Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Meetup: Mt. Seoraksan

Still playing catchup from this weekend, so consider this Part II.

As I mentioned before, Tab invited me to do a "meetup" with her. MeetUp is a website that basically facilitates group activities and adventures. You want to go hiking but don't know where to go or how to get there? There is probably a meetup. I think they have them in other locations, but I am registered in Seoul, and I belong to a few different groups. I hadn't done a meetup before, but when Tab invited me I agreed.
Initially, I was put off by the early morning, but it was advertised as the best weekend to see the beautiful fall foliage in Korea, with an easy walk around Mt. Seoraksan that also has beautiful waterfalls and a Buddhist temple. I told myself to get over being sleep deprived and take advantage of the beautiful weather we've been having; after all, it won't last long!

It was 25,000W each, but that included a bus and tour guide, so I thought it was worth not having to plan anything myself. Since I've been living in Korea, I've realized that not only am I a planner (have known that for a while), but I prefer things to be planned for me, rather than doing the planning myself. I'm not lazy, but I get stressed out fairly easily when it comes to plans. So, if I can avoid making the plans myself, all the better.

Saturday night I packed a PB&J with some snacks in a ziplock to grab on my way out the door in the morning.

The mountain range we hiked. Not my photo, obviously.
In the morning, as it were, I was awakened by my phone buzzing against my bedside table. Odd, who would call before 5:30 (when my alarm was set for)? Well, no one apparently because it was 6:15! I raced to turn on my hot water and by the time I realized I should answer the phone, the call had ended. I realized it was Tab (I don't have her number in my phone, only her Kakao), so I texted her to thank her for waking me up. I was doubly irritated because I had just been thinking how annoying it was when people overslept their alarms (Saturday morning my coworkers who went to the wedding had done so).

I ended up getting ready and out the door just in time (thanks to my forward thinking in making the sack lunch and pre-packing my backpack). Speaking of which, that backpack has been a very very handy investment. If you are thinking about doing what I am doing, I think you should buy a backpack (here, probably, they are much cheaper). But, it has saved me several times.

Anyway, I had to wait for the bus, wait for the subway, change lines two times on the subway, wait almost 15 minutes for one of the trains; so what should have taken 30 minutes ended up taking about 50. I was a little over 10 minutes late for the arranged meeting time. Thankfully, Tab was there and telling the guide to wait for me. I literally ran through subway stations and was completely red in the face and panting when I finally emerged from the subway and got on the bus.

At least I had 3 hours on the bus to cool down, though! We traveled east to the far northeastern edge of the country. The original plan was to arrive at the base of the beautiful area of the mountain, but since every other person in Korea had planned to do the same thing this weekend, there was tons of traffic. We ended up having to get off the bus on the other side of the mountain. So, in order to get to the beautiful side, we had to just go over the mountain.

Can you spot me? ;)
Easier said than done.

For one thing, this was advertised as a walk, not even a hike. Therefore, many in my group did not wear the best hiking outfits. I myself only wore tennis shoes, rather than the rough terrain hiking boots that I probably needed.

Initially, we went pretty much straight up. The path we followed (sometimes "paved," sometimes climbing over rocks) curved somewhat, but went fairly steep up. I was out of breath quite quickly, and we fell back from our group somewhat. Not to worry, there were probably 1 million people on that single mountain. We literally walked in a line with tons of other Koreans. At many times, we had to stop altogether since the line was so backed up. I didn't mind that, though, because it allowed me to catch my breath without holding everyone else up.

Our tour guide, Harry (pictured right), was awesome. He lived in Hawaii for 15 years and speaks excellent English. He helped me up the tough parts of the climb, at times pulling me up (literally). He was also awesome at snapping photos, so about half of these will be attributed to him.

Once we reached the top, it was literally a human traffic jam. Hundreds of people were bottle- necked trying to streamline onto a single-file path down the mountain. We took a 15 minute rest, and people watched quite a bit.

People as far down as you can possibly see...

Koreans love to hike. In particular, old Koreans love to hike a lot. Some of the avid hikers just get sick of us slow poke youngsters and find that pushing us out of the way is the best thing to do when going downhill on slippery gravel. Yes, I was bullied by many impatient old men and women. Just FYI.

Heading down the mountain.
When we started heading down the mountain, I thought it would be easier than going up. However, the path was at times only gravel, dirt, and jagged rocks. My shoes offered no traction, and I was extremely nervous 90% of the time. At some points there were manmade bridges or steps, which I was sincerely grateful for. But at other points, I held onto a loosely tied rope between two trees and carefully picked my steps while praying for my life.

During the hike, we chatted with some of our fellow group members. There were tons of different kinds of people, but my favorite was a couple - the woman, an American lawyer from NYC; the man, a Korean. They were so nice and fun. I initially thought they were married, but realized they were just dating. I really enjoyed talking to them!! The photo on the left is with all of us girls :)

Harry kept promising us "it is so much more beautiful further on" so I kept waiting for the beautiful fall foliage, and kept walking. Altogether we walked about 2km up (the mountain itself is 1.7km high, but of course our path was not directly up! On the way down, it was a little over 5km. Couple that with the hazardous and exhausting necessity of picking your way down the safest path, and I was exhausted. Thank goodness for the beautiful weather!

