Hallasan: Hiking the Highest Peak of South Korea

Hiking this ancient mountain in Korea leads one traveler to an unforgettable adventure.

Hallasan - Jeju Island. Photo by Flickr/Republic of Korea
Jeju Island. Photo by Flickr/Republic of Korea

“You want my panties?”

I stared stupidly at the Korean woman in front of me. Why would anyone offer me their underwear?

It was the halfway point of my two-week stay in South Korea. Prior to my arrival, I knew nothing about Korean culture other than what my boyfriend, Daniel, had told me. He had just finished a one-year stint teaching English in Anyang-si, or “Anyang City,” a suburb of Seoul.

Discovering Daniel’s world exposed me to spicy kimchi that left my nose running and my forehead sweating, and two-dollar draft beers that gave the word “hangover” a whole new meaning. But nothing was more mystifying than the Korean people themselves.

A few days before the “panty” interaction, Daniel and I hiked a mountain near Seoul called Gwanaksan, or “Mount Gwanak” in English. When Daniel spontaneously greeted an elderly woman with “Anyoung haseyo, ah-jee-mah!” she was so delighted with his Korean that she offered us some cake she had stashed in her backpack.

Who carries cake on a hike?

A few days later, Daniel and I found ourselves on the island of Jeju, home to the highest mountain in South Korea, Hallasan. There is an ancient saying on the island: “Jeju Island is Hallasan, and Hallasan is Jeju.” So when a precipitation-free day appeared in the otherwise-rainy forecast, we jumped at the chance to hike the island’s beloved shield volcano.

Although our 12-mile round-trip hike lasted only eight hours, the change in scenery made me feel as though I had been walking for days. The first two miles, our boots crunched in the autumn leaves. The next two miles, I was surrounded by foliage I would expect to find in the jungle. And the last two miles to the top was mostly clouds, obstructing what had been touted as a breathtaking view.

We started our trek at the base of Seongpanak Trail at 8 a.m. The moment we walked into the visitor’s center, the Korean man behind the desk burst into laughter.

I’d gotten used to being laughed at here. Staring and laughing at strangers is perfectly acceptable in South Korea. Originally, I figured this man was guffawing because we were foreigners. After looking around, though, I realized he was probably laughing at our clothes. Although the temperature was in the low forties, Daniel and I had donned hiking boots, shorts, and sweatshirts, assuming we would remove layers once we started perspiring.

No one else seemed to have the same idea.

The place was packed with Koreans about to head up the volcano, but as I scanned the room, I noticed that everyone was wearing winter coats over jackets over long-sleeved shirts. They wore snowboarding pants over long johns. And every single person sported a hat. The thing that fascinated me most was that each article of clothing appeared to be top of the line and never worn. I couldn’t help but wonder what was up with the extravagant preparation.

As we made our way up the mountain, passing Koreans gawked at my shorts. “You cold?” they would ask with a chuckle.

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