just signs every 200 metres) by a hail of unidentified fire.

Given the last third of the movie, the overall message is one of the futility of war, one that's popular but one that, I think, promotes a false moral equivalency between the two countries. While the Korean War was, to be fair, a war fought between two brutal dictatorships, viewing inter-Korean relations through the prism of naive pacifism has cost lives in both the North and the South in the last decade.

Also interesting was the depiction of the spies from both countries. South Korean spies were, somewhat accurately, depicted as well-dressed, well-trained but rather powerless. Considering the immense power that the NIS has and has had, thanks to the National Security Law, they sure are a bunch of incompetent assholes who can't do anything but harass and torture ordinary people, not to mention protect South Koreans from the supposed danger of North Korean propaganda.

North Korean spies were depicted as similar to South Korean country bumpkins, a common trope on variety shows and virtually every movie. They seemed to be a weird cross between working-class South Koreans and Chinese Korean labourers, a rather interesting cover.

Finally, if I learned one thing from the movie, it was that if the Koreas ever reunite, I won't be able to understand anyone from the North. Much of the speech was completely unintelligible to me, to the point that I couldn't really distinguish it from Japanese. None of the spies sounded North Korean at all, though the lead female did a great job (to me) of a standard Pyongyang dialect, though she seemed to have lost it by the end of the movie.

As an addendum, I had a conversation the day before with Roboseyo and others about the future of a unified Korea as a multicultural state. If a unified country was a democratic state where votes from the North counted equally, it would be interesting how politicians from a place like, say, Ryangkang-do, deep in the mountains of North Korea, an impoverished province ignored at the moment never mind a unified Korea, would react to the foreign population in the South.

Much of the romantic pacific nationalism of the South Korean left is at odds with its simultaneous commitment to multiculturalism. A great chunk of the impetus for reunification is that the two countries share a language and an ethnicity, a problematic idea at a time when there are Koreans being born everyday who are Korean despite having a mixed-race heritage. If nothing else, the idea that South Korea should reunite with a country as poor as any in the world on the basis of race and language is about as much of a positive as America absorbing Liberia.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Police over-reaction to student protests in Seoul

I wrote here about the similarities between the city centres of Seoul and Beijing, both cities designed philosophically with a large gate in front of the imperial palace, and now a large public square in front of that large gate. Like Beijing's Tiananmen Square, Seoul's Gwanghwamun square is decidedly apolitical.

I'm someone who is, unfortunately, liable to fly into rages at the sight of procedure for procedure's sake only. Traveling through an airport with me is to listen to me explain, at 175 decibles and 175 words per minute, why there's no point in confiscating water bottles and toothpaste because someone could build an actual bomb out of the alcohol and other chemicals sold after the security checkpoint.

For the last two weeks or so in Seoul, university students have staged protests aiming at halving tuition fees. Protests in Korea are not quite the same as elsewhere. They're long, drawn-out, persistent, intense and with staggering numbers. Just before I came here in 2008, hundreds of thousands of people protested the import of American beef, and they were hardly the first example of massive protests which were able to paralyze a part of the city.

By contrast, the current student protests are comparatively small. I don't know what the numbers are, but the night I saw the protest, it was at most 500 people on a sidewalk in front of a cell phone store. They were banned from entering Gwanghwamun by a line of police officers ringing the square. No doubt the numbers have since grown, but this is not a protest with tens of thousands of people.

Why, then, are there so many police officers in central Seoul? When I was at Gwanghwamun last night, I passed about a half dozen police buses and another dozen or so trucks with cages in the back on the west side of Gwanghwamun. In the south end of the square itself, there is an underpass leading to a subway station. There were maybe 100 police officers standing there, as this poorly-taken picture shows.



There was not a protester within about a kilometre of these protesters. They were facing an empty underpass filled with closed stores leading to a subway station. At the south edge of the square, in front of the statue of Admiral Lee, was this group of cops, facing traffic and people out for a walk on a warm night.






Across Taepyeong-no, by the Kyobo bookstore at the southeast corner of Gwanghwamun, were these cops:



Fifty metres behind those cops, in front of the Kyobo bookstore itself, there were another 200 cops or so. Two blocks from there, on both sides of the intersection, were similar-sized groups of cops just standing there. Altogether, I probably saw about 1,000 police officers last night.

