Hiking, Korea, Mountains
Comments 4

Paths of Pain to Jewels of Glory

The first nickname I gave it was Mount (-ing) Devastation, applied after a dispiriting walk to its base last year.

It’s the most impressive bump on the spectacularly bumpy perimeter of the rice-paddy country nudging up to Daecheong Creek and the dirty streets of Jangyu. My gaze repeatedly strays to its stern pyramidal eminence as I limp home from Hell Skool on Thursdays and Fridays. Looking at it always cheers me up.

Devastation got its nickname in my most fertile spree of rechristening all the local hiking playgrounds. Korea, ever grittily pragmatic, desperately needs some romancifying; pretty soon my mental map was scrawled with swashbuckling monikers like Dead Man’s Peak, Bottle Top, Independence Mountain, Cemetery Ridge, Plane Crash Ridge, and Pointyhead.

These are small mountains. They seemed to stand a little taller and prouder with their new names.

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Freshly burned rice stubble & the mountain

On that first walk I had to negotiate the snarl of rampant roadworks webbing the mountain’s base. (Yeah, you know the ones.) And then another obstacle taking form amid the army of cranes and trucks and earth-movers: a theme park soon to gleam proudly upon the ever-shrinking Gimhae Plain.

Call me cynical, but the siting of Lotte World, a few minutes’ walk from the Lotte Outlet complex (there’s also a Lotteria “restaurant” within — a whole Lotte shakin’ goin’ on in these parts) seemed calculated to take advantage of the stream of grateful motorists soon to be sluiced from the approaching highway and disgorged into its expansive new parking lot.

But what can you do? I took a bite from my Snickers Bar (less than a dollar at my local Lotte Mart!) and walked on.

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Looking back down a muddy farm road

The mountain itself, that hot summer afternoon, was unexpectedly tranquil, once I’d dodged the last screeching truck and left behind the orange-clad road-worker who pointed at my one small water bottle and deployed half its contents to wash the red dust from his throat.

I couldn’t find a path and improvised on a steep and densely wooded slope. The ridge-walking was fun, the view from the summit so expansive that even the construction spoilage took on a sort of twisted grandeur. Darkness was settling as I trotted, lamp-less, down to a decaying village crouching just above the embryonic amusement park and the bypass boring like a crazed woodworm through its shell.

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A world of fun awaits: Lotte World!

But perhaps the lingering bad taste left by all that construction dust had unfairly tainted Devastation as a lost cause. Two Sundays ago, on a grey and chilly morning, I set out into the dormant paddies for another shot.

Again the cheerless landscape of nascent motorways and multipling overpasses gnawing at the perimeters of the dwindling farmland. Lotte Outlet now bristled with cranes and scaffolding of its own; a little further on, a gigantic trio of spindly cranes like great stilted birds towered protectively over their mutant offspring, the brood encircled by fencing adorned with pictures of happy people at play.

The new suburb of Yulha rises beyond the paddies

The new suburb of Yulha rises beyond the paddies

The word NATURE screamed out between pictures of waterfalls and lush tropical jungle.

The Red Bridge, a local landmark

The Red Bridge, a local landmark

Increasingly agitated, railing bitterly to myself at the cost of the insatiable human thirst for entertainment, I continued through that dreary wasteland towards the enticing green walls of “my” mountain. The paddies were bordered with mounds of discarded junk; creeks and streams, or what remained of them, seeped beneath a plastic scum.

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View from beneath the belly of the beast

Emerging from the last dank underpass, I was climbing at last, through the village, the insane whine of the traffic fading to an ever-present drone. It was sunny, warm, and birds were chattering. My spirits rose with each step. A trio of massive, elderly trees, preserved for many centuries, with a little pavilion in their shade, demanded a brief rest:

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That was one verdant hunk of hillside. Women scrubbed for mugwort beside the road and gardeners worked their flourishing plots:

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In the woods, though, more destruction. Some local men were finishing off a fresh grave in a new clearing; one stood atop the turf-covered mound tamping it down with blows from the back of his shovel. They watched me silently as I passed, and soon I came to a great cleared strip, like a ski slope, ready for a burgeoning population of dead.

I wondered where Korea will bury its dead when they run out of forest.

Then the path — seemingly designed to allow for all those burials — petered out and I was in the trackless woods. It was beautiful in there, the shade enlivened with azalea bloom:

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I found the ridge transformed. Azalea bushes crowded the understory so that you had to push through them, up and down over a couple of false summits before the big one, where I climbed an unclimbable tree to steal a glimpse of that red bridge you saw earlier…

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I hope you appreciate this — taking it almost killed me

..and paused to take in a pretty decent view — and read an email from my mother!

Amazing we can sit down in such a place and read freshly posted news from home…

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Distant Jangyu & the Lotte Universe

I came down a new way, continuing over the summit and onto a superb pathway dappled with fallen petals and the soft light of dusk:

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I stepped from the woods into a vast persimmon orchard, a little tired but my mood much lightened…

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..and passed a single, well-tended grave among the fruit trees.

Branding that beautiful little peak Mt Devastation was cruel, I decided as I re-entered the Wasteland and began dodging cars, buses and feral dump-trucks on the road to Yulha.

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Then the new name came to me, and I settled with relief into a cafe chair to skype Kate and tell her about my journey to Big Ass Mountain.

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

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4 Comments

  1. Alice says

    Renaming helps a lot, doesn’t it. Love the names. and the photos–again the stark contrast between human-industrial and human-guided nature. Some lovely glimpses of spring. Hooray for Skype!

    • Thank you, Alice. This little iPad is SO useful for me over here in staying updated and keeping in touch with important people. It’s light enough that it even accompanies me on hikes in case (as often happens) I find find myself re-entering town around Skype time and want to catch up over a coffee (though our respective coffees might be thousands of miles apart).

      The interface between nature and the human-made world is increasingly my theme of choice in pictures and words. I realised recently that photos of temples etc almost seem like escapist trivia to me now. It’s on the rougher edges of urban Korea that I see the truer things happening, even if it ain’t stereotypically pretty.

  2. What a poignant contrast between those fragile, shimmering petals, and the valley scenes of construction/destruction. A visual metaphor for the whole of our ravaged world.

    • Yeah, Korea crams a lot of the modern world into a conveniently sized package!

      I had another great mountain walk yesterday — and it snowed! Maybe I should build myself a little shack up there for the remainder of my stay in the country…

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