Die Another Day
Coming out of a DVD Room the other day, I realised that my head was cold. It didn't take Sherlock Holmes to realise that I'd forgotten my nice new wolly hat. So I retreated to the premises, went back to the suite I'd occupied and had a little root around. It wasn't a very large area, but I'd thought I might have droped my hat down behind the futon, or left it atop a speaker or something . So I'm in there, my friend comes back to help me look, and the guy who runs the DVD room comes in to poke around too. But it's not there... a hat I got as a pretty snazzy Christmas gift, suddenly gone.
Curses all around as I begin to wonder if I really did have it before I settled in to watch the movie? Mentally I retrace my steps. I'd been tramping about town, falling in and out of all sorts of places. Did I have it in the restaurant where I had the egg and vegetable hotpot? Did I maybe leave it on my table, or in the toilets?   Then I think that maybe I'll never see my new hat again, when suddenly the DVD clerk finds it right in behind the back of the futon - it must have slid down when I made myself comfortable during the movie. Relief washes through me, as I give him the biggest, warmest smile I can muster, and a very heartfelt, 'thank you'.
It's not until I'm out of the place again, head nice and warm once more, that I realise what's really after happening here.
- I left my hat in a fairly obvious location in the DVD suite.
- The clerk came in to tidy for the next customers, spotted the brightly-coloured hat, and decided to salvage it for his own evil purposes.
- I return to look for the hat.
- He follows me in to see why I have returned.
- My friend and I search thoroughly, and then stand around trying to play that ridiculous "Where were you when you lost it?" game.
- During this time the clerk has gone out and come back in.
- He continues to search for the hat, as do we.
- He "finds" it within about five seconds of re-entering the room, and in a place I knew I'd already searched.
What really gets to me about all of this is that I the rather obvious events didn't click with me as quickly as they should have. I've become a little too suspicious and paranoid in other countries, but I know for a fact that if the same thing had happened to me in South America, that I'd just have taken one look around, marched up to the guy involved, and demanded my hat back. What's happened to that healthy suspicion, and sense of street smarts? Have I become lazy in my old age? No, not exactly. It's just that Korea is maybe working its spell over me. Annoyingly.
When the locals tell you about your host town and host nation, they only ever tell you the good stuff, and in fairness, foreigners have usually been treated terifically here. You could walk in the worst part of town and not quicken your pace or keep to the well-lit parts of the street - that sort of standard streetwise common-sense behaviour just doesn't apply here. In my humble experience, and from what I've gathered from talking with ex-pats here far longer than I... the chances of a Korean purposely hurting a foreigner here, well, apart from the lunatic fringe that will exist anywhere, there's no concept of personal petty crime that applys to us english teachers. Maybe if you were a swaggering, swashbuckling G.I., intent on annoying and provoking the locals, but if you're just minding your own business, I'd say you're completely safe. Compare that with how the average Asian might be treated in the darker, dirtier districts of Dublin in the early hours of a weekend morning, and I think you'll see how impressive Koreans really can be towards us outsiders.
Yet every country has its opportunist scum, and my DVD guy is just that type. I'm kicking myself for not having noticed the real order of events for what they were as soon as the hat didn't turn up on my first glance back into the room. Something in me has changed from those misantrophic ever-vigilant backpacker days. That something is Korea, and its wonderful people. They've lulled me into a false sense of security. I hate that.
They are such lovely people for the most part though that its hard to hold that against them. One of the nicest people I've ever met on a very brief basis was a hiker I fell in with whilst on a visit to a Buddhist Temple, and the surrounding mountains recently. He spoke a little English and was interested in why a foreigner would come to Korea and what I thought of the place. We hiked and chatted, and eventually broke our climb at a buddhist shrine near the summit, where he and I pooled our food, cooked some noodles, ate some sandwiches (a strange concept to him, but necessary hiking food for me) and we generally just had a lot of fun. There's something overwhealmingly comraderly about climbing to the top of a mountain, cooking food together, and sitting down to share a makeshift meal with a stranger. I've done this so many times now, and hardly ever kept in touch with the people I've met, but just for those few brief moments, there's a bond created through mutual adversity, perseverence, and reward. It may often be a marraige of convenience but it feels, so good. This was a particularly short-lived marraige though, as my newfound friend had to hurry down the way we'd come to catch a bus home to his distant hometown. We exchanged contact details, and I continued on alone to the summit.
Catching my breath, and resting to admire the view at the peak, I finally noticed what time it was. It'd taken me four hours to hike up the mountain. Now granted, I'd stopped for food with my friend, but that was thirty minutes at most, and the guidebook had said that the hike took four hours - which I'd foolishly presumed to mean four hours in total, two up and two down. Evidently, this was not the case. Could they have meant it's four hours each way? Still, here I was at the summit, and although the afternoon was fading away and evening creeping in, I still felt pretty good about where I was and what I was doing. Maybe I was still just a little short on time though. As you'll see from the photo taken only a few moments before reaching the top, the shadows were already starting to lengthen... It was at this point that I decided to take a shortcut.
