The hard-faced women who hike Gubong-san do so in chattering groups, covering the narrow width of the trail and moving aside for no American. Despite suffocating humidity—it’s late July, and the force of monsoon season is not yet spent—they layer themselves in shiny black pants, long-sleeved shirts and athletic jackets. They wear gloves. They wear visors and drape their heads and faces with towels. I suspect they couldn’t see to step aside even if they were inclined. Some even carry on their backs children and grandchildren, who, wide-eyed, swivel their heads to examine the two bent-over, panting foreigners.
My wife Kate and I are English teachers, and we haven’t yet discovered the neighborhood health club that sits, waiting for us, atop a small, indoor mall called Little Power Zone. So we hike this trail several times a week to keep in shape. For us, this is Korea: dodging the old ladies and dragonflies, listening to the freeway traffic below, indiscreetly watching men indiscreetly relieve themselves on the rocks and bushes. We come each time with the hope of practicing our greetings in Korean and each time return home disappointed that people said “hello” if they said anything at all.
We live jogging distance away, in Gwanjeo-dong, a small, newly built neighborhood on the margins of Daejeon, a crowded, mid-sized city south of Seoul. The hammering and drilling of construction projects provides the incidental music of our days, while on the night breeze the rot of green garbage bags left on street corners mixes with the salt-water stink of the dozens of seafood restaurants. It has taken us a while to become accustomed to the assault of so many brightly colored signs, to the identical red, neon crosses that stand on nearly every commercial rooftop, and to the thump-thump backbeat of the karaoke bar next door.
We wake up most mornings just wanting to escape.
The way to Gubong-san takes us past the towering Gubong Village apartment buildings and along a path that follows a muddy irrigation ditch separating two rice paddies. Workers are sometimes in the paddies, hunched over as if permanently, their faces covered by hats with wide brims. Around them the paddies are such a perfectly unsullied shade of green they don’t seem real.
The trail up the mountain is steepest at the start and washed out in places by the summer rains. Wooden recreational equipment and benches litter the first kilometer, leaving the air heavy with the sticky smell of wood preservative. Wooden steps—180 in all—carry us the last bit up to the first peak. Although Kate, as a Maine native, is disgusted by the steps on principle, it’s a concession to families for which this flatlander is grateful.
And Gubong-san is full of families, of young people and old, of little girls with puppies and elderly men with parasols. We hike in search of some friendly interaction and find it only intermittently. Koreans rarely acknowledge strangers; so oblivious are hikers to each other that jarring sideswipes rarely merit even a mumble, let alone an excuse me. As foreigners, however, we are singled out, sometimes for a hello but most often for long, unabashed stares. We know enough of the language to make out kids whispering breathlessly to their moms: “Look at the Americans!”
One morning our regular twosome expanded to include Mr. and Mrs. Hur, our bosses at the English-language institute where we teach. Mr. Hur, who is spectacularly fat for a Korean man, has the slightest bit of Mussolini in his gait: He walks wide; he takes up space. The clacking old ladies in their towels and visors broke before him as if in salute, and in his enthusiasm he several times stopped hikers to explain to them what must have been self-evident: that we were his guests from America. What else he said I can’t even speculate. There were polite smiles all around, some nervous laughter, a few deferential bows.
The first peak is a crowded convergence of trails and occupied benches. This morning, as Kate and I sit on a roughly flat rock in wet silence, we watch a grandmother teach her husband the basic elements of tai chi. Her motions are studied but unforced, her arms carving out curves that seem almost to express something. Grandfather, however, is clumsy. He doesn’t know the arm-language, and his partner teases him gently in her typically whining Korean.
Two dragonflies pause in mid-air, as if holding one another up, and then flit away.
The second peak requires more climbing, but our reward is a breezy pagoda overlooking the city. The air is hazy with exhaust and there’s no skyline to speak of, only the tall, gray apartment buildings, each an imitation of the other. But anything is beautiful from this high up, and the mountain around us is pleasantly green and leafy, like tightly bunched heads of broccoli.
Collapsing onto the wooden benches, we take in the unintelligible conversation around us. An old man glances at us warily, then holds a match up to his cigarette. Another snorts, unzips, and heads for the trees.
Spike Magazine, July 2003