At Home in the Mountains of Korea
In the first few hundred feet up the Bukhan Mountain (Bukhansan) trail near Seoul, South Korea, I realized that I had found my second home. The mountains were full of eager weekend warriors all seeking altitude and grand vistas. Each Korean hiker was dressed like an outdoor clothing advertisement. Hundreds of local hikers navigated the mountain with an assortment of brand name attire. Their tan Marmot pants, red Black Yak caps, burgundy Montbell backpacks, and Black Diamond trekking poles were a colorful illustration of just how popular hiking is in South Korea. It’s not just a hobby, it’s a way of life. In the short time I’ve spent in South Korea, I’ve encountered a society that appreciates the natural beauty and rejuvenating magnetism of actively dwelling among the mountains and that is enough to diminish any language barrier.
Mountains (“san” 산 in Korean) play an integral role in the Korean saga on the peninsula. For centuries, the Korean people chiseled their livelihoods from out of the granite and under the shadows of several ancient ranges. Stretching from north to south ranges like the Taebaek, Gwangjoo, Noryong and Sobaek have acted as natural defenses as well distinct internal boundaries. With a peninsula that is seventy percent mountainous, it’s expected that mountains would play a role in one’s national history. Korean mythology teaches that the Dangun, the founder of Gojoseon, the first Korean kingdom, was born on the tallest mountain on the peninsula, North Korea’s Mt. Paektu. According to traditional Korean shamanism, san-shin (산신 meaning mountain spirits) were both feared and worshipped. When exploring Korea’s mountains, you’ll stumble upon Buddhist temples nestled away in the foothills. Throughout history, Korean mountains have been symbols of defense, strongholds for resistance, and shrines of legends.
Although these peaks aren't massive (Hallasan, the highest mountain in South Korea stands 6,400 feet), they are prominent, numerous and exceedingly beautiful. Near Seoul most of the mountains are made up of steep granite slabs making them perfect locations for both hiking and rock climbing. Because much of Korea's populated lowland rests near sea level, the peaks are often conspicuously prominent. In topography, prominence is the height of a mountain compared to the elevation of the lowest contour line surrounding it. For this reason, some Korean climbs force hikers to ascend five to six thousand feet in a day. Much like the United States, South Korea has preserved their most popular peaks as national parks. Thousands of hikers visit the seventeen mountain national parks each year. Listen for the word ending “san” and you’ll find the mountains. Jirisan, Seoraksan, Hallasan, Odaesan, Bukhansan, Woraksan, and Taebaeksan to name a few. There are hundreds of peaks and all of them can be enjoyed year round. The autumn months bring a crisp freshness and an array of oranges, ambers and greens that I din't even know existed in nature. Winter empties the trees of leaves but gifts hikers with a rare opportunity to view snow covered peaks through normally dense vegetation. Summer trekkers meander paths of lush flora and welcome the mountain breezes that whisks one away from the humidity. Year round, these colorful and revitalizing mountain views are never far.
In South Korea, more than any place I’ve travelled, the mountains are an escape. While hiking Bukhansan, you completely forget that you’re only a few miles away from one of the world’s busiest cities. For many Korean trekkers, their local mountains represent freedom from the social and scholastic stressors of being a citizen in a rapidly growing and highly competitive economic powerhouse. The standard long work weeks and intensive academic requirements matter little while traversing a ridge in Seoraksan National Park. A few hours in this soothing environment will leave anyone feeling rejuvenated.
Although my time in the mountains of South Korea has been remarkable, it’s not what I’ve appreciated the most. Instead it’s the shared sense of connection I have with fellow Korean hikers, as we both pursue a venture that brings us greater joy and understanding. It’s the twinkle in the eye of my taxi driver as I step into his cab dressed for the mountains and carrying my climbing rope. There is an automatic sense of mutual respect. We may not understand each other but there is communication nonetheless.