Korea has got a lot of things going for it: fantastic food; a thriving economy; a rich cultural heritage that includes art, architecture, music; and a love of drinking. But nothing excites Koreans more than the national pastime: hiking. These aren’t your earthy-crunchy hippy hikers, either- it’s everyone. And they all show up in brightly colored technical apparel so a walk in the woods begins to resemble a Phish concert.
We are often mistaken for people who are in good shape since the first part of this trip was done on bicycles. Sometimes we even think of ourselves as fit even though we have spent the better part of the last 4 months sitting on hammocks, drinking beer. There is no better barometer of physical fitness than huffing and puffing up a mild incline while a parade of little Asian grandmothers power-stride right past you. At first we had snickered at all the people with their stretchy pants and hiking poles at the base of the trail, but we came to see that all that fancy gear is put to use. And the most impressive thing is that every time we’d pass a group of hikers breaking for lunch, there would always be a 2-liter bottle of soju accompanying the meal. Our kind of people.
We visited two parks during our trip: Jirisan National Park in the south and Seoraksan National park in the north. The former is the largest and oldest park in the country and holds 14 of the highest peaks in Korea; the latter is the most popular, as it is not so far from Seoul, so city folk can make the trip in a weekend. We combined our Seoraksan visit with a stay in Sokcho, which has a reputation as a great beach getaway spot in the summer. When we arrived at the local campground, we found that it was closed, so we set up our tent anyway and waited to see if someone would tell us to go away. No one ever did, so we spent the night in the empty campground and went out to the locally famous fish market for dinner, where we selected live fish from plastic tubs, which were dismembered on the spot and served to us raw. Accompanied by a bunch of soju, naturally. We got up first thing the next morning and caught a bus out to the park, stashing our huge packs for the day with a friendly vendor for a couple of dollars. I have to give a shout-out to a website that we found that made our visits waaaay easier than they would have been without speaking the language: Korea in The Clouds. Apparently it is no longer being updated, but the information there is incredible and browsing through the links gives you a sense of the hiking culture in the country.
Hiking in Korea is different than hiking in the US. All the parks are in heavy use, there are buses that bring hikers to the trailheads from city centers, and there are little eateries everywhere- even on the trail. You could be hiking for over an hour, then stumble on a couple Korean ladies cooking up steaks. There is alcohol everywhere, unlike US parks, which typically prohibit booze of any kind, especially on the trails. There is very little camping; any overnight hikers are required to stay in trail huts that provide bathrooms, blankets, and even some light snacks for a small fee. On our overnight hike in Jirisan National Park, we were even able to charge our iPods on chargers provided for free in the shelter. In some ways, this takes away the romance of a rustic, remote experience in nature. On the other hand, it makes the parks more accessible to people who don’t have the time, gear, or inclination to carry heavy packs for multiple days to get out into the wild. It’s also a very different culture where you are likely to see sleek young city girls in heels (heels!) hiking along side their grandparents while everyone is slightly tipsy on the gallons of sojuthey brought along instead of Clif bars.
I have to say that the parks are lovely and well-maintained. The geography of Korea is all spiny mountains covered in vegetation making for spectacular scenery year round. Our visit was in the summer when everything was wet and green, but autumn is an equally popular time of year to visit as all the leaves turn colors, a la Maine. Every park seems to have at least one temple in it’s boundaries, so every visit is like a painting in a Chinese restaurant- all mist-shrouded craggy rocks and pine trees. Sadly, no pandas. Unless you drink enough soju.
These are all photos from Seoraksan National Park, one of the most famous and well-visited in the country: