Published on the National Geographic Glimpse website, March 17, 2009
The black-haired young man in front of me surged up the mountain, leaving me panting in his wake. His feet moved with the deft assuredness of a mountain lion. His attention, however, was focused on his cell phone, which he was using to watch a popular soap opera. So much for enjoying the great outdoors, I sighed.
Welcome to Korea’s Bukhansan National Park. Equal parts strip mall and obstacle course, Bukhansan is 30 square miles of protected land just outside the megalopolis of Seoul. The park contains three tall peaks, lush pine forests, and pristine temples. But to get to any of them, you’ll first have to brave the hordes of middle-aged Koreans on the main entry trail, which runs past a seemingly endless array of shops. Racks of telescoping aluminum walking sticks are offered alongside dried squid and Korean soft drinks. Outside of a North Face outlet, a cartoonish, 15-foot-tall plastic mountaineer in a yellow snowsuit kneels on one knee, as if atop Mt. Everest, smiling for pictures.
The crowd marches single-file up the mountain. Unlike trails in the States, which tend to curl up and around mountains at a moderate angle, Korean trails beat a laser-straight path for the summit. Where the trail is too steep to manage, a metal cable is bolted into the boulders and hikers pull themselves up hand-over-hand.
Why not just walk on a StairMaster, if all you care about is the exercise? I wondered, as I struggled to catch my breath. I tried to enjoy my surroundings, but I couldn’t help thinking back to a recent trip to Mt. Katahdin, in Maine’s Baxter State Park, with its scenic overlooks, pristine wilderness, and all but empty trails. This felt like a trip to a theme park by comparison.
After an hour or so of hiking, I paused for a drink of water. The crowd had thinned out a bit, and no longer felt like a line at the grocery store. Curious to know how far I was from the Dobong summit, I asked a group of men who were hiking together. Between my broken Korean and their basic English, we discovered that we were heading the same way.
“You will hike with us,” said Mr. Choi, an elderly man and the leader of the group. Mr. Choi made it clear that this was an order, not an offer, and I gladly obeyed. Mr. Choi introduced me to the other men, all taxis drivers from Seoul who hiked together each weekend.
Each man had a nickname and the group laughed riotously as each was slowly explained to me. “This is Chungmuro, because he is the Korean playboy,” said one round-faced man.
“He is Terminator, because he wears dark glasses,” Chungmuro helpfully elaborated. Both men erupted in laughter.
Besides Mr. Choi, Chungmuro, and Terminator, there was Batman, Mr. Bin, and their wives. All the Koreans were baffled by the fact that I was hiking alone. Nearly every activity is done communally in South Korea, and the men had logically assumed that I would only choose to hike alone if I had no family or friends. Although I tried to explain that I was not an orphan or a social outcast, the group had already adopted me as their own. We hiked together for an hour, until the group decided it was time for lunch.
I tried to pull a sandwich from my backpack but was quickly reprimanded by Mr. Bin. “That’s no food for a mountain,” Mr. Bin exclaimed. “No, no, no. You will eat with us.”
As Terminator laid down a plastic tarp over a flat patch of grass, Chungmuro produced a plate of sliced pig’s feet from his backpack. Batman contributed an enormous bag of kimchi, Korea’s national dish of spicy fermented cabbage. Terminator produced several large bottles of makgeolli, a milky-white rice wine, andsoju, Korean vodka.
“The drinks are the most important,” said Mr. Choi. “You need strength on a mountain.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard about the cultural importance of alcohol for conquering Korea’s mountains. Nearly every time I went hiking, the same hunched old man who had sped past me on the way up would stumble past me on the way down. More than once, I’d seen that man bent over by the side of the trail, re-experiencing his lunch.
After several bowls of makgeolli and a plateful of pig's feet, I was starting to worry that I might not make it to the summit if I kept pace with Choi and Chungmuro. I voiced my concerns. “We’ll just finish the drinks here and then climb down,” Chungmoro informed me.
After a round of hearty thanks and a photo or two, we parted ways, and I continued up the mountain. Over my shoulder I could see them stumbling down the trail, laughing boisterously and celebrating their modest conquest.
Thirty minutes later, I pulled myself up a steep rock face with the help of a cable, and found myself on the summit. Lush greenery burst forth from sheer granite faces of the neighboring mountains. In the distance, the concrete and steel skyscrapers of Seoul glimmered.
A man standing next to me on the mountaintop introduced himself as Mr. Kim. He pulled out a bottle of makgeolli and proposed a toast to reaching the summit. We shouted, “Kom bei!” Korean for cheers, and drained our glasses.
“In Korea, we say that the people you meet on the mountain are the best people,” Mr. Kim told me.
I couldn’t have agreed more.