This past weekend, Margaret and Jenny came down from Cheonan to go hiking with James and me. We went to Gyeryongsan National Park (Gyeryongsan means "rooster dragon mountain," if the Chinese characters are to be believed), which is just a short bus ride from Gongju--albeit a short bus ride with a random transfer on the side of the highway. When we got on the first bus, the driver tried to refuse to let us on, assuming our foreign selves had no way of navigating said transfer. Fortunately James knew what to do...although even if he hadn't, we could have followed the large group of Koreans decked out in full Korean hiking regalia (long sleeves and long pants--often all black, white gloves, wide-brimmed hat, hiking boots, bandanna around the neck, and downhill ski poles. Fully 75% of the hikers at Gyeryongsan were wearing this exact attire) and been set. The hike started at one of the four Buddhist temples that sort of border the park. The weather was beautiful--you can see how amazingly clear and blue the sky was in Jenny's pictures--and it felt brisk like fall but was still warm and sunny and just perfect. The trail was pretty strenuous and the mountains and trees were beautiful. Still, during the first few hours of the hike I felt almost as removed from nature as I do in downtown Gongju. This is because we were sharing the trail with what seemed like half the population of Korea, most of them dressed in the Korean hiking outfit and some of them emanating radio music from somewhere in their clothing (headphones are apparently not as cool). People snaked around and behind and in front of us as far as we could see around the trail. You can see on the right that I'm not exaggerating:
Even though the people were a little overwhelming...and definitely didn't fit my ideal for a nice, day long nature-y escape from the stresses of everyday life in Gongju...there were some upsides. Everyone was really friendly towards us, and we met some really cool people, many of whom gave us food. We were given an apple, a large handful of roasted chestnuts, and over an entire roll of kimbap (the incredibly delicious Korean version of maki--it doesn't actually have fish in it and is one of my fave foods) by different friendly people over the course of the day. We also met a group of friendly veterinary school students who asked to take a picture of us and hiked with us for a while (see below). The
girl in the white shirt and I talked for a long time and exchanged cell phone numbers, and it was great to make a new friend. We got to the top of the first mountain (the picture at the top of the post) and ate chocolate covered Digestive cookies and delicious Nutter Butters sent to Jenny from the US. We then continued on across the peaks, heading towards one of the other Buddhist temples. This turned out to be the best plan ever, as the crowd immediately trickled down to nothing. Apparently almost everyone just goes up and back down the first mountain. The picture below of James and me shows the contrast between the two trails. It also shows that the path itself was somewhat ambiguous--just piles of rocks for us to clamber over, occasionally laid out like a trail, but more often just rubble. At the top of the next mountain we had another little picnic, this time with a premium toast of cider (think American Sprite or Seven-up) in little paper shot glasses that Margaret brought along inside a plastic glove.
The trail ended at another Buddhist temple. We explored this one more freely, wandering around the temple grounds. One of the temple buildings had some amazing panels of the 12 Great Events and the center courtyard was hung with rows of brightly colored paper lanterns. We sat there for a while, talking and watching the monks, nuns, and other tourist-y people at prayer and just wandering around. There were a few other foreigners there...which was kind of surprising to me--although I guess it shouldn't have been, since Gyeryongsan is one of Korea's few national parks and really is a beautiful and tourist-attracting place. It actually turned out that two of the foreigners were Fulbrighters, one an elementary ETA halfway through her grant year and one a research grantee doing martial arts stuff. They both seemed really cool. After the temple, we bought roasted chestnuts from the ajuma (old ladies) selling them by the side of the road and ate them while standing on the bus (preem). I had an entire conversation in Korean with a tiny old lady sitting in front of me, and actually understood almost all of what we said to each other! All in all, it was a really good day. I think I will go hiking there a lot this year...James and I (hopefully the Cheonan girls will come too) already have plans do so when the leaves change colors and I can't wait.