When it comes to hiking, Koreans don’t mess around.
I’d been told that hiking is the “national sport” in Korea, complete with fancy outfits, walking sticks, food and drinks. Matt and I love to hike, so we were excited when our new friend Maria invited us to hike last weekend.
Maria, Matt, another friend named Ben and I set off to summit Mt. Geumhaksan, which is a mountain in our town in Cheorwon. We bought kimbap, Korea’s answer to sushi, and makgeolli, a type of alcohol, as our celebration snacks to eat at the top.
The hike immediately started off at a steep pace, and Matt and I were reminded that we are in “Nashville shape” and not “Colorado shape” at this point. However in Colorado, many of the steeper hikes have switchbacks, which means the trail goes back and forth across the mountain at a gradual incline. There was none of that on this mountain, and we all were feeling the burn on our way to the top.
The scenery was pretty, the air was fresh, and we were able to see interesting sites along the way like army bunkers from the Korean War. There was still snow on some parts of the trail — and a lot of mud — but nothing we couldn’t handle. I scoffed about the poles that almost every Korean hiker used and thought they seemed like overkill.
About halfway up, we made friends with a Korean man name Hyung. He spoke some English, and I think he enjoyed practicing it with the waygooks, or foreigners. He even whipped out his cell phone so we had hiking tunes, and the first song he played was by Justin Bieber.
When we finally reached the top, we ran up some concrete steps like Rocky to enjoy our Korean-style picnic with our new friend. There were about 20 other people on top, all eating their picnics on a helicopter landing pad, which is used by the army. Their picnics looked much more elaborate than ours, including soju and fruit, but they were willing to share. One man brought us rice cakes, and a woman gave us ginger candy.
After relaxing for about 30 minutes, we decided to head back down the mountain. This is when I stopped wondering about the Koreans’ hiking poles and started wishing I had brought money to barter for said poles. I thought the mountain was steep going up, but going down was a challenge of stamina, balance and courage. Our tennis shoes and American legs were no match for the mud and snow, and it wasn’t long before Maria was our first casualty, sliding on her butt down one section.
The rest of our journey involved the four foreigners alternately falling, sliding, yelling affirmations that we were OK, yelling affirmations to go on ahead and some muddy, bruised butts. Matt made a valiant effort and managed to ski down on his shoes much of the way, but even he was no match for Geumhaksan, as his own muddy butt will attest. Our friend Hyung, ever the gentleman, tried to help us as much as possible, taking my bag from me early on and carrying it down. During one of Maria’s particularly bad spills, he ran to her aid, almost nailing a tree and landing his own hands in the mud as he braced himself.
Many of the hikers we passed had some words to say to us, along with smiles. Hyung translated, “They say your shoes are muddy.” I’m fairly certain it was more like, “Hey, dumbasses, ever heard of these hiking poles? They’ll keep you from looking like such idiots.”
Although tiring, this was the perfect entry into my Korean hiking escapades. It was a memory I’ll have forever, and it couldn’t have been more fun.