I’ve always found it hard to describe natural beauty. Urban landscapes have defined shapes and textures that are easy to distinguish and contemplate but natural landscapes are blurry to me. They’re much more abstract – fuzzy and mysterious, with no definite boundaries, ingredients or relationships. The only thing I can contemplate with any simplicity or accuracy is my reaction.
Jirisan made me laugh and swear. It felt ridiculous. Like an intricate sculpture made of marble or ice – how can it exist? It seems quite silly that it does. I had this reaction many times because Jirisan doesn’t have just one outfit but hundreds of vastly different appearances. The horizons seemed to flip through different ecosystems with the flippant ease of a middle school powerpoint presentation . Click, click, click, temperate forest, tundra, flowery winter meadow, all these different things I don’t know the names for. Everything spectacular and different and all I could do is laugh and say fuck.
Korean hikers are hilarious. They’re sooooo serious. Many wake up at three am every morning to see sunrises on mountain tops only to fall asleep several hours later. The level of their equipment and accessorisation would put a 1960s James Bond to shame. It doesn’t matter if they’re doing a one day hike or a forty day mountain stay, every hiker had specialised boots, pants, shirts, jackets, bags, glasses, hats, gloves, hiking poles and a ridiculously enormous bag full of kitchen utensils, food and more even more hiking gear – you know just it case there’s a blizzard in the middle of summer. One guy told us his bag weighed 30kg. Our bags were about 5kg.
How hilarious would it be working in a Korean hiking store.
“Hi, can I help you?”
“One of everything please.”
Hiking poles were the funniest thing. Everyone had them and most people used them so seriously as if they without them they couldn’t walk at all. But pretty much every path in Jirisan was covered in rocks – hiking poles, being metal and designed to stick in things, are about as useful as a bag of human shit.
You could always hear the local hikers coming from behind. First a jarring clatter of hiking poles then a dim beat. No one gives a fuck about tranquility here, most hiking teams carry a radio or mobile phone which loudly and constantly plays k-pop or guitar soloy rock. Whenever a particularly fast group came past I felt like a train had just passed.
The local hikers must of thought Nicole and I were either impoverished or outrageously adventurous. The only things we had were the skimpy clothes we were wearing, a jumper, some pants and a few apples, eggs, some biscuits and can or two. Meal times were hilarious. We would pull out a few biscuits and and a boiled egg while the table next to us would be sautéing beef in a non-stick wok while a pot of noodles boiled with some homemade kimchi.
Of course we were jealous but it didn’t matter because, whether out of sympathy or kindness, people just kept giving us stuff. Sometimes we bartered* but usually people would just hand things over for free. Two guys we met, who we named Di Caprio and Edward, invited us to dinner and gave us pork belly and cabbage stew, two kinds of homemade kimchi, a marinated bowl of shallots and onions and several glasses of soju. After dinner they invited us to join them for breakfast.
The trek was fucking hard. The path in Jirisan isn’t like the mostly flat and clear-cut paths of mainstream treks at home or in NZ, it were hellishly steep, long and involved rigorous rock climbing.
Here’s a Q&A I just conducted with Nicole about our trek:
Me: How was the trek?
Nicole: It’s difficult but if you have time you can finish it. Just don’t pick the Jungsung-ri trek (the one we did)
M: What did you think of the steepness?
N: (shows vertical arm) What’s this? Steeper than 45degrees.
M: Are you sore?
M: Calf and I dunno why this part (points at ankles). And we have really stinky socks and feet. Now I understand why everyone washed their feet at Yeonacheon (around the middle of the trek).
M: Would you rather do the whole trek again up and down or pay $100?
N: Jungsung-ri?! cable car maybe.
M: How did you feel at the end of the first day?
N: Hhhhrrrhh, I dont really want to walk anymore. Why does it take so long? When am I going to be there? . . . Nick, he didn’t fulfill his promise*.
The next day my calves, shins and knees were so sore walking on flat ground felt like climbing up a vertical slope with anvils tied to my legs.
This is what I thought about when the going got tough.
pic of chicken
When I finally ate it I felt like I’d conquered the world.
The next day Nicole and I left for Suncheon, me on my bike and Nicole hitchhiking. I had been given directions to a rural road by a couchsurfer but somehow I got confused and ended up on the highway again.
The highway took me through a tunnel. I was really scared. Korean tunnels are very dark and many drivers just race through without turning on their lights. The only way I knew a car was near was by hearing it but the tunnel acoustics distort the sounds so I could never know how close a car was, only that it had entered the tunnel. The sound was long and hoarse like the jeer of some machinal ghost calling me to a highway graveyard. Over my whole trip I had never felt so stressed. I spend the kilometre wishing for the end of the tunnel to appear. I felt like I was riding through the entrance to hell.
10km out of Suncheon I heard someone yell my name. The shock almost caused me to crash into a roadside barrier. It was Nicole, she was hitchhiking in a cab. The car pulled over and I met Kim and Jang, a loving couple of middle aged Korean hikers. They convinced me to jam my bike precariously into the boot and Kim, who talks like an ecstatic army sergeant, said he’ll shout us lunch at his favourite restaurant.
Guk bap with blood sausage and rice noodles. One of the best meals Korea has given me.
Nicole and I are in Suncheon now, a mainly rural town with a flashy centre dotted with churches which look like casinos. Nicole’s been a great travel partner. She’s funny, nice and comfortable to travel without any plan at all like myself. I feel so endeared to her now I’ve started saying when you come to Sydney instead of if. I’m trying to convince her to come to Jeju island with me tomorrow.
*Stupidly we bought an 800g bag of coconut roasted peanuts. We mixed them with raisins and dubbed it Shazam. Even though we ate it every time we stopped (a lot) we couldn’t eat enough it. We traded it for anything we could get. – See food diary for details of the ridiculous amount of things given to us.
*I promised Nicole if the trek got to hard I would tie a string between us and drag her the rest of the way.