- John Muir
Climbing Half Dome at Yosemite National Park in California was one of the best experiences of my life. It wasn’t so much the climb itself; it’s what it meant to me at the end of my four month journey. Standing on the top of the dome looking out over the Sierra Nevada, I felt overwhelmed. Everything clicked into perspective for me. I paused there for a long while, I sat thinking about all of the friends I had made, all of the things I had seen and I made a decision to never live a life without a constant search for moments just like that. I well up when I think back to that moment, my heart starts to pound. I remember how good it felt to have reached the top. It was a challenging hike that takes you up steel cables on the edge of the slippery almost vertical granite edge of the dome. I arrived back at base camp eight hours after I had set out. I was sweating, I was so thirsty and so hungry, my legs were so covered in dirt and filth that you could barely distinguish my skin from the sand, my hands were dirty from the climb, my face dirty from the sweat. I pulled off my shoes and my socks were stained with blood, blisters had burst and nails had been bent backwards. I just wanted to lie down and sleep. I felt like dying. I have never felt so alive.
I’ve been looking for an equal experience ever since and I have yet to find it. However, this weekend Nathanael and I hiked a mountain on the Northern border of Seoul that was strangely reminiscent of my Half Dome hike. It didn’t put anything in perspective for me and it wasn’t a life affirming moment, but, it was a challenging climb that involved steel cables and an ascent of steep almost vertical rocks.
I was pretty tired when my train pulled into Dobongsan station. I had woken up at 6:30am in order to catch an early bus to Seoul. I met Nathanael outside the station and we crossed the road towards the entrance of Dobongsan National Park. As you enter from the road you are welcomed by an array of hiking and camping equipment stores and food outlets. The streets were crowded with Seoulites (I’m calling Koreans that live in Seoul ‘Seoulites’ because I can) dressed in their noticeably bright hiking attire as if they were climbing Mt. Everest. Huge backpacks, gloves, hiking boots, rope, sunglasses, hats, hiking sticks and a vast variety of other useless accessories that must get in the way of the hike more than aid it. We skipped past the crowds, picked up some kimbop and headed into the park.
On arrival we were pulled over to the information centre by a very talkative Korean park ranger, whom with great enthusiasm told us all about the national park, he told us about all of the different trails we could take and talked about their difficulty level. He also let us know there was an accident on the trail that we wanted to hike the previous day but that it shouldn’t deter us. He reached out and checked to see if he thought we were strong enough to handle the difficult hike and I guess he concluded that we were. He gave us a map and sent us on our way.
The trail wasn’t noticeably obvious as it veered off to one side of a temple near the entrance of the park. Once we had figured out that we were on the right trail it was a preferably easy uphill climb up for a kilometre or so. There were lots of other hikers on the trail that we kept passing by on the way up and there were several rocks that you could climb up and sit upon, looking out to the city in the distance.
We were going pretty steady. We stopped off at a temple to top up on water and we kept going up. There was a point in the trail which seemed to come upon us quite suddenly in which the trail turned steeper. We eventually walked up some stairs and stumbled across a viewpoint (or photo opportunity) that looked out over the rest of the park, there was a beautiful mountain temple off in the distance, it was shrouded in trees and it reminded me of Balamb Garden (obscure Final Fantasy reference). We kept going. We kept passing Koreans.
We eventually came across the cables that the park ranger had told us about. They were nothing like the cables on half dome, these were hammered into the rock but they twisted and turned their way up the mountain, you had to use the cables to literally pull yourself up to the next rock. The first cables were easy and brought us to the first of the two peaks. It was getting to the second and highest peak that was a challenge. The cables went up and down and twisted round some pretty steep rocks, sometimes twisting vertically downwards forcing you to swing your body around as you held on for dear life. Much like up on Half Dome it wasn’t my own ability that I doubted. It was the other hikers. If they were to have slipped and fell they would no doubt have fallen into me, knocking me off of the mountain and down into the valley. Much like Half Dome there is a problem with the amount of hikers trying to climb a dangerous mountain at the same time. Half Dome seems to have sorted that problem out now and although there is still debate over whether the newly initiated ticketing system to climb the Dome works it has undoubtedly saved lives. News of the hiker who fell into the valley and needed helicopter rescue the day before Nathanael and I climbed Dobongsan was at the back of my mind. However, we made it safely to the top without a single slip. The view was astounding, you could see the whole of Seoul from the top, it was a hazy, humid day but the view was still awe-some. I felt accomplished. I had missed doing this sort of thing over the cold winter months. We sat down and dined on our kimbop on top of the mountain before we headed back down.
