I am not in shape. It’s not something I’m terribly concerned about, but I say it to preface that, for whatever reason, I also have this weird tendency to do exhausting, unseemly hikes. Throughout Europe and on into Korea, I willingly sign up for grueling, multi-hour trudgings through deep, vast bogs, along the sides of slippery, sweltering coastal cliffs, or up the sides of various and sundry mountains. I somehow manage to do them, huffing and sweaty and large pile of goo that I become once I finish. And I am left to wonder, always, how the hell I managed not to die.
I left from my apartment obscenely early, and arrived in Bupyeong to catch my bus to Seoraksan National Park. Many of my friends signed up for the same tour, so we settled in for the long busride, which we assumed would be utterly uneventful, to take us out to the mountains. This would be the furthest out from Incheon I had been, and I was already excited, giddy, and sure that the weekend would be nothing but glorious views and unyielding joys. Then our brakes failed and our bus slammed into a van and caused a three-car pileup on the highway.
We assumed, being the foreigners that we are, that our trip was thus coming to screeching halt. Certainly we would wait for several hours while they hashed out the insurance business, got a new, non-shakey brakes bus for us to pile into, and generally went on Koreanishly. But no: they quickly handed out insurance data, confirmed that no one was dead, and started the bus once more. We scrambled to our seats and for our seatbelts, and were reminded, once more, that things in Korea do not work like they do at home.
The arrival in Seoraksan national park was hailed with a barrage of autumnal colours, and everywhere you looked the trees looked bright and vibrant. Golden yellows sprinkled the mountainside, and I stopped every few feet to gawk at trees that, caught by the right angle of sunlight, seemed to be aflame. We had yet to even take one step off of level ground, to begin any sort of ascent, and already I was bombarded with ridiculous views.
We grabbed a quick lunch and soon split off for our various hikes. I had originally planned on taking the strenuous route, but when several people reported to me that the daintier hike up to the falls and to a nearby cave would prove more scenic, I quickly jumped ship. The hikes on the first day were not terribly arduous, though all told they took around five or six hours. We wandered across rickety old bridges seemingly inlaid with tire rubber, up shambling metallic stairways barely wide enough for one person, across numerous rocky switchbacks, in search of the promised scenicness.
The falls, hilariously, were all build to an anticlimax, as the enormous rock-faces and giant swaths of shale, scattered as they were with fall leaves and sparkling reflecting pools, were far more beautiful than the piddling falls themselves. The other hike, up to a mountain cave and a weird, jagged cliff, proved more difficult. The sun also began to set as we made our way up, causing us to realize we had no desire to attempt shuffling back down the mountain in the dark: the pressure was on. We bolted to the top.
We managed to ascend and descend just before the park became shrouded in darkness completely, and we soon were back on your rickety bus, shuffling off to our pension. (Sidebar: I had never heard the word “pension” in this context before, as in a big communal rental place where you all sleep on the floor in large rooms). With a brief stop at a grocery store, we settled in for the night, left Tony to basically do the entire work of feeding us, and then crashed on the boiling hot pension floors.
I spent the next morning scrambling around on river rocks, hopping mid-river so I could watch the water, and taking shots I felt would be arty (my camera, laughing at my hubris, decided that soft early morning lighting meant it was time to get real grainy) before soon setting off for the mountains again.
Our trip coordinators had described the second day as a choice: the Osaek Hot Springs, or a river valley hike. Many of my friends joined my early harrumphing that hot springs were for the weak, and that we could sit around in 찜질방s back in our own towns whenever we wanted. Hiking was of the order! More mountains! More natural beauty! More verdant splendour!
As we drove towards the drop-off point, someone stood up to make an announcement. “River valley” was apparently a bit of a misnomer. The hike would be three-and-a-half hours instead of two, and the whole “valley” thing was only half of it. About halfway along the hike, there would be a sudden rupture of incline, and we would thus be hiking uphill for an hour, to a peak apparently 1100 m in elevation, twice as high as the 5-hour hike mountain we had declined the day before. We would, apparently, need to almost jog up the mountain and back down the steep other face to make it to our bus in time.
I saw the looks being exchanged by my friends: they quickly folded and remarked that they would be doing the naked sitting rather than the misleadingly strenuous hike option. Not liking the idea of middle-aged Korean men staring at my junk, and also bored by the idea of just sitting for three hours, I bravely, stubbornly and stupidly said I would go on with the hike.
Indeed, the first leg was mostly level, jaunty, an up-and-down across rocky dried riverbeds and across dozens of bridges. Leaves scattered through the air gently, and everything was picturesque and easygoing.
And then the climbing began.
There were stairs, endless metallic stairs that would curve around bends so that, when you thought you had reached the top, more were just to the side. There were switchbacks, more switchy and backy than I had ever dealt with before. There was loose rock and narrow pathways, and also hundreds of Koreans descending in the opposite direction. In an explosion of mutual over-politeness, some would eventually stop and urge me to climb up while they waited patiently. Of course, this meant that they occupied the only good footholds, and I would need to scrabble up through the dirt if I had any hope of making the ascent.
Eventually, and in remarkable time considering the elevation, we clambered to the top. There was a resting space, and then an even rockier climb to the very peak, which I nearly scampered up in my excitement to ascend.
I stood in the sunlight, looking over the jagged outcroppings of a dozen other mountains in the range, occasionally glancing down at the zig-zag ludicrousness of our climb, feeling gales of autumn air. I was struck, as I often am when I do something I really shouldn’t have or presumably couldn’t have, that this was my life. Sometimes when I think to other places I have travelled, they become movies in my mind, events that occurred to some different Michael, a more adventurous type with an abundance of derring-do. How could I have climbed that mountain, or stood atop it and looked over the crest of the world while living in South Korea? I have photographic proof that I did it, and yet sometimes, I can still barely believe my life can be this awesome.