Two weeks ago, I went for a day hike, one of 5 hikes I’ve done every other Sunday with Kyeong Han. If you’re unaware, Kyeong Han is an older friend of mine I met a few weeks back. He’s 56, I’m 25. We’re from very different worlds, but it’s always an interesting outing. Since I first arrived in Korea, I’ve wanted to hike Bukhansan, Seoul’s largest and most famous peak. For really no other reason than laziness, I hadn’t hiked the mountain until this hike. To my disappointment, our hike was less of a hike and more of a walking course, as we didn’t reach the peak. I looked up at the jagged ridges and asked Kyeong Han in Korean “거기에 갈까요?” (shall we go there?), he responded quickly in broken english “No. Danger, too much danger”. The hike, still, was interesting.
We met up early in the morning around Anguk station, near the city center, and went by bus to a small burrough of the city – a trailhead providing a few of many ways up. At the base of the trail were vendors selling a variety of hiking supplies, from hats to walking sticks to hiking shoes. More alarming were police and multiple ambulances. We found out shortly after that a search for a missing body was in progress. 4 or 5 days earlier a woman died on the mountain after falling off a ledge. Kyeong Han’s warning of the danger did, afterall, have some validity.
The way up was nothing so unusual, we passed many crowds of korean ajumas and ajooshi’s (middle aged men and women) in large groups, brightly colored hiking pants and jackets, always hiking with some real energy. We stopped along the way to hydrate and eat some sliced melon prepared by Kyeong Han’s wife. During the walk we practiced our english and korean and learned a little more about each other’s lives. I discovered that Kyeong Han has 6 siblings and is the youngest of them all amongst other things. The hike didn’t get really interesting until we reached the point of descent.
As I mentioned earlier, I anticipated we’d be hiking to the peak of Bukhansan. Towards the top it becomes rather rugged terrain, with grip holds and ropes to ascend the rock face. I’m afraid of heights, but this was the experience I was hoping for that Sunday. To my surprise Kyeong Han suggested (or rather, proclaimed) we head down. I hadn’t realized he had another plan in mind to introduce me to a small, famous mountainside restaurant.
We turned off the path to a small house, with a small porch, full of many potted plants and flowers. It resembled a home more than a restaurant, very casual yet with tables and chairs and jars of fermented foods stacked on top of each other. We were directed to a seat by a large Korean man and Kyeong Han began to tell me about the place. He told me that this spot serves the finest Makgeolli (Korean rice wine) in the country, a particular brand called 부산금전산 (Mountain Forest Makgeolli). He enthusiastically told me this brand was a personal favorite of Park Chung Hee, Korea’s “President” but in reality military dictator, from the early 60’s to the late 70’s. Kyeong Han, who prefers the title 삼촌 (uncle), is very conservative as are many from his generation, and speaks highly and proudly of Park Chung Hee often. I learned later from my girlfriend that his hometown 안동 (Andong), famous for it’s preserved traditional korean character, is also one of the more conservatively minded areas of the country. I personally, from what I know, don’t think very positively of Park Chung Hee…yet for the sake of the relationship and lack of common language I nod my head and smile slightly. He also told me that the food at the restaurant is the best in Seoul and that the owners live and work at the house and are originally from Busan, Korea’s second largest city, a port city in the southwest of the country.
The makgeolli was as delicious as he suggested it would be. We were served makgeolli traditional style in a metal kettle, and it kept flowing. Despite his insistence he’s a lightweight, the spirits were high and we shared 2 or 3 bottles together along with kim chi/seafood korean pancake(김치해물 전), fresh kimchi (김치), tofu with gochu/pepper sauce and a nicely marinated salad. The pajeon (korean pancake, made from wheat/rice flour and kimchi/vegetables/seafood) was delicious, and also true to Kyeong Han’s word, one of the tastiest pancakes I’ve yet had in Korea.
As always, hiking together, we gather a lot of curiosity…an older korean man and a younger foreign man. Our meal was no exception, as the owner and his wife took an interest in us. I was curious too as haven’t met many Busan people. My girlfriend’s family, mother and father, are both originally from Busan/Busan area…Since we started dating and my life in Korea began I’ve heard many things about the people from this region, most memorably a conversation I had with an older Korean man on a plane ride from Tokyo to Seoul. We began talking and the conversation went in the direction of Busan. He told me the people there are very tough, the toughest people in Korea. I asked why and he responded “During the beginning of the japanese colonization, the Japanese army had to enter Korea through Busan. The first point of entry was through that region, so the first people to fend the japanese forces off were those from Busan. For this reason, they are the toughest in the country” The man fit this image to me, generalization though it is. He was large in stature, a loud voice and a very strong direct way of communicating. Him and Kyeong Han hit it off and talked enthusiastically over Makgeolli. I was asked many questions about my time here, my intentions, my goals and did my best using my broken Korean and developing ear. By the end of the meal, he offered Kyeong Han a free bottle as a gift but Kyeong Han vehemently turned down his offer.
In a light headed, tired stupor we left the hillside restaurant to go on our own ways. The end to another interesting day exploring with my new friend.