Friendship comes in many forms. It seeps out of drunken conversation and screaming karaoke. It rings on Skype from halfway around the world. It follows both laughter and tears. But in its most piercing form, friendship comes from the locations we expats temporarily call home, and it’s often subtle, quiet and profound. We’ve all got relationships with Korea: Some are one-sided, some are abusive, others are great and last a lifetime. But we all know Korea and, no matter what we think of her, she shapes us every day. She’s a friend who helps you find yourself, whether you’re asking for it or not. For me, it took a two-day trek up a famed and unforgiving mountainside for me to reconcile this long-lost kinship.
The base of Koreaís spine
Jirisan holds a special place in the hearts of Koreans. Located at the southern tip of the Baekdudaegan mountain range, the spine of the peninsula that runs from Jirisan in the south to the border with China, this tail end is considered one of the three most important in the country — the Holy Grail of Korean hiking. Nestled in South Korea’s largest and oldest national park, Jirisan is also a true natural wonderland. With deep river valleys, towering peaks and infamous (read: excruciating) trails to hike for days on end, this was the formidable challenge I needed to undertake. It wasn’t a lazy Sunday afternoon decision either: Coordinating logistics, booking shelters and packing enough food and gear for a multi-day trek is no simple matter. A trip through Jirisan requires planning and a lot of mental stamina, but it was just what I needed — my personal “Heart of Darkness” (1899). This was as much about conquering Korea as it was about myself, and it came at the perfect time.
At that point in my life, I was at a sort of crossroads in my relationship with Korea. As a recent returnee, coming back to the peninsula presented a new array of issues: Friends had moved on, and I wasn’t sure if my previously well-established life now needed to be rebuilt or completely remade. Was she going to welcome me back? Was the ROK still my friend? My return reignited a whole series of emotions and habits that had been missing while I’d been away, but with sudden brutish ease they were all coming back. It took me a few months to settle in and find my niche again, and then once more the world got smaller. The bubble started to build.
Herein lies a troubling and near-unavoidable issue that many expats will face, regardless of how long they stay: the waygukin (foreigner) bubble. The first time around, Korea herself became so familiar and comfortable that by the time I left I had to question what I’d really gotten from her, or rather, what she’d gotten from me. She’d been kind, but had I returned the favor? She’d accepted me with open arms and few questions, but I was leaving with angst, confusion and a lack of compassion for her vulnerability.
This balancing act is something many foreigners inevitably struggle with, and more often than not we become complacent and allow the expat bubble to stifle our connection with whatever region we happen to find ourselves in. Aware of this, I’ve tried to reconnect with Korea and have now found that she talks to me the most when we’re in private, when it’s just her and I in nature.
Speechless at the summit
Back on the ridge in the dark, it was getting sticky, and daydreaming wasn’t helping me get through this last stretch. I needed focus. Looking around, I felt like my appreciation for this mountain had all but evaporated under a guise of extreme discomfort, both physically and mentally. But with every burning step I took I knew it was a race, not only against my swirling emotions, but against the clock as well. Using my rudimentary Korean — and the ranger’s even more basic English — I’d gathered the hike up from Chibatmok Shelter would take around three hours. Dawn would break at 5:30, so leaving at 2:30 seemed appropriate, but with no watch other than my mobile in my pack, I had to keep on. With every metal stair and every boulder, every misstep, the anticipation was building. Like that feeling you get when you leave for the airport or reunite with old friends: half nerves, half excitement.
And so, just after 5 a.m., I reached the peak. The wind was relentless. The stars were plentiful. (Did you know Korea had stars?) I was the first person to reach the peak that day, and for a few short, fleeting moments I was completely alone with my friend Korea. There wasn’t much said — I could barely catch my breath — but I stopped being afraid and was just content.
As I sat down to recuperate, I was treated to one of the most spectacular sunrises I have ever seen. Looking down on the horizon, I was taller than the sun, and I felt like it too. I’d never really believed in the curative powers of physical exertion, but on that morning, despite my broken body, I felt refreshed and light.
That sunrise was a thank you, a token of appreciation for having taken the time to seek out a long-lost friend. It was the start of something new, something I’d been missing. And in the end it was I who was thankful.
Jirisan is a massive park, spanning three provinces with countless trailheads. For the course mentioned here (heading west from Daewonsa Temple), get to Jinju then take one of the hourly buses for Daewonsa where the Yupyeong course begins. Camping is prohibited in the park, so for multi-day treks you’ll need to book a shelter online at the Korea National Park Service website (english.knps.or.kr). Also, there are absolutely no facilities once on the trail other than the shelters — bringing in your own food and gear is essential. Come prepared, leave humbled.