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(2012 - Winter Issue)


I awakened to the pitter-patter sound of tiny feet running across the floor and the brilliant sun of an early spring morning.

As I rolled off my bed mat and directly onto the floor, I was jolted out of my sleepy state and into an immediate awareness of where I was—a traditional Hanok Guesthouse in the historic Bukchon Village of Seoul, South Korea.

I managed to get myself out of bed and began preparing in earnest for the day ahead. As I carefully filled my backpack with supplies, I peered across the courtyard to see the two-year-old daughter of the guest house owners skipping down the steps. While I laced up my hiking boots she sauntered over, barefoot and holding a piece of bread. Intrigued by sounds of plastic buckles being snapped closed, my new-found friend inched closer and closer until she stood beside me. She took a bite of the bread and then, with an outstretched arm, presented the bread about an inch or so from my mouth. I leaned forward and took a nibble to her sheer delight, then stood up, smiled, patted her on the head and I was on my way.

I meandered down the winding, narrow roads of the old district, past myriad restaurants and craft stores and on toward the modern city. Shopkeepers washed and swept their storefronts as they slowly began their day. I made my way past throngs of schoolchildren as they laughed and shouted, and occasionally practised their English on me, before arriving at the underground metro station. In only 500 metres I had walked out of the past and into the contemporary world. The automatic doors of the gleaming silver train opened and I was suddenly just one of the eight million people that would use the Seoul Metro that day.

Peaceful Surroundings

Within 40 minutes I was no longer in the second-largest metropolis on the planet, but now found myself approaching Bukhansan National Park. As the train neared my stop, I noticed from the outfits of my fellow riders that we were heading to the same destination. Our eyes met and we acknowledged each other with smiles. I exited the train at Dobongsan Station and followed the multitude of hikers as we all made our way along a dusty dirt road lined with stacks of bright red plastic chairs and tables belonging to open-air restaurants, which now sat silent but would be bustling with activity soon enough.

One afternoon a year ago I had arrived at this same park, wearing a T-shirt, jeans and running shoes . . . with no backpack, food or water. By the time I reached the summit I couldn’t decide which was worse, my throbbing, sore feet or my bruised ego. It was at the peak that I learned just how kind Korean people are. I was passed pieces of apple, chocolate bars and bottles of water. It was amazing, and just the first of many acts of kindness I would encounter.

As my hike began the memories of my first visit to the park, and subsequent visits to Korea, flooded my mind: baseball games in Busan on the southern coast where I was handed food and drinks all evening by enthusiastic fans; climbing into the caves of Seoraksan National Park in the northeast while being guided by a woman and her teenage son; sitting on a bench near the Korean War Memorial next to an elderly gentleman who, upon learning I was from Canada, tearfully said, “I am happy you are here.”

I made my way up Uiam path toward the ridgeline and stopped for lunch at a clearing. As I looked around to see everyone enjoying the beautiful views on the warm spring day I came to a realization: the enjoyment of nature is of the utmost importance to many Koreans. The effects of the Korean War—often referred to as the “Forgotten War”—and the subsequent tumultuous 30 years have seemingly resulted in a deep appreciation for the peacefulness nature affords.

I crossed the sun-splashed ridgeline and continued toward the spectacular 740-metre Jaunbong Peak where bottles of soju(Korean vodka) were passed amongst those who had reached the summit. When the bottle was placed in front of me I took a swig and, to the laughter of my fellow climbers, let out a yelp to express just how potent it was.

On my descent I unsurprisingly met a local man and his family. He was a professor at a university in Seoul. As we made our way to the base of the mountain we eventually ended up at a creek where we all sat, took off our boots and dipped our feet in the cool refreshing water. The welcoming afternoon sun warmed our shoulders and, as I sat with my new-found friends, I couldn’t help but be filled with a feeling of thankfulness for the kindness of the Korean people, for I, too, now understand the peacefulness of nature.

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