Sunday, March 07, 2004

February can be basically summed up as being, well... cold. Really cold. Bone-chillingly, icy cold. Now, don't get me wrong, the weather couldn't have been nicer - clear, blue skies and sun, but the temperature has been arctic and the wind has been biting. Weekends have largely been confined to staying indoors, lazing about on our heated oindol floor, watching movies and the latest downloaded Survivor episodes.

That being said, I did make a trip up to Mt. Seorak recently. It's up in the northeast corner of South Korea, only about 50 kms from the North Korean border. Mt. Seorak (Seoraksan) is one of the most famous parks in all of Korea, and sees over 3 million visitors annually, and for good reason too. Comprising of two large peaks and a myriad of interconnected hiking trails, it is a beautiful, pristine landscape and a chance to get away from Korea's urban sprawl.

So, my hiking companions Will and Fin and I set out late after work on a Friday night, hitting the highways at about 10:00pm. Our plan was to drive through the night to a small town outside the national park. We were to hit the slopes of Seoraksan at the crack of dawn, as we'd been told it would be a gruelling multi-hour hike to the top. Add in sub-zero temperatures and winter conditions, we were prepared for "a full alpine experience".

The drive was much faster than we anticipated, largely because of the amazing series of deserted highways heading northwards all over this country. Granted, it was late at night, so little traffic was to be expected - but zero traffic was just plain bizarre. Especially, when you're the only car cruising along a 4 lane expressway. It was then that it hit us. These roads were not designed for cars... these roads were for tanks. As we drew ever closer to North Korea, this fact became increasingly evident - the roads were lined with barbed wire, punctuated by the occasional artillery gun parked on the side of the highway.

Anyway, bright and early, with the sun slowly peeking over the endless mountain ranges, we made our way to the base of Seoraksan's South Face. Geared up with our down jackets, in-step crapons, ice-axes, ropes, harnesses we set out up the trail.

Now let's make one thing clear about hiking in Korea, it's probably the most popular weekend pasttime, especially amoung older generations. But they don't make trails like trails back home. No such thing as switchbacks here. It's STRAIGHT up the side of the mountain, irregardless of the incline. Gruelling only begins to describe hiking here. And without fail, as you're huffing and puffing your way up the mountain, some ancient grandma or grandpa comes bounding up past you like they're out on a Sunday stroll round Stanley Park. It's humiliating to say the least.

Now, throw into the mix that day, 25 lbs. of useless 'alpine' gear and what was turning out to be a beautiful, hot and sunny day and you'll have a good idea of the predicament we'd gotten ourselves into. One by one, we stripped off our layers to the point where my backpack was nearly screaming - crammed full with my down jacket, in-step crapons, ice-axe, ropes and harness.

Nevertheless, we perserved, over-loaded, to the top, probably much to the amusement of the passing Koreans. Once at the top, the craggy granite peaks poked out through the early morning fog and we were rewarded with a stunning blue-hued view of Seoraksan and the surrounding ranges. On the way down we did find a frozen waterfall and Will and I spent some time learning the basics of ice-climbing from Fin, who was an instructor back in Canada. So all of that extra weight was not totally in vain.

On our drive back to Ulsan we chose to drive back along the ocean. This far north, away from the industrial mess of the southern coast, the Sea of Japan is a brilliant aquamarine, turquoise colour. The coast is lined with beautiful bright yellow sand, stretching out for miles. Sadly, it's totally and completely inaccessible, stuck behind a 6 foot high barbed wire fence and fields of landmines. Being so close to North Korea, the beach is patrolled 24 hours a day by heavily armed, fierce looking South Korean commandos. If you're caught on the beach, their orders are to shoot to kill, no questions asked, whether you are civilian or otherwise. Even after a year or more living in Korea, it's times like these that I still shake my head in wonder and think.. where the hell am I living?

A couple weeks later, I was to meet my Mom and Dad in Seoul. They were flying back to Vancouver on the heels of another adventure, and had four days to spend in Korea. Joanna, Julianne, Amy and I met up with them for a mini family reunion of sorts (save for Jen who was the only Burslem holding down the fort in Canada at the time).

