Friday, May 21, 2010

Buddha's Birthday Hike

Friday, May 21 was Buddha’s birthday. It is a national holiday in Korea so the schools were closed and I had the day off. Last weekend before the Lantern Parade there was talk of going on another hike and so we did. Like last time Tony set it up inviting a large group of us to go back to Bukhansan. For those that do not remember or just do not know Bukhansan is a mountain near Seoul. The name literally means “North Mountain.” Last time only Chelsea, Tony and I had shown up but this time there were five of us. Tony, Andrea who we call Andy, Andrew who we also call Andy and Simon who I had just met the weekend before. Tony and Andrea are from Canada, Andrew is from the UK and Simon is from Australia.

After getting to the station we grabbed a cab to get to the mountain base because the lines for the buses were enormous. It took some time to find a cab driver that would even take us. As we were waiting we all were trying to figure out how this was going to work. There were five us so if we took one car that would be one in the front and four in the back. But if we took two cabs there was no guarantee we would all end up at the same place. There are multiple trail heads and none of us knew Korean well enough to be able to ensure that two separate cab drivers took us all to the same one. A cab pulled up and Tony just went for it jumping in and suddenly we were all filling in. I was third into the back seat with Andrea being the forth. Simon was squashed against the far window, Andrew and I were in the middle getting to know one another much better and Andrea was suspended in the air as she gripped the ceiling handle and tried to hold herself up with part of her on my right leg and part of her on the arm rest of the door. The cab driver was insane. More than any other cab or bus I have been on he showed no regard for traffic signals, other cars or pedestrians and he drove so fast that it felt like the car was going to roll over each time he switched lanes or turned corners. I was not the only one concerned. Simon knew the most Korean out of any of us and actually told the drive to slow down. Sadly he did not. I had to close my eyes or look out the back window most of the trip but finally we got to our destination and all jumped out of the car. There was more confusion about the cost of the ride because the driver never turned on the meter but rather was simply demanding some amount of money. I just waited until it was resolved and gave my portion of the cost to Tony.

As we began up the trial Tony and I kept trying to figure out if it was the same trail we had been on. For a while it seemed like it was but the higher we climbed the more obvious it became that it was not. With five of us we all walked in different spots at different times so I got to chat with almost everyone. The peak was a little less than 3 kilometers from where we started, which sounded fairly easy to me. The trail began easy enough but the last kilometer was a very steep incline. I found I had to stop far more often than I was accustomed to. Many parts of the trail had railing that had been built into the mountain that enabled people to be able to scale the larger rocks. As we climbed the group became more and more separated as each person went at different speeds. I found myself in the middle with Simon and Andrew ahead of me and Andrea and Tony behind me. When we finally broke the tree line and could see the peak of the mountain the trail became very skinny and had to be walked single file and like all places in Korea it was crowded. So the last couple hundred feet took a long time. But we got to the top and just sat and enjoyed the rest and the view. The view was not spectacular. It was quite smoggy. We could see a few buildings but not anything that actually is Seoul but it was worth the work.

The trip down was uneventful. Andrea and I took up the rear and just enjoyed going down and chatting. At the base we grabbed a bus back to the train station. The line for the buses was fairly short and not once during the ride did I think I was going to die so that was nice. Everyone was pretty beat so we all just headed home. The hike was about 5 hours with the over-all trip being around 7 hours. I did not go out that night but Andrea came over and we watched the Fugitive and some episodes of Scrubs. It was nice and relaxing after a long hike.

Happy Birthday Buddha

My friend Andy (Andrea) also wrote about our hike. She let me read it and I really enjoyed her version and asked her if I could post it on my blog. She said yes so here is Andy's story.

Bukhansan: a Hike Steeped in Actuality

The day started out like any other for Andy. With a desire to be the most supreme zombie slayer that ever existed. Unfortunately, like any other day, nothing had changed. Instead, she woke to a song stuck in her head and the night's dreams running through her mind. Why is that damn hit-and-run dog still not dead yet? It's been suffering the past two days now. I almost kissed him last night. I wonder what chocolate covered tomatoes taste like? Did Michelle get that note I left on the fridge? Wait a sec, that didn't really happen, did it? As she was slowly roused from her slumbers, the realization dawned on her that she going to be late for a date.

Andy jumped out of bed, quickly showered, ate breakfast, then reminisced about the benefits of not actually being in a zombie apocalypse. For one, she wouldn't be able to go on this hike date without taking her chainsaw, which would have been hell to lug up a mountain side. She packed light: camera, water, money, and hoodie (the most useless and detrimental choice she made knowing full well the temperature forecast said the day would be hot). After confirming the meeting point, she left her apartment with excitement in her step and a piece of almond caught in her throat. Downstairs to the street, down the street to the subway, and down in to the subway to the train. As the train pulled away she immediately felt regret (as was her usual way) with her clothing choice for the day. Shorts and a tank top? What was I thinking? I look terrible. It's just a hike, this will be fine. The self-talk helped to take the edge off her seemingly bad decisions. She shut her eyes anyway, not wanting to look at her shorts any more than necessary.

