Korean mountains have built-in StairMasters, you guys.

Seriously.  I’ve spent the past two Saturdays hiking and what their mountains lack in height they more than account for in steepness.  The landscape (and population density) of Korea leave no room for the gradual. Everything is immediate. Mountain trails go straight up. To stop a bus you have to jump in front of it.  Sidewalks are for pedestrians and vendors and bicycles and motorbike delivery men (YOU GUYS IN KOREA MCDONALD’S DELIVERS. DID YOU GET THAT. MCDONALD’S. DELIVERS.).  A “full” bus is a bus in which every seat is filled and every square inch of aisle is appropriated.  Korea is not the place to be if you are overly concerned with the American sense of personal space.

But back to the trails–yesterday I climbed Palgongsan and last week I climbed Apsan (san = mountain) and both times, especially at Palgongsan, I had to slow to a snail’s pace to make it to the end.  Of course I felt like a complete wuss, since the rest of the party did just fine, but the view from the top more than made up for the slight embarrassment attending my general ineptitude.  Apsan was also slow going at times, though easier than Palgongsan.

One of my favorite things about Daegu so far is the culture of fitness here.  While in general Korean culture is what I would consider overly image-conscious, it’s undeniably awesome to have ellipticals and rowing machines lining the walking trails by the river.  Though it felt like overkill to have a workout–platform? ledge?–built into the side of a mountain. You know. In case you weren’t burning enough calories CLIMBING A MOUNTAIN. Totally.  It’s a great feeling to go panting up a trail only to pass a group of old men serenely hula-hooping off to the side and knowing that they will probably be passing you in about fifteen minutes.

Apsan had an incredible view of the Daegu area; the day we climbed it the sun reflected off the humidity in the air so that the city literally gleamed.  There are several peaks and as many trails to get to them. Near the top the separate peaks are connected by staircases made of wood and what looked like recycled tires. These sorts of staircases are much easier on the feet than the stone stairs jutting from Palgongsan.  There’s also a cable car on one of the peaks you can pay to take back down the mountain (or up, I suppose) but we were too hardcore (or cheap) to go that route.

(All images courtesy of Google Image search since I am still camera-less.)

There are a few Buddhist shrines and temples located on the way up Palgongsan, some of them over a millennium old. The architecture is loaded with incredible detail: every angle of the temple roofs were carved and painted. In terms of difficulty, Palgongsan was much harder than Apsan, but that is probably because while Apsan switched between “trails” of dirt and rock and tree root (what you’d typically find on a hiking trail in the US) and stone steps, Palgongsan was almost entirely steps.  You can’t climb steep stone steps for an hour (or say it five times fast) without seriously considering curling up in the fetal position and weeping softly to yourself.  All the same, once at the top, I was full of energy, ready to take on the road back down.

Due to the temples and the famous statue of Buddha at the peak, Palgongsan was a much more crowded climb than Apsan.  It was another beautiful day, but because of all the people I didn’t feel quite able to really appreciate how incredibly beautiful the location is. Palgongsan on a sunny early fall day, with the afternoon light filtering through the Japanese maples at every conceivable angle, is something worth seeing.  From the top you can look straight down and see the temples on the way up and the bus stop, way down at the bottom.  The leaves are just at the point of starting to begin to think about changing colors, and I am looking forward to doing some more climbing when my lungs and quadriceps recover when the colors really get going. I can’t even find any pictures on Google to do it justice. Suffice to say it was a sight for my city-sore eyes.

Palgongsan had the advantage of food; at the top they serve rice and salty cabbage soup–simple, replenishing, nutritious. We had another snack at the foot of the mountain and went for dinner later–but that’s material for my next food post.  For the sake of the trees and the snacks and the sunshine I think I can forgive Palgongsan the stairs and the crowds; I’ll be back.