Climbing Bonghwasan

The other day the weather suddenly turned fine. I awoke to blessed balmy breezes blowing through my window carrying none of the oppressive humidity of the past weeks, and I was excited by the prospect of being outside without spontaneously overheating, activating my sweat glands, and soaking through my shirt before walking three hundred feet. When Jin, the man in whose apartment I have been living, suggested that I climb the mountain with him, I agreed to do so with out a second thought. This was a day to tackle this nearby mountain that I had been hearing about since the day after I moved in. I had had no desire to climb a mountain under sauna-like conditions, but on this day of blue skies and bearable temperatures, I was ready to go and said I would right after breakfast ended.

Jin and I walked out of the apartment building, walked left, turned left and walked up the hill toward one of the entrances to the apartment complex. A right, a left, another hill, another left at the corner of the primary school, and a quick walk brought us to the crosswalk that led to the foot of Bonghwasan - the mountain. Right away, the climb began up some wooden stairs.

I had been told by Jin that the climb to the peak included to steepish stairways like this one at the beginning and the end with a couple of relatively non-steep dirt pathways in between. I followed Jin up the steps, letting him lead the way. Whenever you take a path or a road for the first time, it always seems to be much longer than it does the second or third time, since it is unfamiliar. That is how these stairs seemed. How long would they go on? Where was the promised level trail? 

The level portion of the trail arrived at last and where the stairs met the trail, there were three benches. Usually, I find groups of old men or women sitting there talking, but that first day, I believe they were empty. There are all sorts of trails on this mountain, and our stairway was just one entry point into this trail system. You can see one of the benches near this sign at the top of the steps.

Following Jin, we hiked though beautiful forest land along well-trodden dirt pathways with rope guardrails in places to keep hikers from tumbling down steep terrain. 

Once in a while, I noticed that some of the trees had markers identify the type of tree in both Korean and English/Latin. We began encountering other hikers out for morning exercise. Most of them were dressed in hiking clothes and hiking shoes, and nearly all of them were of retirement age and older. It is not unusual to see old people wearing hiking gear on the subway and in other public places, some carrying backpacks and hiking poles, the ladies with visor-type caps that shade their entire faces and material that acts as a sleeve reaching from their wrists up above their elbows to just under their short sleeve hiking shirts. Once in a while, you encounter very fit, hardy older men in shorts and sleeveless shirts, exercising at stations along the pathway, lifting weights, doing pushups on benches, and crossing the sets of parallel bars stationed here and there on the mountain trails. What kills me is that I seldom see any of these older folks breaking a sweat, while the perspiration runs off of me like a mountain stream.

At the end of the first pathway, we turned right and came to this next sign:

Along this dirt pathway is where I saw many of the exercise stations and a tent with chairs set up in it, serving as a shady meeting place for senior citizens to meet, eat, and shoot the breeze. It wasn't long after that we came to this sign:

This sign pointed up the last steep staircase that led to the mountaintop. The distance did not seem that far in terms of the number on the sign, but it did, once again, seem far once I began climbing the unfamiliar trail. This trail seemed to go on forever that first time and I stopped to take a picture at one point, not knowing how close to the top I was.

Not far from where I took this picture, I saw the end of the climb. It was a building that houses some bathrooms and a little room where an attendant sells hot and cold beverages and frozen treats. The morning I arrived at this building, the attendant on duty was practicing his trumpet skills. He is a retired police officer who also played in the police band. Jin bought me a cup of icy rice punch to slake my thirst. You can see the ice and rice floating in it.

Once I had been fortified by the rice punch, we climbed a little more to the observation deck where I took this picture of Jin and the view:

I walked up some steps to a monument that commemorates the watchtower that was once part of an elaborate system used across Korea for notifying people of danger. Fires were built on mountaintops, signaling that something was amiss, and Bongwhasan was part of this system. He I am with a portion of the monument behind me:

Since that first hike, I have climbed Bonghwasan once more with Jin and twice without him. I pop in my earbuds and listen to Christian music as I go, singing along as I have breath to do so. My goal is to be known as the sweaty American guy who smiles and sings as he climbs the mountain saying hello to people he meets. I like to pray on top of the mountain and think about the words to the songs and what God is teaching me. I took another picture of myself after climbing the mountain today, but I don't think I will post it here, since today was another humid, sweaty day and I think I look bedraggled and nasty in it. I am looking forward to the cooler fall weather and the changing of the colors on the mountain. God is the God of the mountains and the valleys, and there are plenty of both here in Korea.


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