South Koreans consider mountain climbing as a national sport because of its positive benefits both physically and mentally.
A day climbing in Korea is like a day at work. From morning, a group of climbers set up their gear, taking a subway train to the bus stop.
Their tour guide today is Ms. Kim Sun Hui. After everyone had arrived, the carriage turned towards the famous Seoraksan National Park.
Mountain climbing is the national sport in Korea. Two-thirds of the country’s population climbs at least once a year and one-third of the population climbs monthly. In 2018, not movie tickets or cosmetics, but climbing equipment is the item Koreans spend the most with a total of about 2.3 billion USD.
Every year, 22 national parks welcome up to 45 million visitors. On holidays, it’s not uncommon for family members to climb the mountain together, line up in long lines, waiting to take pictures.
Why do Koreans like mountain climbing so much?
“We are descendants of the mountain god,” said Choi Won Suk, Gyeosang National University, Jinju. According to the founding legend, King Dangun – the ancestor of the Korean people – was the son of a heavenly god and was born on Mount Paektu. Therefore, the mountain becomes a sacred place, has important significance for the people of this country.
Scientifically, Mountain climbing is good for the heart, motor organs, supports weight loss, improves blood pressure, blood sugar and especially help relieve stress.
Besides the health and mental benefits, another reason is that Korea has many mountains and hills that are not too high. The highest peak, Hallasan, is also only 2,000 meters high. Getting to the mountains is also easy. In the capital Seoul, one can climb a mountain in just one noon.
Tour guide Kim’s climbing team, most of the members are middle-aged people. Most of them get to know each other through online mountain climbing forums where people exchange experiences. Usually, they go in groups, instead of traveling alone or with family.
This may be the result of the policy under President Park Chung Hee – encouraging companies to let employees go hiking as a building activity, connecting the community.
The culture of working long hours and short days off makes the mountain climbing need optimal. You will encounter trails that lead straight up to the top of the mountain and rarely see winding turns. This allows climbers to climb up and down the mountain as quickly as possible.
Today’s Miss Kim’s ambitious goal is to conquer the highest peak of Seorakan mountain before dark and return to Seoul before the last high-speed train heads to the suburbs.
Many people disagree with this kind of express ride. According to Ms. Park, another mountain guide, climbing to the top is not the only goal. Everyone should stop for a moment to connect with the surrounding nature, admire the majestic scenery.
Focusing only on climbing to the top, according to Mr. Choi, a geographer, is a rush, demonstrating industrial style.
Koreans think mountains are sacred. For Mr. Choi, this is a place to meditate, connect in harmony with nature and contemplate life.
Unfortunately for the ambitious climbers in Ms. Kim’s group, the journey to Seoraksan was delayed due to traffic congestion. When the party arrived at noon, their morale somewhat sank because the goal of climbing to the top before sunrise seemed an impossible task, but they could not turn around.
The group started walking on the rocky steps leading up the mountain in the sparkling sunlight. The trees around them have begun to turn crimson and orange.
The higher you climb, the more people forget how steep the slope is. Stairs lead them through wonderful vistas seen only from above.
“I feel more open to coming here,” said Ms. Go Eun Mi, from Suwon. “You can forget all the stress when climbing, especially during the epidemic”.
When the light of the day fades and the winds begin to rise, the group has to go down the mountain and leave the plan to conquer the peak. The mist gradually fell down the aisle, obscuring the scene. The climbing team promptly set foot down the last steps when the darkness covered.
An hour later, the bus arrives and takes the tired but elated passengers back to Seoul. The air in the car was cheerful and somewhere a faint smell of warm makgeolli rice wine someone was secretly drinking. And when the smell of the orange peel started to spread, Ms. Kim had to remind the passengers to stop eating and continue wearing masks.
Their climbing thus ended with tired eyes, with the train rushing like a normal commute.
Only that their minds are light and their hearts are much wider – a wonderful gift that the mountains give.
Mai Dung (According to the Economist, WebMD)