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Hiking Adventure in 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 visit to 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.
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?
Hiking Hallason in South Korea
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.
Our Tracking Starts
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 Extravagant Preparation
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.
My previously-held theory that “maybe Koreans don’t sweat” came crashing down when I noticed a perspiration stain forming around the butt of the Korean lady hiking in front of me.
At a popular rest stop about halfway up, Daniel desperately had to use the bathroom.
He had made it through his entire year in Korea without using a squatty potty, but when you combine spicy kimchi and exercise, the digestive system works its magic.
As I sat on the ground, waiting impatiently for Daniel, I grew colder by the second.
My ghastly skin was turning purple and developing goosebumps, and I could feel myself becoming grouchier and more judgmental of the Korean hikers around me.
Why were these people so weird? Why wear six layers of clothing and then sweat through your pants when you could just strip layers?
How ridiculous it is to buy the most expensive gear! I was just so tired of their staring at me…
“You want my panties?”
The concerned middle-aged woman looked down at me, surrounded by her gawking friends.
“No…thank you,” I stuttered. How else do you respond to a stranger offering you their underwear?
“I have panties,” she said as she pulled a bundle of clothing from her backpack and handed them to me.
“Oh, pants!” I exclaimed, relieved. “Um…thank you.” I awkwardly tugged them over my shorts as the group watched intently.
They chattered briefly amongst themselves, then turned to make their way up the path.
“Wait!” I called after them. “Your pants!”
“No.” She turned back and shook her head. “You keep.”
“But how will I return them to you? Where will I find you?”
It seemed as if the thought had not occurred to her, but I could tell she understood me. After a few moments of silence, she pointed down the mountain. “Down.”
“In the parking lot? I can find you later in the parking lot?”
She smiled kindly. “Yes, yes. Lot.” Then she joined her friends to continue on their journey.
A rush of guilt swept over me. I wanted to run after her in protest. Then I remembered how rude it is in this culture to refuse a gift.
When Daniel returned from the bathroom, I told him my story. “What if I can’t find her at the bottom?” I panicked. “She’ll never get her pants back!”
Daniel grinned and lovingly put his arm around my waste. “Honey, she knows you won’t be able to find her. She has no intention of getting them back.”
I didn’t understand why these people carry cake when they exercise. Or why they overdress to the point of being miserable. Or splurge on fancy gear. Or openly mock strangers in public.
But I could open my heart to a people who give away their possessions with no expectation of having them returned. And for the first time, a deep fondness for the Korean culture budded inside me.
If You Go
Trails and tourism in Hallasan National Park: https://www.hallasan.go.kr/english/
Activities around Jeju Island: https://www.ijto.or.kr/english/