However, what I didn't see was a single protester. The protest wasn't happening at Gwanghwamun or Jongno, it was happening at Cheonggye Plaza almost a kilometre away. These cops were presumably there for backup in case things got ugly, but they were probably maintaining about a ten-to-one ratio of police officers to students.

I don't know if that's necessary, but what I do know is that crowding the centre of the city with police officers, police buses, sound-making buses(?), large vehicles that hurl tear gas and generally doing your best to intimidate civilians with numbers and vehicles is obnoxious at best. Much of the government's 1960s-like chiding of student protesters is that they are inconveniencing residents with their protests, but what exactly happens when you flood thousands of police officers and their buses into public spaces?

This sort of pre-emptive paranoid precaution is what they do in China and other places where they are terrified of public opinion. South Korea is decidedly not a country like that; the students have no issue making their voices heard. Yet, despite peaceful protests by what is a relatively small number of students, the government and the police respond with clumsy ham-handedness of the highest degree.

Case in point of the ham-handedness of the old generation which surely enrages the younger generation:



This is a request by the Seoul police asking journalists to not refer to the student protests as candlelight rallies, but to instead use the phrase "illegal night protest". Instead of mentioning the fact that these protests are about tuition fees, journalists are asked to use the name of the student group involved in this. Candlelight rallies have become very popular in the last decade, and the police apparently has a very active interest in denying students the legitimacy and populism conferred by that term.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Running a 12:59 5k and losing $300

Renato Canova, coach to many of the world's best runners, explained on LetsRun how one of his runners, Kenyan Leonard Komon, recently ran a $12:59 5k and lost $300 in the process:

"Last year in Oslo (Diamond League) he ran 12'58", becoming n. 9 like in Eugene. He received a prize of 200 USD. His ticket for going Oslo from Kenya had a cost of 1200 USD, and the official reimbursement was of 700 USD. Since you are an expert mathematic, you can see that, for running 12'58", he had to pay 300 USD from his pocket."

By contrast, Komon recently "went to New York for winning a road race of 10 km. Putting together prize connected with his victory and a bonus for the race record, he won 45,000 USD."

At least from a long-distance perspective, track appears to be dying a slow death. The number of world-class races at 10,000 are dwindling, and the distance is more and more becoming a road race. It's entirely possible that someone who runs the 10,000 at the Olympics or World Championships is running it off the back of a performance from the previous year or a single qualifying performance this year, not unlike the marathon.

Marathons have become mass spectacles matched by highly competitive performances. The stunning 2:03 at Boston this year simply underlined this growing phenomenon. In contrast, other forms of long-distance running are dying. The World Cross Country Championships, likely the most competitive long-distance race anywhere in the world, are now a biennial event because nobody (read: no European nation) is interested. Europe has traditionally been where the money for track came, but European audiences are not that interested in watching African runners perform.

Even the IAAF World Championships of track have ended up in Daegu, a turn of events that, with all due respect to Daegu, is baffling. No one would call Daegu a hotbed of athletics or anything else in Korea, except, perhaps, a literal hotbed as the hottest city in Korea. What's likely is that the World Championships were one more way for Korea to prove its international stature as a host of the Olympics, the World Cup and now the IAAF World Championships. As such, it bid for the event, which other cities are not too interested in doing.

One of my favourite writers, commentators or whathaveyou on running is Steve Boyd from Kingston, Ontario. I can't find the comment now, but Boyd put the now decades-long decline in interest in athletics as a spectator sport in proper perspective. It's not that track is in decline but, rather, large-scale interest in running and even walking was a unique phenomenon of the early twentieth century which made it until the 1980s.

It's unlikely that even someone of Usain Bolt's stature will be able to rescue track because compared to other sports, it's simply bizarre to watch on TV. Competitions are too irregular and the sport is too international, in sharp contrast to team sports or predictable individual sports like tennis or golf. This is not bad in and of itself, but when runners abandon middle-distance events for long-distance events because of a lack of money in the former, we know that a lack of interest is actually hurting the sport.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Anatomy of a comeback

As a runner, I peaked in March of 2008. Just about every race since the summer of 2007 had been great, either my fastest for the distance or that particular course. It was also the period when I won the only race I've ever won. Then I hurt my foot, which took me out of my rhythm, and then I came out flat and weak for the Boston Marathon.

