2012 Travel Diary #17: On hiking in Korea

by Philip Gowman on 21 September, 2012

in Gyeongsangnam-do | Pastimes | Travel diaries

29 March 2012. “Have you got proper hiking boots?”

That’s the standard question from concerned Koreans when I told them I was going to walk up Jirisan.

I was familiar with the Korean custom of dressing properly for hiking. You can’t miss the hikers on the subway, and indeed heading out to Gwacheon on line 4 a couple of days previously there were countless middle-aged hikers in coordinated outfits (rucksacks even matching their jackets) heading off for a stroll in the hills.

“Yes, don’t worry, I’ve got proper walking boots.” Having been trekking in Nepal twenty or so years ago I know the drill: something to provide plenty of ankle support, with a rugged sole to provide protection against the rocks on the trail, lots of grip, and nicely waterproof.

Hiking shoes

Can you be serious? Do people go mountain hiking in these?

“No, I mean proper hiking boots,” then counter the most concerned of my friends. One of them even sent me a photograph of what she meant, just to make sure. The picture looked like a posh pair of trainers (I was so disgusted I put the image straight in the bin so I can’t share it with you now, but the above picture shows a boot which was several steps more robust than my friend suggested I should wear). I’ve got a proper pair of kick-ass boots. I reckoned I was just about sorted.

Mountain boot

Now this, to me, is a proper pair of mountain hiking boots – vegetarian or not

So, back in London, I selected a bigger than usual suitcase to accommodate my large boots, and also stuffed in my industrial strength goretex anorak, plus couple of fleece-like things. I thought about packing my old goretex over-trousers, but decided that if it was that wet I wouldn’t be walking. So an old pair of jeans was thrown in for hiking [1].

It’s the morning of the day we are to ascend to Beopgyesa, Korea’s highest temple, according to my friends in Sancheong (Not quite, but it’s rude to argue) [2]. I’m dressed in my walking gear and present myself for inspection. There’s a sharp intake of breath. “Haven’t you got any hiking pants?” My jeans, which have been worn to tackle the occasional Munro in Scotland, are not deemed adequate. “And what about a hat?” To be honest, in London I had thought of packing a woolly hat but then didn’t bother. I had been told by one Sancheong native that it wouldn’t be too cold at this time of year. But that wasn’t the sort of hat they were thinking of. Thankfully, they didn’t mean a crash helmet either.

At the start of the trail

At the start of the trail to Beopgyesa

In the end, I found myself putting on Min Young-ki’s black hiking trousers and wide-brimmed sun-hat emblazoned with the logo of Columbia University. Thankfully, both were perfect fits. I was allowed the dignity of retaining my own shirt and fleece gilet. But before I leave the house a scarf-shaped towel is thrust into my backpack. I was hoping to have no need of either a scarf or a towel, but acquiesced in taking this unwelcome extra burden, which joined the additional and unbudgeted water, fruits, noodles, energy drinks and other nutritional supplements. I was beginning to wonder what arduous journey I was about to undertake: as far as I had heard beforehand this was just a steep two to three hour walk, not a major expedition. Good job I had planned not taking a book with me, because the pack was now overflowing.

On the way to lunch we make an unscheduled stop at a pharmacy. I’m wondering what on earth we are supposed to be buying. Korean pharmacies (at least the ones in Sancheong and Tongyeong) don’t seem to stock useful things like sunblock, which is what I had been needing for the past couple of days of bright sunshine. But in Sancheong even the smallest pharmacies have a full range of orthopaedic supports. And to prevent any injury to my knees on coming down from Jirisan I am instructed to put a pair of strong elastic sleeves before starting the descent.

Knee straps

No, those aren’t my legs

Thus provisioned, we set off to Jungsan-ri, the start of the trail.

  1. No-one had told me that you need those metal walking sticks beloved of the more senior walkers, for which I was grateful. I was later warned in Seoul to steer clear of cheap Chinese walking sticks. Only Korean walking sticks were good enough. But it seemed that power-walkers on Jirisan had no need of such things. [back]
  2. David Mason’s excellent Shanshin.org puts Beopgyesa only third-highest, but my friends in Sancheong insist it’s the highest, even when I show them the statistics. And as I’m their goodwill ambassador, I am duty-bound to represent their position. [back]

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