All EPIK teachers were lucky enough to enjoy May 1st off from work. All banks and some businesses were closed that day, but school remained open. For whatever reason, only contract teachers had the day off as we are “laborers”. I don’t understand it, but I’m not complaining!
I had originally planned on taking a day trip to Suncheon to see the garden expo, but I last minutely got invited to go bouldering. I canceled my other plans and decided to take advantage of the invitation to test my climbing skills with people who are experienced. I was told to meet at nine in the morning at a bus stop in Unam-dong.
As part of my trying-new-hobbies thing, I began attending a friendly bouldering gym three months ago. Once a week, I ride my bike twenty minutes to play around on the walls, trying to imitate the techniques of the more experienced climbers. More often than not, they give me pointers to help me improve. I since had one outdoor climbing experience with the gym members, but never outdoor bouldering. I was up for giving it a go.
On the first day of May, I woke up on time as if I was going to school. Instead of packing stickers and flashcards, I packed climbing shoes. I picked up some kimbap at the 24/7 restaurant and banana bread from my favorite bakery in town before zipping down the busy roads on my trusty pink bicycle.
I met up with six other expats, three of whom I’ve never met before, two lovelies who I haven’t spent much time with, and one who I briefly met at the climbing gym that week. The group glowed with positive vibes. We were all grateful to have the day off and even more eager to spend it in the glorious weather. There wasn’t a single complaint from anyone; it was refreshing.
After an hour-long, windy bus ride, we made it to Baekyangsa (백양사). As soon as you walk off the bus, you see the astounding mountain view. I knew I made the right decision.
The girls were going to go hiking while the boys went bouldering. To get the best of both worlds, I decided to go with the girls and climb later. The pleasant hike was about six kilometers total, with the first half being quite steep and more difficult than the average trail in Korea. We stopped a few times in awe of the view which kept improving with every stop. We even stumbled upon an impressive cave with a Buddha shrine as well as a temple.
I’ve done quite a bit of hiking, in almost every province in Korea, and never has it been this peaceful. Korea is a heavily populated country and with so many mountains, hiking is one of the people’s favorite past times. I am usually prepared to see massive crowds of people over the age of 60 decked out with highlighter colored hiking gear, blasting obnoxious music, and chugging rice wine instead of water. Instead, I was pleased to have only encountered a handful of kind people along the way. After about an hour and a half, we reached a flat open point on the top of the mountain with a clear view of the rolling mountains. The vibrant green trees and occasional pastel flowers made it apparent that it is springtime. Fortunately, there was little urban development to be seen; the occasional rice farm was the only sign of civilization.
Meg and Helen are pleasant hiking buddies. Helen reminds me so much of two friends back home melted together into one adorable being. Meg is strong minded and eloquent. I threw out so many questions about her thru-hiking the entire Appalachian Trail in five months. Talk about inspirational! I’d like to do sections of the AT one of these days. I’ve met so many interesting people in Gwangju. We all come from diverse backgrounds with different passions and stories, dreams and desires, yet we all have the same job. It’s certainly a unique experience. Mostly everyone is open to new experiences and have a thirst for adventure and travel to get to know the world around us. I’m grateful to be constantly surrounded by interesting people. I don’t think I’m very interesting (well, my adoption story is kind of cool), so I feel sorry for them.
Then, I heard it. I haven’t encountered such bliss in months. It was the sweet, sweet sound of silence. Nothingness. The sound waves were trapped under the thousands of trees as if they were keeping a secret. Living next to a busy road in a metropolitan city, silence is something I don’t experience often. My ears are usually acquainted with honks, spitting ajosshis (older men), and shouting children and ajummas (older women). The silence was like velvet to my temporal lobes.
After munching on kimbap, banana bread, and homemade fruit cookies and chatting about diva cups and our exciting iherb.com purchases (we ooh-ed and ah-ed at nutritional yeast and quinoa), Meg, Helen and I sat in peace as we admired the view. To think I would have been sitting at my desk thinking of ways to get children to say “The ice cream store is on Apple street”.
We eventually started making our way back for the easy part: downhill. Along the trail was a stream with plenty of waterfalls and swimming holes. We made a mental note to come back in the summertime. The boys were way ahead of us. We heard a loud “oh shit!” in the distance. My first instinct was that someone fell off a rock, but after hearing some laughter, we knew they were just playing in the cold water. We followed the voices to find the shirtless guys climbing around a big rock. They must have been exhausted from climbing all day, but they were still determined to tackle the beast. It was quite advanced and even they couldn’t even defeat it, so of course I was intimidated and didn’t bother to try. I’d like to try something for a beginner next time.
We missed the 3:45 bus, but it was too enjoyable to enjoy the fresh air and scenery to feel bad about it. Koreans usually eat pajeon (savory scallion pancake) and makgeolli (rice wine) on or after a hike, so we indulged in some at a lovely family owned restaurant at the foot of the mountain. We sat on the porch to enjoy the perfect weather and mountain backdrop with our gorgeous spread of food. From the looks of it, we may have been their only customers for the past few hours. The man was delighted to serve us and keep our kimchi and side dishes filled. The pajeon was delightful and had a perfect amount of grease to satisfy my calorie deficit for the day. The makgeolli appeared to be homemade as it was not in a commercialized bottle. I must say it was superior to the many other types of makgeolli I’ve tasted in my Korean life. The best part of the meal was the variety and quality of the side dishes. Mountain vegetables, acorn jelly, spicy salad, dwaejang jiggae (soup with tofu, zucchini, scallions, and some other things?), and four-year old kimchi. It may sound unappealing to some, but it was actually incredible. It wasn’t raunchy and sour like some of the old kimchi I’ve eaten. I’m not sure how to describe this kimchi, but i have to admit it was the best I’ve had in a long time. The conversation around the table revolved around how incredibly happy we are at the moment. The weather, food, and people are things we encounter daily, but when they are all fantastic at the same time, people become in a state of bliss. I know I was in a state of smiles, something that I haven’t been experiencing too much of lately. It was refreshing to be surrounded by such positive and appreciative people. I didn’t hear one complaint the entire day. Rather, I heard them throwing compliments all about Korea and how lucky we are to be living in such a beautiful country. I couldn’t agree more.
With that being said, May commenced in an ideal manner. This month’s calendar is full of excitement: paragliding, camping on an island, scavenger hunt, hosting more couch surfers, hash run, taekwondo performance, and of course, season four of Arrested Development. It’ll be a good month, indeed.