Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Hiking the Baekdudaegan: Sobaeksan

This was my first time hiking on the Baekdudaegan in a while, but it was also one of the most enjoyable hikes I've ever had. Sobaeksan is located more or less right in the heart of South Korea, on the border of North Chungcheong and North Gyeongsang provinces. However, I found it kind of inaccessible despite its popularity.

Sobaeksan is located closest to the city of Yeongju in North Gyeongsang province. However, the mountain is about 20-30 km from the city itself and the bus connections from the city are quite poor, with buses running between every 1 and 3 hours, making it easier to go from Yeongju to Seoul than from Yeongju to Sobaeksan. Your options, in the absence of a car, would be to either come early enough the day before to take a local bus to the mountain, or to just show up and take a taxi.

If you're interested in the Sobaeksan portion of the Baekdudaegan, it starts at the Gochiryeong pass in the west and goes to the Jungnyeong pass in the east, a hike of about 26 km. Both are comparatively hard to get to without a car, but Gochiryeong is extremely difficult to access, and there are no accommodations nearby. So, your options would be to either stay as close as possible in Jwaseong-ni and either hire a vehicle (most hotels or pensions there do this) or simply walk the 60-90 minutes to Gochiryeong.

Admittedly, I found it absurd to walk about an extra hour or two just to begin what was already about a 12 to 14-hour hike. So, I started from Yeonhwa village in Jwaseong-ni, about 30-minute taxi ride from Yeongju city, the last third of it on a concrete road that appears to double as a hiking trail, and the last few kilometres on an unpaved gravel road. If you want some quiet solitude, this is the place. While the accommodations were spartan and the taxi ride cost 30,000 won, the trail leading to Sobaeksan was literally in front of the pension.

The hike from Yeonhwa village up to the main ridge is, obviously, not actually part of the Baekdudaegan, but I didn't really care. It's 3 km from Yeonhwa village to the Yeonhwa Samgeori (three-way intersection), and it's a tough 3 km on a narrow, steep dirt trail that tests the muscles in your legs. From there, it's 5 km to Gungmangbong peak (1420 m), a comparatively easier walk that takes 2 hours or so, the same as the 3 km from Yeonhwa village.

From Gungmangbong peak, it's only another 3 km to the Birobong peak (1439 m). You can actually see one peak from the other unless the weather is awful, which wasn't the case at Gungmangbong, but rain, hail and thunder rolled in during the hour it took to walk to Birobong. Fortunately, by the time I got there, it had completely cleared up. Gungmangbong and the kilometre to the east of it are probably the most beautiful parts of the mountain. It's a flat trail at the top with azaleas in bloom, at least this past weekend, and comparatively few people. Contrast that with the rockier, emptier peak of Birobong, which seems to be eternally crowded with hikers (you can see them from Gungmangbong, actually).

The Baekdudaegan trail continues 11 km from Birobong to the Jungnyeong pass, but I was tired from having run a race before. Along with wanting to take a nap on the rocks and really take my time, I decided to follow the rest of the people down to the Samga parking lot from Birobong, a 5-kilometre walk that supposedly takes three hours but I finished in just one thanks to this route being mostly on stairways and concrete roads.

If you just want to get up to the top of Sobaeksan and back down, I guess the course from the Samga parking lot up to Birobong via the Birosa temple would be the shortest and easiest way to do it. It's also, however, very unremarkable, and the first half is really not that different from walking up any uphill road in Seoul. You could try going up from the Choamsa temple, which goes up to Gungmangbong, and then walk over to Birobong, a total of about 9-10 km that would take 4 hours one way. It wouldn't be bad to go down towards Samga-dong once you're tired, about a 6-hour hike in total without breaks.

I'll probably continue doing mountains on the Baekdudaegan, having done about 100 out of 735 km so far, but my next two trips into the mountains look like they'll be the Dinosaur Ridge on Seoraksan and a run along the northern half of the Bukhansan dullegil to finish up the portions I haven't done yet. There are better things to do on mountains than to complete a long line of them.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Are novice climbers to blame for deaths on Mount Everest?

It's become a cliche to mock the cliche of novice, unprepared climbers beating a path up Mount Everest, almost as much as copy editors love to work the term 'death zone' into any article about tragedy on the world's tallest mountain. If they could, I'm sure some editors would replace the entire text of articles with the words 'death zone' over and over, a bit like how Homer Simpson once filled in articles with 'screw Flanders, screw Flanders'.

