Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Most Important Lesson


Korea taught me a lot of extremely important life lessons. Sometimes learning was difficult, mostly it was extremely fun.

In Korea I was forced to confront my own cultural and personal philosophies, my ways of living, and my expectations - this is because I often had to justify them verbally to sceptical locals. When someone says "you must be very rich because you living in a house instead of an apartment," it makes you take a mental step backwards to confront your own expectations and definitions of wealth and lifestyle.

Okay guys, my house is less this,
More this.
This kind of thing happened to me every day: From the minor "swim caps, goggles, and 1 piece suits are mandatory in pools" to the gut wrenching "how can you live so far away from your grandparents?" or the infuriating "do it without question because the person asking is older and higher ranked than you." Every time I was forced to stop and think about these weird things that I never would have thought about because I had to in order to successfully negotiate this world so fundamentally different from the one I'd come from. When you have to perform such mental acrobatics on a daily basis, you are inevitably strengthened.

So what did I learn? A few tangible things, like "eating a whole raw garlic clove won't kill you," "some people are just assholes," "pain is temporary," and "Dokdo is Korean" (j/k).

and "Gochujang is delicious in literally everything."
Mostly, however, the lessons have been less tangible. I've become a more patient, confident, and empathetic person. I have less self-doubt, and with that comes an increased ability to stand up for myself and to identify insecurity or hostility in others.  I have a much stronger sense of who I am, of what I believe is right/wrong, and of what is really important to me in life. Admittedly, part of all this is probably just a side-effect of growing up, but if nothing else living in another country for a year at sped up the process. I've been jostled from the secure perch of western Canadian culture, and I've had to flail around a little bit to find my balance.

BUT: There is one lesson I learned in Korea that has proved to be The Most Important Lesson.

That lesson is this: Being challenged is GREAT.

I was extremely happy in Korea. Yes, part of that was having a low-responsibility job with lots of recreation time to pursue my hobbies and travel Asia. But more than that, it was the experience of being challenged every day. Every time I over-came something, or saw something new, or did something totally different and outside of my comfort zone, I got an instant boost of happiness and confidence.

For an entire year, I was basically this monkey.
No, it was not always roses and sunshine: As this blog can attest, I failed constantly....but even the experience of getting back up on my feet after failure boosted me. If all I ever did was come to Korea, realize I couldn't stand, it and pulled a midnight run, I still would have come out having learned something valuable.

Before I left Korea, I made a promise to myself that I would always live my life like I did when I was there. It might not always be possible to take amazing vacations to Japan or to have a mountain-top running trail 100 metres from my apartment stairs...but it is possible to challenge myself on a daily basis, to explore the world around me like a visitor, and to make time for adventure.




Since I've been back I've been pretty successful at sticking to my promise. I've done things I never would have done before Korea, and explored places around my old home town that I somehow managed to never see. I did a 5 day canoe trip with a mostly-stranger, I kicked ass at an ultimate tournament, completed the 7 summits race, I found a bunch of new trails that I hike and bike relentlessly, I climbed two mountains I'd never climbed before, I stayed the night in a cabin on one of them, I joined a yoga studio and a brand new ultimate league, I made a bunch of new friends and rekindled my relationships with old ones, I applied for jobs I wasn't qualified for (and even interviewed for a few of them), I applied for a PhD, I tried and failed at single-track downhill biking, I ran over twenty kilometres in one day, I started swimming again. I feel fear, stress, and insecurity all time time, but instead of being a barrier, these feelings motivate and excite me.

I've really missed writing in this blog...but having more or less acknowledged that I'm not going back to Korea any time soon (unless my education AND my work prospects here in Canada should fail me), I feel like continuing my writing here would be inappropriate. Besides, I want this blog to remain as a resource for future teachers and visitors to Korea. I've had quite a bit of response to the hiking trip posts thanking me for English guidance, and I wouldn't want to dilute those posts with stuff about my adventures in BC.

My new blogging venue is over at onewomanwilderness.blogspot.com. I'll be doing something similar to what I did here. You can expect travel and trail info, photos, product reviews, and the occasional opinion piece.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Reverse Culture Shock Part III - adjusting to change, nakedness, and fear.


When I was in South Korea I had this strange ritual. It happened about once a week. There would be a moment when I had my eyes closed: maybe just after I woke up, or in the shower, or during a run. My eyes would be closed and I would think: "I'm back in BC again. Korea was a dream. Around me are familiar Canadian things: my boyfriend, my bathtub, my apartment, my mom's house. There are pine trees and lawns and fences and pick-ups, and when I open my eyes I'll be there."

For a second it would actually feel real...sometimes my longing was so strong I was honestly unsure of what I would see when I opened my eyes again.

I don't think these imaginings were the product of a desire to escape, but rather a disbelief that I could even be there in the first place. It takes a while for "I'm living in a foreign country" to sink in. Way longer than a year.

Weirdly enough, now that I'm back in BC I've started doing the same thing. Tonight at the pool under the shower I closed my eyes and thought "when I open them I'm going to be at the pool in my little Gangwondo hometown, surrounded by naked adjumas and little kids running around in their swim-suits, and all the signs are going to be in Korean, and I'll say "'kay-say-yo!" to the cashier on the way out. For a second it felt real, and I was filled with the same intense longing I felt two weeks ago when I thought about being back in BC.

I guess I didn't absorb quite enough buddhist philosophy in Korea. I might have to go back for more, so I can learn how to be happy where I am and with what I have. Clearly I'm not good at adjusting to change.

----------------------------------------------------

Since we're on the topic of pools, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Korea's public bathhouses and their occupants for completely ridding me of any body shyness. Tonight in my tiny BC hometown, me and a 70 year old ripped grandma were the only women in the whole room to strip down shamelessly in the pool shower, unknowingly violating a social norm I had totally forgotten existed.

I didn't even notice I'd done something unusual until I caught other women looking away from me in embarrassment. I thought about covering up, but I couldn't help but think how ridiculous everyone else looked, fruitlessly trying to cover themselves as they dress as quickly as possible, or doing strange dances while trying to pull on undergarments under precariously tied towels.  Screw it. I'm going to swagger naked and shameless through public change rooms from now until I'm 100. It's a body, and its an imperfect body...but I happen to know from my extensive experience in Korean public bathhouses that hardly any bodies are perfect, even gorgeous Asian ones that look perfect when they're under clothes. So we as a society should probably just take a hint from the Korean adjumas and collectively get over it.

-----------------------------------------------------

Something else I didn't see coming: I forgot about being afraid. When I was in Korea I was never afraid of anything. I can even tie this back to the pool thing, because I used to walk home from the pool every night in the dead of winter at 10pm in the pitch black and didn't even think twice about it. I would also regularly spend hours in the remote mountains completely alone. I never felt afraid once. Sometimes I even put headphones in and listened to music, I was that ballsy. Occasionally my imagination would say "someone could rob you right now," but then the more practical side of my brain would go "except that it would make national headlines if they did, because that literally never happens here," and I would continue on my merry fearless way.

I guess besides the knowledge that Korea is an incredibly safe country, the feeling of human habitation is always all around you there, so its incredibly easy to feel comfortable no matter where you are. NOT SO in BC. In BC, you're in the wild. Even though the things you are most likely to encounter in in BC are (in order of likeliness) 1. nothing, 2. rabbits, 3. cats, and 4. deer, it doesn't take much for one's imagination to skip right from rabbits to bears and cougars (which are actually possible, if not likely), and from there its a pretty easy imaginary transition to zombies and Velociraptors. Being out alone in BC is scary.

Another reason to go back: for my own safety.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Jirisan - the last last goodbye to Korea's National Parks

After Seoraksan, I knew I wasn't quite finished with Korea's mountains, so I added Jirisan to my "things to do before I leave Korea" list, and actually managed to get it done during the chaotic last weeks of my time in Korea.

My Haedong master was the one who recommended Jirisan: he told me that Seoraksan was great, but Jirisan has an older, quieter feel. The way he spoke about it made me suspect that Jirisan also represents a piece of nostalgia for him, since he grew up nearby in Jeolonam-do. He has told me a little about his past, both good and bad, and for him, like many Koreans, the national parks represent locations of safety and peace, away from their chaotic high-pressure lives.

Unfortunately for me, it also meant that he was not willing to accept my usual "I'll just show up and wing it" trip plan. In the usual overly-generous Korean way, he wanted to make sure I had the best experience possible and he proceeded to plan and book my route/accommodation in minute detail. This chafed more than it should have because A) I hate being told what to do (especially by an older Korean man for whom I've been nursing a ridiculous unrequited crush) and B) Because I really honestly didn't know how my trip was going to go: I had a number of other things I needed to do that week, including visiting Gangneung and Gwangju and an Ultimate tournament the following weekend in Daejeon. 


So despite my constant pleas not to involve himself, he booked me three nights in the mountains, which was very nice of him....but slightly annoying at the same time. Out of a mix of rebelliousness and pure disorganization, I only ended up making one of the reservations. Unfortunately, when I missed my first night they called him.......and he proceeded to call me and in true Korean fashion rebuke me thoroughly. I then had to update him at least 8 times a day about where I was and where I was going....this would have been annoying from anyone else, but mostly just came off as endearing from the man who spends half his time kicking my ass across the haedong gym and the other half resolutely ignoring my blatant come-ons. 


I spent the night in Korean-style budget accommodation: the Minbak. Minbak are heated under the floor, and you sleep on the ground. Otherwise its just like a regular hotel room. I was warned beforehand to "insist on fresh bedding" as they often don't change out the blankets between occupants at a Minbak....this was not an issue as I was the only occupant at the place I chose, and had to have a room freshly prepared for me. Unfortunately, like in my traditional accommodation experience in Japan, I had bug issues: this time crickets. Even though it was still scorching hot in the rest of Korea, the air in the mountains was decidedly crisp, and I guess my warm blankets were as appealing to the crickets as they were to me. Yuck.


Jungsaani is a dedicated tourist town with with numerous Minbak, a huge bus stop, a ranger station, small restaurants, and some convenience stores. I felt less like the only tourist than I had at Osaek....but the place still gave off an "off-season" vibe, even though it was late-August. Many shops were closed, and there were few customers. My Minbak was up the hill from the main centre, so I walked down and had Kimchi Jjigae at the only open restaurant, swam in the river with some vacationing university students, caught a ride back to my room with the Minbak owner (a friendly guy who had some errands to run in town), and curled up with the crickets. I fell asleep listening to the river rush by - no traffic, no laughing adjushis, no city lights. It felt distinctly like camping in Canada and when I closed my eyes it was easy to imagine being in a tent next to the Isaac River in Bowron Lake Provincial Park on the other side of the world. It was a funny thing to imagine, especially with my return to Canada looming so close.

These flowers look distinctly like tiny mischievous dragons.
I woke up early to a light rain that got steadily heavier as I started my climb up to Cheonwangbong, the highest peak in the park and the second highest in South Korea. The going was steep and the views more or less entirely obscured by the rain. 



There were also a lot of these signs, which warn you against "bivac" (camping) due to sunbears. 
About halfway up I stopped to explore a gorgeous temple. The bad weather only served to make the place more peaceful - sound was muffled by the heavy mist that shrouded the entire valley and drifted between the buildings,  the smell of wet incense was heavy in the air, and a lone bell tolled quietly. I filled my water-bottle at the temple spring, and was joined by a woman monk in white robes and shaved head. It was basically the most iconic Korean temple experience the universe could possibly have mustered for me.






When I reached Cheonwangbong it was raining heavily, and the wind was merciless on the summit. I stayed long enough to eat some beef jerky and get my picture taken by the only other visitors (who offered me their rain jackets - so sweet!) I then proceeded down toward Seseok Shelter. The route was an amazing tangle of boulders, cliffs, jagged ridges, and alpine. At one point I stepped over a deep crevasse....only to follow the trail down and around in a complete circle, so that I was looking back UP between the rocks I'd stepped over from at least 3 stories below. I spent a lot of time trying not to think about the views I was missing behind the thick mist.

I look as cold as I felt here!



I arrived at Seseok at about 3 pm....an hour too early to check in. The shelters are large ski-resort-esque buildings with outhouses, kitchens, sleeping rooms, and offices for the rangers where they sell water, canned meat, and dried ramyeon. I was cold and wet, so I curled up with my book to watch sopping wet hikers pass by and to wait for them to open the sleeping rooms. 

