“Let’s hike up the mountain,” he said.
“It will be really fun,” he said.
“You don’t need special climbing clothes or equipment,” he said.
But four hours later, when I was scaling the side of a rock face like one of those people you see in North Face or Columbia ads (although I was wearing jeans and had no proper equipment), and I had 100% of my body weight held up by my grabbing onto a metal wire on the side of the cliff, I may or may not have said, “Max, if we both survive this, I AM GOING TO KILL YOU.” And I was only mostly joking.
When he first made the suggestion to hike Bukhansan, I thought that this would be like hiking around in Colorado, where you walk on some trails and eventually end up on an overlook with some pretty views. Except clearly I shouldn’t have thought that because – hello – we’re not in America. Things are different here.
We brought one water bottle (to be fair, it was big – a liter or liter and a half), a Subway sandwich to split, and that was basically it. We hiked around for a little while, and it did start off kind of like a Colorado hiking trip. Then things started to get a bit steeper, and we had to hang on to ropes like this:
We stumbled upon a Buddhist temple in the side of the mountain, which was pretty cool. There were chants going on, and I think some people were praying, but I don’t know much about Buddhist temples and couldn’t understand what anyone said.
After about an hour and a half of hiking, Max and I were ready to head back. We stood at the base of another rocky incline, debating whether or not to climb it, when two Korean men started yelling down to us from the top. I asked Max what they were saying, but he didn’t know. He doesn’t speak much Korean. It was a friendly type of yelling, though, and they were motioning us to come up, so Max and I figured they were probably saying something like, “Come on, guys! You can do it!” I think we were right. When we got up to the top of that incline, the men patted us on the back and gave us encouraging smiles. Then they took this picture for us:
We followed the men for a while, and they communicated with us as best they could. They knew a couple words in English, and Max used the little Korean he knows. Thankfully Siri translated the word “cousin” for us, because the men were pointing to me and then back at Max and saying, “wife?” No, Koreans. He’s my cousin. Don’t make things awkward. We lost service shortly after that because we got too high up, but I’m glad we had Siri with us for the beginning at least.
The men went around a corner from one of the paths and spread out a blanket, and they invited us to join them for a picnic! I thought this was very hospitable of them. Max said Koreans do stuff like that all the time. I sat down with my shoes on, and the guys freaked out a little. Max noticed my faux pas and quickly said, “Ah! Take your shoes off! They never wear shoes on picnic blankets!” Oops, my bad. I’m was on the side of a mountain, so I thought shoes should stay on my feet. Silly me. The men had extra chopsticks for us, but they laughed at how I was using mine and tried to show me the proper Korean way. Max told me I was eating with my chopsticks in the Japanese style, which apparently doesn’t fly here. If I would have known the Korean words, I would have said, “Listen, I’m actually thrilled that I 1. got the food from the blanket to my mouth without dropping it, and 2. I ate Asian food without grimacing. This is a big personal win.” But of course I couldn’t say that, so I smiled and tried to use the chopsticks the Korean way, which uses mostly your ring finger and your middle finger. It’s really hard. The men were really nice about it, though, and it was very kind of them to share their lunch. They gave us rice wine and kept saying “cheers!” (but in Korean. I forgot the word). I was going to drink it really fast to get it over with because it was so gross (which I discussed with Max openly in front of the men, but they were talking in Korean and I knew they didn’t understand anything I said. I smiled and pretended it was great while saying, “Max. This is really, really disgusting.”). Max warned me not to finish all of the wine in my cup because then they would just keep filling it (which was true – they did that to Max and to each other). So I had to keep sipping it slowly every time they said cheers and keep tasting it. Ew. At one point a stray cat joined our picnic, and the men gave the cat some of the food too. You can see the cat in the second picture.
Through various communication techniques, the men learned that I am married (a wedding ring isn’t a giveaway here because Koreans don’t wear them), I have no kids, Max is not married, and our dads are in their fifties. They guys thought this was really cool, because they are also in their fifties. They guys motioned between each other and said, “Friends. We friends. No homo! Ha ha ha!” So apparently they’re not gay, which I wasn’t thinking in the first place. Then my enthusiastically liberal cousin tried to convey that it’s okay if they were gay, because guess what? That’s legal in America now. I finally said, “Max, give it up. They aren’t going to get it.” They totally didn’t understand, but it didn’t really matter.
