Kendra's Chronicles - A Meaford Teacher shares her travel stories
I really looked like an experienced hiker in my Dri-FIT clothing, running shoes and 2-litre hydra-pack as I pretended to stretch my hamstrings at the base of Mt. Hwangnyung. In reality I wasn’t even close to being one, and was really just stalling climbing the breathtaking and iconic mountain that stood 1,390 feet overlooking Gwangali Beach (my new place of residence for the next eight months). I stretched for another five minutes before I heard a group of ajummas (the Korean word for older women close to a grandmother’s age) approaching me.
The four ladies smiled and waved before they began to hike up Mt. Hwangnyung without the slightest bit of hesitation. I looked down at my intense workout outfit before looking back at the ajummas as they ascended higher up the mountain in their pants, long-sleeved shirts, and nice dress shoes.
“Well, alright then,” I said to myself, suddenly determined to hike the mountain.
Within minutes I was sweating profusely, my legs were burning, and I was gasping for breath. I knew it was going to be a difficult hike, but this was just embarrassing! Thankfully the paths were well worn and there were proper steps in the extremely steep areas. After twenty minutes of my turtle-paced hiking, I reached an opening that had benches and workout equipment scattered throughout it. I walked over to the leg press machine that was closest to me and glanced at its instructional sticker of a person using their own body weight as their lifting weight. I walked around and saw that there was also a leg extension machine, a peck deck machine, two bench presses, a torso twist machine, hula hoops, and a makeshift treadmill with a turning wheel underneath it to act as the treadbelt. I decided to try it and hoisted myself above the wheel. Almost instantly my arms began to tire from the awkward position of trying to hold my body up as a parallel bar gymnast does, and it wasn’t long after I started moving my legs that I lost my footing and almost fell off.
“And that’s enough of that!” I said as I jumped down and headed towards the trail. Just as I was about to continue hiking up, I noticed a different path leading down the mountain and around a corner. Curious to see where it went, I followed it to the bend and saw that it led to a full sized badminton court!
Workout equipment and a badminton court all on the side of a mountain? This is unbelievable! I thought and turned around to continue my hike to the top.
The next portion of Mt. Hwangnyung was much steeper than the first, and after a grueling fifteen minutes of more turtle-paced hiking I reached a larger clearing that had more benches and workout equipment throughout it. I saw the group of ajummas that had passed me at the base of the mountain using some of the workout machines. The ajumma that was closest to me stopped and pointed while saying something in Korean to her friends, laughed and made a charades gesture to the abundance of sweat on my face and the lack of on theirs. I smiled, laughed as well and made a charades gesture for strong, because there was no denying that they were kicking my butt! Just past the machines the opening became even larger and I saw a lot of young families having picnics and small groups of seniors playing cards in front of the various lookout points. I wandered around taking pictures and after a few minutes the same group of ajummas smiled and waved to me as they continued their way up the mountain. Now more determined than ever, I put my camera away and followed them.
I thought the steepest parts of the hike were already over, but they weren’t and it got steeper: a lot steeper. My hiking had now turned to a snail’s pace, and as I was clearly suffering, huffing and puffing away, I could hear the ajummas talking and laughing and not the least bit short of breath in front of me. I vowed to not only get better at hiking Mt. Hwangnyung throughout the duration of my stay in Busan, but also to be able to hike mountains similar to it when I got to be their age.
After another twenty minutes went by, I reached a very large opening that had a helicopter pad in the middle of it. From there I could see where I needed to get to (the first summit block) and further past it where my final destination was (the second summit block). After getting my picture taken with the 415 meter (1,361 foot) marker, I followed the trail down the mountain to a road where a lot of food and drink vans were parked on its wide shoulders. Patio furniture was set up behind each van and all were occupied with customers sipping Soju or Makgeolli. I found out later that when the locals hiked they would bring either of those drinks rather than water; Soju is a very strong and very smooth vodka-like alcoholic drink and Makgeolli is also very strong, but a not so smooth type of alcoholic drink.
I followed the road for 100 meters until the trail began again towards the second summit. This section was nowhere near as grueling as the entire first summit hike had been and mainly just traversed back and forth on a slight incline, until forty meters before the second summit block where it became a straight up climb. Once I had made it to the top of Mt. Hwangnyung there were no words to describe its absolutely stunning view or the elation I felt for how I got there. It was a clear, blue-bird day and I had a 360 degree view of a city that had 3.5 million people and was now my home. Looking toward where my apartment and the school I was teaching at were located, I could also see the famous Gwangali Bridge and the ocean stretch for miles. The second summit location was much more built up than the first had been, and after I took several photos of the view I also took pictures of the observatory lookout and the historic and informative plaques that were written in Korean and English about the mountain. One of them read:
“Mt. Hwangnyung was a beacon stand from 1425-1896 and was used for communication signals by burning manure for the port of Busan, as well as to relay messages to Seoul, Haeundae, Pomosa, and Chorang. Throughout the day smoke signals were used, and at night fire. One beacon meant the situation was normal, two beacons meant that an enemy was in sight, three meant the enemy was approaching Busan, four meant the enemy had infiltrated Korean territory and five meant there was an ongoing battle with invaders. Each beacon was operated by a Tobyoulijang (the head of the beacon), a Pyulijang (the supervisor of the beacon), Kamgos (beacon watchmen), and Ponggoons (soldiers.) The Mt. Hwangnyung Beacon Stand, which protected Busan from invasions was restored to inspire the spirit of local and national defense in contemporary society in October 1976, and cleaned up in June 2000.”
With a smile spread across my face, I sat down on a bench to enjoy the fresh air, the warm sunlight and the breathtaking view (I really just needed to sit down or else I was going to fall over!) I sat there until I felt I had rehydrated and given my legs a long enough break before I headed towards the trail that led down the mountain. As I approached the path I saw that the group of ajummas I had followed up were sitting on a bench adjacent to it. I smiled and waved goodbye to them while making another charades gesture for strong and saying ‘Thank you’ in Korean. Little did I know then that as I made my descent down Mt. Hwangnyung that by the end of my eight months living in Busan, South Korea that I would be running up and down it.
What an unforgettable experience.