There is some construction happening on the trail above the shelter, and a group of workers who had been shut down due to the weather were eating and drinking in one of the rooms in the basement of the shelter. They had enough alcohol in them to make them bold enough to approach the foreigner...they insisted I join them for food, hot coffee, and copious amounts of soju, which they were shooting out of regular sized cups instead of shot glasses. They were very friendly, but slightly creepy. When one of them asked if I would like to take a hot shower in his room, I decided it was time to politely back away, and went so join the rest of the hikers in the sleeping rooms above. 



I rented two blankets from the rangers - one to sleep on, and one to sleep under. They are functional green monstrosities: thick and warm and delightful. You sleep divided by gender (or you can sleep in the main room, which is mixed), on raised wooden platforms. Have I mentioned recently that I love sleeping on the floor? Best sleep of my life in the that shelter, although it might have had as much to do with being warm and dry and full of food as anything else. 

The crazy Koreans like to summit their mountains at dawn, and despite the fact that it was still raining heavily and CLEARLY was not going to offer a good view, everyone else in the shelter was up and out of there between 3 and 4am.  I slept until 9, and then headed out. I made my decent down to Baekmudong. At Baekmudong there are regular buses to Daejeon and Seoul as well as to the closest shiway (intercity) bus station at the tiny town of Hamyang where you can go anywhere. 

The trail down to Baekmudong was deserted except for me. Improbably, about half a kilometer below the ridge-line, a raging river pops out of nowhere beside the trail. Where that water comes from is a complete mystery to me and makes me wish I knew more about geography. 





I followed the river all the way to the bottom, crossing some pretty spectacular water-falls and pools along the way. I took my time and enjoyed the sensation of being alone with the river and the mountain and the thick brush and even the rain. I risked a skinny-dip to wash up about half-way to the bottom. It was amazing to stand in that clear deep green pool with the water dropping off the mountain in one direction, and crashing down from above on the other. I guess mountain rivers in Korea don't have a lot of room to be draw out their spectacularness, so they tend not to mess around. I've seen some pretty gorgeous water in BC, but nothing really compares to what I found in Korea - nor can it be properly captured on film. The water is so voluminous and clear and the stream-beds are amazingly steep and boulder filled. It really is like being in some sort of fantasy-land, and I never fail to feel as if I've walked into a book when I hike in Korea. 

My swimming spot


It was a great trip, and I'm so glad I managed to fit in in....but I left with the sensation that I needed to do it over again under more favourable circumstances. There was definitely a touch of melancholy hanging over me, as every interesting experience or beautiful view was followed by "I wonder if I'll ever see anything like this again, I wonder if I'll ever even come close to this place again." I also felt pressure to have the best possible "last trip," and the ridiculousness of this sentiment was only underlined by the relentless rain. I suspect I missed a lot, both because of the weather and because of my pre-occupation with my impending departure from Korea. I really do hope I get to go back...even now, two weeks after being back in Canada, I'm still not sure what the future holds.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Jirisan, after talking to other hikers and reading numerous blogs, is how rugged and wild this park really is, compared to other parks in Korea. In other places its difficult to get into trouble: you're never far from civilization, and amenities are always close. Jirisan is big, you're a little isolated, and the terrain, while no more extreme than other places, becomes more challenging due to its distance from civilization. Most of the people I talked to about the park were caught in some way unaware or unprepared: not leaving enough time or not having the proper gear to face the challenges the mountain threw at them. I am not exempt - while packing I picked up my rain-jacket, then looked outside at the blue-bird skies and 35 degree weather and thought "naw....it won't rain...and even if it does, it'll be warm." Neither of these assumptions was accurate. Jirisan made me check my confidence and made me realize that my outdoorsy instincts have been somewhat dulled by the super-accessible, super-safe Korean wilderness. It was a great reminder. 

I really sincerely hope I get the chance to get up on that mountain again - perhaps to do the entire ridge-line from end to end, and to check out the views from that spectacular peak. I might even do it at dawn if it isn't raining. And I definitely won't forget my rain-coat. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Reverse Culture Shock

I got home last night and my mom made me macaroni and cheese and apple blackberry crumble and a fresh spinach salad, which, if you didn't know, are my three favorite things in the world.