So the just friends Koreans finished up their lunch, and they pointed to the summit of the mountain. Max and I tried to convey that no, we didn’t want to summit the mountain, we wanted to hike back down, but the men either didn’t get it or pretended not to. They had basically adopted us at this point, and they were going to take us with them to the summit.
Because we were clearly unprepared, the men were really sweet and handed us their walking sticks which convert to rock picks (trust me, this made a HUGE difference). I had been quiet for the entire lunch except to say “thank you” (one of the few words I know in Korean, and I’m not going to embarrass myself by trying to spell it here). The men were taking such good care of us, and they were so happy earlier about being the same age as our dads, that I asked Max the Korean word for “dad” and then said, “Thank you, Dad!” to the man who gave me his walking stick. They thought this was hilarious, and they kept calling us “son” and “son” after that (I don’t think they knew the word for “daughter,” ha ha).
As we kept climbing, the mountain kept getting steeper. I got pretty nervous because it was quite dangerous. No way would this be legal in America without signing waivers and connecting yourself to climbing cords or something. We would grab onto metal wires and pull ourselves up to the next ridge (at this point the walking sticks were useless, and the men hooked them back onto their backpacks). I didn’t take many pictures on account of the fact that I was TRYING NOT TO DIE. A rescue helicopter flew below us, and the men indicated to us that the helicopter was probably picking up someone who fell. We were a few thousand feet up, and seeing that helicopter didn’t help make me any less nervous. I would have abandoned the whole thing and gone down, but it got to a point where trying to go backwards looked more dangerous than going forward. The guys knew what they were doing and could even climb without their equipment. My “dad” gave me his hat to shield my face from the sun and gave me his climbing gloves so that the metal wouldn’t cut into my hands.
I’m pretty sure this is the part where I told Max I was going to kill him if the mountain didn’t. I really freaked out at one point because my hands and feet got all tingly (probably from dehydration – one water bottle in the morning and wine at lunch, remember? – or lack of oxygen or both), and I was like, “Um, Max? I’m actually a little concerned I’m about to pass out.” Passing out while holding onto the metal wire would have been very, very bad. Luckily we communicated to the guys that we needed a break, and we sat on a ridge for a while. They offered me some water, which I drank gratefully (Thanks again, Korean dad!), but it tasted really weird. Max said it was wheat water, which is apparently common here. After our break, and when I could feel my hands again, we kept going.
Finally, after four hours of climbing (I’m calling it “climbing,” not “hiking,” because it was NOT hiking), we finally reached the summit. Honestly, I was dehydrated and hungry and already sore from hours of pulling myself up on wires, but it was worth it. The views of Seoul and the surrounding mountains were absolutely stunning. There really aren’t words to describe it, and trying to capture it in pictures is kind of insulting to the real thing. At this point I almost forgave Max for making me climb it in the first place, even though it’s probably the most dangerous thing I’ve done in recent memory (don’t freak out, Mom – I’m fine, obviously).
Going down was a lot easier than going up, and there were some winding paths that could almost be called trails. This allowed us to mostly walk/crawl down the mountain. When we got to the bottom, we stopped by a mountain spring to soothe our sore feet and legs. We also drank from a waterfall inside of a cave, but I only took a picture from outside of the cave because I was scared to drop my phone in the water I had to walk through to get there.
Also, Max and I took a victory selfie. 🙂
Now that it’s over and everything turned out okay, I can say that it was an awesome day. I’m certainly not going to forget it anytime soon. Or anytime ever. Max and I both totally crashed as soon as we got to his apartment (we were falling asleep in the taxi on our way back, actually), and we went to bed at 6:00 PM (except now it’s 1:40 AM and I’m totally awake, so maybe that was a bad idea). Jet lag/mountain climbing is really messing with my sleep schedule.
Tomorrow we’re going into downtown Seoul, and I’m really looking forward to it. I’m hoping for a slightly less hazardous adventure this time.