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Death & Kimchi in the Gyeongnam Hills

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Maybe having all these splendid little mountains so close had made me complacent — or maybe the previous day’s adventure had worn me out. Anyway, I got an even later start last Sunday, and it was 9:00 before I sauntered out the front door, spun around, aimed my big western nose at one particularly fine-looking peak and thought “That one.”

But it didn’t start well. I crossed a busy road and climbed up behind one of these awful golf-practice enclosures they have around here. Right away I came to some graves, almost radiant in the morning sunlight:

In a couple of weeks I’ve already discovered dozens of these. Traditional Korean burial took place in the forest, in little clearings, beneath simple mounds of earth. Apparently cremation is gaining in popularity — there’s the space issue among other considerations — but you still find a lot of fresh graves in this style, usually with nice marble stones and perhaps some concrete edging.

These had no markers. I like the idea of a forest interment, but it must involve a lot of tree-clearing. Around a few bends in the path, some fresh graves, and what seemed to be reserved places. I didn’t like this spot — you’d hear the crack of golf balls all day:

I came to one of these ubiquitous shelters near some equally ubiquitous exercise equipment. Note the time on the clock! My walking day’s usually half over by 10:00:

Unfortunately, in framing these shots I found myself doing what I told myself I wouldn’t do in Korea: editing out the unsightly background. I did enough of that in Japan. But you can’t help it; you get these glimpses of perfection that fit your preconceived western notions of oriental aesthetics, but so often they’re marred by less idyllic intrusions…

Ah, what the hell:

A new road was being bulldozed in, obliterating the path from here on. But I was running out of mountain anyway, and soon I passed an orchard of skeletal persimmon trees and followed this concrete culvert down to the road, farewelled by the standard barking redneck farm mutt:

I chose the next mountain — this one another buttress of the Bulmo-San complex, and tried to find a way in through the houses. I came to this frozen pond…

..but was dead-ended and backtracked.

There were several hikers milling about; I’d hit pay-dirt. One nodded in the correct direction and soon I found…

a) some parking spaces, and

b) toilets.

These always guard, in my Korean experience so far, the gateways to Paradise.

See that sign? It meant nothing to me a week ago, but now I can read it: Gulam-San Jeongsang. Mt Gulam Summit:

(It’s actually easier than it looks.)

Also note those hikers. One had enough English to tell me that both trails, where the path diverged, were “same course”, and to offer me a mandarin and a piece of beef jerky with a single word:

“Cow.”

English really is an international language!

I was looking at their solid packs, thinking, “Why so much stuff for a day-hike?” Well, stay tuned…

I left that group behind, passed this next group near some more of those sentinels I’d seen the day before:

The climb steepened considerably. They don’t bother with switchbacks over here. I passed more graves, these worn down and crudely fenced…

..and climbed a big boulder perched on the hillside for some sweet winter views:

The ridge was a relief; I was panting and no longer felt the chill. It was another great blue-sky day…

..and reaching the top of Gulam-San, I sat there a while enjoying the sun while a succession of hiking groups came and went, some noisily, blaring transistor radios dangling from belts, female balladeers moaning the same eternal maudlin mush inches from my face — others, thankfully, more respectful:

Another staggering vista, the morning sun climbing over these coastal peaks and the cranes and bridges and maritime traffic of a major port, Jinhae:

Not everyone here hikes in noisy groups. This is more my style:

I left, reluctantly, not long after the group who’d given me the cow passed through, waving hello, ramblig vaguely south along this beautiful ridge…

..enjoying the spare, faded winter scenery…

..and passing groups relaxing around picnic blankets, enjoying a day in the hills.

I had no maps, plans or deadlines. It felt good. What was that Henry Miller quote?

I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.

Decisions, decisions:

A glance back. You can just make out some walkers on the rocks:

A shout of “Hey!” tore me out of myself. There they were, perched over two stoves having a monumental fry-up on a little spur. The guy second from right had a smattering of English, the rest virtually none. But they made me very welcome:

They’d lugged up tonnes of food: Japanese-style red rice (what a joy to eat rice with chopsticks again — Koreans use spoons), meat, garlic, mushrooms, a big pot of bubbling soup full of hot pepper, chunks of a silvery mackerel-type fish and great wads of cabbage — and, of course, kimchi:

I sat there an hour while they stuffed me with food. I declined the beer and soju (I’ve pledged to accept any food offered in Korea, but not booze) — this meant three helpings of rather pungent fish I had to force down!

At last I farewelled my gracious hosts, and bounded happily along the ridge…

..until stymied by the kind of objective hazard it pays to respect:

No way out. I backtracked a few minutes and spent an hour descending by a completely deserted trail, parallelling this sometimes-frozen stream…

..crunching through knee-deep leaves…

..and passing through this beautiful, ancient-looking graveyard…

..to emerge among farmland and yet more graves, with the weird white towers of my Jangyu home…

..a half-hour beyond this little bamboo thicket:

I was already hungry again.

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Really enjoyed reading this — once more! Well done on the abstinence.

    January 17, 2012
    • Thanks, SW. It’s such a pleasure to have hills nearby in every direction. I was in danger of becoming a Flatlander back home. And it’s not hard for me to abstain from vile soju, though a beer always tempts! It’s my one-year anniversary soon…

      January 17, 2012
  2. Those buildings aren’t looking any less weirder. I don’t need a Wikipedia page on Korea when I’ve got your blog to enlighten me! You’ve covered plenty of stuff here and you’re nailing the photos. I love it!

    January 18, 2012
    • Thanks, mate, glad you’re enjoying my reports as much as I’m loving writing them. Tonight’s new post will present a different side, though!

      January 18, 2012
  3. excellent entry – nice balance of inner thought and external observation. And great pics.

    January 24, 2012
    • Thank you, good sir. That’s the blend I try for.

      January 26, 2012

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