I'm behind on Korea stuff still (I didn't have time to write about my Jirisan trip or any of the things I did in the last two weeks), so I promise I'll put that stuff up soon. Without Korea, I don't really know where this blog is going. Maybe it'll just become a chronicle of all the things I miss. "Today I craved Dakgalbi, and COULDN'T EAT IT AND WILL NEVER EAT IT AGAIN, OH GOD."

I have to get my life in order....you know...find a job and call my bank and buy a gumdo sword and stuff....but I just want to record some of the weird little things that surprised me when I got back.

1. Everything is SO BIG. Especially vehicles. Trucks! People drive trucks! Big trucks! Holy shit, I forgot how big trucks are!

2. There is English everywhere. I can be standing next to people and understand what they're saying...all the small-talk and gossip. The most surprising thing about it is that it made me realize that in Korea I wasn't missing much. People talk about the most inane things! For a whole YEAR I didn't have to over-hear peoples' stupid phone conversations with their friends...AND IT WAS GREAT.

Furthermore, understanding the dominant language doesn't really actually benefit me that much. In Korea I always thought "if only I could understand what people were saying, I could get around a lot easier." But this is false. Being able to understand everything people are saying has not improved or even substantially changed my travel/life experience.

3. Canadians are RUDE! I was so embarrassed for Canada all day yesterday! The flight attendants on the my Air Canada flight totally railed on these poor Korean kids who were waiting for their teacher. The bus driver gave a Chinese couple with a a baby the 9th degree for accidentally purchasing the wrong ticket. I was dirty and tired, sure, but people were SO short with me, and I got a LOT of raised eyebrows and no help from anyone when I was struggling with a heavy suitcase! Korea is supposedly unfriendly to foreigners, but I have to say I would NEVER have had that kind of experience in Korea. I think group culture is responsible for this one. Canadians are SO self-interested!

4. Everything is so expensive. Food, transportation, everything. They were selling sushi for SEVEN DOLLARS on the ferry. OMFG.

5. Anonymity. The size of my luggage attracted a few blatant stares, but for the most part I blended into the crowd. That was weird.

6. NO WIFI. Canada, how do you survive with so little wifi? I cancelled my phone the day before I left Korea, and yet was RARELY without internet. In Canada as soon as I left YVR THERE WAS NOTHING. Canada is a barren wasteland.

7. Bathroom doors are SOOOOO HIGH! People can see my feet when I pee! Ew!!

On the other hand, the bathrooms are super clean, and there's always soap AND paper towel in them. Which strikes me as outright wasteful, but its still nice. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Goodbye Gangwondo

Soraksan is arguably the most famous National Park in Korea, and its been on my "to do" list since day one. Since I somehow never got around to it until now, I decided that Soraksan would be a great "goodbye" trip - a way get some quality time with just the two of us - me and Gangwondo's gorgeous green mountains.




My first foyer into the park was with Mom, where we explored Dong Sorak/Outer Sorak. We took a cable car up the mountain and then wandered around on the summit for a bit, but it was foggy and crowded and not exactly what I had in mind. For my second trip into the park I wanted to go somewhere more remote, I wanted more time to explore, and when I heard that there were hot springs, I wanted those too.

It takes about 5 hours to get from my home to Namseorak and Osaek Hot Spring. I took the train as far as I could, then a series of buses to progressively smaller towns. In the tiny fishing/mushroom coastal village of Yangyang, there wasn't even a proper bus going where I needed - I was put on one of the massive Daesong express buses headed for Seoul. As I left Yangyang the bus almost immediately climbed a narrow road with crystal clear streams crashing away at the bottom of steep canyons on one side and the steep green walls of the mountains that towered over them on the other. The driver dropped me at a small break in the wall of mountains, on the side of the highway with nothing but a tiny general store in sight. My first thought was "perfect."





Osaek village itself is perched on the banks of a green-blue sandstone-lined river with supposedly mineral properties, and its really little more than a collection of restaurants and hotels to service hikers. The Green Yard Hotel is the best known and the easiest to find - it looks like a condo straight out of the Swiss Alps with white facades, wood trim, and peaked roofs. The only oddity was the big empty swimming pool out front, obviously abandoned and filled with leaves. I checked out the price of rooms, just to see if they were in my budget...but of course they were not. The hotel was so akin to a resort one might find in Canada that I felt almost as if I'd walked into a lobby on the other side of the world....I left quickly, and  was about to enter the next motel on the strip when a smiling woman called to me from her porch a few doors down. She didn't speak any English, but my broken Korean sufficed. She named a price that I could accept and showed me a cute little room with a tiny balcony and a comfortable bed. I didn't bother looking any further.



