I suppose it says something about my tastes that on my very first journey into Busan, second-largest metropolis in Korea, I bypassed the city itself without a second thought and headed straight for the mountains behind the city.
It was the end of January and I’d only worked out how to use the buses the week before. Now this crisp, clear winter morning, after a thrilling and bone-rattling bus ride, a jaunt on the elevated light rail I still naively assumed contained a driver, and a segment each on subway lines # 3 and # 1, I exited in the Dongnae area and aimed at the base of a steep, wooded ridge.
Dongnae, nestled against the mountains, is famed for its oncheon hot baths (curiously, the Japanese word for those waters is onsen). This was the downtown area in the old days, and a rough road led from here to Seoul. Nowadays there are numerous downtowns. There’s also a cable car, leading from piney Geumgang Park to the ridge. Somewhat guiltily, I climbed aboard, the only passenger, and was quickly sped over the treetops to the top. Another helping from the transportation smorgasbord.
As usual on these things, I had no map, no destination, no plan, no time constraints and no purpose. I did have two rather excellent feet, however, a few Snickers-es in my pack, and love in my heart. The love of freedom, that is. The day immediately commenced to rock.
This is one of the gates — mun, pronounced “moon”, in Korean — in the walls of Geumjeongsanseong, Mt Geumjeoung Fortress. Remnants of these fortifications exist on high ground all over hilly Korea. Many date from ancient times and have been rebuilt and built upon over the centuries — I’ve written about the fabulous Gimhae one.
Busan’s are the largest in the country, with grand gates at each of the compass points, and 17km of wall looping around the ridges with terrific views of the city and the blue waters of the harbour.
For some reason I overrode my usual superstition about only hiking clockwise. No tragedy befell me and I may do it again someday. (I still won’t hike in black socks, however — unless I’m wearing two pairs, as I usually do, with the blacks as the inner pair. But I’ll save that story for my shrink.)
One thing I’ll always associate with Korea is grass: long, yellowing stalks, and broom-like pampas grass heads. In winter it’s the dominant feature of the vegetation.
(I just noticed the specks of dust on the sky in some of these shots. Please forgive me this dreadful lapse. At that time I was still changing lenses a lot “in the field”, and didn’t know about blowers and sensor cleans. Nowadays my beloved Zeiss 1.8 stays on 99% of the time.)
Up on the granite boulders, ice puddles showed how cold the nights still were.
You can see the wall snaking onward in the distance in the next shot:
I did a bit of semi-foolish rock climbing to get this shot. I hope you appreciate it. There’s Busan down below:
Why build this fortress, which in its present form dates from 1703? Blame the Imjin Waeran again, the series of brutal incursions that began in the late 1500s, during which Dongnae fell despite courageous resistance from the heavily outgunned locals.
Remains of ancient defenses were already here when construction began; the gates date from the early 19th century. The Japanese, bless ‘em, destroyed most of it during their early-20th century occupation. Reconstruction began in 1972.
This was one of my earliest encounters with an unpleasant feature of the Korean outdoors: the Masked Walker. These vile creatures infest hills, parks and city streets alike. Middle-aged and older women — the omnipresent ajumma — are the worst culprits.
Why the masks? Ostensibly, in winter it’s the dreaded GERMS, but in summer it’s our ancient adversary THE SUN. Right now you see them everywhere, even walking to the shops, draped head to toe in heavy, garishly coloured waterproofs, even on a blazing, humid day. Add a full face mask, gloves, a horrific plastic sun visor and often a towel wrapped round the head for extra security.
The usual explanation is the fear of getting brown skin like a peasant. Ladies, you were all peasants a generation or less ago! I reckon it’s plain rude, a way of hiding from the world. A Masked Walker never acknowledges you as it passes. Honestly, you might as well be in downtown Baghdad.
You can see where the dust came from:
Time for some heraldry maintenance.
End of the line after a few hours of rambling. It was crowded up there…
..and I had to wait my turn to set up the Gorilla-Pod and timer.
A word from the wise: never accept a stranger’s offer to take your picture. It will invariably look like crap. You want a job done right, do it yourself. Or take their phone number so you berate them later if they screw it up.
At this point many of the walkers did what the Koreans do so well, forming rowdy groups, eating 12-course picnics and pouring vile liquors down their parched throats. Any minute the singing and clapping would kick off.
I fled down a valley to Beomeosa, Busan’s most famous temple, built in 678 and refurbished via flame and gunpowder by the ever-reliable Japanese. I was pretty tired when I got down there, though, and there were lots of people; I didn’t stick around long. I resolved to give it another shot and started walking back towards Dongnae.
I walked on into dusk, two hours or more. All the while the granite outcrops of Geumjeong-San towered above me on the right, and Busan rolled on forever, suburb after crumbling, stumbling suburb. It was going to take a few more visits to get a feel for the place…
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote