History and Hiking

The one problem with this wonderful Korean festival of Chu'sok is that everyone has to go back to their home towns to be with the families. Meaning? Meaning that if you're a potential tourist you won't be able to go anywhere or stay anywhere. I wanted to go to Jeju Island - all the flights were booked out, even the business class flights, weeks if not months in advance. You want to go to Seoul? Well, good luck! Even if you can get there, where the hell are you going to find a place to stay? Every Korean I spoke with told me it was hopeless, and the guidebooks seem to agree...

But these last 4 days were my first holiday in Korea and I was damned if I was going to waste them. So I set off for the one nearby place that I prayed wouldn't be too busy. Jirisan National Park. Afterall, how many ancestors could be celebrated in the middle of South Korea's oldest (and largest!) official wilderness?

Getting ready for a 4 day trip through the mountains was a lot of fun. I hadn't bothered bringing a tent or a sleeping bag from home, let alone an air-mat or stove.. so on the eve of Chu'sok, I went shopping. Think "Christmas Eve Shopping Madness" here people. :-) Admittedly not my best idea ever, but eventually I emerged with a mat and a sleeping bag. No tent - but I figured I could stay in the Daepisos (wooden huts) that they've thrown up along the mountain ridge. If they weren't too busy... The guidebook said book the shelters a month in advance.. but, again, how many people could there be?

I couldn't miss the chance to use my very favourite piece of equipment though - my combats. I shouldn't have brought these from home. The only thing holding them together is the dirt. They are falling apart rapidly, but I couldn't leave them behind. I'm emotionally attatched to a pair of pants. Sad, but true. Maybe nothing else I own represents my history so much...

For six long months in Latin America they were the only pants I had and everything I needed for a day fit into them.

  • Left Thigh: Guidebook, Diary.
  • Right Thigh: 1.5L of Precious, Life-giving water.
  • Right Front Pocket: Sunblock, Biro.
  • Left Front Pocket: Wallet, shoved in sideways, with a plastic bag over it.
  • Right Back Pocket Phrasebook
  • Left Back Pocket Toilet Roll.
  • Belt Attachments Binoculars. Raincoat.
...And that's pretty much how I filled them up for this hike too. It was the first time in months that I'd worn my combats and it put me in a good mood immediately. It felt right. I was gonna climb that mountain, no matter how high or steep or tough it was. I was gonna hike across that national park - crowds be damned. I was ready. I was going.

jirsan mountain range When I got there... nothing. No people. Not one person for the first 6 hours of hiking. Solitude. Silence. Just the rustling of the wind in the trees (sounding suspiciously like water in a brook to the dehydrated me!) and I even saw the occassional snake. Perfect.

Finally, just before nightfall, and just when things were starting to get cold and dark, I came upon the shelter. A little wooden hut, populated by a caretaker who greeted me with a cup of... well, some kind of tea. It was hot. The other guests were 2 Koreans, a NZ girl and a Russian-speaking Ukranian Engineer working in Seoul. Lying on wooden floors, curled up in our blankets, passing a bottle of Soju back and forth.. and slowly falling asleep out in the wilds.

New Zealand people.. well, I've met them before and I'll meet them again, so they have to be interesting as people... being from New Zealand just isn't enough. :) The Ukranian engineer on the other hand, was fascinating. He kept referring to "his city" and when I asked him the name he said he didn't feel comfortable telling me, because in Soviet days it was where lots of the Russian rockets were made. What he was working on in Seoul I didn't ask. I'm sure most of this was just winding me up - soju is a nicely powerful, yet strangely smooth alcohol here - and I think it was having its way with him. In any case he was great company, and corrected the pronunciation of every single russian word I thought I knew.

summit Next day, being the least fit of the bunch, I was the first to hit the trail. Climbing through darkness to reach the highest peak in the park by sunrise. Sitting there, watching the rosy fingers of dawn, gazing at the sky and trees and mountains rolling out into the background like so many waves on the sea, and just enjoying the physical exhaustion and the mental refreshment of perfect solitude. Later the NZ girl popped up and I asked her why she'd come to Jirisan park that weekend:

The bush is the best place when things get full-on. I'm new here, and right now, Korea is very full-on.

I couldn't have agreed more.

The following night's shelter was crammed full of very welcoming Korean hikers. I was hungry. They gave me food. Boiled eggs. They were prepared. Tents. Stoves. Enough food and supplies to keep an entire vale of sherpas in full-employment for at least a year - and they'd carried it all themselves. Old men and women, young boys and girls, loaded down with packs, and skipping past me on the trails. These guys can hike.

Koreans are the very best hikers in the world. Or at least the very best dressed. They have super-expensive equipment. They're climbing a 1,915m mountain, in blazing sunshine, and they carry an ice-hammer, whistle, mirror, and space blanket. It seemed they had everything.

They didn't have my combats though.

On the way out I saw a sign at the other entrance to the park. "These trails were used during the Civil War by insurgent rebels. Their terrible activities and deplorable methods put the people of the surrounding villages to great hardship. They were finally eradicated at the end of the war."

Well, thanks for blazing the trails guys, but I guess history really is written by the victors.


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