KOREA - THE FAR EASTERN GEM
The smell of freshly prepared bulgogi (barbecued meat, Korean style) wafted up my nose while I was trying to climb through the crux of a beautiful route on Munsu-san’s challenging Gneiss. It was a gentle reminder that climbing on Sundays is a completely different game than on any other day during the week in Korea as it is the only day off for the hard-working but outdoor crazy Koreans. We quickly learned to avoid Sundays for our outdoor activities as bus loads of hikers flock to the many national parks, invade beaches or set up camp in front of the hundreds of climbing spots. Of course all this is done in style as running around in last years functional wear looks suspicious.
For Koreans a day at the cliff starts with setting up the “base” - laying out mattresses, setting up small chairs, boiling water for coffee, setting up a tent or at least an awning for shade for the tons of food and getting the laser ready to discuss the crux moves before the actual climbing starts. We have to say we sometimes felt ashamed in our old climbing pants and especially with our small picknick. The really good thing is that Koreans will share everything. Before you are able to put your backpack down somebody will hand you a cup of coffee - Korean style - or offer you gimbap (stuffed rice rolls in dried seaweed), fresh fruit or whatever they are just cooking. Despite the delicious smell I acted against my basic instincts and finished the climb. It was cold when we landed on the morning of the 10th of March in Busan, especially after the incredible heat in Thailand. Mutlu got cleared by the quarantine officer in minutes and it didn’t take long to get our rental car which we had booked for the first few days until we had our house back. We headed to Masan and explored the beautiful coast around Sim-ri.
The challenge was to find a place to stay where they would accept Mutlu. Luckily we found a love motel at the waterfront in Masan where we could stay until our Rouletout was cleared. Love motels are a Korean invention where young lovers, couples having an affair or whoever stay for the night in absolute privacy. The rooms are typically generous, rather dark and come with all the amenities required - from mirrors on the wall to body lotions, condoms and big TVs. Parking lots have curtains so you can’t see whose car is parked in the backyard. For us it was the base to get custom clearance and a first taste of Korea. Talking about taste, it didn’t take long and our extremely helpful customs broker invited us for dinner. A thing that happened to us so many times during our stay in Korea, strangers that are just happy to meet you bring you to a restaurant, enjoy a delicious meal with you, don’t give you a chance to pay anything and disappear - sometimes with or without leaving their contact details. That evening we had the opportunity to devour Hwareo hoe (활어회) - thinly sliced raw fish and other raw, partially still living, seafood.
The fish is dipped in soy sauce, a fermented soy paste (쌈장, ssamjang) or a spicy red paste and wrapped in fresh lettuce or Korean perilla leaves. Add fresh garlic and you feel like in heaven. All this is served with dozens of side dishes, mostly vegetable or fish based that are replenished as you consume them. Of course you have to consume beer, soju (a rice wine and national drink of Korea) or SoMe (a mix drink of soju and beer - mekju in Korean) with it. Clearing customs took longer than expected as our port of entry was not equipped to handle temporary imports but our broker managed it all and off we went, just a few kilometres to the first climbing spot out of Busan in Gadeok-do; A beautiful seaside cliff where we soaked up the early spring sun for a few days. It was here that we met Dong-il for the first time in person - he had sent his famous climbing guide book covering all of Korea for us to Laos and provided us with helpful information before our arrival. Once in Korea, Dong-il became our mentor, godfather and most importantly good friend who made sure we didn’t get bored. Dong-il provided us with an endless stream of places to visit, people to meet, food to taste and things to do resulting in the fact that our first three months in Korea were packed and crammed with activities.
It was already dark and we were almost asleep as it knocked at our door on a Saturday night. We were standing in front of the climbing spot in Sinban, a metamorphic rock face with lots of challenging climbs. As every Saturday night, Koreans came to camp and prepare for their Sunday climbing. But this Saturday was different, it was the start of the climbing season and the mountain gods had to be won over to keep us climbers safe for the rest of the year. The friendly lady knocking at our door just asked us to join the ceremony where everybody was praying in front of an improvised altar displaying fruits, pig meat (typically a pig head for prosperity), incense and some alcohol. After this short event dinner started and it took a lot of arguing to escape back to Rouletout as we had planned a nearby temple visit on the next day - remember, Sunday’s are not for climbing ;-).
During our visits to several climbing spots in the south east we also encountered a fairly big foreign climbing community - mostly teachers or scientists from English speaking countries or Germany. Korea is one of the few places on earth where foreign teachers are treated with utmost respect and receive preferred treatment in exchange for their services resulting in two classes of foreigners: The once that leave after a year or so and the ones that stay for ever. After a lot of climbing (and partying) we decided to again follow one of Dong-il’s suggestions and decided to hike through Jirisan national park and climb Korea’s highest mountain on the mainland, the Cheonhwangbong. The valleys were full of blooming cherry trees that contrasted well with the blue sky and the first fresh leaves on the trees. From there we moved westward, stopped at some famous climbing spots and on north towards Seoul where Berna had to get her new passport and her Schengen visa and Rouletout got a break problem fixed.
Our journey with Rouletout through Korea created quite some interest - also due to Dong-il’s countless connections. First Butora - an upcoming climbing shoe producer from Korea - decided to offer us a bunch of material in exchange for a sticker on Rouletout, fact we celebrated with an awesome dinner of barbecued eel near Gyeosan-ri and then the biggest outdoor magazine “San” (mountain) met with us for a day long interview and foto shoot in Cheongseokgul resulting in a 6-page article (see separate blog entry). We stopped counting the people that offer their help when they see us somewhere or even contact us via our web-page just because they passed us on the road. The friendliness and helpfulness of the Koreans we met is hard to top.
We were about to finish our early dinner at a small restaurant near Miryang - slices of pork belly and fresh apple with wasabi and soy sauce - as an old monk entered to have some rice and soup. I decided to pay
his meal and off we want to our home near the cliff a few kilometres away. It was already dark as I heard a strange noise outside and decided to have a look, the old monk somehow found us and offered us a big bag of all sorts of fresh fruit and with the help of his smart phone he made clear to me that tomorrow at 10am he will come to pick us up to visit a temple. It was a 40 minutes drive to a mountain temple and Buddha museum followed by lunch with other monks while the only way of communication was through a translation app on the monk’s smartphone.
We explored the north east including a visit to the DMZ (the “demilitarised zone” at the border to North Korea) and one of the famous tunnels the North Koreans dug to infiltrate South Korea, enjoyed the beautiful coast and beaches on the east and hiked for a few days through Seoroksan national park, probably the most beautiful one in South Korea with spectacular views and beautiful mountain temples. We met again with Lisa & Martin, explored a newly developed sea cliff near Chugsan and again ended up in Busan where we met many of our friends at an international festival and a spectacular shellfish barbecue.
Our first three months in Korea passed by so quickly and it was hard to leave Rouletout (although consigned to Christoph’s care) and all or friends behind for our first visit to Europe since more than 2 years. Thanks to everyone who helped to make our visit to this small country such a pleasant one - we are looking forward to seeing you again end of August!