We had a three day weekend due to Buddah’s Birthday which gave me an excuse to do very little on Sunday. Outside of skyping my friends and family at home and watching a stupid amount of Fringe I really didn’t do much at all. I’ve watched so much ‘Fringe’ in the past month that I’m beginning to believe that I’m living in a parallel universe where hybrid shape shifters are trying to tear apart the foundations of reality, at least, in my dreams. I’m waiting for my money to transfer from my Korean account to my English so I can book the last of our flights for the trip and sort out some of our accommodation. Sunday would have been perfect but banks don’t open on the weekends. Obviously. Lazy if you ask me. However, it’s Tuesday now and the money has cleared. Tonight is the night.
On Monday, Nathanael and I went to the local temple to see what this whole Buddah malarkey was about. Apparently they give you lots of free stuff on Buddah’s Birthday, so we had a free bowl of bibimbop (a rice and vegetable based Korean dish) and we talked to some of the Koreans at the temple. There were banners and flags strung up over the temple and offerings of fruit to the statues of the Buddah, a rather strange ritual that felt rather anti-Buddhist, the whole idolisation of the Buddah seems to make him god-like which as far as I understand is the complete opposite of the ideology they’re shooting for. It felt like The Wicker Man without the human sacrifice. I really will never understand religion.
It seems that it is not traditionally just Buddhists who attend Buddah’s Birthday celebrations. We sat down and talked to a woman who openly informed us that she was catholic. I had never talked to a Korean about religion before and I’m constantly becoming more aware that this is a culture in which Christianity is taking a hold very quickly. There are four churches in our small town and only two Buddhist temples. Nathanael has also taken note that we are probably living in the Bible belt of Korea, as up here there seems to be more Christianity than in other provinces. The lady politely asked Nathanael and me what our origins were and we took that to mean she wanted to know our religious backgrounds. She seemed rather shocked when I revealed that I didn’t have a religion. I honestly thought this country was more secular than it has revealed itself to be, however, she was a nice lady and it was good to be able to talk to a Korean in a little more depth than I usually get the opportunity too.
Nathanael and I got to talking about religion on the way back from the temple. He made an observation that it seemed like it was okay to be a Christian and a Buddhist in this society. This country is obviously steeped in Buddhist history and divorcing yourself from that as a Korean is probably quite difficult. However, I can’t see how you can be a Christian and a Buddhist. It seems like a cop-out to me. Pick a side. They both have very opposing views on a variety of issues including the afterlife and I get the idea that the only reason a Christian would take part in Buddhist rituals would be down to tradition, a sense of obligation. I feel like this is a nation whose culture is evolving so rapidly that it’s struggling to keep up with itself.
It was pleasant to spend time at the temple on a Buddhist festival day and the chanting was rather soothing. The dogs that my visitors (especially Natalie and my father) had made friends with up at the temple were nowhere to be seen up at the temple during the festival. Probably escaped. I don’t know.
I cooked dinner Sunday evening, and, Nathanael, Russell and Deanna all came over. It went semi-successfully. I made fish and chips and used a little too much salt, and didn’t get the breadcrumbs perfectly down. There was an issue with bones in the fish as well. Better luck next time. However, all things considered this has been a pretty good weekend and I hope to have more like it before it’s time to leave.
Making the most of the time I have left is top of my priority list, and planning for the next chapter of this crazy journey. I just played badminton with Mr. Chae. I was surprisingly good at it, makes a change. Whistle while you work and all that. Goodbye.