Environment, Hiking, Korea, Road Walking
Comments 18

The Road, the Trail & How They Ended

So, my last weekend in Korea. Spent the week lugging boxes to school — five so far — and slipping out to the post office when nobody was looking (nobody’s ever looking) to cocoon them in (free!) tape and throw more money at the very nice lady behind the desk.

The only drama was on Thursday when I realised I’d boxed up my Swiss Army knife with my apartment keys attached, and had to run back down there. Just in time, the very nice lady handed me a box-cutter with a weary smile. This is a busy time of year at the post office in Korea.

Anyway, another flashback to an Autumn walk. I had plenty of un-posted ones to choose from, but this one is a nice mix of things I loved and hated about walking in Korea…

*          *          *          *          *

This was in early November. It started as a road-walk I’d done two or three times. The first was when, in August last year, I had the idea one night in bed of walking to Seoul on my Summer break. I didn’t sleep well after that. I didn’t know if it could be done, so that weekend I had a sort of trial run: just worked out some vague directions and started off down the road, heading sort of north-west.


Jeongja — pavilions that are everywhere in Korea

It began well but after a few hours I was stymied by uncooperative roads; then attempting to loop back to Gimhae found myself approaching a motorway and tunnel (“NO PEDESTRIANS!”), and attempting to hike over the mountain that stood in the way, was halted again by a massive construction project. The loop back through an industrial belt was interminable and bleak; I gave up that walk and hiked up the coast to Sokcho instead.

But the good thing about that debacle was that I got to look at the ridges running out from Bulmo-San parallel to the road, and on a later trip I took a gamble and found a way across the paddies, up a winding road and then onto new trails up onto the ridges and across to Yongji-Bong, Jangyu Temple and other familiar landmarks.

That’s the route I did again on this walk in November.

It started nicely with my trek out of Jangyu, an unpleasant mile or so where a narrow road is shared with speeding vehicles. But my phone rang, and it was Kate with some good news. We had a good chat and lots of laughs as I watched for cars and leapt into ditches, keeping her updated with a running commentary — “Man, did you hear that truck?!” She’d had a wine or two and my peril provided gripping entertainment.

Passed that jeongja, above, under a magnificent pair of old trees; the road safety improves a little after that. Half a mile further I left the road and passed between the bare paddies, enjoying the sun and the space…

Burnt rice stubble & the ridges I was soon to climb

Burnt rice stubble & the ridges I was soon to climb

..gaining height at last on a steep road…


..that just got more and more beautiful:




Halfway up that leaf-carpeted road, a dozen cars parked on the roadside, miles from anywhere: Why? Then voices, a glimpse of people sitting near a forest grave, a priest speaking. Soon that sound faded but far worse was the constant yapping of dogs on a farm somewhere below: six or eight, it sounded like, and I could well imagine the life they lead and the fate awaiting them.

It took an hour to shake that sound…


..but it had bled out when I reached the gravel road leading to the temple.

I swung left when I got to a familiar trail down the mountainside — and an all-too-familiar adornment to that trail:


Jeongja, exercise equipment & trash pile. Three Korean classics.

I knew this path but it had been a while. Although it was barely 4:00, the sun was low and it was chilly in the shade. (Thanks to Rachael for her tips on photographing the Autumn sun — trouble is, those starbursts are addictive!)



(See what I mean?)

I’d never seen that track looking so good. It was just perfect walking weather (I know: again), but I must say I was increasingly irritated by the behaviour of almost every walker I passed. I just don’t get the staring-at-the-ground thing — and I am baffled as to why any hiker would ignore an Annyeong haseyo!, even one as inexpertly delivered as mine. Even the notoriously shy Japanese will usually offer a cheerful Konnichiwa!


This woman, at least, offered a meek smile…


..but for several others, I was as invisible and welcome as a chilled mountain breeze.


Sometimes over here I feel like I’m actually dead but don’t know it yet and am just haunting the trails as a spirit.

This section near trail’s end (longtime readers might remember it from my first excursion with my new lens) was especially gorgeous…





..but when this clown waltzed past, avoiding eye contact…


..and then this creature glanced at me with dread and bolted like I was Leatherface out for a hike…


..I began to reconsider my philosophy of not wearing deodorant on the trail.

The final straw was this frightening bellow from somewhere up the trail, like Tarzan getting his legs waxed. If you hike in Korea, you’ve heard it: certain male walkers, even old ones, like to emit this primeval roar in the woods and mountains — I even saw an old guy do it on the street the other evening between stretches.

