So on Friday night I left straight from work to hitch the train to Seoul. The last bullet train leaves around midnight. It always surprises me that things run so late here. I think it’s a side-effect of a country that never stops working–except when they’re drinking, and sometimes they’re doing both. Anyway, I hit an earlier train, and even got to Seoul before the subways closed down. Using my trusty dusty, but very small, cell phone subway map (all written in Hangeul, I am proud to say), I navigated my way to Itaewon, the place where we were supposed to meet the next morning at 6:00am. There was no way that I was going to make it into the city at that time, so I decided to come the night before and spend the night in a jimjilbang.
Itaewon is an intriguing place–especially on a Friday night. All of a sudden, I am in a diverse city again, with people that speak English–military, Koreans, Africans, Middle Eastern people, Muslims, Americans. You even see some foreign kids in Itaewon. It’s the place in Seoul for foreigners, sometimes seedily so. But I like it.
The Sauna I stayed in was nice, but I was surprised and a little disappointed by the price vrs. the facilities. That said, a sauna is a sauna and it’s relaxing no matter how many different types of saunas there are. I just laid there and sweat out the week, and then went into the bath and scrubbed myself so clean you would have thought that I was a newborn baby. I ate some ramen noodles sitting on a bench in the dressing room (there seemed no other place to do so) and then I crashed out on a mat in the sauna area for a couple hours. There was a man in the room who was having night terrors, and he kept rolling around and hitting himself and making strange noises. It was a little odd, but I gave it a giggle.
Bright and early at 5:30am, I was out and about in Itaewon again. At 5:30, it kind of looks like a dump–there’s advertisements all over the ground, and the tape has come up, and they look more like trash. People that could be servicemen, or just buff dudes, are wandering home–plastered–proclaiming how fantastic the night was. It’s still dark, and the only establishments open are the bars (still–and they will probably remain open until 9am). Even the coffee shops haven’t opened yet, and what is usually a street of market stalls and neon strangeness, now just looks like a deserted, boarded up trashy part of town–which Itaewon was, about twenty years ago.
Anyway I met up with my fellow travelers, a group of teachers and one student, and we got onto the bus. I passed out for the majority of the bus ride, and when I awoke it was time to eat lunch–at about 10am. We were at a tiny restaurant, nestled into a mountain for all that I could tell. It was quite traditional, and there was nothing else around, just road, mountain, and bare trees. The place was heated with a wood stove, and I deliberately sat right next to it, because I’ll tell you–it was cold in there. We ate bibimbap, a delicious rice and vegetable and egg dish that I lovelovelove, and then sleepily climbed in our bus the rest of the way to the mountain base camp.
Climbing a mountain in Korea is a communal event. It is not all rustic and epic like one might imagine. The trail is wide and paved, and occasionally cars go on it. (Stephanie and I encountered taxis, even, in Gongju, likely delivering the elderly grandmother to the top of the mountain, because the Chuseok picnic simply couldn’t happen with out her–but she certainly couldn’t climb the difficult trails.) The point isn’t necessarily to be a part of wilderness. The point is to get to the top with others. Of course the view is spectacular as well.
Though, don’t imagine that because the way is a road that it is not hard to climb. The angles are quite deceiving on these trails, and what looks like a simple hike, actually turns out to be a 50 degree up hill climb for miles. But, even just a little way up the trail, the work pays off. This is the view from the first lookout point.
The hills simply went on forever, fading into the distance in the wintery haze. We continued up, and the higher we got, the warmer it got. Soon I was climbing with my coat in my arms, and then my sweatshirt in my arms, and greatly wishing that I had brought my backpack. Camera shoved into my back pocket, we practically raced each other up to the midpoint house. From there we could see the top–the final ridge, with tiny little silhouettes moving across it, and the cell phone station that accompanied the majestic skyline on the neighboring peak. (Only in Korea would our cell phones work perfectly at the top of one of the tallest, most rural mountains.)
The trail soon started to look something like this–stones shaping something like steps, but not in any uniform kind of way. That was more in my element, rock climbing style, I trudged up those ‘stairs’ with sincere resolve. At the top, the trail widened into the first peak, which had a tower of stones at the top–a tribute to the people who had been there, I believe, but now it looked a little too formulaic. We took a picture on top of this slightly random rock, and you can see the second peak in the background, with another one of the stone towers.
We finally managed to reach the top, and from the top, the view was even more spectacular. We were on one of the tallest mountains in Korea, and definitely the tallest mountain in Jeollanam-do, one of the south-western provinces of Korea. The name of the mountain was Jirisan, and together our group shared the peak with a pack of rather drunk ajumma’s and ajoshi hikers. (The soju had been consumed at the first peak, on a blanket laid out on the ground, everyone drinking in the traditional Korean fashion–never pouring their own drink, but continuously filling the drink of others.)
Sometimes the pictures simply speak better than I can. There was a lot of mystery in these hills, but the communal nature of the mountain peak made me overlook it. We were all together, and the Koreans on the peak were all together, and the mystery in these mountains seemed slightly buried under the fun that was being had in the act of hiking. I didn’t think much of it then, but as I was riding back in the bus, I remember the mystery hitting me with a bit more force.
Anyway, that’s the mountain for now. I need to hurry up and get out of my house, because I need to transfer money for my next excursion–Jeju! Since this trip was a success, I decided to pay for a Jeju trip over Christmas, to keep myself social during that possibly difficult holiday. Jeju is like the Korean Hawaii, the ultimate honeymoon and vacation spot. In the winter, it’s quite cold, but I think it will be an excellent experience–and one that not many tourists have had. Jeju in the winter!