June 6, 2007
It’s Memorial Day here and I have the day off from work. I was planning on getting out of here early to attack a peak in Pukan National Park, but I want to get a few lines in before I leave. An opportunity to solo adventure is upon me; I was going to go with some of the fellas from around here, but they just weren’t feeling it for one reason or another. I have no idea what to expect on the hill today. Will it be busy? A midweek holiday (Wednesday) is a strange one to encounter.
June 7, 2007
Made it up and down a mountain peak or two, taking the hard route many times. After finally leaving the apartment, I made my way up to Bukansan National Forest in the north of Seoul. After hiking to the base of Hayallabong (Peak), I quickly decided to scale the face of the peak, defying—like many others—the danger-do not enter signs; I gave only a brief acknowledgement that there may be an easier way to attain that peak. I saw that there were people older than I scaling these rocks—as if only this had something to do with the ability to do such a task.
Shortly after scaling the first few crevasses, I was about to turn around and just go around, a feeling of failure already creeping in, my legs shaking slightly, the hangdog tail-between-my legs dread at being overcome by my fear of heights and my inability to hoist myself up the more-difficult-than-I-thought climb. I, of course, was not outfitted to climb rocks, my boots, built for hiking, were too big and inflexible to fit the footholds and the traction not designed to grip slippery rock at such extreme angles. And, when I left the apartment earlier, I noticed a couple loose threads on the toe, thinking to myself it might already be time to replace these cheaply bought duds. I was more right than I thought.
As I was being beckoned by the middle-aged man above me and the middle-aged man below me and as I was trying to let the man below me go past so I could descend the peak, the option was not given me as there really was no room to go around him. Finally, I reached up, grabbed the right holds based on the man above me giving me advice and the man below me giving a firm hold on my heel. It is remarkable the things one can communicate with only the limited use of language.
After a few slightly less precarious ascensions to that peak—still with the assistance of the two men—I sat to rest, sweat pouring. I caught my breath, took in the hazy view of downtown Seoul and drank some water, sharing some with one of the men who had helped me from below up to the peak. No exchange of names. Just a shared slake of water and a brief rest. He was, as far as I could tell, older than I by at least five or ten years. All he asked me was if it was my first time in Bukansan. Yes, I said, thinking to myself that it was almost my last had I fallen without his assistance or been vanquished so quickly by that first peak.
In an indirect invite, he simply said let’s go. So we went.
As we hiked, I was pleased that there wasn’t too much talking between us. He knew enough for us to communicate but, after my first success on the first peak, my confidence in other rock climbing endeavors become less inhibited. The people on the mountain were thick, this being a midweek day off and, since many Koreans work six days a week, the extra day for activity was fully taken advantage. As I have mentioned before, the crowds can be a bit off-putting. However, there has been, at least the last couple times on the mountain, a good feeling of camaraderie, especially now that I had a new companion.
While we sometimes dodged people on the more well-traveled paths, we once or twice more went beyond the “Danger” signs and scaled slippery when dry rocks. And after a few of those climbs, learning holds and grips from the example and suggestion of Chee Pyung-Yun (my new fellow trekker), he noticed that the toe of my right book had come completely undone. Now I have been doing a lot of hiking as of late, but hardly should two months of intensive once-a-week hiking merited this to happen. But, you get what you pay for, in most cases. Time for new shoes.
After Pyung-Yun, a 42 year old small business owner who is in Bukansan at least once or twice a week, showed me a lesser known spot where the rocks were shaped like two thrones that overlooked Seoul and shared his kimbap and a slug of congnac with me, we looked at other peaks in the distance, I desiring higher altitudes, looking to one day far surpass the 530 meters of that day’s Bibong. Someday, we both agreed, we would meet up to do some of the 800 meter peaks a little further to the north. I need, first, to get new shoes. We laughed. On our way down the mountain, we saw some people walking up some 60-70 degree sheer rock without ropes, only good shoes. I asked Pyung-Yun if he liked to do that. He said yes and I said that’s crazy. “Next time, I will give you education.” I don’t know about that. But I won’t put limits on anything, either. Went down the mountain and had some cold noodles and parted ways after we exchanged cell numbers for future climbs. Five and a half hours of hiking and scaling.
I will make a point of it to hike solo much more often, as the last two solo excursions (both urban and mountain) have been very rewarding and have provided a different way of thinking, outside the normal routine of reading and writing. Every so often, I will hike with the new crew here, but I find coordinating shit with other people beyond the scope of Street Commanding. And I find myself fully embracing the idea of solitude much more. Also, I find myself trying a bit more to read and teach myself Korean as a tool to keep my mind sharp and, in effect more fully embrace the cultural experience.
June 11, 2007
A perfect place to get away from the grind of the city: Muuido. Janine and I took a bus from Hwajeong (one can take a bus from pretty much anywhere in town) to Incheon International Airport, we transferred to the 222 between departure exits 5 and 6 and took a 10 minute bus ride to the ferry terminal. We paid for a round trip ticket at the office (W2,000) and boarded for a 10 minute boat ride. (If you’ve ever seen Hitchcock’s The Birds and have a resulting fear of them, do not sit out on the deck; the seagulls, the vermin of the sky, are fed by the locals and swarm impetuously to get some snacks.) Once on Muuido, we found the island bus that took us on a 15 minute ride to the other side of the island at Hanagae Beach. Once there, we came upon the small beach huts, rented one for W30,000 and settled in for a long day of sun and just plain old relaxation.
