Wednesday, January 18, 2006

25 in the Winter Soraksan Mountains

On Friday the 13th, John and I caught a bus to Sokcho so we could do some winter hiking at Soraksan for his last weekend in Korea. We arrived at 2:30 am, went to a jimjilbang for few hours and then woke up for an early start. We went to Sunrise Park in Sokcho but the sun was hidden behind rain clouds that gave us the impression it would be a bitter cold day of hiking with wet and frozen clothes. Fortunately though, the drizzle eventually stopped around midday. I had never done any winter hiking before but once we strapped on rented metal spikes to our boots it was a quite exhilarating.

We made our way into the mountains and arrived at the hut where we would stay the night shortly before sunset. Nothing beats a cold beer after a long day of hiking. Especially when it's drank in a small shack surrounded by beautiful, snow-covered mountains and served to you by a friendly Korean man who keeps bringing oranges, chocolates and dried squid (I passed on the squid but John tried it for the first time). After our drink we were led to where we would be sleeping...a cold, hard wood floor with no heating or blankets. My cold breath came out as thick as clouds as I laughed and thought what an interesting night this would be. My anticipation was short-lived though;we were taken to a room over a fire pit after the reconsideration of our host. It was a small, 4-ft high room with only enough space to comfortably fit three people. We returned to the shack for a dinner of ramyeon, kimchi and a bottle of celebratory soju. John and I shared tales of our travels and occasionally toasted a shot of soju with the three other Koreans eating with us until it was lights-out at 9:00pm.

My 25th year on this Earth came quietly as I was sleeping deep in the mountains in a snow-covered hut far away from pollution, traffic, and the conveniences of modern society. I woke up on Sunday in between a good friend and a Korean woman and "25" didn't sound as bad as I thought it would. We raced back towards the base of the mountain, running down the ice-covered rocks and across slippery metal bridges (I had overcome my fear of downhill on ice after one day but also managed to forget that fear is a beneficial instinct that aids in survival) . Icicle branches were surrounding us as the sun started to peak over the mountain tops. Instantly, the ice started to melt and crack and we were caught under a shower of falling ice. The sun reflecting off the thousands of branches combined with the unexpected ice falling from the trees gave the mountains a mystical look and feel. We made it back to the base and had Soraksan wine that was made on the mountain with our lunch. It was like fresh squeezed grape juice with a kick. The perfect way to end a hike.

It was a weekend of firsts for me: first time winter hiking, first day of being 25 and my first time being chased by the cops before I left Sokcho. Yes, sorry Mom, I did say chased by the cops. It was the small offense of jaywalking that started the "situation" and I discovered that my instinct was to run. It wasn't that busy of a street, only a couple cars here and there. Unfortunately for me, a cop car was one of them. They drove by, turned their siren on and pointed at me with stern looks on their faces. I think it was the looks that caused me to run. They were not forgiving looks. I instantly thought of all that could go wrong if I stayed and waited for the car to turn around: the cops don't speak English, I don't have any ID, they take me to the police station and they can't find a translator, I get yelled at in Korean, I get a huge fine, I miss my bus back to Seoul, by the time I get out of the police station the buses are no longer running, I spend the night in the streets and have to take a bus back the next morning and end up missing work on Monday. And to make it worse, my friend from Australia has to endure this all with me.

Who knows what would have really happened. Maybe nothing. But I didn't feel like finding out so I yelled to John from the middle of the street, "I'm running!", and we took off in a mad dash until we found a small alley behind a hotel where we hid out and caught our breath for awhile. Nothing like a bit of adrenaline to add some excitement to your day. Damn! I feel like a 17 year old kid today... running down mountains and getting chased by the cops. Not such a bad way to feel on the day you're turning a quarter-century old!