My hiking boot clad feet step one after another up a rocky trail peppered with fallen orange and red leaves. A cold November wind whips up the side of the mountain, rustling the almost barren trees and numbing my exposed fingers. Somewhere farther up, a Buddhist monk chants morning prayers at a mountain top temple–like music drifting down from an Eastern heaven.
At the good natured insistence of my outdoorsy boyfriend, I have been convinced that what I really need to do this icy morning is not sit in my warm bed reading the New York Times over coffee, but go out into the cold and climb to the top of the highest mountain in Ulsan. I must admit that meter-wise, Munsusan (san means mountain in Korean) is no Everest, but for a person that doesn’t climb mountains, it seemed massive!
Calves burning and chest heaving, we reach the temple called Munsusa (sa means temple). It’s about halfway, so we take a break to watch the many devoted Buddhists at their prayers. The chanting echoes across the landscape, the voice of the monk carrying for miles to draw the faithful in to prayer. A hint of gold twinkles from inside, and I see a large statue of Buddha peeking out, candles illuminating his wise and serene expression. Old and young crowd into the temple to bow on square pillows, clutching the prayer beads they may have purchased from the old woman who set up a stall with religious knick-knacks on the trail. I find them very devout, at this altitude and at this hour of the day.
We press on. Steve with gusto, and me with reluctance as I see the steep hill we must ascend. But I do it, I’m not backing out now! As I huff and puff up the trail, a group of elderly women are descending. Decked out in their bright pink and purple hiking jackets, they are the model of mountain fashion and I feel a bit inadequate in my grubby old sweatshirt. But their presence inspires me to push on–they were in their sixties after all and they must have reached the summit! I huff and puff some more.
Finally, I spot the radio tower that perches on the mountain peak and can be seen from miles around. My legs shake as I go up one final hill, but we have made it! Haze obstructs the view we might have had of the East Sea (Sea of Japan), but to look down on the world from above is a wonderful feeling, one that always gives me new ideas and fresh perspectives. As we’re snapping photos, a small group of Korean men approach us, eager to take their photos with the strange foreigners who have climbed the mountain.
I can’t say this experience has turned me into a hiking fanatic, but it’s made me realize that climbing to the top of things can be fun once in a while. My aching calves on the other hand, have made me swear to never go hiking again.