By the time I got down to the restaurants I was starting to suspect I was the only tourist in town.  I hadn't gone more than 100 meters when a grandmother flagged me down and directed me to her restaurant, where her two adult sons served me Naengmyun (iced buck-wheat noddle soup with vegetables and egg). I was the only one there. After eating I tried to hunt down the next day's trail head. Although there is a map for YangYang county as a whole (Osaek appears as a very unhelpful red dot), there was no map for Osaek village itself, and no trail map that showed the starting point. Trekking in Korea is still emerging as a recreational activity....I guess a lot of this stuff just hasn't been developed yet.


I didn't find the trail head I was looking for, but I  found a different one - it led up into the steep rock-walled Osaek canyon and promised water falls and temples along the way. According to the sign posted at the bottom, it was about 5kms to the top. I wasn't prepared for a hike (no water, wearing my Berks), but I knew that the next day would be spent elsewhere and wanted to see as much of the park as I could. Besides, temples are usually serviced by a small fountain I could drink from.  I ended up doing about 3/4 of the hike, with a stop to swim in a crystalline pool beneath towering sandy boulders. There were a few people with the same idea as me, dipping their feet in the water...but higher up on the trail it was just me and the mountain and a million exquisite little waterfalls, pools, side streams, and jagged canyon walls. I got back in the dark, raided the general store for the next day's lunch (I'd been expecting more amenities and ended up eating jerky, crackers, and extremely expensive apples), and then crashed in bed.






In the morning I got up early to a perfect blue-bird day and made an educated guess about where the Namseorak ranger station would be located.The ranger was taking pictures for a group of hikers and waving them through at no cost, so I jumped on the bandwagon and got my picture taken too.


The way up was steep and rocky. I started in cool green trees along a wide stone path...but soon the trail ascended straight up the mountain side. I passed the group I'd started with early on, but saw a lot of people who were going the opposite way as me. It turns out that the most popular way to see Soraksan is at dawn - many people climb during the night to time their ascent at sunrise. It seems like an exhausting way to do things to me, but Koreans are weird like that.




The kind of person who can afford to go hiking in Seorakson during their holiday are usually well-educated, middle-class, and and very happy to be outdoors...and so I found myself being greeted constantly in Korean and in English every time I passed someone new. Although I didn't know the Korean for "Are you travelling alone?" before this trip, I heard it so many times by the time I reached the summit that I now have it memorized. I also got a lot of practice with "Where are you from?" and "Are you married?" "Are you a teacher?" and "How long have you been in Korea?"

The Daecheongbong ranger station where you can spend the night and also get ripped off on water.

I spent quite a bit of time with a very nice couple who were doing multiple days in the park (you can stay in the ranger stations or temples  for a small fee). The wife couldn't figure out why on earth I would voluntarily choose to hike alone; the husband spoke very clipped, correct English and told me about his hometown at Andong. When we finally parted ways, they gave me a handkerchief and reminded me again of why I love the people here. A small gesture, but so remarkably kind and thoughtful.



Seoraksan is only the second mountain I've been on in Korea where I actually got high enough to find a little alpine. It was a strange, grassy kind of alpine with piles of boulders, wildflowers, and stunted pines. The view looked out over jagged golden stone peaks that typify Seoraksan to Sokcho city on the East Sea in one direction, and over a sea of mist-shrouded green mountains in the other.

Summit at Daecheongbong
Sokcho and the east sea in the distance
Rugged landscapes the other way.
It was only 1pm by the time I summitted....and after getting food and water in me I felt too fresh and excited to just head back down the way I'd come. I'd noticed on the maps that there was a longer route following Kkeutcheong ridge that met the same highway I'd been dropped off on the day before - at a rest stop called Hangyeryeong  pass. I was hesitant because there was no distance marker for the stretch of highway between the two points. In addition, the route itself was quite a bit longer than my ascent, adding 7kms to the trip. To add to it all, I was low on water. I debated with myself for a while, and then realized that it was probably the last time I'd be there....and really....the worst that could happen is I'd get down thirsty in the dark. So off I went.


