Wednesday, April 22, 2009
The Cow's Ear
This past weekend also marked my first hiking trip in Korea. After a very long day and night on Friday, and a great reunion with some old friends in Gangnam on Saturday, I met with Mr. Han and his family for a Sunday morning/afternoon adventure on a nearby mountain.
Mr. Han, if you recall, was a teacher at my current school. I met Mr. Han at the "Gentlemen's Club" meeting a couple of weeks ago where I said I would be happy to join him for a hike. Well, Sunday was the day. I was feeling a bit nervous as I know that Mr. Han was among the more sauced of the men when we went out, so I was actually wondering if he had made the offer in a drunken state only to awaken the next morning thinking: "S%$#! Did I just promise some tall-ass white guy that I'd go hiking with him?"
Well, he did promise and I'm glad he did. I met Mr. Han along with Mrs. Han and their daughter, Sung Hee, who is in Elementary school and is completely charming. We met at Dobongsan station which is 2 subway stops away from me. I can see Dobongsan outside of my apartment window by the elevator every day before heading off to school. The mountain doesn't look insane like some of the ones back home - but it's certainly big enough. Korea is one of the most mountainous countries in the world, and where I am in Seoul situates me between two of the better ranges for hiking.
Hiking in and around Seoul is also a unique cultural experience. Some people here seem to make it their mission to climb on a weekly basis. In that regard, I guess it's similar to paces like Canmore - where you can really just go into your backyard a scale a thousand foot cliff in an afternoon. Of course - Dobongsan is still kind of in Seoul, so you're not going to find a great deal of solitude. What you will find are a lot of people.
I've often wondered where exactly those North Face wearing folk with backpacks and hiking poles were going. These people are everywhere on the subway - high-end outdoor active wear, metal mugs clinking from the carabiners on their backpacks. It's not at all uncommon to find copious amounts of Koreans - young and old - decked out in their most colourful mountain finery on the subway - and now I know where they go when they get off.
Dobongsan station was crazy. With all of the people there, the place looked like Disneyland during Spring Break - just hordes of people making for the exits. The streets leading up to the hill which houses the entrances to Dobongsan National Park are lined with restaurants and shops selling more hiking wear and gear. It looked like Myeong-dong in the mountains, and the streets were absolutely full with people.
That's one thing that you just don't see in Canada - the sheer number of people on the trails. Here, there aren't bears, but if there were, they would never come close. If they did, they wouldn't stand a chance against these people. That was a lot of work for an analogy, but you get the picture. If not, hopefully these pictures do it justice.
If the idea of hiking up a mountain with a parade of people doesn't appeal to you, than Korea may not be your kind of place to hike. That's just the way it is here. The good news is that people stay on the trails because for the most part, they have been very well groomed and are wide enough for people to make their way up safely.
Our route led us to Uiam, which Mr. Han told me translates as "Cow's Ear" due to the shape of the rocky out-cropping. The route was only about 5 km total (there are back), but there were some pretty challenging spots that required handrails and ropes. It didn't kill me, though it's not a climb I would recommend for beginners or people who aren't in at least decent climbing shape.
There was a great view to be had, though the day was somewhat dusty and overcast as compared to how it had been before and after Sunday - you just never know until the sun rises. Still - the trip was worth it. Mr. and Mrs. Han were gracious hosts - carting a picnic lunch up the mountain and Mr. Han even brought some beer (멕주) up with us so we could drink at the top. Apparently, some hikers prefer soju - so I think I got off pretty lucky.
There was a bit of a language barrier, but Mr. and Mrs. Han did their best and their daughter, Sung Hee, played translator often. We both brought out our phone dictionaries constantly which led to classic results: during the picnic lunch which consisted of homemade kimchi, kimbap, and fruit, I thanked Mrs. Han for such a delicious meal and she then turned to her phone dictionary. She showed me her translation for what she meant to say: "A trifle - a pittance." Hilarious.
After hiking down the hill, they took me out for dinner with some of their friends at one of the many restaurants on the hill. I have to say that though the company was great, I had some of the most foul food I've ever eaten in Korea. I was glad to see that some of the food was tofu-based, but then there was this fish...
I asked Sung Hee what kind of fish it was, and her phone dictionary said "Skate - a horntail." It was raw, and to be eaten like galbi (Korean BBQ) wrapped in lettuce leaves with garlic, sauce, and kimchi. When I put it in my mouth, well - I immediately regretted my decision to do so. At this point, Mr. Han brought his own "Skate" sampling to his nose and said, almost gleefully, "bad smell - ammonia!".
Ummm... yeah. Well, I tried not to breathe as I ate. I had a few more pieces since Mr. Han looked pleased that I was trying it. But, man - that is something I will do my best to avoid in the future. I asked my co-teachers about it the next day and they said that nobody except for older Korean men like to eat that kind of fish. I am certainly not in that demographic, so my distaste for it shouldn't be a surprise. It was absolutely foul.
Koreans can eat some things that I can't help but find distasteful. On our way out the park, sweet little Sung Hee wanted a treat, so she marched towards the snack carts where there was ice cream, cotton candy, and the like being sold. But no. "Bondaegi!" she shouted with glee.
Bondaegi is roasted silkworm larvae. I don't know where the tradition began, but it's stayed - long enough to allow cute little Sung Hee to get excited about eating a cup full after a long day's hike. She offered me one and I couldn't say no. I'm not lying when I say that the thing popped like a hot grape in my mouth. Timon and Pumbaa ain't got nothing on me. What can I say - I suppose we all eat some pretty distasteful things - it's just that the foreign stuff clears away any filters we might have. I think it's fair to say that gnawing down on fat and muscle tissue is kind of gross too, but hey, most of us do that. Little silkworm larvae-munching Sung Hee also turned her nose up at the fish during dinner.
To each his own.
The day was great. It's times like these that I really value my decision to work at a public school this year. I know that Korean friends are available everywhere, but working in a Korean Public School just lets me see more, learn more, and be a part of more things "Korean". I'm pretty grateful for that - even if it involves eating a silkworm larvae from time to time. I'll be going back to this mountain and more again soon.