The ride was shorter than she thought, solely due to the fact that when Andy closed her eyes she fell asleep and didn't wake until she was elbowed in the side by a young boy eating kimbap. Only two more stops to go. Andy mentally thanked the little guy. Had it been verbal appreciation the boy would likely have taken it wrong, and Andy didn't want anyone to think the big white foreign woman in manly clothing was cursing out a child on Buddha's Birthday. She kept quiet and soon disembarked to meet her friends.

Typical Andy, she was early and didn't know where to go. What better way to pass the time than to sit amongst a Korean family and stare at a couple speaking with sign language? They soon caught her staring, gave a we-see-you nod (as is customary when a crazy girl won't butt out. Regardless of the fact Andy couldn't understand sign language; staring is just creepy), and walked to the other side of a shack to continue their conversation. Now bored, Andy turned her attention to the subway exit, hoping her friends wouldn't be long. They weren't.

She strolled to the other side of the shack where the group was standing, passing the signing couple on the way. They paused in gesturing, not wanting to be visually eavesdropped on yet again. The hike date would have 5 participants. Simon, the Aussie from Adelaide and the best Korean speaker of the posse. Tony, a Canadian from the east, near Toronto. Another Andy (who will be referred to as Andrew to eliminate confusion), a Scot from Glasgow. Zach, our American representative from Denver, L.A., Phoenix, and some other places not as noteworthy. And yours truly, west coast Canadian Andy (who will still be referred to as Andy).

To begin the hike, they needed to get to the mountain. This required a cab. But not any cab. This cab ride would be performed by the most heinous and insane Korean pickpocket that drove in Gupabal. Psycho Cabbie invited all five hikers in to the car and began the drive to Bukhansan. It was not a comfy fit for the passengers in the back. Andy, the last in, got the pleasure of sitting half-assed on the rear bench while holding herself up, as not to squish the American, with her neck bent awkwardly to fit in. At least it wasn't hot out. As Psycho Cabbie began the drive, he made evident the fact that he thought the group was comprised of morons, little did he know that only part of the party was truly moronic.

"Five people. American money. 20 dollars" said Psycho Cabbie.

"What? No man, we're from Seoul" Simon retaliated.

"Is he trying to bargain with us?" asked Tony.

"That's too much money" Simon said "5 dollars"

"American money, 10 dollars" argued Psycho "Five people: more"

"No way. Just drive, man. Bukhansan". As they approached a crucial intersection, Psycho made to continue straight rather than hang the necessary left. "Bukhansan. Bukhansan!" said Tony, pointing for Psycho to take the corner. Unable to pull a fast one on Tony, Psycho let out a harsh monosyllable laugh and made the turn. Now angry with his fare, the cabbie let down his disguise. He turned red, sprouted horns, a goatee, and snorted black smoke from his nostrils, clearly wanting these foreigners out of his car as fast as possible.

On the last stretch of road to the mountain base, the road was momentarily clear enough for Psycho to test the acceleration. Andy, always wanting a chance to ride in a space ship never thought she would be so lucky. "Mach speed eleven" called Psycho. The cab instantly took off, leaving the ground behind. Scenery flew by at break neck speeds, passengers were pinned to the backs of their seats, and all eyes were either simultaneously closed in fear or opened in disbelief. And interestingly enough, despite general assumption that space ships are large, the interior of the cab ship remained cramped and hot.

"Slow down!" Simon shouted. Which he really didn't have to say, as the cab ship had just worn out its power supply and was now morphing in to a rickshaw, approaching a long line up of traffic stopped at a light. And following general assumptions that rickshaws are small and cramped, this one was no exception. The traffic light changed and the rickshaw was able to putt along the last few meters to the drop point. Again, Psycho tried to coerce more money out of the group than was honestly possible, and in the end he still made himself a fair deal.

Glad to be in control of their own motion, the hikers set off up the road to Bukhansan. The initial portion of the trek proved to be easy enough to be accomplished while donning high heels or flip flops. Korean men have been known to take their dates on surprise outings, not warning the women of the impending difficulties to be faced when dressed to impress. It must be either a cruel form of entertainment for a man to watch his girlfriend struggle in 4 inch stilettos, or some kind of test to see how she deals with adversity thought Andy. She didn't like those kinds of men. They passed a plethora of little shanties selling anything from warm nuts and greasy food to work out wear and booze. All things Koreans want when venturing in to nature. The need to have all amenities at their fingertips dictating the list. Tony stopped to stock up on water.