Looking back at a Kkeutcheong ridge section. A bit bouldery. 
It turned out to be a great choice - I scrambled over huge tumbled boulders, up onto tiny alpiney summits, and clamoured up and down huge cliffs. I passed 5 or 6 groups on the way down - families, couples, and "Alpine Clubs" from the big national universities. I tried to go quickly to allow myself time to figure out a potentially sticky situation at Hangyeryeong Pass, and I started to get really worried when I didn't drop significant elevation during the first 6 kms. Every time I thought "Okay, we're going down now" I'd be inevitably met with another up section. This worried me because I knew I had gained significant elevation (at least 5 kms straight up) from Osaek that morning, and was still looking way way way down at where I'd started. 



The last 1km led straight down onto the rest stop where there was a collection of giftshops and restaurants....but no bus stop and a big sign that read "Osaek: 8kms." I was sore and tired and the road was narrow and windy with absolutely zero shoulder.



Although I didn't know it at the time, I would eventually end up at the top of the winding road you can see on the right
Its worth noting at this point that I forgot to get cash before leaving home, so when I arrived in Osaek the day before I had exactly 4000w (about $4) in my pocket. It turned out that the town of Osaek was mostly card-friendly...but the only ATM in town would not accept my NH card to withdraw any cash. 4000w was my cash budget until I got back to civilization. I spent 3000w on water at the ranger station at the top of the
mountain.

Welll....shit.....
I asked at a coffee shop how I could get to Osaek and it turns out that there is a bus of sorts - but it costs 1300w...and they don't accept cards. I was able to scrape together enough with my last 1000w note plus some change found in the bottom of my bag. Phew. There was no bus stop - I just stood on the side of the highway and waited for another one of those huge Daesong Express buses from Seoul. By the time it arrived, the groups I'd passed on the way down had caught up with me, and together we climbed on board: stinky, sweaty, mucky, and exhausted, next to all the clean, well-dressed tourists headed to Sokcho beach from the big city.

I went immediately to the cold mineral-spring river and lay in it until I felt my core body temperature drop to a reasonable level (did I mention it was about a million degrees out?)...and then headed back to my room to get soaps and clean clothes before heading to the basement of the Green Yard, which boasts a huge cavernous public bath I wrote about below. Several of the older women tested my limited Korean conversation/listening skills by asking all about my life and telling me about the properties of the cool, murky "mineral water" that makes Osaek unique. I stayed there until closing, and then headed back to my room to pass out. 


Handkerchief gifted by the Korean couple!
The next morning as I packed my bags I found another crumpled 1000w note at the bottom of my bag, and reflected that it might have saved me quite a bit of stress if I'd known it was there yesterday. I intended to buy a bus ticket to Chuncheon and take a different route back to my town....but it turns out that the bus counter does not accept cards. So I had my crumpled 1000w from the night before and whatever change I could scrounge up to get home. This turned out to be exactly enough to pay for the (very sporadic) city bus between Osaek and Yangyang which just so happened to arrived within half an hour. Purest Luck. 

It was in many ways the perfect way to say "goodbye" to gorgeous Gangwondo and all the things I love about this place...but it wasn't enough. Maybe nothing will be enough. 


Regardless, I'm headed to Jirisan next week to try and sate my appetite for Korea's mountains. Its not that I don't love BC's peaks, but there is something special about Korea....the narrow sheer-drop-off curtain-like ridges, the perfect clear rivers, the ancient tumbled sandstone boulders, the ornately adorned temples and the smell of incense on the wind, the cicadas, the choking vines, the sweat that's so heavy it drips from your finger tips, the stories of gods that inhabit the peaks and animals and caves, the offerings, the laughing, smiling, brightly clothed, amiable people. Korea's mountains were the place where I fell in love with this country, and they are also where I learned the most about myself: Running in the hills is how I processed everything that comes with expat life - from the small cultural dilemmas to the crippling insecurities and homesickness. They've made my body stronger and my mind healthier. I want as much of them in my life as I can possibly manage.