Saturday, October 4, 2008

Climb ev'ry mountain

Gale, who will be returning to her family's Oklahoma ranch in a few weeks, guided Luke, who just arrived from his Idaho farm, and me about Mt. Palgongsan on Friday. We have a three-day weekend (my first, because I worked over Cheosuk weekend) due to National Foundation Day, the commemoration of the nation's mythical founding 8000 years ago. (I wonder if the really, really conservative Christians here celebrate it, since fundamentalists believe that the earth is only 6000 years old... but then Buddha's Birthday is a national holiday, too, so I guess they have to deal with a lot of stuff.)

We crammed into the bus downtown at 9 a.m. The bus was almost literally bulging, as we were packed in like sardines' more jammed-in cousins-- hiking Palgongsan is apparently the local, regional national pastime, and it was a holiday. We should have started at 8:00. After a very uncomfortable 40 minutes of standing with my neighbor's daypack pressed into my giblets while the driver careened around curves at an alarmingly high speed, we arrived. I wished I hadn't seen that awful House episode with the highly realistic bus crash...

The little suburb we disembarked in reminds me a bit of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, although it's smaller: a collection of hiking shops and hotels at the base of the mountain. At a distance, I saw a long, futuristic building with a sign reading "Korean Safety Theme Park". Fortunately, like so much here, it showed no burning need to be understood by me.

Gale, Luke, and I started up the trail. I had envisioned a long, steep dirt road or a trail with perhaps an occasional tree root to stub my toe on. Wrong again, Tofu Breath! The struggle up the mountain was astounding: long, steep, mostly dirt, all right, but it was mostly tripping over roots and climbing up thigh-high rocks; at one point, there were some very long, very steep stairs because it was too hard to climb any other way. There was a section with a rope to pull yourself up with like Adam West and Burt Ward, although I admit there was less chance that Milton Berle would stick his head out a window in the climbing surface than in the original. (What am I talking about?! I must be crazy.)

I never did get out of breath, as I was going fairly slowly to stay with Gale, but my running shoes kept slip sliding away (perhaps they should call them "No Balance"), my knee started to twinge, and my calves got awfully stiff. What I was scared of was the thought that I might lose my balance and fall on my butt on a rock. Once, thirty years ago, I saw a guy fall and hit his tailbone square on a sharp rock at Seneca Rocks, West Virginia. He screamed. I wished not to emulate him.

The funniest thing: there were scores of other people going up, a lot of them a good deal older than I, and they sailed up the mountain. Little old ladies who look like half-dead sparrows were doubling our speed. At the top, right near the upper terminus of the gondola (yes, we could have ridden the whole way up) we found a cafe among the pines with a gorgeous view and we sat for awhile.

As you may know, I love birds, and my favorite is the chickadee. My spirits were lifted even higher when, sitting at the cafe, I saw and heard two Korean chickadees. What a great surprise! I looked them up when I got home; they are actually called marsh tits, no kidding. (Don't think it was easy to not word the last couple of sentences as a joke.) But they were chickadees, all right; they looked exactly like American black-capped chickadees, except that their backs and wings were chestnut, not gunmetal gray. And no, I didn't take the picture.

(An aside, as if I ever stayed on topic anyway: I'm writing this on Sunday afternoon and I've been thinking since Friday how almost every single person going up the mountain had an aluminum hiking stick. Such a stick is collapsible for carrying and storage, has a pointed end that you cover with a rubber tip when you're on pavement, and really does make walking easier in up- and downhill trips, as well as possibly when somebody is, oh, I don't know, in his mid-fifties with arthritic knees and walks on a lot of hard surfaces. Some people used two of them, and I restrained myself from telling them that somebody stole their skis. Anyway, I've been checking them out at stores: they range from $8 to $80, and I don't see a lot of difference among them, so I bought an eight-buck model today.)

We went down a gentler route. Even so, there was one steep bit where I probably would have fallen if I hadn't grabbed onto some poor Korean guy's arm at the bottom and do-si-doed. I bet he'll be glad I bought a stick.

Near the bottom, we visited the Donghwasa Temple. It was originally built in 439 a.d., though the current buildings seem a bit newer. There were many hundreds of paper lanterns with paper slips-- prayers, I think-- attached to them, fountains with dippers for the cool, clear water, pavilions with golden Buddhas and other statues, gift shops selling prayer flags and prayer beads, and a 110-foot-high stone Buddha, the tallest standing Buddha in the world.

Having already offended fundamentalist Christians in this post, let me now say that, although many of the tenets of Buddhism, such as letting go of attachment, resonate with me, I find a lot of the doctrine, the Noble Eight-Fold Path and all that, bewildering and unpleasant, and the art ugly and almost frightening. Nonetheless, I felt a tremendous sense of peace throughout the grounds. Despite my reservations, Buddhism has always seemed to me to be supremely peaceful, and that's something I've aspired to for years, so I found the experience delightful.

The bus ride back was relaxed and uncrowded, as most people leave the city early and make a day of it; there are many trails and one of them (along the ridge, I think) runs for 12 miles. All in all, it was an exhausting, exhilarating trip. I'm in a very polluted city of 2.5 million every day, so breathing the mountain air and hearing the chickadees sing (still avoiding the cheap jokes, as you can see) was worth every minute. I'm going back-- maybe every week, maybe every other month, but I'm going back.

Don't argue with me; I have a pointy stick!

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