29 October 2008

nature in numbers

Don't worry about getting lost on a Korean hiking trail. It's not gonna happen. In fact, don't worry about bears or running out of food or being kidnapped. These are all things that happen if you're alone in nature. And one must remember that being alone in nature doesn't happen in Korea. Especially at Seoraksan National Park in the fall.

At Seoraksan hiking is done in throngs. Great heaving throngs with advanced levels of fitness... shocking levels of fitness. Old women click their tongues somewhere behind you on the trail and before you can get out of the way they will pass you at a trot. Thankfully for the rest of us, these ladies are usually dressed in fuschia and are never seen in groups smaller than 15 so they won't be mastering the element of surprise anytime soon.

I promise that you have never seen anything like this. And unless you've tried it, you can't imagine the pressure there is to keep moving on a hiking trail when half of Korea is breathing down your neck. Literally. Because as you're navigating the stone staircase twisting down the mountainside, they're on the step immediately behind you. And at their pace they're coming pretty darn close to breathing down your neck until they weave deftly off the trail and bypass the meandering amateurs. (Here I add that even the most crowded of Alpine ranges are undiscovered wastelands by comparison.)

The crowds are certainly part of the experience and we had a great time on our visit to Seoraksan. We hiked up, we hiked down. We laughed at warning signs featuring cute bears and their cute bear children. We had a delicious Korean lunch that our friend made. I even said "tasty!" in Korean when I started to eat it. (Not that I knew what I was saying. It turns out that our Korean language teacher has been training me Pavlov-style. She has me say the same phrase - Tasty! - at the start of every lunchtime language class, which just so happens to be when I'm eating my lunch. So now, without even thinking about it, anytime I put food to my mouth, I say "tasty" in Korean. She must be proud.)

We also had a traditional post-hiking meal which means that we went to a restaurant at the base of the mountain, took off our hiking boots, sat on the floor, and ate bibimbap and soup. And yes, the restaurant was full - note the long line of hiking boots at the foot of the raised dining area.

So... Hiking - great. Food - great. Traffic - not so great. It took three hours to get to Seoraksan but five hours to get back. And I can vouch for the fact that the bus driver was using all manner of shortcuts and creative driving to try to avoid the traffic. You don't usually expect that when bumper-to-bumper traffic comes to a standstill you'll be presented with a panoramic view of the hay harvest, but in Korea it's entirely possible.

Stefano-shi pointed out that once we got close to Seoul we crossed the same river four times - more attempts to avoid traffic. It's funny that we spent a total of eight hours on a bus for the pleasure of hiking Seoraksan with a million of our closest friends while our driver crossed the same river four times to avoid these same people.

And one last bit of advice we learned the hard way: hide your trail mix from soju-drinking hikers. Apparently the consumption of soju in the wild outdoors not only emboldens its drinkers, but gives them an overwhelming urge for the trail mix of strangers.

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