Korea unplugged

Solitary has often been the mode of this expat.  But so far from home, this lifestyle must be balanced by socializing.  I find, though, that the occasion of good people is few and far between and it is at the times when those people are not around—or have returned to the mainstream back in the homeland—that 10,000 km can seem like 10,000 light years.  When genuine people emerge from the mass of marginal individuals, quick bonds are formed.  It is a type of friendship where looking too far into the future can cause premature sadness and lead one to think, “What’s the point?” and take one into refuge of only books, only booze, only Facebook, only longing for home, only longing for the end of the contract.  As my time nears to leave this country—albeit briefly—and go back to the land of domesticity, the friends I have around me now seem that much more important. 


The weather has just turned to spring and the mountain is calling.  The winter was long and bitterly cold and the beckoning of the peaks was muffled with snow.  To be cooped up for months is unnatural for a California boy, but it was the way of it.  And the nature of this country and the people—foreigners and natives alike—can become magnified if no respite can be found outside of the small green soju bottle and downloaded television and pages of writing and reading.  It’s enough to make a recluse out of the most resilient and young-minded person.  With the weather’s recent turn for the better, I came out of hibernation and found myself on the hill the last two weekends.   The natives and foreigners have pleasantly surprised me.  Even after discovering this fact time and again over the last eighteen and a half months, the mountain does something for the spirit that is oft oppressed by what I hesitate to call “necessity.” 


Two weekends of clean-air Saturdays after a mid-week rain attracted me to Suri and Morak—both of which I had done before, but I had some new friends with whom I wanted to share those peaks.  This beautiful Korean spring has come along once again.  Last year, I was able to fully enjoy a month of no work and ample mountain hiking in Busan—though that was in a solitary capacity.  The big plans for travel are still in the works—though another year of work needs to be had here —and I am still searching for a back-watcher on the rails across Russia.


On Suri two weeks ago with Jackie, Trevor (new to the scene from Ontario Province) and Jed (on the way back to Buffalo the following day).  Jackie and Trevor made the early push to get on the hill and I have had some valley-floor shits and giggles with them since they arrived in early January.  Jed is also a co-worker, but I’ve known him for a while and we’ve been on the hill together before.  I must say that I never really could figure the guy out in work and typical social situations.  Therefore, I kept my distance.  However, his youthful spirit often matched the timing of my own desire to get up on the hill.  And, looking back on the last ten months, I connected with him almost exclusively on the mountain, a place where ideals seem attainable.  At the summit, we met a middle-aged native man named Ga who has done 150 of the 200 most important peaks in South Korea.  With him, we pushed on to an even higher peak with good-humor and good conversation.  After chatting for a bit, he revealed that he was an employee at a university south of here.  Yes, I networked on the summit.  Interview next week for a position. 


The mountains here are People Unplugged, the grind of city life, the pretensions of work and nightlife and even ethnicity seem to stay to wallow in the valleys below and the people I encounter or take with me seem to be light and momentarily carefree of all that has passed.  And after we got off the hill, we shared a meal of dwegi-galbi (marinated barbequed pork) around mid-afternoon.  The hike and the company combined to make one of the best days I’ve had here.  And, out of all the great days I’ve had here, eighty percent involve climbing a mountain, gaining a perspective that is difficult to gain unless I’m at the top of a mountain here in this over-mechanized, over-westernized country.  I get a sense of what it might have been like her a hundred years ago and, at the same time, reclaim a sense of newness, vitality that life down in the valleys and offices and expressways and offices can drain away.  Not until I’m on the hill do I realize what’s been stripped from me.


The following week, a new crew, this time larger, but still manageable.  (Too many people can cause complications on the dynamics of a hike: pace, hydration, duration.)  Again, Jackie and Trevor joined, but so, too, did another new couple, Meg and Adam from Indiana.  To keep things in balance, Paul MacKay—a veteran like myself—came along.  He brought his sweet camera that has this killer wide angle lens with which he was able to take some great shots.  The pictures look as if there is a disgusting layer of smog in the valley below; however, that was not the case that day.  It was simply early.  A rare blend of restfulness and being on the mountain infused in me an optimism that is difficult to come by.  Lo, the valley cleared over the course of our ascent.  Visibility was excellent.  Said some cordial hellos to some of the natives, had a traditional hiking beverage mah-ko-lee (rice wine) at the top of Morak, and headed down the hill.  Got sandwiches and sat for a meal in the still-dead-grassed park near Beomgye Station.


There is just too much to worry about during the week not to take advantage of the Korean spring on the mountain.

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