We were somewhere on the back half of an eight-hour hike across Bukhansan National Park in northern Seoul, scrabbling over yet another series of boulders so steep they required us to hang on to steel cables that had been installed along the trail. Our legs were tired, we were low on water, and we had no idea how much further we had to go.
“This is hard,” my friend said.
“Yes,” I agreed. “It’s like learning Korean.”
Actually, learning Korean is harder. Still, the comparison seemed apt as my German classmate and I climbed Seoul’s highest mountain and traversed Bukhansan National Park. From the bottom, Baegundae Peak looks rocky, but you think about 836 meters and figure it can’t be that hard. And every time you come to a distance marker — another 1.4 kilometers to the next junction, say, or to another temple — you think to yourself, It can’t be that far. And yet somehow it is. Every time. Just when you think you’re about to get somewhere, there’s a steep uphill, or an open slab of slick wet stone canting toward a sea of foggy nothing below, with no discernible trail to follow. As with learning Korean, you reach these queasy moments where it seems impossible to go forward. But you do. And as you do, strange beauties open up to you.
Early in the hike, we came to a temple where monks in ceremonial robes were leading a congregation in chanting, some in fourth-note harmony. There were gifts to ancestors and paper cutouts that looked shamanistic to me, and I felt the wonder of knowing enough to have a sense of what might be shamanistic. And when they chanted about Gwanseum, I knew enough Korean, and enough Buddhism, to know that they were giving praise to Avalokiteshvara,the Bodhisattva of Mercy, Guan Yin in Chinese, Gwan Um in Korean. Then three monks began a dance with flashing, clashing cymbals, and I didn’t know what it meant, but it was lovely. It was the sort of moment that makes you want to keep going along the rocky, precarious path toward another culture.
As we continued, the rain began to fall again, soft then hard. It was intermittent throughout the day, and soon we were hiking through the clouds themselves as we climbed through forest, deciduous and pine. What should have been spectacular viewpoints were just walls of gray-white mist, which is kind of how I feel every time we do a listening comprehension exercise in class. My friend is much better at listening than I am, having gorged herself on Korean dramas for years. On the other hand, I’m much faster at reading Korean, the result of my year living here with no real Korean language skill except for reading the alphabet. I got very good at spotting the English embedded in the Korean: ham-beo-geo, in-teo-net, ke-i-bul-ka.
We took a small side trail up to yet another temple, where we sat on a bench and ate our kimbap while elderly blond dogs hovered with the eternal optimism of dogs everywhere, hoping for scraps. From there, we began a steep ascent, our assault on the peak. As we walked, we passed other hikers, and it was a pleasure to be able to chat with them in their own language about the trail, distances and times, the weather, where we were from. At the junction from the main trail to go up to the peak, we sat and rested, and a couple of ajossi gave us boiled potatoes and fresh ripe tomatoes. People do that on trails here. The shared experience, the shared hardship, creates camaraderie. When we’re out on the mountains, it can begin to feel like we’re part of a community, even part of the community of language.
The final stretch to Baegundae Peak is no joke, especially when everything is wet and the wind is blowing. There are many stretches where you have to use metal cables pull yourself along steep rock faces, and the thought of going down again is terrifying.
As I neared the top, my fear of heights kicked in. A Korean hiker at one point got very insistent that he should take a picture of my friend and me, and that we should climb past the cable barriers, out onto a rock promontory, so he could get the right shot. We spent some time waving him off, and under the stress of the moment, my Korean skills fell apart. I wasn’t sure what he was saying, and I couldn’t come up with my own words. I was trying not to fall off a mountain.
As we climbed up past an old defensive wall and out onto the rock faces, I wondered whether there was any point to doing this at all. The thick mists obscured any views, I was exhausted and afraid, the trail looked dangerous. But we went on ahead.
And then there we were, at the top, the Korean flag whipping in the wind, with nothing but white all around us. But as we stood there, panting and spent, the clouds parted. First a nearby peak revealed itself before being folded back into its white shroud. Then the whole of Seoul appeared in front of us, misty and indistinct but undeniably there, great expanses of apartment towers spread out below.
There are moments like this with the language too, when suddenly the blank fog seems to part and reveal meaning, depth, content. The details might still be fuzzy, the shapes uncertain, but yes, there’s something there! And the elation I feel, the urge to point and shout and tell everyone to look at what I’ve seen, is not dissimilar.
We had arrived at just the right moment. A few minutes later, the clouds were back, the vistas closed off again. It was time to savor what we’d been lucky enough to see and then head down.
We found a sheltered crevasse and ate our second kimbap before beginning the long descent. As scary as those cables had been going up, they weren’t quite as bad as I expected going down, though my hands were soon raw and my arms aching. The way to do it is to stick out your butt and go down backwards, like you’re rappelling. My friend had learned that from an ajossi when she’d gone solo hiking the week before.
Once down from the peak, we decided to continue on across Bukhansan Park to end up on the far side from where we started. This was perhaps unwise. A couple of guys on the trail told us that this was the easy route, but we began to doubt that we’d heard them right. There were more cable passages over rocks and scree, more unnerving cliffs and dangerous traverses. And things get riskier when you feel that the hardest bit is behind you. The most dangerous part of most hikes is the back end, when you just want to finish, you’re tired, and you get careless. At one point I heard a scrape and turned around to see my friend hanging from the metal cable, legs dangling down a steep incline of bare rock. She was OK, but it was a frightening moment.
These moments happen in language too: you think you’ve got it, you think you’re fine, and then everything drops from under you, and you’re just sort of dangling, dazed, unsure why everyone is staring at you like you just nearly died. They’re less dangerous when they happen in words, but sometimes it doesn’t feel that way.
The long slog continued for hours, and as we descended, mosquitoes began to whine around our ears. There were exquisite moments when the late afternoon light filtered through the trees and mist, but by the end, we were just exhausted and ready to be done. And that, too, is like living in another language: you’re tired, you’re overwhelmed, you’re stumbling and making mistakes, but the language is still there all around you, still the path you need to follow if you want to get home.
Nearly at the end of our hike, we finally found a good spot to take off our shoes and put our feet in a cold stream. There was a young guy there who shared his water with us — we had run out — and who then more or less guided us on the last stretch, through more boulder-strewn river beds and at last out to a ranger station and a road.
We all got on a bus together and rode it for a while to the nearest subway stop. We were back in civilization again, dressed in our damp hiking gear amidst the hordes of fashionable weekend shoppers in this lively corner of Seoul. Our new friend showed us to a jimjilbang, a Korean sauna, before he headed home.
We spent the rest of our evening recovering at the sauna: showering, getting a meal — there are restaurants in most jimjilbang — and going from one sauna room to another, first hot, then hotter, then into the ice box. There were families there, kids playing in the common room, a TV showing Korean dramas and then comedy and then Olympic ping-pong. It was all very Korean, and also very relaxing. We could listen or not listen to the conversations around us, tune in or tune out. We could let relax into the murmur of Korean without needing to struggle with it. We could let it come to us in whatever bits and pieces we could understand, or cared to.