To be sure, it's not exactly true, as the headline of this Globe and Mail article claims, that Shriya Shah-Klorfine had been preparing to climb Mount Everest since childhood. It's more the case that she had a dream of climbing the mountain and, despite being light on experience, she fit in with her more experienced counterparts in mortgaging her house and putting off children to realize her dream.

Still, it takes an experienced climber to point out that the last stage of the climb from camp 4 to the top of Mount Everest, which now begins at midnight, used to begin at dawn. Where climbers now take 16 hours to make it from camp to the top and back, it used to be that you could take 12 hours to go from camp 4 to the top and descend to a far safer altitude of 6,500 meters (camp 4 is at 8,000 metres).

Still, what kills people is not so much their lack of experience as their sheer numbers and their desire to get to the top at any cost. The desire to get to the top at any cost, in a way, might be indicative of inexperience, but as Jon Krakauer pointed out years ago after the deadliest day on Mount Everest in 1996, the single unifying characteristic of those who perished on Everest that day was that they insisted on pursuing the summit into the late afternoon. Those who stuck to a pre-determined time, usually the early afternoon, at which they would turn around tended to survive.

This weekend, however, the mass of 150 climbers seeking to pass through a very narrow bottleneck, the Hillary Step created delays. The delays, combined with the refusal to turn back, depleted the oxygen tanks of people like Shah-Klorfine and led to death from the cold and the lack of oxygen as a windstorm swept in at dusk. Again, it's likely that turning back earlier in the day, when the weather was good and oxygen plentiful, would have saved the lives of the four climbers who died this weekend.

Sadly, when someone says that their goal is to make it to the top at any cost, they probably don't mean it literally. Shriya Shah-Klorfine did make it to the top, but at a cost that was simply too great in time, weather and oxygen. Those who blame her sherpas and the tour organizer for allowing her to continue in the face of imminent danger probably should have said something long ago, when Shah-Klorfine first got serious about her goal of climbing Everest. It's not that she had no business being there, but that she pushed on when it was safer to turn around.

What's truly sad about this is that climbing Mount Everest is probably not a very pleasant experience. Between the cost, the equipment, the weather and the physical toll of the altitude, it's simply numbing. It's true that there are some sights which are exhilarating, such as the view of the Tibetan Plateau, or the lower peaks of the Himalaya, or simply the knowledge that you're on the world's highest point.

However, considering that for a fraction of the time, money and effort you can spend weeks if not months trekking in the Himalaya disconnected from society and surrounded by mountains, I don't know why novice climbers would subject themselves to the risks of Everest: with 210 deaths against 3684 summits, you have a 1-in-20 chance of dying during the climb.

For those who want to make a statement, consider climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Fiji, completing the three-week trek around the 55-kilometre long Annapurna massif of 8,000-metre peaks or if you insist on climbing one of the world's 14 8,000-metre mountains, try Cho Oyu, by far the easiest of the bunch.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Book #3: Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom

Like Mao's Great Famine that I read last winter, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom documents a period of Chinese history that is both relatively obscure and unprecedented in the world for its scale. The book, written by Stephen Platt, professor of Chinese history at the University of Massachusetts, caught my attention after I read a column by Platt in the New York Times.

Writing to explain why China so feared even the tiniest hint of rebellion, the latest being the Jasmine Revolution. Civil unrest in China can materialize rapidly out of seemingly nowhere, Platt explained, mentioning the Falun Gong offhand but not offering detail. The Falun Gong attracts the wrath of the Chinese state the way it does because of what it did about fifteen years ago. At the time a little-known group, it put thousands of protesters at the door of Zhongnanhai, the compound that effectively albeit very unofficially serves as China's equivalent of the White House.

The relentless torture that Falun Gong followers have faced ever since might seem inexplicable to the outsider, but not to those who know the subject Platt wrote about in the column and in Heavenly Kingdom, the Taiping Civil War. Also known as the Taiping Rebellion, the Taiping Civil War lasted from 1851 to 1864 and remains the deadliest civil war in history with tens of millions killed.

