Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Chung Yang San Mountain

Last Wednesday, all of the teachers left school after lunch to drive about an hour north to Chung Yang San Mountain. I'm never sure what they do with the children on these days, or how the system works. Quite often the kids leave after lunch, actually, but I never can figure out why. This time I was told about the trip on the day before, so I dressed appropriately for hiking. Although I do have spare clothes tucked away in the bottom drawer of my desk, in case of surprise midday trips or for if one of the teachers asks me to play tennis after school.

It's actually quite common for the teachers to wear jeans to school here, mostly the women, and our footwear is irrelevant because we have our indoor shoes. This is very nice for when you're playing with kids all day.

It was a long winding drive to the mountain, and I nodded off twice during the first half because of the swaying and the soothing Korean conversation in our car pool of 5 (me, Mrs. Shim and Im, Taebun, and Mr. Park the 6th grade PE teacher). I caught myself before I drooled on Mrs. Shim's shoulder.

We arrived to the distant echo of chanting monks, and I was informed that there would be two parts to this hike. The first would be to a temple, and the second would be to the "sky bridge" by following a path leading up beyond the temple. That part would be optional. I said I would be going.

The first part of the hike was very peaceful. Because Koreans hike so frequently, there was a narrow but well-worn path leading up a shallow incline, which was frequently intersected by a tangle of roots or the assistance of large rocks to act as stairs.

Midway to the temple, Mrs. Shim pointed out a house just off the path with little bells of good fortune lined above the front door. She explained that when the owner is home, he will offer tea and a place to rest for visitors to the temple. .

The entire hike was only about twenty minutes. Our arrival at the temple was met with breathtaking views of the mountains beyond. The location is very tranquil, because there isn't a single trace of industry wherever you look.

After about fifteen minutes of mingling with the staff, Mrs. Shim took off up the path leading further up the mountain to see the bridge. I had to shed my immobilizing sense of awe that left me staring off into the valley. Taebun said that although he had never seen the sky bridge, he didn't want to attempt the climb and would rather stay behind. After all, it was a hot day and he was already tired from the previous climb. I called him a wuss (and would explain to him what that meant the next day-he was amused), and began the climb after Mrs. Shim.

This was no regular climb. The mountain deliberately mislead me on the hike to the temple. what was once about a 10-20% incline became a 70-80% incline straight up, with no hope for a brief encounter with level ground.

After five minutes, I heard the ragged breathless huffing of something behind me. Taebun had decided to catch up with us.

On occasion, the climb would get steeper. Sometimes there were planks of wood laid out as stairs.

Other times just tumbled rocks in precarious stacks.

After maybe twenty minutes, rope appeared to one side, wound and tied around trees like something out of the Swiss Family Robinson to assist the weary climber from falling backward.

Mrs. Shim held the lead for the entire forty minutes it took us to climb. She kept insisting that the mountain was "very small" and "very easy." In fact, just last weekend she had made the same hike with her husband and daughter who is in the 4th grade. I had to explain that I was only hanging so far behind her because I didn't want Taebun to feel embarrassed always bringing up the back of the line. The best part was that they actually believed me.

In our last 500m (there was finally a sign!), the ground leveled. But then as if for some cruel joke, we arrived at a tall set of stairs headed down, only to head back up again.

And then finally, just beyond the double peaks of the stairs, the sky bridge!

My first thought when I stepped onto this thing, suspended between two mountain peaks, is that my mother would have a heart attack if she were here. although it's made of hard steel, it's constructed in such a way that it bows down and shifts and sways as if you were walking across a rope bridge. And below? Well, it's just better to look out into the beyond.

On the other side, we met up with another group of teachers who made it there before us. They all pointed to my face and said "hah hah! very red!" but I made it! Mr. Park proved that not everyone is afraid of falling off of the bridge. Again. Mother. Heart attack.

I had a good...well, three minutes before it was announced to be time to go back down and meet up again with the rest of the school at the temple. On the hike back down, I made a joke that I am a very clumsy sort of person, and I that I might trip and roll all the way to the bottom. They didn't understand the meaning of the word trip, except that it's also like "vacation", and then didn't understand my description of the word ("Your foot hits something and you fall forward" and then "you don't always fall to the ground. It's an almost-fall") so on the 70-80% decline I had to try and demonstrate tripping on things. I emerged blessedly unscathed, and we developed the phrase "I tripped on my trip down the mountain."

Back at the temple, my legs were shaking with unbalance and strain, so we decided the best thing to do was to go get tea at a little shop on the grounds. Fermented alcoholic tea made of pine needles.

It did nothing to improve my balance, and we still had the twenty minute hike back to the car.

The reason for the fast pace was that we were all meeting up for some bi bim bap at a local cafeteria surrounded by lucky guardian wooden ducks (they say "cafeteria" when they describe these places to me, but as far as can tell they are like a traditional-style restaurant that specializes in one type of food, plus soup and side dishes. I've only been to these places twice, and both times it's been for bi bim bap). Bi bim bap is like my own personal Korean food blessing. It's rice and various plants and vegetables that you mix all together with some chili paste, completely vegetarian (though there are some variations that you can order with beef) so I don't have to wonder what certain meats are. It's also eaten with a spoon, which is nice.

It's nice to have these outings with my school. As busy as I sometimes feel, marked also with the occasional doubt that I'm not doing enough, it's great to be reminded that, hey, we're all just having a good time. We can organize 50 teachers in the middle of the day and all have a good time at a few days notice. We run like a well oiled machine. A Machine that can teach for 4 straight hours and then climb mountains.


  1. I LOVE the picture of Mrs. Shim popping out behind the tree. It reminds me of "Pigs From A-Z", one of my favorite books as a child.

  2. It sounded pretty tough but it looked like a wooded reverie. I've never known teachers to hike together. But we have no mountains here, only shopping malls.

    Scott's Mom

  3. Heart attack is right! I had one simply reading it!!! Way to go hiker girl! I admire your bravery; but of course, have to remind you to be careful :-P
    <3 Mom

  4. I am your mother’s sister. I also would have had a heart attack with all the steep slops.
    I love all the beautiful pictures. It’s so nice you are getting to explore so much.

  5. ...what is with the random cute chipmunk? Was it to sooth your mom's fears with fluffy fur, big eyes, and round cheeks? :) WORKED FOR ME!!

    COOL BRIDGE! Good job hiker girl. Long ways from Canada, eh? <3

  6. omg - good point Amanda! You were a godsend to her that trip!! For anyone reading this, Amanda was the portage support princess!! She helped Sara with the canoe and cheered everyone on! Give me an A... :-)

  7. Sara,
    Your writings make me want to take a fast boat to china - well I mean Korea. You are my only way to see Korea and reading your stories is VERY entertaining,. I love it. I would love to see the sky bridge in person, and it would be GREAT fun to bungie off it. Keep your adventurous spirit going and remember, if you miss one day in life having fun, then shame on you. Take advantage of the opportunities in front of you that most people never receive. Dare to attempt things you never thought you could do, and you wil amazed at what you can and are capable of doing. Keep these wonderful stories and phots coming. I look soooooo forward to reading them every day. And Happy

    Aunt Helen

  8. And we went back!! We just had to see it after this post :-)