We soon befriended our neighbors, a group of Canadians more around my age than Janine’s (this being a rarity) and these folks–Steve, Matt, Rhiannon and Adam—have all been here for three and four years. To consistently meet people and talk of your path and hear of theirs is good as a constant reminder of what brought you here and where you want to go. Often, in the rare dark times, it is easy to lose sight of all of your goals and fall back into old habits. By constantly putting yourself out there, you realize through the people you meet and the places you see, that you must balance future goals with living in the now.
I could see myself coming back to that small island and doing a little more hiking and just relaxing, reading a book, watching the kids play around, taking swims and observing the dramatic change of tides (the mud flats allow for you to go about 250 yards—or 228 meters—to see small crabs, hermit crabs and dig for clams), and see a dramatic sunset. Later, we had a feast of samgapsal (“three layers of fat” pork), a campfire and some beer, easily meeting locals and waegookens (foreigners) alike.
The next morning, the tide was in and we went into the gentle surf to wake up the body and mind. We watched an agima at lunch tear apart an octopus limb from limb after puncturing its head to a squishy sound of water; she chopped that bad boy up while its tentacles were still flailing, suckering her deft hands. The pieces of tentacles were still moving a little as she delivered the delicacy to a neighboring store.
Back in the water shortly after lunch and then packed up, making plans for another island excursion in the near future (though I think I may have to miss it because Jenie is leaving the same weekend they are planning their next trip). Next weekend: the Big Bu for Paully’s housewarming party.
June 18, 2007
Got back into Seoul this morning with a few hours to spare before heading back to the salt mines. It was good to get back to Busan again. I realized how much cleaner and easier it is to get around in that town (as compared to Seoul). Don’t get me wrong, I like where I live now and I like the massiveness of it and all the things there are to do. But, it would be nice if there were a little more Busan in Seoul. Like the clean air, the beaches and my buddies from the Busan era.
After a brief wandering of Nampo Dong—for various and sundry items in that huge shopping area—Janine and I hopped a cab to the northwest part of town (Hwamyeong) to go to Paul and Rachel’s house. I used to work with Rachel and Paul is her husband, whom I have become good buddies with over the last ten months; he and I will probably do some traveling together in the summer of next year—Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Janine took a nap and Paul and I went for a cruise on his scooter. After riding on that thing a couple times, I am definitely in the market for one in the next couple months. So much fun and just think of all the cruising around I could do, scootering to a hiking spot and parking it while I climb. The biggest benefit would be that I could go places and not be at the mercy of a subway schedule, the crush of crowds on the subway and the altogether too-underground of said mode of transportation. More adventures to come in that regard.
Anyhow, Paul and I picked up a few things for his housewarming party, he having moved out of a small studio where he lived with his wife for a year and into a breezy three-bedroom apartment with a view of the Nakdong River and a crystal clear view of the mountains across the valley. Both Paul and Rachel seemed very happy and that was good to see. Later in the evening, after watching the sunset and having a glass of wine with some pizza, people began to show up, including my old buddies Andrew and Rob from the YBM days. Was good to see them and get caught up on some of the silliness that is Andrew’s weekend exploits. Rob will be dropping by Anyang on his way out of the country in a week or two; he is leaving early from the contract for a couple weddings and a PE job back in Canada.
Stayed up late talking with Paul and Rachel after everyone left. Got up late the next morning, had a great brunch (one that would make Ma proud) and, before heading to Haeundae Beach for a swim in my second sea (the East Sea) in one week, Paul, Janine and I headed to the UN Cemetery. Anyone who has read the long emails I used to send out before starting this online journal knows I have been here a couple times before. But, each time, it is a sobering experience, realizing the numbers of people who died in the Korean conflict of the early 1950s. I probably wouldn’t have gone back there if Janine hadn’t wanted to visit the grave of the only soldier from Paisley, Ontario (her hometown) to have been killed here. But I am glad I did. It was good to see that so many people still remember the sacrifice made by so many.
June 19, 2007
And, if we do not remember, history—terrible history—tends to repeat itself. Yet, it seems the cycle never really stops in the Middle East. It also appears that Russia is flexing its muscles again. It is fascinating to see how things develop around the world, but it is also a little disconcerting to see thing such as the dispute over the US insistence on the missile shield and Russia’s bristling over such threats to their share of the balance when it comes to military strength and global influence. I mean, if there’s one thing the US needs is a series of checks and balances when it comes to its expansion. I wonder how much studying is going on in the White House of the past empires of Rome and Great Britain and where they made their mistakes and where bloodshed could have been avoided.
Anyhow, I do my best to learn from my own history, constantly asking questions of my actions and thoughts. Though, I am no global super power; I have the luxury of acting foolish (at least in my own eyes) as long as I am conscious enough to ask the important questions of myself before I do anything stupid to harm other people. Perhaps that is the luxury of someone so far from family.
The best I can do is keep the peace around me and inside me.