Last year, my friend Buyeon asked me why I like Korea, her home country, so much. I replied that I needed to think carefully about my answer before I could give her a satisfying response.
On the first weekend of March 2017, Buyeon accompanied me on a Meetup hike to Cheonggyesan mountain, and after a couple of hours of steep climbing, touching spring buds, taking in stunning views and enjoying conversations with new hiking friends, I declared, “Now, Buyeon, you understand why I love Korea!” Buyeon smiled. She has since accompanied me on another hike, and later observed,”it was awesome joining the hiking group,” “it was the best one yet,” and “thank you for inviting me.” Buyeon is now determined to go hiking in her home country more often.
Although Korea has many draws for expats, for me personally, hiking is one of the major ones. I’m no professional. I’m thirty-six years old, possess average fitness level, and have other passions besides hiking. But, the opportunities to develop comradery with new friends, breathe mountain air, soak up quiet moments, listen to laughter and develop physical stamina, make hiking appealing to me. I also really enjoy the satisfying dinners hikers enjoy together afterwards.
Living in Gangnam, I’m surrounded by concrete buildings, the stress of city schedules and people rushing around. I remarked recently to my friends Dan and Sariska that living in Gangnam, I often forget that I live in Korea. I feel like I’m back in urban London. But, getting back to nature on the weekends remind me of the rich culture and diverse landscapes available here.
On my first stint in Korea, I joined Seoul Hiking Group several times. Organizer Warren Kim sets out planned visits to various locations all over Korea. I received his updates via his Facebook page. After reading the event descriptions, I would join full day trips, weekend and even events that lasted several days. Together, we visited sites like Namhansansong, the Seoul fortress wall trail, and also S. Korea’s highest mountain, Hallasan on Jeju island.
These longer events require traveling together on organized bus trips, transferring funds to the organizer to cover costs, and include a diversity of activities as well as hiking, such as visiting hanok (traditional) villages, temples, submarines, caves, tea fields, tree museums and partying at the Holi Hai colour festival on Busan’s Haeundae Beach!
Warren Kim itinerary is fairly set, however he is also spontaneous and sometimes plans take a few twists. He has a large following including many expat English teachers, and many attendees enjoy Warren’s trips because of his charismatic, energetic and adventurous personality.
More recently, I subscribed to several Meetup hiking groups, and receive invitations to join various hikes in and around Seoul locally. Some hikes draw seventy hikers while other hikes comprise of just four members. I like these local Seoul hikes because they usually require a shorter time investment, and I can invite friends to join who live close by.
The dynamic of large and small hiking groups is also a little different. In a large group, you have the opportunity to meet many people. However, joining a small hiking event enables individuals to get to know each member a little better as you spend more time together.
Over the last three weeks, I’ve hiked Namsun, Ansan, Cheongyesan, and Baekryunsan. The physical experience of trekking the soil and stones, touching new buds and breathing mountain air reminds me that there is a lot more to my short human existence on this planet than eating, working and sleeping. Partying in Seoul is fun, but so are healthful hiking trips! I will briefly describe some of my more recent adventures.
Namsun is my go-to mountain if I want to hike but no organized hikes are suitable for me. I recently met with friend Sue, and together, we headed south from Hoehyeon station (line 4), and grabbed a elevator at the base of Namsun mountain. The elevator brought us to a higher mountain level, from which we were able to access a hiking path. Namsun has various approaches to get onto hiking trails. This mountain is not particularly challenging, but doing this walk in summer definitely requires bringing lots of water. Like other mountains, one of the more challenging aspects when you are not hiking with an experienced tour guide is finding a path off the mountain which leads to a convenient destination.
I hiked Ansan mountain with Korean guide Jin, and new friends Anita and Wannapa. I found Jin through the Seoul Hiking & Traveling Meetup group. We met at Sinchon station (exit 2) and walked through Yonsei University grounds. At the back of the university, we took a sharp right, onto a hiking path.
The trails were fairly easy, and the hike, including a temple visit, took around three hours. Afterwards, we enjoyed a delicious local dinner near Ewha University station.
Cheonggyesan mountain hike was also organized by Jin. We met at Cheonggyesan station, on the Sinbundang line. Our crew included guide Jin, older Korean fella, Yeol, engineer, Kevin, and my friends, Buyeon and Chantel.
Some of the trails were muddy as the ice on the mountain was thawing and this produced a few squeals as most of us almost slipped and fell on our asses.
We spent about four hours hiking trails, and eventually ended up in a casual open-air restaurant where we ate grilled duck, seafood pancake (pajeon), and salad! The food was so enjoyable and we were so relaxed that we hardly spoke to each other! The experience was phenomenal.
I joined Climbers In Korea (CIK) for the first time in mid March. CIK group is hosted by Mr. Kim, an experienced, organized, and father-figure type of guide. We met for a mid day hike at Nokbeon Station (line 3, exit 3) to hike Ansan and Baekryunsan in northern Seoul. Around sixty people joined the hike. Seventy percent seemed to be regulars, while about thirty percent were new joiners.
After walking together to an ideal spot with a large rock acting as a platform, all the newcomers were invited to take center stage and introduce themselves in groups or individually. The fact that this long-established group took the time to recognize new joiners personally made me feel more welcome and a significant member of this community. I really enjoyed this personal touch.
After introductions, we followed Mr. Kim through various trails. I had invited friends including Buyeon, Nelson, and Chantel, and had the good fortune to meet many new and interesting people, including Mr. CC Pak. I learned that he was a boxer, and that while his interest is in Aikido training, he really values Muay Thai as perhaps the most skilled and strength-based type of martial art. I was fascinated to learn about his experience. Later, CC informed me about an upcoming CIK opportunity to visit the Pyeongchang Olympic grounds, which were of particular interest to me. Later, we shared snacks during our lunch break on a mountain clearing.
Recharged, we continued hiking. We stopped for a quick toilet break, and as a result, Buyeon and I found ourselves separated from Mr. Kim’s main group, along with about twelve other hikers who had also stopped to use the toilet. We formed our own small group and eventually reunited with Mr. Kim and the rest of our crew down by Seodaemun prison (Dongnimmun station, line 3) at the end of a hiking trail.
Mr. Kim led the group to a local restaurant where the staff were expecting us, and we all sat down to enjoy traditional Korean food. The staff attended the table grills at each table by preparing meat for us. Dinner was a nice opportunity to yet again, meet more hikers that I hadn’t had the chance to speak to yet.
After dinner, Buyeon was itching for a coffee. Several other hikers including Brendon, Kate, Argentinian friend David and South African friend Kelsey, joined us at a local coffee shop. Once again, we were able to get to know more people, laugh and share cultures.
Finally, some friends said goodbye, while a few of us decided to show newcomers to Korea, David and Kelsey, Gwangwamun Square and later, take a walk along the Cheongyecheon river. After almost twelve hours of socializing with some very interesting people, I finally said goodbye to brand new friends.
Hiking is one of the most beneficial experiences, on many levels, to enjoy here in Korea. I have come to the decision that one of the best ways to deal with culture shock, and prevent isolation and loneliness as an expat, is to actively meet new people. Not only is hiking one of the best ways to meet likeminded wanderlust friends, but you get to see some of the most beautiful landscapes in Seoul (and Korea), and get fit while doing so! I highly encourage you to join hiking groups as soon as possible.