Hiking with Kim Kyeong Han

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A few weeks ago I met Kim Kyeong Han, an older korean man, during a hike up Bugaksan mountain. I was hiking solo as I often do and so was he. We ended up walking past each other a few times, eventually acknowledging our pace was comparable. We began chatting and what followed was a 2 hour hike together followed by 2 bottles of makgeolli and plates of korean pancakes. To this day we’ve remained in touch and go hiking together every Sunday every other week.

I never thought I’d befriend someone twice my age, but it’s been refreshing and a great way to improve my comfort with the language. Despite our language gap, it works, and Kyeong Han is clearly eager to improve his english…nonetheless he’s said in broken english many times “let’s take our time with learning, no rush”. Kyeong Han has taught me a lot already and i consider him somewhat of a teacher for me. Recently I told him in korean that these days I’m pretty tired from a lot of studying. He said, in english “Health..1…study..2”, holding one finger then two in the air to demonstrate his point. I nodded, “right”.

Kyeong Han clearly understands the need for health. I’m half his age and breathing harder each time we hike together. He tells me to hurry up if he feels our break is too long. Honestly, the guys got better endurance than me and typically leads the way.

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Last weekend we chose to hike Bugaksan again, the mountain directly behind Korea’s most famous palace gyeongbukgung and the president’s house (the blue house). The mountain was closed to hiking for many years but reopened to the public in 2006. The seoul fortress, a long wall that stretches across many mountains and hills in seoul, was closed for security purposes. Since the wall is built along the ridge, the mountain was off limits as well.

Along the way up, you reach a checkpoint where you need either a foreigners identification card or a passport to continue. Later on, towards the top is an 200 year old pine tree with painted dots indicating where the tree had been shot. The story goes that on January 21st, 1968, the tree received 15 shots during a standoff between north korean and south korean forces. 30 soldiers from north korea were making an overnight attempt to attack the blue house and assassinate the president when they were caught. I took a picture of the tree intending to pass by but kim Kyeong han insisted it was a photo opportunity. I felt awkward, not knowing whether a serious expression or smile is more appropriate. I felt even more so when he suggested we both pose next to the tree for a photo, but nonetheless, it’s not everyday you meet a tree with such a history.

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The view from the top was gorgeous. The skies been pretty clear lately, a refreshing change from the frequent smog, and it provided a clear view of Seoul’s most famous mountain, Bukhansan. The way down followed the fortress wall and was a steep decline for about 30 minutes. Many groups of older korean hikers were coming up this path…Kyeong Han gave me one look and said “bad trail”. Brutal to hike up, sure, but incredible views on the way down

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We ended up at the base near the trailhead to inwangsan, a shaman’s mountain to the east of gyeongbukgung. From there Kyeong Han took me for Chueotang, a soup made from mudfish and known for its health benefits. I told my girlfriend what we were eating and she said “oh I hate that! That’s ajooshi food (middle aged man food)” Nonetheless, it’s considered to promote beauty by creating glowing skin, a bit counterintuitive at first seeing that mudfish are known for being dirty and burying themselves under mud in the wild.

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The soup was dark brown and not particularly inviting but i liked the smell and it came with a generous offering of banchan (side dishes) including fresh kimchi and twigim (fried veggies/seafood). We ordered a bottle of beer to split and began to eat. The soup was actually fantastic, in my opinion. I can’t quite recall the flavor, but it had a nice taste, especially with a few added dashes of pepper. We ate and talked and Kyeong Han told me a bit more about his daughter whose working for a major, but controversial paper, and the expectations he has for her. I got some insight into my girlfriends life and other girls here from what he said. His daughter is 30 and still living at home. Despite her independence in her work and working a professional job she’s still expected to be home every night around midnight. Staying out for longer would be questioned. I’ve heard it’s not uncommon for these expectations to be me maintained even for a woman that age, but still surprised me.

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I’m hoping to be able to talk more in the future with Kyeong Han, to get a better  grasp on the culture and his generations way of thinking. After all, he’s around the same age as my girlfriends parents…and when dating in korea, you’re dating a woman and her family. The family is always in the picture, despite location, but often in korea they play a very active role in your relationship. I’m hoping to learn more about the older generations experience so as to learn more about my girlfriends parents and to therefore navigate this new relationshop dynamic in a smart way.

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