Saturday, October 24, 2009

Not far from the madding crowd

I've been wanting to go mountain hiking in Seoul, as I did so often on Palgongsan near Daegu, but it's seemed such a major deal to find the right bus line to even get to any of the mountains around the city that I haven't gotten around to it. So when Jin, the wonderful lady to really runs everything at the school, posted a sign-up sheet for a Saturday hike, I signed up with alacrity. (No, a lacrity is not a type of Korean pen.)

Six of us (Jin, our school receptionist Michelle, my fellow teachers Lauren, Chris, and Nick, and yr obdt. svt.) went by taxi today to Chonggyesan, the main hiking mountain on our (south) edge of the city. Hiking here on a beautiful fall Saturday isn't much like it is on Palgongsan, where you can sometimes get away from people and find a little serenity. This was the scene at the bottom of the mountain...

...and the climb itself wasn't exactly Frodo and Sam in the Misty Mountains, as most of the way up and most of the way down, the view was of whoever was five feet in front of you. Also, the bulk of the climb was on prefab stairs, each one of which had its own numbered faceplate. Just so you know, there are 1263 stairs. There's a lot more climbing than that, though, most of it as crowded as the subway.

On the way up (and back), in a little rest area, we saw the jolliest guy, a Buddhist monk in gray robes, cute little hat, white cotton Mickeyesque gloves and sneakers, with a little boombox playing Korean Buddhist drum songs. He looked like a cross between Mr. Rogers and the Dalai Lama and he was bouncing from foot to foot and happily waving and calling to everyone who came by. When he saw us, he called out, "Hello hello!" in English, and when I answered "Annyeonghaseyo!" he called (in English) "Where are you from?" I answered, "New York saram iyaeyo!" he laughed and clapped and cried, "Goodbye goodbye!" I wish I'd gotten my photo taken with him.

At the top, if you can elbow your way to the edge, there's a great view of our end of Seoul, which would only be improved if the air were cleaner; if the smaller mountain in the foreground were about ten feet shorter, I could have seen my apartment.

At one point, a formation of four fighter jets (South Korean, to the best of my knowledge) roared past below us. Every once in awhile, one is reminded that the war never officially ended and that it's not all that far to the DMZ. We also came upon a plaque dedicated to 53 soldiers who died in 1982 when their transport crashed into the mountain.

Anyway, on a happier note, this is our party near the top. ("Donner, party of 33, your table is... oh! Never mind.")

(back: Jin, Lauren, me, Chris; front: Michelle, Nick)

This nice Korean man volunteered to take out picture together, and ended up taking this picture with my camera, with Jin's, Lauren's, and Chris's dangling from his arms like Christmas-tree ornaments after he'd used them to take photos too. (Speaking of which, Costco put up Christmas decorarations in the first week of October. But I digress...)

On the way back down, we came upon fifty people at a full stop coming up, and fifty more going down, all waiting for this guy... finish crossing the trail. Lauren, who likes snakes, reached out to pet him, and have you ever heard 30 Koreans squeal? I have.

A little later, we took a rest break next to a young Korean couple with the cutest, cutest little girl, two years old at most. We smiled and gave her a little wave and she very gravely bowed to us, at which point we all burst out laughing and a couple of the women in the party decided maybe they did want a baby, after all.

When we got back to the bottom, we found a packed restaurant, which makes its tofu right out front in a large vat...

...and serves the traditional Korean seafood pancakes and dongdongju...

...which is this delicious, nearly frozen, sweet, tangy rice liquor. (It also has the advantage, if you say the name just right, of sounding like the lead-in to We Will Rock You.) It's basically fermented rice milk and has little bits of rice floating in it and it's wonderful. It's the only liquor I've ever had that comes in a big bowl and gets ladled into smaller bowls that you lift and slurp from.

Jin had to work really hard to talk them into finding me something to eat, as the pancakes only come stuffed with seafood, and even the hot tofu/veggie stew cooking on our table had beef floating in it.

But we managed, and it was all very nice, till the World's Drunkest Man Who Can Still Stand (yeah, it's official) came and leaned over Lauren and, in a frenzy of misplaced bonhomie, insisted on guessing her age-- 43 or 22, he wasn't sure-- and arm wrestling Chris...

...and then kissed him, and, upon finding that I'm a teacher, kinda half-sprayed into my face that he teaches elementary school himself. Now that's encouraging.

...and then it was time for all of us to go home and take a nap. Oh, and apropos of nothing, here's a photo of Jin and Michelle...

...because they're really, truly nice, it's not like you're paying for this, anyway, and when I have I ever majored in logical organization?

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