Instead of hiking back down the way I'd come, I decided to do a through-hike - exiting the national park at the opposite side to which I'd entered. Granted, this meant going down a side of the mountain I wasn't yet familiar with, but the trails looked well-marked, and it was certainly less distance. So off I set. I was about 15 minutes into the downward hike, when I began to take notice of the signals my brain had been trying to send my body since I started to descend.
- There are no Koreans around for some reason.
- You're on the northface of the mountain now, and it's a lot colder.
- There's shadow-sheltered snow on the trail, making the going slow and treacherous. The distances involved may be shorter this way, but at least on the ascent the sun had melted the snow away and the going was good. This side could be very different.
- The sun is going down faster than expected, and here on the shaded side of the mountain it's going to be dark and bitterly cold real soon now.
At this point I still had the choice of returning to the peak, and retracing my steps back to the original park entrance. Why I didn't, I'm not so sure. When I hiked around a little in South America, I was always in awe of the mountains. They stood around 5,000 meters high, and were snow-covered and just itching to find an unwary hiker, and swallow him without trace. On the other hand, Korea is a whopping seventy percent mountainous, but they're all low-lying rolling 1,000 meter mountains... or I'd even come to think of them as hills. I've been in a lot of the national parks, provincial parks and walked up and down various other peaks here. I've never had a problem. The trails are well-maintained, there are rangers on duty, and anyway, the mountains are usually crawling with Koreans should you require any assistance.
Suddenly though I was on this cold, windy, lonesome path, with no real idea if I could make it back to level ground before nightfall. I'd totally been lulled by the "baby" mountains of Korea, and I'd somehow managed to forget that if you die on a one thousand meter mountain, you're just as dead as if you'd perished at five thousand meters. In short, I'd been stupid. Taking stock of the situation, and fighting mounting panic, I realised that I had no food, no source of heat, no sleeping bag, no emergency space blanket, and worst of all, no flashlight. In the name of all that is sweet and reasonable, how did I convince myself that it was OK to do an afternoon's climb without thinking of the worst case scenario? In fairness, the guidebook had misled me, but mostly it was my own fault for once more leaving my wits behind me. Korea had lulled me once again.
I decided there was only one thing for it, and that was to run down the trail before darkness descended. I once ran down a mountain side in imitation of the porters who were carrying my tent and gear, whilst I walked fancy-free. If they could manage that speed, loaded down and wearing flipflops, then surely me and my hiking boots could keep up to them? What I discovered back then was that running down a mountain is incredibly easy, and ridiculously fast, and has just one major drawback. If you're walking, and you happen to stumble, you shift your balance a little, and carry on regardless. If you're running down the mountain, and you fall at the wrong moment, that's pretty much it, game over. Still, I wasn't thinking too clearly, and felt panic sweeping over me, so run I did.
Travelling at the delightfully well-named "breakneck" speed, I made excellent time. It'd been three hours something going up, but just over an hour to get down. I was home and dry.
I could have stopped running when I saw the trail levelling off, but decided to keep up the pace as long as I could until I reached the entrance / ticket booth on the far side of the park. Mostly that was because I knew it was only the fear of darkness, and the daring born of desperation that had allowed me to move so quickly, and I knew once I stopped running, I'd collapse totally. Besides, who knows when the last bus might leave - possibly before the park closes, and there was still a little whisper of a worry at the back of my mind that I hadn't seen any Koreans on this side of the mountain.
When I reached the ranger station, I asked where the busses left from, and they just looked at me blankly. Turns out that yes, there's a ranger station, a park entrance, some supply shops, and a ticket booth - but no busses. Granted the guidebook hadn't explicitly said that there was public transport, but given the avowed presence of all these other facilities, I'd just assumed . I'd grown lazy and thoughtless, and once more my normally problem-free Korean life had lulled me into a false sense of security.
The rangers were sweet though. They heated, fed and watered me, before locking up for the night, and transplanting me down to the nearest village in the back of their landrover. I didn't care where I was, or what I slept in that night though, the most important thing, the only important thing was that I was off the mountain. I've been in some tight spots travelling about, and I'd never admit it to my mum, but at times I have been afraid for my life, and this was one of those occassions, caused largely by my own arrogance and stupidity.
I love hiking, be it cross-country, on mountainsides, in national parks, or attempting to move through a desert - it's all a perfect way to pit your stamina and endurance against a fixed target. As a meditative, self-reliant discipline I'd say it's almost unmatched in the sporting world. You're on your own, you set your own goals and reach them at your own pace, whilst enjoying peace, calm, clean air and spectacular scenery or simple solitude - plus I'm a total cheapskate, and hiking is more or less cost free. :-) Well, so long as you don't go killing yourself I guess. I don't want to exaggerate by saying that I almost died that day. On the other hand, what if the weather had turned rough suddenly, or I'd been just an hour later, or I'd tripped whilst running, or...? I'm still addicted to hiking, and I may yet meet my end on some mountain, somewhere, but for the moment I've lived to die another day.