Editor's Corner: Another Face of Korean Hiking Culture

Category : Surviving in Korea / Travel/Events
Nov 26, 2014

I have wanted to do a hiking article for about a month now.  It’s the perfect season to hit the mountains.  Not only that, I feel that writing a hiking article is a rite of passage to blogging in Korea.  Check out any blog about the ROK and it will contain at least one post on hiking.  Take Staci and Tyson for example.  They are an expat couple who arrived in Korea only a few months ago.  They posted their hiking article.  It’s just the way it is.  Hiking needs to be written about.  


But by now we all know about the great treks, Seoraksan, Jirisan, and Hallasan and the various day hikes around Seoul, Bukhansan, Gwanhaksan, Dobongsan and Suraksan.  If you don’t know about Korea’s mountains get off the couch or click here.


We also already know that Koreans really “dress-up” when they head out.  Hiking style is specific and if you aren’t wearing the latest splash pants, trekking boots, or headlamps you probably aren’t going to make it to the top.  This blog compares hiking style to raving style and I think it’s pretty accurate.  On a personal note, I once had a women gesture wildly at my basketball dazzles (shorts), and my hiking pack, which was actually just a plastic bag from Family Mart.  She pointed to me and then to the mountain and then made a bunch of X symbols with her arms.  I concluded that she didn’t think I should venture on considering my unsuitable attire.


Most of us are aware that hiking usually ends in drinking.  You don’t even need to hike up the mountain to learn that.  For one, most activities end or begin with drinking in Korea.  Why should hiking be an exception?  For two, there are always hoards of vendors at the bottom of the mountain selling alcoholic beverages for your post-hike enjoyment.  If you have hiked in Korea, you will also know that the drinking doesn’t only conclude the day.  It can be a big part of the climb.  I’ve been known to bring a roadie (a water bottle filled with Powerade and soju-powerju) along for the day.  These bloggers struggled on their hike, which started with 9am shots of soju.  I have no qualms with drinking and hiking, although morning shots might be too much for even me.


Interestingly, it isn’t soju that is the most popular beverage on the mountain.  It’s mountain water and makgeoli.  Next time you’re out on the slopes for the day, bring an empty water bottle.  You can collect ‘fresh mountain’ water from small spouts at every san (mountain) in Korea; even Nam-san Park on Nam-san  in central Seoul has a water tap.  The reservoir is generally located near the start of the hike.  I have seenmy fellow hikers cringe.  “You’re going to drink THAT??!” They exclaim.  I’ll admit that I have no idea how fresh or clean it is but I’m also not a big wussy, I’ve never been sick, and it tastes amazing.

If you require a beverage from a bottle, why don’t you try makgeoli?  It’s a thick fermented rice wine that is sweet and carbonated.  I am not a big makgeoli connoisseur, but I do know there are literally thousands of varieties.  I sat down with Changdae and Neil from Seoul Hiking Club a few weeks ago.  Changdae poured me his favorite makgeoli.  It is called Saengsanyoo Makgeoli.   Apparently he is a makgeoli expert because I couldn’t find much about it or I am spelling it totally wrong.  In any case, this variety is made from berries.  The name means messenger of spring and it’s very good for health.  Koreans reiterate that hiking is a vigorous activity so healthy energizing foods should be consumed along the way.  That’s why vendors sell tofu and kimchi, pork feet, grilled octopus and hard boiled eggs.


Changdae let me in on a little secret.  This particular kind of rice wine is not only good for general health, it’s also good for man ‘power’ health and it’s nicknamed ‘Lady Killer’ makgeoli because woman like to chug it back.  Honestly, it does taste delicious and I could easily see myself getting pretty hammered pretty quickly off the stuff.  Then Changdae said with a chuckle, “There are 3 important things in life: hiking, makgeoli and romance.”  He then winked a bunch of times at me. 

Over the course of the evening Changdae and Neil told me multiple stories about love on the mountain.  If you can believe it, hiking in Korea is becoming popular with young folks as a place to go for dates.  Neil met his girlfriend hiking.  Changdae said he has seen many couples get together on the mountain over the years.  This guy proposed to his girlfriend while hiking.  Changdae mentioned the government is even warning people to watch out for sexual harassment on the mountainside.  I don’t know if I totally believe that but apparently it’s happening.


Changdae elaborated on this part of modern hiking culture.  He said that hiking provides an outlet for people to distress after a hectic workweek.  The mountain tends to bring a side out in people that they normally have to keep hidden.  He explained to me that reaching the summit is a challenge.  When climbing, people come to know fellow hikers closely, and some more so than others (wink), as they make their way to the peak.


Companies are even organizing work hikes to encourage camaraderie among coworkers and help foster friendly working relationships.  Changdae talked about of an old man he knows who loves hiking too.  In Korea, it is customary to speak to elders with a polite form of speech.  However on the mountain, this man asks others to speak to him as friends speak to each other.  This old man believes that the mountain is place to overcome struggles together.  Everyone is equal is the eyes of the mountain.  Regardless of the reasons, people loosen up and can be themselves while hiking, which Changdae and many others are drawn to.


At the time, I found our conversation slightly off putting and definitely more personal than I anticipated.  I came away unsure of what I was going to write about.  I was expecting more information on traditional hiking culture that is rooted in spirituality and Buddhism.  You can read here for that.  It’s taken me a month to gather my thoughts and now I can appreciate what Changdae and Neil were talking about.  In retrospect, I probably just need to go hiking!


There are loads of groups that organize hikes around Korea.  If you want to ‘get personal’ and make some new friends, check one of them out.


Seoul Hiking Club

Seoul International Hikers Club: contact sihclub@gmail.com

Climbing In Korea

WinK Travel and Culture Group

Central Korea Hiking & Travel Group

The Seoul Hangout, Travel and Hiking Group

Seoul Hiking Group


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Tags : Korea. Nature. Mountains. Hiking. Outdoor.

Lindsey lived and worked in Seoul, South Korea for over 5 years. While there, she dabbled in different areas of work and explored the culture. She spent time teaching elementary students, business English to adults and high school students about college preparation. She also studied Korean, wrote blogs and tasted as many foods as she possibly could including fermented skate fish. Over the years, Lindsey developed a love for Korea and the culture. She is keen to share her knowledge of Korea with others and she will always consider Korea a second home.