After that, I was able to cruise the rest of 2008 off the fitness I had, but then I went about six weeks without running at the end of 2008 and the start of 2009. At the end of 2009 and again in 2010, I was able to put together enough consistent training to run a sub-40 10k or its equivalent. It was finally this year that I was interested enough in running to try training again, though I started in February with the modest goal of running an 18:56 5k and a 38:52 10k, times that I used to run in my sleep no matter how much or how little sleep I got, no matter how much or how little I trained.

I ran a 19:00 5k yesterday, so I think I did what I wanted to do. I was hoping to have run around 19:30 yesterday and didn't think I was quite in 19:00 5k shape just yet, but I'm not that surprised. What I thought made yesterday's race kind of interesting was that it was my eighth race of the year and while a few of them were decent efforts, none of them were times I'm proud of.

This is my year so far:

February 20 - 10k in 43:30
March 6 - half marathon in 1:42
March 20 - marathon in 4:12
April 9 - 10k in 42:18
May 1 - 5k in 22 minutes
May 10 - 10k in 47 minutes (ran with a coworker's son)
June 4 - 10k in 43 minutes
June 12 - 5k in 19:00

Despite having not run anything near a 19-minute 5k, I figured that I was certainly going to run under 20 minutes. The best race I've had this year was a 42-minute 10k and I figure that, right now, I get a minute faster over 10k with every month of training.

I can obviously train a lot harder. I run just about every day, but I seldom run for more than 30 minutes at a time and generally run between 40-50k a week. Lately that's become 60k per week, but running more than that right now would turn running into the repetitive, boring chore it has been for the last three years.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

"저는 '된장녀'입니다"



A few weeks ago, I saw the ad above on the subway. You can see it on lines 1 and 4, apparently. The ad, for those unfamiliar with the matter, is as clever as it is cute. It says "I am a dwainjangnyeo" (literally "soy bean paste girl", a meaningless translation).

The term is slang for a girl who lives an extravagant lifestyle, buying expensive lattes, cell phones, handbags and doing so on someone else's dime. It is, obviously, a pejorative term. What makes the ad so funny is that it uses the term literally, to refer to a girl who likes dwainjang, this time referring to dwainjang jjigae, a very popular and typical Korean dish.

The girl in the picture is a Vietnamese woman who married a Korean man, one of over 100,000 women from Southeast Asia who have married Korean men.

The ad says:

"I am a dwainjang girl.

She likes dwainjang jjigae and also makes it well, so her husband gave her this nickname.

At first she couldn't even handle the smell, but now she really loves it.

She loves her husband. And she loves Korea
."

Underneath it gives her name and says that she's from Vietnam, but it's not leigible in the picture I have.

An explanation below says:

"Did you know that the number of foreign residents in our country now exceeds the population of Ulsan?

These 1.3 million residents have become an important part of our society.

Every year, 30,000 immigrants come to our country. Let's work with them today for a brighter tomorrow.

Korea is a place where everyone grows together, that's why it's called Dae Han Min Guk.
"

A couple of notes: First, Ulsan is the 7th-biggest city in Korea. Second, the hook for tying together Korea's past and future into one nifty slogan is the sentence "그래서 大한민국입니다."

The character 大 means both 'big' or 'great', when used in Korea's official name it translates to Great Han People's Republic, but by emphasizing it in the ad, it turns the name into a big Han People's Republic, one big enough for all races.

Viewed in a purely positive light, modernity in Korea has been about two things. First, it has been about relentless change in just about every facet of life. Second, it has been about proving doubters wrong.

No one thought this was a country that could be anything other than a poor basket case. No one thought that this was a country that needed a highway, or that this was a country that needed a major highway; both Posco and the Gyeongbu Expressway were considered risky white elephants in their 60s.

No one then would have predicted at the time that this country would host the Olympics in 20 years, and while foreign labourers first came to Korea around the time of the Seoul Olympics, it would have been absurd to imagine Korea becoming a multicultural society, a buzzword that's all the rage this year. Google News returns 1,450 hits for multiculturalism (다문화), compared with 2,500 for unification (통일) and 479 for Dokdo.

You can even find op-ed pieces such as this one questioning the very idea of there being a pure Korean race and suggesting that this is an idea best left behind as Korea moves into a multicultural era. (I'm sure this isn't the first time such a piece has been written, but I think it would surprise English speakers, myself included, that someone would write that.)