We stopped for a rest about 2/3 the way down the mountain, near a waterfall and pool. This little cute baby and her family sat near our group, and Harry grabbed her for a photo op. I think it's a Korean thing, but it seems that if your baby is cute and in public, he/she is up for grabs by the whole community. It's the group mentality coming into play again. Anyway, she was a doll and I was obsessed with her. More proof of the innate intelligence of Koreans: this sweetie was probably less than 2 years old and knew exactly what her dad meant when he told her to look at the camera, smile, and do her "Asian fingers" (as I like to call them). She also showed off the colorful leaf. I'm in love...

View of the waterfall and bridge we took across it
As we neared the bottom, Harry proved himself and there was in fact much more color! We stopped at one point that Harry seemed to know as the "best photo spot" and snapped lots of great photos of the group and individuals. Finally, "Hurry Harry" as we fondly called him after his constant nagging "no stopping, keep walking!", let us linger to take photos. (He hurried us because, with all the "traffic" we were not going to make it to the bottom for our scheduled departure time.)

Some of the most beautiful fall scenery I've seen.
All the girls + Harry! 
Anyway, we reached the bottom and there was a small pond/stream that was very relaxing to sit by and wash your hands (well, rinse your hands off). That was the worst part: having nasty hands the whole time (think: holding on to rope for dear life, clutching at the surrounding rock formations to steady yourself, catching yourself on the ground when you do fall, etc).

We realized that there were still some people from our group on the mountain, and Harry was able to find out they were still about 2 km up on the path. Yikes! It was already 3:45 when we got down, so we decided to get some dinner at a restaurant in the park. We had bibimbap, and this is where my troubles began.

After spending 6 hours (yes, literally 6, not exaggerated 6) on a mountain, I was bound to be tired. That's just a given. And when I'm tired and grumpy, new cultures do not mix well. Koreans have a way of letting you know very loudly and abrasively when you do something wrong. Well, at dinner, I poured the water for my table (very good Korean manners), and when we got our beer, I began to pour that as well. WRONG. I had the bottle snatched out of my hands by the Korean man sitting next to me. SNATCHED. He told me to hold my cup and he would pour the correct way. I pick up the cup, annoyed. He yells "TWO HANDS!" so I add my other hand to hold the glass with two. Then he carefully inspects my hands and tsks, pointing to my fingers which are supporting the bottom. "Don't touch bottom!" Oh my freaking goodness. I was extremely annoyed by this time. He finally pours my beer, and after a minute I nearly chug it. (I mean, I don't, but I drink it quite fast). THEN this guy has the nerve to tell me "Tsk tsk, drink slow!" I look at him, and in my most flat and irritated voice say, "I am going to drink my beer however I want to drink my beer." I have no clue if he understood that as a threat, but I sure meant it as one. One more "correction" and he wouldn't' have to worry about how I pour the beer, because it was going to be all over his head.

Yes, yes, I should be understanding and respectful of other cultures. Well, I am. But, this was just one incident in my day, and there were several other conversations and comments that got under my skin. I find it exhausting that in the process of telling me how I am being impolite, the Koreans are insulting and rude to me in their corrections! I am not going to go into the other examples of Koreans ticking me off, because they are personal, but suffice it to say I miss Americans.

Well, on the bus ride home, which ended up leaving an hour and a half late, I had even further confirmation that, as much as I want to embrace Korean culture, I will "never, ever, ever" fit in (reference to Taylor Swift, if you didn't catch it). And, for the first time in my life it seems, I am completely and 100% okay with being exactly the way I am, coming from where I come from, and having the culture that I do. I have this year to learn about the world and other peoples and cultures, but the main thing I have time to do is to realize exactly who I am. This is happening right now via the contrast with my surrounding culture and mores. I'm okay with the fact that I was brought up being taught "you are beautiful exactly how you are" rather than the Korean version, which goes something like "if you look even remotely different, you should change immediately via whatever means possible to look as much like a KPop star as possible." Yes, American media does put pressure on us to look a certain way (think Victoria's Secret supermodel), but compared to Asia, we are incredibly diverse and tolerant of those differences. I love it.

This mindset has been forming for a few weeks, but it's definitely taking deeper roots in my mind now. I find that, while living in such a huge and vibrant city is fun at times, I really do have the same desires 99% of Americans have: to own a home in a nice town where your children can play outside and you know their teachers and have neighbors you can borrow sugar or milk from. I never thought I would want something so "boring" and "ordinary" but I really do. I am determined to enjoy my year abroad, and when I get home, I will know that I am exactly where I want to be.


  1. Hi Chelsea- Brent Stephens here- this is the 1st time I've had the chance to look at your website. You are right about the beautiful fall scenery. Extraordinary! Praying for you regularly and will try to check in more often.

    1. Is there even another Brent, Brent?? :)

  2. May all your adventures have happy endings. Blown away with Fall Foliage - God makes beauty, doesn't He... Love you!!

  3. Loved it. Learning of different cultures helps you learn more of own. We learn what we like and dislike. I don't like the 'American give me free stuff so can be lazy ' culture, but I do like the 'Asian work hard for what you have' culture. Enjoy your year and continue to learn who you are know that is EXACTLY how God wanted you. (Sorry for poor grammar and typing. iPad keyboard could use some up and down arrow keys for better editing) :-)


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