This was followed by another hazard on Korean trails: certain older people here (usually women) are fond of clapping loudly and at great length while walking. Some junk about health benefits, etc. Nothing worse while walking than a bad dose of the clap.

Then they came into view, the clapping getting louder and then suddenly stopping when they saw me — and it was the dude making all the noise. Also, the woman was in front — very rare, but maybe he was driving her batshit as well. As you can see, she scowled at me like I was Kim Jeong-eun out for a jog in a tank top and silk shorty-shorts. And no, I wasn’t even aiming the camera at her — it was a wide-angle lens, pointing nearly straight down:


And then, as I’m crouching over that leaf, grinding my teeth and counting to 10, I become aware of a presence — guess who’s standing there staring mutely down at me like I’m the weirdo?

But I stared back, and he loped off, clapping once or twice contentedly; I gave them a couple of minutes to disappear before walking on…

striped bark on trees korean forest



..and unexpectedly, a hundred metres too early, stepped out of the woods and into…this:


This used to be woods & trail.

The excavators had arrived. The Mountain Eaters that have gouged the whole area for miles around to cram in more roads had truncated the trail and weren’t done yet. Soon this beautiful path would end, all too suddenly, at a highway. But it won’t be so shocking then — you’ll hear the machines long before you reach the concrete.


Looking back to the trail’s new terminus

I was numb. It was genuine shock. When will this carnage end? Then the shock wore off and I wanted to bellow in rage like that mountain jackass not long before.

But nobody else here seems to care. Why should I? I’ll be gone soon, and the locals will enjoy all that extra driving convenience. So I walked on, past the reservoir…


A Nice Spot by the Water

..and in 20 minutes I was home, closing the door on the whole damned mess.

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote


      • This is the same situation in India also. Almost everywhere plastic bottles and bags are dumped and near waterfalls and trekking trails alcohol bottles are shattered.

        Feels so sad about such careless and irresponsible behavior from tourists.

  1. Darius Russell says

    WOW! Probably your best photos yet, Goat! What kind of camera do have/use?


    • Thanks, Darius. I have two Sony NEX-5Ns. The 5N is quite an old model now, but I intentionally tracked one down (the last surviving one in the Manhattan Sony Store!) for my second camera as I know it so well now and some users rate it higher than later models. I keep a different lens on each one — my main lens, on the older camera, is a very expensive 24mm Zeiss that is really beautiful. The fish-eye effects in some pictures are from the other, newer camera, on which I keep a cheap 16mm pancake lens and a fisheye adaptor screwed onto that. I may eventually get a regular wide-angle adaptor that I can switch around with the fisheye for certain shots.

      It’s kinda silly lugging two cameras everywhere, but they are so small and light, the total weight is still less than most DSLRs. The NEX is a mirror-less compact, the main alternative to the other “Micro Four-Thirds” types of mirror-less cameras. Basically because they do without a mirror they can make them way smaller than a DSLR but still put quite a large sensor inside. Perfect for hikers or people who want portability and low weight. People used to bitch about the low variety of choices for native lenses for the NEX-es, but that’s slowly being addressed. Also, with various adaptors, you can now add a ton of non-native lenses to the NEX.

      If you’re interested, check out the NEX forum on the DP Review site!

  2. Well done Goat. You’ve told it like it is and that’s always refreshing to read.

    It’s weird, isn’t it? It appears a lot of people like walking, as you’re always running into them, yet no one gives a toss the place is being chewed up by development? It looks like their Green movement is non-existent?

    Oh yeah, I learned something as well. Blokes randomly releasing a Yeti roar is a new one to me. Is it something spiritual or just plain bizarro?

    • I wish I could understand the mentality that allows all this to happen without protest but as far as I can see there’s no mass environmental consciousness here beyond the cheap platitudes about recycling etc. It’s sad enough that one has to hike in such a compromised environment here — so rare to get a view that doesn’t feature roads, developed land, apartment buildings, pylons etc. As I’ve said before, if it wasn’t for the mountains, this country would be toast (to use an Americanism).

      So why are people happy to see these mountains keep shrinking?

