Every now and then, when I awaken in the middle of the night and lie in the dark, I envision myself hiking up a mountain. Houses recede and a forest begins as the trail slopes upward. Under a canopy of leaves and branches, my breathing begins to labor. Left foot, right foot. Light and shadow flicker at each step. My heartbeat quickens and sweat beads on my forehead and back. At the summit, a large boulder awaits. I imagine it all: a cool mountain breeze that streams past, the taste of freedom and a panoramic view before me.
© Yang Su-yeol
Home to more than 4,000 mountains, or san, a climb is never far away in Korea. This is especially true in Seoul, a megacity with 10 million residents. With Namsan at its center, Seoul is encircled by Ansan, Inwangsan, Gwanaksan, Buramsan, Dobongsan and Bukhansan – almost like a folding screen of mountains. Nature can be accessed within an hour from anywhere in this city. Plan ahead or go at a moment’s notice.
Day trips require no special gear. Come as you are. The mountain trails are safe, with no risk of being a victim of crime or a wild animal attack. Regular little shelters that stand along tidy mountain trails increase this sense of assurance. You can relax and enjoy the natural scenery and urban vista below. In March, Bukhansan National Park saw 670,000 visitors – up 41 percent from the same month last year.
The faces seen on the trails have changed. Mountain hikes have long been a favorite pastime of those in their 40s and older.
But now, online hiking communities and meetup platforms are creating a younger cohort. These new devotees in their 20s and 30s don’t leave their fashion sensibilities and social media habits at home. Instead of the bulky, interchangeable outdoor clothing worn by their parents and grandparents, they prefer stylish leggings and trail running shoes. And they post their hiking selfies to Instagram. Some of these youngsters create new platforms for sharing their interests, forging new relationships and even embarking on themed trips like “Clean Hike,” where everyone picks up trash.
Particularly amid COVID-19, finding themselves stuck in place and unable to leave for adventures abroad, the millennial generation increasingly uses the mountains and forests as escape valves from social distancing limitations and deepening pandemic weariness. The embrace of socially distanced travel has made our mountain landscapes more youthful.
Lying in the dark, I envy the young hikers in casual dress, standing alone atop a summit of their choosing, meeting the wide world before them; and I pay my respects to the mountain and its newfound youth. And with that, I return to my own climb. Left foot, right foot…