Wednesday, March 11, 2009

ain't no mountain high enough

today I took advantage of the brilliantly sunny weather and went on a solo hike up one of the many mountains that surround Seoul. the original intention was to get up early and head out to Bukhansan, one of the highest peaks and most popular hikes near Seoul, but a nasty bout of insomnia last night made me change my mind when I finally woke up at 10 am this morning after only 4.5 hours of sleep. I headed instead to Yongamsan, a much shorter hike that was closer to the city. here's one of the most fantastic things about Seoul -- their public transportation is incredible. you can literally get anywhere on their subway system and a refillable T-Money card can be used as payment for subways, taxis, buses and even at some convenience stores.

after breakfast and a cup of extra-strong coffee I made my way to the subway station near my aunt's apartment for the easy 45-minute trek to the Yongamsan stop. once I was out of the subway station I had some trouble finding the trailhead but after asking around a bit I started making my ascent up the mountain. I pretty much had the trails to myself for the majority of the way up, with the exception of two 60-something gentlemen I encountered as I was trying to figure out which of the many trails would lead to the top. when I stopped them with an "excuse me" in my best polite Korean, one of the gentlemen shouted "yes!" with such eagerness you would have thought he was waiting for me to stop them. they were heading toward the top, so I fell in lock step with them for a few minutes, satisfying their polite curiosity about where I was from (America), was I a student (no), how come I spoke such good Korean (it's just all right but thanks anyway), did I know the half-Korean football player Heinz Ward (not personally, no), etc. eventually I overtook them and they wished me a good hike and encouraged me to "sweat a lot" in my ascent to the top.

I encountered a lot more hikers at the top of the mountain, which I reached after about an hour up a pretty steep incline. the funny thing about Korean people and hiking is that, just like everything else, it's a social activity and they truly enjoy themselves, but they also take it really seriously. the top of the mountain was crowded with 40-, 50-, 60-, and 70-something Korean men and women decked out in fancy North Face trail runners, the latest in insulating and moisture-wicking clothing, expensive-looking daypacks filled with water bottles and extra layers, polar fleece jackets, visors or baseball caps to keep their skin nice and pale, lightweight gloves, collapsible walking sticks, the whole nine yards. some people even had portable transistor radios stuck in their pockets to play encouraging traditional Korean folk songs during their journey (personally I prefer the Rocky theme, but hey, to each their own). you'd think they were preparing for a trek up Mt. Everest, not a two-hour hike on a sunny day up a mountain that is a less-than-one-hour subway ride from downtown Seoul. it was freaking hilarious.

once at the top I took a much-needed rest and sat down on a smooth rock ledge with the sun on my face and a 360-degree view of Seoul and its surrounding mountains. I unpacked the sandwich my aunt had made for me that morning complete with sandwich, fruit, dessert, and hot tea in a thermos (yum), took out the book I'm currently reading and had a thoroughly enjoyable lunch by myself on the mountain peak. right below the peak I encountered one of those rock piles where people carefully make an altar by placing one stone on top of the other. I saw these all over SE Asia and someone explained that people add a stone to the altar when they want to make a wish, so I took a moment to reflect on everything I've gone through over the past nine-ish weeks, said a few thanks, and made a few wishes of my own before carefully placing my small stone on top of the hundreds of other stones gathered there.

eventually I made my way back down the mountain via a different route which was much harder partially because of the more rocky terrain (I felt like I was rock climbing in Thailand again) and also because my muscles were starting to get tired. I got a little turned around at the bottom of the mountain and had to ask a few people how to find the nearest subway station, including two ADORABLE little girls who must have been six or seven years old. both bespectacled and clutching backpacks, they gave me very detailed directions to the subway station ("it's between the bakery and the eyeglass shop, make sure you go straight, not left or right"). one of them bravely asked me where I was from and when I told her that I lived in America, she jumped up and down with excitement over meeting someone from so far away. I seriously wanted to put them in my backpack and take them home with me, but I had a train to catch, so they bowed and said good-bye to me in perfect unison and I went on my merry way, perfectly content with the way my day had unfolded.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

life in korea

for me, visiting korea is an experience that is difficult to classify. i speak the language well enough to get around and i understand the culture well enough not to make any horrible gaffes, yet i am somehow neither tourist nor local. obviously, being a korean person, i look the part, unlike most of the americans who visit korea. i know to remove my shoes when i go into a restaurant or, oddly enough, the dentist's office (don't worry, i didn't have some kind of orthodontic emergency, i was taking my little cousin to get FIVE cavities filled... girlfriend needs to chill out on the candy). i know how to ask for directions and to bow when i meet new people. i always receive and pour drinks with two hands. i try my best to use the formal kind of korean when i speak with elders and the casual kind of korean when i speak with people my age. i am completely comfortable wandering around seoul on my own using the super-easy subway system.

yet i'm still a visitor. the way i think, the way i see things, the way i relate to people -- all american. when i spend a lot of time with older, more traditional relatives, i have to shift my personality a bit to fit in. i force a smile when my grandmother worries about the fact that i'm not married, i eat rice and soup for breakfast when what i'd rather have is a coffee and a bagel, i make my body sleep on the floor with a small bean-filled pillow under my head, i don't stay out too late, i call often when i'm out on my own. it's definitely an effort and sometimes i feel like i'm playing a part... yet i don't mind because i'm visiting their home, their place and i have to respect their ways.

when you look at the history of korea, they come off like the little brother who has always been bullied by his bigger, more powerful neighbors. a long history of being invaded, pillaged, controlled, annexed and taken advantage of has created an intense nationalistic pride and a generally obsessive population and a desperate need to succeed. koreans are hard core about everything. they study hard core, they play hard core, they work hard core, nothing is subtle. you see 70-year-old grandmas decked out in hiking gear on the subway and 13 year olds studying until 2 am. to say that education is important is a ridiculous understatement as everyone, EVERYONE obsesses over whether they will be admitted into a prestigious university. the pressure is intense and it seems like they have few outlets to blow off steam.

in my continued effort to try and be a tourist in korea, next week i think i might make the trek up to the north korean border. it's a place of obvious historic significance, yet i've never been there. i'll try and blog about the experience.