The group fell in to an easy rhythm as they slowly started their ascent. The conversation was light and innocuous. Discussions surrounding their previous weeks of work, the weather, and last night's activities predominated. With Simon and Zach in the lead, a speedy pace was maintained by all for the first minute or so, with Andy quickly falling back. Her thoughts tending towards the increased pain her body would soon be feeling, then trying to ignore that very thought. A metronome of pain and denial keeping her centered in the present. Lactic acid is never kind.

As a group hiking rule, the leader was in control of the direction. A rule possibly instilled due to the fact that no one had researched the way to the Buddha statue, despite a desire to see it on the national holiday surrounding his very birth. With no clear focused destination, Leader Simon picked a hike that would take them to a peak. Perhaps they would glimpse a Buddha, perhaps not. Just over 2 kilometers of hiking; a seemingly simple stroll up a mountain would soon to turn in to a sweat inducing trek of burning muscles.

The path narrowed and the hiking party was further separated, an incident attributed to the walking-pole fetish so fervently practiced by so many Korean hikers. While walking across a rubber padded bridge, it became evident how strongly they let their walking-poles rule the hike. Andy was blocked behind a young girl who cautiously placed each pole securely on the rubber bridge before taking a step. A monotonous practice that was driving Andy a little crazy. It's a freaking rubber bridge! How much concentration does it take to walk on a level surface? Suddenly, she saw an opening and took it. Bounding as spryly as a bobcat she surged past the family, consequently using up 14% of her total fuel supply on that stealthy maneuver.

The hike continued and soon the group was reunited a little over half way up the trail. After a short rest, they continued up the mountain, their heads down and heart rates up. The remaining kilometer proved to be the most challenging. The incline would have only been harder had it been 90 degrees directly vertical, where one would have been required to either learn to fly or grow suction cups on all four limbs. Ignoring the impossibility of scaling the ostensibly difficult section, Andy trudged on alone, having been separated from both the speedy crew and Tony, now bringing up the rear. Andy heard a noise.

"AI AI AI AI AI AI AI AI, EEEEEEEEEEEE, AI AI AI AI AI AI AI, EEEEEEEEEEEEEE!" a group of Korean speed hikers were navigating their way down the granite boulders with the agility of mountain goats inhabiting the Rocky Mountains. Although the speed hikers possessed superior deftness, many surrounding hikers did not. The screeching was a call to warn slow pokes of imminent impact if evasive action was not taken. Andy stepped to the left as the herd blew by her, kicking up dust and raining drops of sweat on her arms. With relief and disgust, she persisted on the path, minutes away from the team. When all were reunited once again, they made for the summit.

The final ascension to the peak was the slowest and steepest scaling of a granite face Andy had ever attempted. The speed was not due to the fact that she was freaked out of her mind and frozen with fear, but because of the obvious bottleneck that occurred when hundreds of people all wanted to score a view from the top. With only two lines of traffic servicing the peak, one up and one down, patience was to be exercised. This was not a place to be pushy as it was obviously the most treacherous stretch of slippery rock to be accomplished today. Given time to slow down and think about her surroundings, Andy thought about all the brave people who succeeding at reaching the top. How is it even possible for so many elderly citizens to tempt fate by coming up here? Her suspicions were verified when a couple of seniors passed her on the way down.

"Beep boop, beep, beep, boop, boop boop, badeep"

"Dat, da bat, doop, deep, beep, boooooop" replied the wife.

Of course, they were robots. Or at least bionic. Their circuit boards keeping them balanced, and their heavy soled granite magnet feet keeping them firmly attached to the mountain. It's not hard for them at all, she thought.

In a few more meters, and nearly an hour later, they reached the top. Andrew and Tony, having abandoned the dream of making the peak, had chosen to rest up lower down, making Andy, Zach and Simon the select three with the courage to summit. But truth be told, Andy was afraid. Very afraid. Afraid with a fear that was not helped by Simon.

"You know, every year there's quite a few deaths from people falling off the mountain," he started "some of them are never to be seen again, most are partially eaten by bears, who likely find the people crippled and writhing in pain. . . if only they had played dead, who knows if they'd still be alive." With that, Andy wished she was off the mountain. If only I was enlightened, I could fly off the mountain to the safety of level ground. Of course, if I was enlightened I wouldn't be afraid of falling. Clearly I need to praise Buddha (and Jesus) more often. Mmmmm, PB and J. . . Distracted by thoughts of food, Andy was able to face her fear and descend the peak. Of course, it helped that there were thick cables to hold on to and a crowd of people below to break any potential fall.

With legs of jello, Andy trustingly plodded on behind Zach, down the granite boulders, down the path, and down to a little river pool where the rest of the hiking group was waiting for them. A short respite was all they needed. Then not wanting to stew in his own filth any longer, Zach got up to continue the mission. Everyone followed. Excitement mounted with the knowledge that every step was bringing them closer civilization and their respective homes where showers and food awaited.

Finally the hike was over.


  1. Happy birthday, Buddha. Sounds wonderful.

  2. Both accounts were very entertaining; sounds like quite a day!