South Korea is a haven for ESL teachers, but it hasn’t become a popular destination for backpackers yet. This is changing, slowly, but for some, the lack of other travelers is an attraction of itself. There are many reasons to visit: the landscape is amazing, the food is spicy and affordable, and the beaches are nice and surprisingly empty. But whether you’re in Korea for work or for pleasure, a hike into the mountains is something you should do. Depending on where you are, a hike might not be breathtaking but the cultural aspects are something else entirely.
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Though Confucius never made it to the Land of the Morning Calm, his influence in contemporary Korea is perhaps even more prevalent than in his home country. Many Koreans are ingrained with the belief that there is one correct way for any given situation. Foreigners are often told: “This is the way we do it in Korea. How is it done in your home country?” Explanations that there are perhaps several equally valid ways are met with either confusion or amused regret, a knowing sadness that the rest of the world hasn’t figured it all out.
As a hiker, this effects you in some interesting ways when you take up the quasi-national Korean pastime of “mountain climbing.” (The name may seem optimistically euphemistic, but only until you’ve actually experienced the steep hills entirely free of switch-backs.) Three-quarters of Korea is mountainous, and the hikes involve a lot of steep ascents, either jumping from rock to rock or up steps hewn at brutal angles. You will find everything from vending machines to exercise equipment as you ascend but their novelty pales when compared to the sheer number of people you will see.
It’s rare to ever have the trail to yourself. At peak times, you may not be able to move for several minutes as you wait for those above you to climb away; hikes in Seoul or national parks teem with thousands of other hikers. As staggering as the number of people is, their uniformity is equally impressive. Once the siren song begins (sometime around their fourth decade of life) Korean hikers respond the same way, as alpine warriors arming themselves for battle according to very stringent regulations. The first step is to acquire a waterproof jacket, almost invariably from North Face and loose cargo pants, also from North Face. Hiking boots are a must, as are calf-high hiking socks. For older men, a recommended look is tucking your pants legs into your socks, but this is one of the few variants allowed. Very importantly, all clothing must be fully waterproof, even though rains are not common in Korea. Extra gloves, gaiters and other equipment are placed in backpacks. These soldiers’ weapons of choice is invariably a pair of trekking poles, regardless of whether the terrain actually calls for it.
Koreans eat the same meal three times a day, whether hiking or at home, so backpacks are loaded with things like seat cushions, rice, gimchi, several side dishes, tangerines and cucumbers. Finally, these uniformed minions load up on soju, a Korean spirit often compared to vodka. In reality, it’s half as strong, twice as nasty and far cheaper.
Korean hikers are mostly friendly, but there’s one thing you can do to really anger them. As a freelance member of the hiking army, dare to deviate from the standard uniform at your own risk. It takes a brave soul to dress in jeans, shorts, or any footwear that isn’t massive hiking boots. The reactions will vary from amusement to shock to pure anger. If you have visible tattoos or an unusual hair style, you may be told off quite forcefully.
For a truly memorable hike, however, try hiking barefoot. Even if you’re as tender-footed as they come, you will encounter trails that are well maintained and usually either packed earth or smooth rocks. Physically it’s not challenging. Culturally, the results will surprise you. Foreigners quickly get used to being a novelty in this country, but violating the hiking code is particularly blasphemous. A stroll to a mountainside temple sans shoes is a cultural experiment that should be on everyone’s to-do list. People will laugh out loud at you. They will point at your feet. They will stare. They will angrily and animatedly tell you that what you are doing is wrong (spoken of course in Korean). Odds are high that you’ll meet those who who will attempt to physically force you off your hike. It’s all quite amusing actually, this endless barrage of confused Confucius clones. Whether or not the Sage would have himself objected so strenuously is another matter, perhaps one to discuss during a post-hike soju session.
*all photos courtesy of the author