Korea
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Two Shots at Fortress Busan #1: Victory

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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.

Here’s why:

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.

Looking back:

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

9 Comments

  1. Now that is one seriously gorgeous hike! I am curious about these masked hikers. Surely they must be terribly uncomfortable hiking in all that clobber. So, if they are so afraid of the sun/germs, why hike at all? If to keep fit, there must be gyms? Strange. I like the way you write, by the way. One well-turned phrase that I particularly enjoyed is : “suburb after crumbling, stumbling suburb”.

    • Thanks again, Rachael. It’s hard to sum up Busan in a single phrase. It fascinates me in part because it is so run-down and unstylish in every possible way, and yet is so safe and peaceful and the people apparently content.

      I always feel some reluctance to criticise the people in a place I’m living/travelling (out loud), but I figure I’m just as critical of the people in my own country, so fair’s fair. Koreans are big believers in exercise — every park and mountain trail and even many bus stops have exercise equipment. My guess is that the hiking is often just exercise, without a strong “nature” component. As a lightweight hiker, I see a preponderance of gear as a barrier between person and nature, but apparently I’m in the extreme minority here.

      The mask thing is interesting: on one level it’s obviously vanity: men only favour the surgical masks, not the full-face burns-victim numbers so popular among the ladies. There’s no way they’re NOT suffering in all that crap, but they must see it as necessary. As I said in the post, I think it’s an easy way of withdrawing from the world. And they’re so amazingly conformist — I mean, honestly, who decided that ALL older (and even many younger) women should always wear those hideous visors?!

  2. I like your no map, no destination, no plan method. Quite liberating and cathartic I would imagine? I really should adopt some of your principles about that system.

    Ah yes, the top to toe cover-up. That’s so strange and as Rachael says, it must be so uncomfortable? Summer walking must be terrible!

    Love the tips about letting a stranger take your photo! That is so true. I’ve got a couple of crap ones in my collection due to falling for that trick…

    • Well, I wouldn’t recommend my current approach in much of our great, lethal country, but it’s nice over here just being able to truly ramble in relative safety! In fact I did another great ramble on the weekend in the same area — one of my best so far as I just went with it and improvised and found a great spot.

    • Thank you, I love the grass too. But wait till you see my shots of the same area in heavy fog! I went back on the weekend, you see, so my “Two Shots” is now three…

  3. Very nice write-up and photos yet again. I like the way you ‘deepen’ your pics with a conscious use of perspective, lines leading into the distance etc.

    • Thanks, SW, I suppose all the classic techniques of outdoor photography have been invented (or have they?!) and all we passionate amateurs can do is try our hand at them. I am a big fan of line, though, and I do think we outdoor freaks get better at seeing form and pattern in landscapes with constant practice.

  4. Pingback: Fortresses and Defense Walls « Wed-Gie

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