October 17, 2010

Walking on the Tiger’s Back

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to go hiking with a couple of my colleagues. However, when they said hiking, they were not talking about a casual stroll through one of the local mountains surrounding Seoul. No! They meant jumping on a bus at 11:30pm, riding 4 hours across the darkness of Korea, rolling off the bus to eat pork spine soup at 3:30am and then trekking until 6:00pm the next day...I am talking about 26 kilometers of mountain trekking on The Tiger’s Back.

The Baekdu-daegan trail, as it is better known, spans the entire distance of the Korean peninsula...about 1,500 kilometers of which 735 kilometers are in South Korea. And...oh lucky me!...it just happens to include most of Korea’s tallest mountains.

The Tiger’s Back is sacred to Koreans, as it is a life-energy-water source for the whole of the peninsula. It has been revered by peoples of this land for over 4,000 years. Those who walk its back are believed to become possessed with its spirit. Well...I am not sure what is possessing my knees now, but they are on fire even as I type...a week later!


We spent most of the time in the sky...the ridge is about 1,000 to 1,400 meters high. The views are breath taking...sorry, but he iPhone does not do them justice.

I did have a chance to escape after 12 kilometers, but the views were just magnificent and by that point I was numb. Time did not exist...I could have hiked forever...


I always wondered where kimchi came from...

...at about 20 kilometers, we came upon a clearing where a huge cabbage patch lay strewn with rotting cabbages left over from a recent harvest. This year many of the cabbages are rotting in the fields due to the heavy rains. Prices of kimchi have nearly tripled as well as most other vegetables.


At about 25 kilometers, I became delirious...I thought I was hearing some injured animal crying for help. As I struggled down the last half kilometer with my knees stabbing in pain...I could make out the tortured sounds of a saxophone. Much to my chagrin, I came across an ajashi playing his saxophone while his wife operated a boom box that played a “jam track” accompanying his attempts at a melody. It was an odd ending to the 26 kilometers seeing this guy standing in the middle of nowhere wearing black socks and slippers and horking out a tune while his disinterested wife hit play and rewind the boom box...over and over...

I shouldn’t laugh...my guitar playing must be just as comical...

My colleague asked him for a ride, but he only had room in the back of his cabbage truck...that was a bit much after 26 kilometers...even though we had to wait an hour for a cab.

Hike #2...just 20 kilometers!

After the first trip...regardless of the pain...I was hooked. So, I signed up for a second trip...this time only 20 kilometers...


...the pay off was priceless...at the end of the 20 kilometers, I was greeted by an 88 year old veteran of the Korean War...I believe I was the only American he has seen since the end of the War. He turned inside out with joy. I could feel his warmth as he held my hand. It nearly broke my heart...some American soldier must have left quite an impression upon him.


He told us that he lived in this house his entire life. As did his father, his grandfather, his great grandfather, his great great grandfather and his great great great grandfather. You do the math...that’s hundreds of years...this man is a living treasure...forgotten with time. Like all of us will be...


Through translation he kept asking me to come back and stay longer. I felt sorry...if only I could...

So, as you trek through life, you never know what you will stumble upon...but if you keep your heart open, you may be lucky enough to find out how extraordinary people are...


He and his wife will be the last of his line to inhabit this home...his family has long since moved on to the modern life...


While achieving so much, I am not sure if they know what they have left behind...

2 Comments:

Blogger Jeffrey said...

Doug,
Jeffrey Atto back again. What an incredible hike, (Hike!?), and what a touching story meeting that old man and his wife.

Those photos are incredible.

Boy, I hope I can come visit you there some day.

- Jeff

November 09, 2010  
Blogger by Douglas Wills said...

Thanks Jeffrey! It's comments like yours that help keep me writing!

November 10, 2010  

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