Friday, May 29, 2009

The Descent of Men

I'm so sore I can barely walk today (what are joints like that doing in a nice guy like me?), but I made a brother and friend, so I guess it was worth it.

With less than three months left of my stay in Daegu, it occurred to me on my day off yesterday that I really ought to do some of the things that people really ought to do here. I had tried to find Apsan Park twice before, early in my stay here, once with Ray, when we ended up hiking up a steep, steep road for a long, long time, and once alone on my birthday, when I found a deserted war memorial but nothing else. The problem is the lack of signage; there are barely any directional signs at all (none in English), no maps, and a bunch of random roads, paths, and walkways winding around, and up, the mountain.

But yesterday, I was determined to find it, whatever "it" turned out to be. It's a major endeavor; it took a 20-minute walk to the subway, a 20-minute subway ride, and a 40-minute walk to even get to the wrong side of the Apsan Ringway, the eight-lane highway with a concrete barrier in the middle and a plethora of crazy Korean drivers zooming by, then a 10-minute walk to find a tunnel under it in order to get to one of several unmarked paths up the mountain.

Finally, somehow I stumbled on the lower terminus of... what do you call those big boxes with windows where you dangle from a wire and hope the power doesn't go out or you have to be rescued from over the East River by Sylvester Stallone? Cable cars? Gondolas? Yeah, that.

I don't know how it happened, but when I was a kid I loved to fly and never minded dangling from cables, but somehow since then heights have become a major problem for me. Every time I hike Palgongsan, I look at the cable thingy and shudder: I can't do it, it'll drop like a rock, I think I'm gonna puke, I just can't. My fear of heights doesn't make a lot more sense than the broom phobia of that corgi in the ancient Disney's Wide World of Color episode... remember that? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Well, does anybody remember the famous line from Risky Business? I keep my language clean on the blog (if nowhere else), so I'll just say the next line: "If you can't say it, you can't do it." Anyway, I just shrugged and said it and got in the little metal box. It's funny; I know most fears (whether they're of brooms, mice, or Kim Jong-il with nuclear warheads) are built up ridiculously in the mind. I guess I finally figured that if I survived hours above the Arctic Circle in a tin tube with wings, I'd manage five minutes fifty feet over the treetops. And I did.

It feels odd, being among two dozen people looking down on two and a half million. I had bibimbap at the little restaurant at the top, and hiked up a little higher to the very top of the mountain. This is what it looks like from there: (hit the play arrow!)

As I was about to start down, I asked a Korean man, entirely in gestures, whether it was possible to hike down to the east, the direction I came up from. He said no and pointed northwest; then he decided to hike with me. His sunny nature and wine-tinged breath overcame my natural surliness and we had a splendid hour hiking down together, periodically attempting conversation with my two dozen words of Korean and his four dozen words of English. We determined that he was 54 Korean years (53 in American) old and I was 55 American years (56 in Korean) old, and he declared, with a manly handclasp, that we were brothers and friends.

It's good to have a brother and friend along when you're inching down a hideously steep trail studded with thousands of pointy rocks in your oh my God, Steve, you're a bleedin' idiot sandals, longing for the hiking stick you left home and half-praying that you don't gash open a toe, fall on your spine on a rock, wrench an arthritic knee, pull your tight calf muscles or lose a nail because your long second toe is continually being jammed into the lip on the front of the sandal. Anyway, we had a jovial if nerve-wracking time, passed a temple on the way down, determined that I like maekju (beer) and he likes soju (Korea's national drink, made of equal parts crude oil and sugar), that it was hot, and that we were brothers and friends forever. Then I shook his hand at the bottom and will never see him again.

Having temporarily overcome two bugaboos of mine, heights and talking to strangers who don't speak English, I determined that I could still walk despite my left knee's objections, tramped another 40 minutes to Duryu Park, took the subway to Home Plus and shopped (anticlimactic after the mountain trek, but you guys, they gots pancake syrup!), took the subway to Manchon, hobbled for a half hour to get home, crept up my stairs, plopped my butt down, pulled up a couple of cats, used my hands to lift my feet up onto a chair, and said, "Aaaaaaaahhh."

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