The Taiping Rebellion originated out of nowhere much like the Falun Gong protests that coalesced into the biggest mass protest in China since the Tiananmen Square protests. In Hong Xiquan, a smart man born in 1814 who lacked the brilliance to pass China's civil servant exam, seemingly fell apart starting after his failure. By the 1840s he claimed to be the brother of Jesus Christ and rapidly attracted followers to his new religion in what was and remains the impoverished southern province of Guangxi.

By the time the imperial government in Beijing noticed, Hong's followers numbered in the tens of thousands. After routing both local and imperial forces sent to target a group that challenged both the political and religious monopoly of the state (the Chinese emperor was regarded as the Son of Heaven and referred to as such), Hong declared the Heavenly Kingdom of Taiping.

The Heavenly Kingdom, headquartered in the coastal city of Nanjing that roughly divides China into north and south, had its support south of Nanjing. Hong attracted a great deal of support from foreign missionaries that came into China from the British colony of Hong Kong, who saw the Taiping Kingdom and its religion as a Chinese analog to Christianity. As such, the West was initially very supportive of the Taiping, who were seen as a Christian influence in an otherwise godly state, a sort of nineteenth-century equivalent to the anti-Communist and now anti-Islamist forces that the West supported in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries respectively.

Pratt devotes equal space to the war within China, as well as the complex web of foreign intervention in the war, chiefly led by the British. Though the West initially supported the Taiping state, they later turned against it to protect the status quo, the status quo being the commercial interests the British had in China's port cities, chief of them being Shanghai. At one point, it even seemed possible that Britain would colonize China in the way that it had colonized India, for the benefits to China seemed obvious. In the end, nothing came of it because Britain could not stomach the prospect of administrating both of the Asian giants.

It is monumental to consider that the Qing dynasty, composed of Manchus who lived separately from Han Chinese in the way that Han Chinese typically live separately from Tibetans and Uighurs in Tibet and Xinjiang, needed 13 years to put down a rebellion. It truly is a testament to the weakness and unpopularity of the Qing dynasty, though perhaps more staggering is the fact that the dynasty survived the civil war and did not fall a half century later until 1911.

Platt identified two chief causes of the Qing victory. The first was the intervention of the British in the favour of the Qing, both official and private, in the form of arms, soldiers and mercenaries. The second was the masterful leadership of Zeng Guofan, who assembled a meritocratic army parallel to the imperial army despite having had no military experience whatsoever, having been a Confucian scholar up until that point.

Platt does touch on the effect that the Taiping Civil War had on the Chinese psyche, from the Chinese government's response to protests to the Communist Party's take on the war itself, reviling Zeng as a race traitor. Though this image is gradually being rehabilitated, it is the Taiping who are lionized as a being proto-Communists who rose up against the conservative order. What Platt does not mention, and this is hardly within the scope of the book, is the way that a century of humiliating foreign intervention in the affairs of an extremely proud nation reverberates today.

In virtually every human rights case of any interest in China today, the Cheng Guangcheng escape and exile to America being the latest example, China rejects any and all criticism as interference in its "domestic affairs". Granted, much of this is thin cover for ignoring grievous crimes committed against its people, but there is no doubt a vast well of resentment at foreign meddling in Chinese affairs to protect commercial interests.

This well will increasingly be tapped by all sorts of people. Yang Rui, a host on CCTV International, made references to "foreign trash" in a post on Sina Weibo and referred to expelled Al Jazeera correspondent Melissa Chan as a "foreign bitch". Only slightly more subtle and sophisticated are movies like 1911, a thinly disguised propaganda piece commemorating the 100th anniversary of the fall of the Qing dynasty. The movie stars Jackie Chan but largely consists of one-dimensional characters spouting party-approved tripe in favour of revolution and in opposition to foreign imperialists. It has a whopping 9% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Suraksan, maybe the scariest hike in Seoul

When I think about the 27 km mountain race I did last weekend as a birthday present to myself, I can set the 20 km I covered in the first eight hours over three mountains on one side and the 5 or so knuckle-whitening minutes I spent at the top of Suraksan, and the latter is tougher.

Suraksan (수락산, not to be confused with the far more famous 설악산) is a mostly unassuming mountain in northeastern Seoul. It's largely unappealing and unremarkable if you come from the west side in Seoul, from Suraksan station on line 7 or Danggogae on line 4. Danggogae, the northern end of line 4, is a pass between Dobongsan on the west and Suraksan on the east. Coming from the east side in Namyangju is quite pleasant, and there's a nice restaurant halfway up that boasts an impressive noraebang.

