Despite the reality that it is late in November, a warm Sunday affords a unique opportunity. We decide to head Cheongyesan, a mountain located less than ten minutes from our apartment on the bus. A hop on the shuttle and soon I find myself standing at the foot of a mountain that I fully intend to scale.
Hiking is a huge phenomenon in Korea. The landscape here is not one of fields and lakes, but rather of varying peaks scattered across the countryside and jutting up in the middle of Seoul. It’s almost impossible to look in any direction and not see a mountain somewhere.
The foot of the mountain is a small village of fruit and vegetable vendors, displaying their products on blankets and in boxes. Equipment stores for hiking gear are part of almost every structure, while hundreds of dedicated hikers mill around for some fresh Kimbab or Tteokbokki snacks. Up the mountain we head.
The terrain is craggy, with rock faces on either side. Dead leaves blow across the landscape. The wind is arid, but faint. Three quarters of the way up the mountain we are greeted by a man who is presumably a Buddhist monk. “Miguk?” he asks me, inquiring if I am American. “Anio, chonun Canada saram imnida…” is the best I can reply; No, I am a Canadian. He laughs. He doesn’t speak any English, but I scrape together enough of what he says next to determine that he’s asking me if I know much Korean. I tell him that I only know a little bit, and cross my fingers hoping that what he says next doesn’t make me look like a complete idiot. But he says nothing more and gestures toward a passage under some rocks, inviting me to walk under them three times, presumably a ritual of good luck.
A few minutes later we pass a man climbing the mountain with at least 10 litres of water in containers strapped to his back and at least 50 lbs of other supplies on him. He is sweating heavily and moving slow enough to take the entire day to reach the peak of the mountain. I wonder why he is lugging so much water to the top.
It takes an hour and a half to reach the summit, the whole climb being at a 45 degree angle up rock and wooden steps. Reaching the summit, almost 2,000 feet high, we are exhausted from the relentless climb but elated by the accomplishment. There I find the reason for the poor man’s climb of near-slavery. He is delivering supplies to the small noodle stand at the top of the mountain – water to boil, crates of noodles to cook on propane stoves. He probably only has enough strength to complete one or two trips a day. A hard way to make a living.
After a packed lunch that we ourselves lugged to the top, we make a much quicker descent to the foot of the mountain again, legs shaking like jelly. During the climb and descent I can’t help but notice how many of the climbers were in their sixties or older.
Now that’s one hell of a way to spend your retirement.