I had arranged to do the De-Militarized Zone tour with everyone and I was looking forward to doing it again. The last time I had gone in to the DMZ, I was focused on capturing as much detail as possible in my notebook for a travel article I was writing that I barely had time to soak it all in, I was so busy scribbling down everything that was said. This time around I could just sit back and enjoy the tour.

We'd arranged to do the tour with a North Korean defector this time we paid a visit to an interpretitive centre which showcased life in North Korea (from a South Korean perspective, of course). Nevertheless, it was a tantalizing peek behind one of the last remaining Cold War curtains (I like to call it the Kimchi Curtain, it has a nice ring to it). More fascinating was the defector's own personal tale of how he'd escaped from the Stalinist state. A fairly high-ranking military official, he'd been handed an assignment to track down a missing soldier. This allowed him free movement across the country and with that he'd escaped over the Yalu river into China.

Standing quietly off in one corner during our tour however, was another younger man. About 22 years old, he'd recently defected to the South as well. His story was even more incredible. He was a frontline guard on the North Korean side of the DMZ, near the city of Kaesong. He'd gotten into trouble with the authorities and made the difficult decision to defect to the South to avoid the inevitable punishment. In the middle of the night, he and a friend walked across the DMZ. His friend was obliterated when he trod on a land mine, but the young man kept on going - surrendering himself at a South Korean border post. Now here's the kicker, to qualify for front line duty in North Korea, your family must be in tight with the North Korean Workers Party. His parents were both Party officials, his brother a pilot in the North Korean air force. Because of his defection, his parents and brother were stripped of their titles and are probably off in Gulag somewhere.

I can only imagine the weight this young man carries around with him? Totally alone in South Korea, a country with values radically different from what you were taught to believe in. Your family in jail because of your actions. That's some pretty heavy stuff.

Anyway, the tour took us to the infiltration tunnels and the observation platform overlooking the DMZ. I think that we all genuinely enjoyed the tour. But it's a place that on every visit, always leaves you with more questions than answers.

So besides the adventure to Seoraksan and a revisiting of the DMZ, life rolls along pretty much routinely. Work continues to be a sideline to all my other projects - though I still enjoy hanging out with the kids at school. I'm still writing a monthly column for a local expat magazine published by Hyundai Heavy Industries and the DMZ article I mentioned earlier was recently published on line at Hostelworld.com. I'm also well underway with rolling out Ulsan's first English language newspaper and we hope to have the first issue out the door in the next couple of weeks. I'm working with some very talented writers and photographers so getting the project off the ground has been a lot of fun.

Amy and I have been designated Official Foreign Monitors for the City of Ulsan, largely a honorary position. But, we met briefly with the Mayor of Ulsan for an award ceremony one afternoon. The idea is that as a group we can bring ideas and suggestions forward on how to improve life for foreigners in the city. But whether the committee moves beyond a mere PR exercise for the Mayor and City Hall, I'm still waiting to see.

On a sour note, our scooter (the yellow brute) was stolen recently which really put a downer on things. Well for one afternoon anyway, as it gave us the excuse to upgrade yet again to a bigger beast. This time we're up to 125ccs (I know, I know... but it is a scooter after all!) but the thing flies and is much more comfortable for two people riding.

We rode our new baby down to Busan last weekend to go and check out the Terracotta Warriors from China that were there on a travelling exhibition. These are the one that were discovered under a farmer's field, buried by the Xian emperor to protect him in the afterlife. There was an army of 8000 lifesized ceramic statuees buried complete with weapons, armor, horses and even support personnel. Incredibly, each statue was handcrafted, each with an individual face. The faces and features are eerily lifelike - the eyes of one statue still haunt me.

So, that's it. You're up to date with our adventures. Amy and I are looking forward to returning for the summer and to hopefully seeing many of you at our wedding in August. In the meantime, I hope all is well and I hope to hear from you soon!

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