The course I did cut a wide, somewhat redundant arc across northeastern Seoul, beginning at Uidong, going up toward Dobongsan, continuing north to Sapaesan in Uijeongbu before cutting back southeast towards Suraksan and finishing at Buramsan. This was actually the miniature version of the featured 45-kilometre course that began at 4 am at Bulgwang station in northwestern Seoul, cutting across all of Bukhansan National Park to reach Uidong at its west end, which is where I started at 7 am.

Dobongsan and Sapaesan were tough but pleasant, but by the time I got to Suraksan the sun was high and I was more or less out of the energy I needed to keep moving at the fast hike or slow jog I needed to cover the 27 km within the 10-hour cutoff. I particularly recommend Saepaesan as a nice, pleasant hike that begins a short walk from Hoiryeong station in Uijeongbu, with the option of tacking on Dobongsan as an extra challenge.

I certainly didn't have much energy by the time I got to the top of Suraksan, no small feat itself, as the 4-kilometre hike from the west side took longer than advertised for what is really not a very big mountain (technically, at 640m, it's not a mountain by some definitions). Signs distinguish between Gicha Bawi (기차바위, literally Train Rock) and the summit just beyond, and if you've ever been, you'll know why. Signs offer a detour around it, but I thought it would take longer, so I took my chances.

To get to Gicha Bawi from the usual trail involves two steps. First, you climb a large dome of a rock that's long and steep enough, without any grips, to do some damage to you if you're not particularly strong and not wearing hiking boots. Then, you get to use a rope to haul yourself up what is a tough but relatively insignificant incline. Then, finally, you get to Gicha Bawi itself, a steep cliff that I think has the name it does because the crack in the middle makes it look like a set of train tracks.

Here's the view from the bottom courtesy of this blog, as well as a view from the top courtesy of this blog
This isn't particularly hard, but it is scary considering that if the rope falls out of your hands at any point while it supports your entire wieght, you're guaranteed to be dead. That's really a sharp contrast from what are otherwise tame hikes in Seoul, often more picnics than hikes. In my case, the exertion took away what little energy I had left.

Paired with quads that refused to keep going up, I had to call it a day about 7k and 2 hours away from the finish line, albeit with the top of Buramsan in the middle. I ran 20k on the course plus another 4 getting down on my own, not quite the way I thought it was going to be, but if nothing else, it was the most I've ever hiked in one day.

 I trained on Gwanggyosan in Suwon leading up to this race, my best run being an up-and-down 7k run that climbed to about 450m in about 75 minutes. Gwanggyosan wasn't too hard without hiking shoes, I ran without much of a problem on the dirt trails in my running shoes, but the mountains of northern Seoul are very rocky even if they're not that much bigger, and running is impossible without hiking or trail shoes.

 I was a bit heartened to see that many people failed to finish, maybe a third of everyone who started, from reasons like injury or simply getting lost on a course that wasn't marked at all even though it involved running across Uijeongbu at one point. It was the first time in a while that I've given a race everything I had and come up short, failing to finish even, but I'll definitely do a similar race in the summer or fall.

 If you're interested in mountain or trail races in Korea, the Korea Climbathon Federation organizes very friendly, low-key races. Other trail races can be found around the country, often called 숲달리기 (literally 'forest run'), and are not quite as brutal as this particular one: the winner of the 45 km ran it in a little over 8 hours, while the cutoff was 13 hours. The next race in the Seoul area is a 15k/half marathon at Cheonggyesan on June 10.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

John Searle and the Korean room

Without John Searle, I might have been a completely different person. Searle, as I've written before, appeared in a video in my high school philosophy class. At the time, I remember being amused by his demeanour, perfectly fitting the stereotype of how a philosopher talks and sounds. In time, I would come to admire Searle both for his scholarship, his ability to write and express himself in comparatively plain language, and his attempts to write about the philosophy of the mind to a mass audience.

Admittedly, what I remember most about Searle from that video to this day, even after reading some of his work in university, is the idea of the Chinese room. Put simply, would you consider yourself to be a Chinese speaker if you could manage to give the appearance of intelligibly communicating in Chinese by matching English expressions to their Chinese equivalents using someone else's instructions? Searle thinks not, and holds this as evidence of why the term artificial intelligence is an oxymoron, since the computer gives the appearance of understanding by just following instructions.