      The bellow: I could be wrong, but I suspect there are “health benefits” to having a good scream in the outdoors. I can understand the need to vent (that’s why I have a blog ;)) but I have old-fashioned values about Leave No Trace etc, and that includes not making an obnoxious tool of yourself when in the woods. The clapping, the bellowing, the walking backwards (seriously), the blaring transistor radios: I challenge any real hiker from a foreign country to try the local product and see how their nerves hold out…

  3. Great photo of burnt rice stubble and the ridges and the series of photographs beginning with the red leaves near the trail’s end.

    And it was a shock to see the land that was bulldozed.

    When I was a little girl growing up in Northern California in the 1950s and early 1960s, I remember hearing that California’s population had grown beyond the population of Texas. Young and naive as I was and having a competitive little spirit, I was excited to hear that my beautiful state was the most populated of all the United States.

    It wasn’t long after that Neil Young was singing “look at Mother Nature on the run in the nineteen seventies.” These days he sings “look at Mother Nature on the run in the 21st century.”

    So much of what I remember loving about Northern California before I left in the summer of 1973 is only memory, but there are still places of exquisite beauty that I can visit. I hope there is a young John or Johanna Muir of South Korea walking some of those trails you walked.

    To give myself some perspective I did a little Googling. The population of the state of California in 1970 was around 19,000,000. In 2012, it was over 38,000,000. California has an area of 163,696 sq miles. South Korea has a population of over 50,000,000 living on 38,691 sq miles.

    “It is only a little planet, but how beautiful it is.”
    (Robinson Jeffers, a poet who was alarmed by how many people there were in California in early 1960s)

    Kind wishes as you continue on your journey.

    • Thanks, Am! I know, we are spoiled with the huge spaces we have grown used to. But even with all the environmental issues we face, at least we have a culture that allows dissent and questions and protest (up to a point). It took four hours or so to drive from JFK to Kate’s place, and I still wasn’t close to the top of NY state — in that time I would just about be entering North Korea if I’d started down here near Busan!

      Sadly, if you put North and South Korea back together you’d have quite a large country. But I would still fear for the natural environment the way I would in Japan or China. In Korea it seems that the massive companies have enormous power, proportionately more, perhaps, than in our countries. And the urge to keep the economy powering means constant “development”.

      I hate bitching about this kinda thing all the time, and I always feel depressed after writing a “negative” post, but it’s the only way I can vent over here where I feel like the only one who gives a damn. Why do cars get such priority in such a tiny country? Why are there proportionately more (to my eyes) enormous, resource-guzzling SUVS on the road than in western countries? The school parking lot, of all places, is nearly full of them each day! When will the road-building end? When there are no mountains left to carve up?

  4. Chris says

    Hi Goat,

    Long time lurker here. I have enjoyed reading your blog for a while. I have to say I noticed the behaviour of Korean hikers in Nepal this year. My wife and I spent a few weeks independent trekking in the Annapurna region there in Feb and March this year. Out of all the different nationalities we met on the trails I don’t think we ever got a friendly greeting off any of the Koreans. Their trail etiquette was appalling. The men frequently barging past heavily laden porters when they were going uphill and unable to see more than the ground at their feet due to the tump line restricting their head movement. Didn’t hear any bellowing although the hiking gear they went in for was pretty loud..

    The`environmental damage is going on all over Asia. In Nepal there is a Chinese built hydro slowly making its way alongside the Annapurna circuit. I suppose it provides work for the locals and gives them better access to other towns but its got to the point where the Manaslu Circuit Is being promotes as the “new” Annapurna Circuit

    All the best for your life in the USA and happy new year.

    • Thanks a lot, Chris, great to hear from you, and also to read your observations in another context. Loud outdoor gear: Oh, yes, and loud in general. Blaring transistor radios on the trail are another recurrent hazard.

      I remember reading in one of the Everest books I used to devour that some mountaineers refused to climb with Korean teams, the perception being that it was too dangerous!

      Have a great 2014!

  5. Chris says

    You too Goat,

    Actually my wife read my comment and said I was being too harsh. We did keep bumping into a group of retired Korean guys who were friendlier than the younger people we met. So I stand corrected.

    • I go through that guilt process after every post that’s vaguely (or more) critical/negative! But I don’t know — the kind of stuff I rant about on here is stuff I take seriously and I’d do it in any environment. There are so many uncritical, flowery expat blogs out there, I like to think I’m just redressing the imbalance!

  6. Jolly glad to see you have put the sunburst technique to good effect. I am going to have to try that through-a-leaf thing myself and nod back to here when I get it right. No leaves here at the moment though so that’ll have to wait.
    Love those acer leaves!

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