Korea has its work cut out for it when it comes to addressing its non-Korean population. It's one thing to treat me badly: I'm an adult, don't plan to live here the rest of my life, and I don't have kids. Women who marry Korean men, however, will live here the rest of their lives, they tend to be Korean citizens and they will have kids who will be Korean citizens and attend Korean schools. This subway ad won't change the fact that a shockingly high portion (about 20%, I think) of mixed-race children don't even attend school, never mind how they perform at school, but it's certainly welcome to see a government-sponsored ad acknowledge and welcome non-Koreans as being a part of Korean society.

What's also interesting is the way the ad portrays the woman: she is reasonably light-skinned, well-dressed, and is someone who loves Korean food. The Korean model of multiculturalism is, here at least, a non-Korean who can act Korean. This is more multiracialism than multiculturalism, though I don't think many Koreans really have an objection to racial and ethnic minorities continuing to live the way they live.

Part of that comes from the extent to which Korea itself has been Westernized and globalized, and part of it comes from the reality that much of Korean culture is really accessible only to ethnic Koreans. As long as I live here and no matter how well I speak Korean, I will probably never make food to offer to ancestors at Chuseok to take one example. Rather than demanding complete assimilation, the problem in Korea is the demand for a certain level of separateness.

North Korea's soft landing

This is a reasonably well-written article summarizing North Korea's current dilemma: opening up the country brings prosperity and some stability to the Kim dynasty, but with openness also comes information. North Korea has done a stunningly thorough job of keeping outside information out of the country, far better than China. However, its own desires are to open up with what might turn out to be Chinese-style reforms learned, naturally, from China.

Learning from China offers North Korea a fantastic opportunity for a soft landing, where the Kim dynasty gets to keep on ruling in the way that the Chinese Communist Party has been able to survive the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution while looking stronger than ever.

Cell phones, for example, were touted as a way to break the information blackout, but North Korea's growing cell phone market sidesteps the issue by blocking international calls. Previously, Chinese-made phones used Chinese signals available in border areas to contact the outside world.

The Internet is another similar issue. As China has demonstrated, there is really nothing to stop the Internet from becoming a glorified Internet. North Korean computers connected to the Internet often only provide access to a handful of websites. North Korea could open it up great to, for example, allow many Chinese websites while blocking all Western websites. The North Korean system could relax t let North Koreans breathe, but it certainly would not represent a tearing down of the wall between North Korea and the outside world.

It may well be that in ten years, North Korea is like Vietnam or some of the poorer parts of China, an emerging market that has more freedoms than in the past but is still very much an authoritarian country. This would improve living conditions for ordinary North Koreans and the death of Kim Jong-il would maybe allow for a milder cult of Kim Jong-un with a subtler reverence for Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung. If the experiment goes well enough, the subtlety might even give way to obscurity in the way of China's frequent inability to acknowledge that Mao even existed.

It's possible to see a roadmap emerge for how North Korea might escape its current humanitarian crisis along with its murderous government without resorting to unification with South Korea, something that everyone assumes is likely. The sad part for South Koreans is that there is not much of a role South Korea can play in this. Some Souther Koreans, it's fair to say, would certainly breathe a sigh of relief if the North Korean humanitarian crisis, as well as prospective reunification of the Koreas, were both to be resolved through North Korea's gradual transformation into a Chinese satellite state.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Hiking the Baekdudaegan: Taebaeksan

The Baekdudaegan (백두대간) is the mountain range that runs north-south from Baekdusan on the North Korean-Chinese border to Jirisan in southern South Korea. In South Korea, this forms a 735-kilometre trail that follows a winding, indrect route from Jirisan to Seoraksan. Given how many other mountains come off of the Baekdudaegan, this really makes Korea what it is.

This weekend I hiked the portion running south and west from Taebaeksan. Most people seem to do it backwards from what I could read, going south to north instead of north to south like I did, but for me it was more practical to start in Taebaek and go south.

Taebaeksan is located in the city of Taebaek. It's different from other cities in Gangwon-do like Sokcho, Gangneung or Donghae in that it is not by the sea, it's located wholly in the mountains. Taebaek is interesting in that while it initially developed because of the coal deposits in the area, it has since redeveloped as a popular location for winter tourism. I've wanted to come to Taebaek for a long time because of the snow festivals here in the winter, and also because there's a train that goes from Cheongnyangni station near my house.