I thought about Searle's Chinese room when I watched my middle school students (grades 8-10 in North America) write phone conversations. Trained for years to find and avoid making even the slightest of mistakes, they scoured textbooks, workbooks and notebooks to find phrases, sentences and sometimes even parts of conversations. They then combined what they had found in their books to create what was a comprehensible phone dialogue, though it gave off the impression of creating a paragraph in German by just copying various phrases and sentences from a Lonely Planet phrasebook.

 This was not quite the same as Searle's thought experiment, but just like I wouldn't consider myself a German speaker if I scraped together some sentences in German with only an understanding of what entire groups of words meant in English, I didn't consider my students to have so much as written the dialogues as they generated or produced it. I was satisfied with the process as a step towards both writing on their own someday, as well as learning proper grammar and diction, but I was probably more impressed with their ingenuity.

This sort of semi-productive English is probably how future high school students in Korea will cope with potential changes in the university entrance exam (suneung in Korean). As it stands, English education in Korea chiefly tests your ability to distinguish which one of four or five sentences has a slight grammatical mistake. Exams with high stakes, like the suneung, have fewer errors though they are not immune to them. Exams in more ordinary settings, then, fall into the trap of thinking that English, like Korean, has a standard.

English is sufficiently diverse that what is considered incorrect in North America is a common saying in Europe, and enough people make enough mistakes that grammar, in many cases, is about style and preference rather than correct answers. Testing for grammar against this backdrop seems counterproductive if not pointless. A North American, for example, would probably never say "New York are winning 2-1 against Chicago", and students here who have studied North American English exclusively would mark that as wrong when they become teachers.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

A tale of two universities

Over the years, I've put up with a lot from the University of Toronto, including requests from money. It's not exactly the friendliest campus on earth, and it deserves, more than the University of Chicago, the nickname "where fun goes to die". I concede that the fun being dead on the St. George campus helped me learn as much as I did in my four years, but while the university is a great place to learn, it's by no means the best-managed university I've ever seen.

I'm reminded of this every time I use my university email account, where you don't just delete an email, you delete it and then purge it. Deleting an email, then, doesn't really delete it, it just means that you see it in your inbox with a line through it. The student service that lets you sign up for courses, to take another example, is separate from the university email service. Both have separate passwords and the student service, so aptly named ROSI (Repository of Student Information, not a joke), is liable to go down for maintenance overnight, as though university students never make important decisions at 3 am.

I thought all of this was more or less normal, the result of institutional incompetence, until I started studying at Arizona State University. Arizona State is a good school, but it enjoys neither U of T's reputation nor its many advantages, namely money. Arizona State is responsible for 72,000 students with an endowment of about $500 million. By contrast, the University of Toronto must deal with 45,000 students using $1.5 billion dollars, or three times as much money to deal with a little over half as many students. That's more money than many small countries, or or large and impoverished ones. In fact, I believe U of T has more money than North Korea.

Arizona State offers students an email account that's a Gmail app, meaning that using your Arizona State email is just like using Gmail. In fact, it's easy to link your university email to another email address in case you never check the former. Signing up for courses, paying tuition or accessing any other university service is like using any other website rather than the arcane system U of T continues to use. Granted, if ROSI has improved in the last four years, I'll gladly stand corrected.

You could argue, maybe, that U of T has devoted its attention to attracting the world's best professors and experts to give students access to the very best in each field. That is true to an extent, I'm sure, though those experts have almost no incentive to care about how undergraduates do, a bit like paying elementary school school teachers for making their staff room extra cozy.

Another idea might be that U of T is too aloof to bother with such trivialities, because a functioning, twenty-first century interface, twelve years into said century, for its online services is really just a step or two above taking out ads on buses and in Gmail the way that many lesser universities do. ASU does have banner ads on Gmail and elsewhere on the Internet, though I don't know how much of that is due to my many visits to their website.

The most likely answer is that the University of Toronto simply doesn't care. They care enough to plan an elaborate gobbledygook of events, mixers in Dubai and film screenings at Innis College, for students and alumni that make those in charge feel good, but don't do much for the 99% of students who will never attend any of these events. You already knew this and so did I, but I didn't realize how different it could be until just now.