Thursday, October 28, 2010

Such Great Heights

As many of you know, our last hiking expedition didn't go exactly to plan so for our latest attempt, we took precautions; brought our own water, took regular rest stops and ate nothing that didn't come piping hot and served in a restaurant. As far as events go, our hike up Suraksan mountain was enjoyably devoid but from the experience I gathered another kind of impression: spectacle. South Korea is known for its visual greatness, be it the d├ęcor of a store, advertisements of new products or an updated menu for a kimbap place and the people happily buy into it. Personal hobbies and activities are too submitted to this treatment and it wasn't until I found myself face to face with local hikers that I understood the extent of their aesthetic pride. Just ask this man, he was on the trail guide at the entrance of the track.

I've never held any particular passion for fashion, nor found myself following trends that, very possibly, could have improved my appearance tenfold, but never in my life have I felt as under dressed and unprepared as my day on Suraksan. The Korean men and women around me, people who probably only went hiking once a year to celebrate the turning of the leaves, were so exquisitely dressed in the latest models of climbing gear that I thought I was walking through a North Face commercial. The climb was modestly challenging, if at all, yet I quickly lost count of the number of walking poles either clasped uselessly in one hand or tucked aside in backpacks almost empty for want of equipment. I wore my zip up Doc Martens (suspiciously appropriate for strenuous activity) and suffered a number of stares from climbers wearing thick-soled, double-laced, flexible, utterly professional boots in which they tripped, slipped and took off the second they were on flat ground. Despite being able to climb the mountain in bare feet, they wore unnecessary equipment to impress the surrounding climbers. And believe me, Koreans are vicious when it comes to criticism. I saw more than one mocking expression directed at hikers not using the latest climbing aids. Not even children were safe from this mindless display, despite being far too small to correctly use the tools. This is merely a product of society; children following their elders' examples, particularly if that example is directly correlated to how cool one may look by doing it. The effect though is damaging. If anything, children should be dis-encouraged from making physical activity easier. They are young, strong and generally hangover-free; shouldn't they lead the way when it comes to exertion? Not in Korea!

Which is nothing compared to the out-of-control precautions active ajummas take during their exertions. It's perfectly understandable that older women may find themselves less able to tackle the same journeys that we youthful members of society manage with barely a moment's hesitation but the appearance of their practices are startling. Forget the cloth face masks present on a multitude of faces in the marketplace and on trains, or the sun visors so large that a pigeon could roost and raise a family on its brim. Imagine reaching the peak of a quiet mountain, just as the mist starts clearing from the valleys and sunlight barges through leaves turned brown with encroaching cold, and coming face to face with this:

What I think it comes down to is an obsession with the spectacle of activity. Socially, the more you find yourself doing, the more important you must be. Anyone who has spent a substantial amount of time around Koreans already knows that they are in their best form when doing three or four things at once. In the middle of karaoke they are simultaneously emailing or messaging friends; after dinner they somehow manage to smoke and drink soju in the same mouthful; and on a mountain top they find it necessary to build and use exercise machines. These are scattered all over the country on bike tracks, in playing fields and by the side of rivers. This idea in itself is quite a brilliant dedication to health and the environment; instead of going to a hot, crowded gym, people can incorporate their weight lifting, stretching and bike cardio into their daily strolls. But on a mountain? When the very act of reaching the equipment is a workout in itself? Where exactly is the gain? I'm inclined to believe that the spectacle of exercise is what entices such ideas. An opinion further proven by the crafty placement of several badminton courts at the base of Suraksan, heavily populated with Koreans both playing and drinking beer. It's tempting to call this a complete contradiction but in reality it's just another form of business undertaken by an activity-hungry race. You could even call it multitasking. At a stretch.

Lara did not, no matter what you hear, steal a child's hiking pole.

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