Lost on an Island Paradise

Hiking trails in Trail area

Image via Wikipedia

If there’s anything Koreans tackle with ruthless efficiency, it’s hiking. The same culture that will offer attentive help in the city will practically shove you off a cliff to pass you on a mountain trail. This striking trait is how I, an asthmatic American, ended up lost on a tiny island off the southern coast.

With its abundance of mountains, Korea is blessed with breathtaking hiking trails. Most offer spectacular views, rugged terrain, and an interesting Buddhist shrine, if not a temple, monastery, or convent.

Depending on local traffic, a monastery might set up a free lunch kitchen, with delicious if simple fare and an unobtrusive donation jar. Less frequented spots take a more personal approach. A friend and I were chased down by a nun as we left her convent. She insisted on giving us cakes and tea, chatting us up, and explaining the significance of the ubiquitous fish artwork. At a tiny monastery, a monk provided refreshing spring water and the most magnificent apples I’ve ever eaten.

One shrine, in a tiny mountaintop cave, had no hospitality, but an old man sold drinks, snacks, and souvenirs at a card table outside. After downing tiny bottles of vitamin C drinks, the tourists, myself included, used the bottles to catch and drink the water that flowed cool, clear, and mineral-rich down the walls of the cave.

Korean hiking groups advertise in the two major English-language newspapers, The Korea Herald and The Korea Times, both available at major subway stations and areas that cater to foreigners. Everybody meets at a rendezvous point, loads onto a bus, and heads out. Each group has distinctive name badges which seemed silly to me at first but which saved me in the end.

The rest of my group, all Korean power-hikers, left me behind in the mountains. As I picked my way through the Koreans bustling along the busiest trail I’ve ever hiked, I realized that I had no idea which unmarked branch my group had taken.

From atop the ridge that formed the spine of the island, I could see the ocean on either side. I decided that downhill was the way to go and scrambled to the road that circled the island. The signs were all in Korean, but an X on my map marked the ferry. I flagged down a car, showed the driver my map, and rode to town.

I showed my name badge to people. They’d point and I’d walk. Eventually I was reunited with my group, fed, and loaded onto the ferry where I shared snacks and soju with other passengers before boarding the bus back to Seoul with another Korean adventure under my belt.

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