The route I planned originally was from Taebaeksan (1567 m) to the pass at Doraegijae, a 24 km hike which would have taken about 12 hours according to books, but I thought I could have done in 8 or 9 hours. The only problem, however, was that I woke up late on Sunday morning and didn't get to Taebaeksan until 11 am. The problem facing me then was that the hike at Taebaeksan was too easy and I didn't want to do a hike that finished back where I started. I thought that if I ran as much of it as I could, I could have made up the time well, so off I went.

Taebaeksan, I was surprised to find out, was astonishingly easy. The route up from Yuilsa is excruciating for how short (4 km) and steep (600m elevation gain) it is, but the first half of it was on wide roads of concrete or gravel. It would have been no problem to drive up to the Yuilsa temple. From Yuilsa, the path is a slightly more challenging set of stone steps, but the 4 km walk took about an hour including a brief stop for a melon-flavoured popsicle.

Taebaeksan is a very beautiful mountain. To the north, there are views of Taebaek city nestled at the foot of several mountains. To the south, there are views of the Baekdudaegan and an air force facility I mistook for a ski hill. The number of children, casually-dressed adults and older people having picnics at the wide summit are a testament to the beauty of the mountain and the ease of the hike.

From Taebaeksan, what followed was almost comical. The route north descends into a very narrow path lined with azaleas in full bloom, the azalea festival having been the previous week, I believe. I was walking behind a group of middle-aged hikers with one person blaring trot music and then, all of a sudden, the turnoff for Baekdudaegan veered into some narrow bushes.

If you're hiking the Baekdudaegan, there is almost no English signage although there is no shortage of information available in Korean. I didn't realize that most of the signs were in Korean until I was looking at my pictures after the fact. This led me to walk down a very steep path leading to quite literally nowhere.

A man walking up the path asked where I was going. When I told him, he told me that this wasn't the trail and that I should've simply followed the ridge I left behind (it was confusingly marked for a mountain in the wrong direction). When I told him where I was going, he reiterated that it was 20 km. He had kind of a strong personality, so I didn't mention that I was going to run a lot of it and didn't mention that I figured there were places to stop between Taebaeksan and Doraegijae.

He wasn't that convinced and taught me how to hitchhike ("the bowing is the most important part"). Before he let me go, he urged me to hurry and took a picture of me. I couldn't tell if it was for the sheer novelty of seeing me on the trail by myself, or for safety reasons. As I jogged away, I composed the tweet he might send to a journalist.

"주하기자님 RT 부탁드려요. 어제 오후 1시 백두대간 태백산 근처에 외국인 등산객이 실종되었어요. 도래지개로 갔는데 시간이 좀 늦어서 제가 이 사진을 찍었어요. 이 외국인은 대머리 30대중반의 남성인데요. 노랑색 셔츠 그리고 빨간색 모자 쓰고 봤어요. 밤에 날씨가 추워서 빨리 찾으면 좋겠습니다."

"Please retweet this. I saw a foreigner hiking on the Baekdudaegan near Taebaeksan. i worried about him, so I took this picture. He's a balding male in his mid-30s wearing a yellow shirt and a red hat. It can get cold up there at night, so it's best if we find him quickly."

The others I saw on the trail were just as worried, though to be fair I counted the number of people I saw on the 16 km stretch of trail: eight, none in the last 10 km.

While I made reasonably good time without taking any breaks or even eating (I don't know why), eventually the ups and downs wore me down and I thought it was safer to get off the trail a village before Doraegijae. In retrospect, while there was a 60% chance I could've made it there, someone like me who rarely gets out of the city shouldn't be walking alone on mountains at dusk.

For a long time I've been searching for the consummate middle-of-nowhere experience in Korea. A pass before Doraegijae is Gomneomijae, or Bear Crossing Ridge. A steep 3 km descent from there on pointy rocks that cut up my feet led to a building on an empty road. I walked farther but this was the only pension (I guess like a Korean-style cottage?) or building within about a mile. The suite that normally goes for $150 or $200 to a group went to me for $50.

The man wore a wifebeater and knee-high gumboots. I could barely understand his dialect, but he asked if I had brought my own food over the mountains. I had, which was good because the only food they had was the food at their house (the food they advertised required longer notice). Clearly, they didn't get too many guests.

This was the quietest, dullest night I've spent in Korea. There was simply nothing except for the cottage, the small farm it was on and the mountains. I got the TV to work but I went to bed at around 8:30. I woke up in the morning to take a 20-minute cab ride, during which I didn't see another car, just to get to a small town I'd never heard of.

I'll try and edit this post later to add pictures.