Now that I’ve been in Korea for a while, I’ve come to understand that hiking here is like raving, only better.
Koreans are the most stylish hikers on the planet. Forget high-fashion: K-hikers rock high-altitude style. Back in the mid-nineties in the U.S., we called them techno preppies or gangster ravers: high-performance sports gear, vests, plaid shirts, polar fleece, cargo pants, visors, backpacks (minus the pacifiers, glowsticks and sparkles). Instead of the Running Man, they do the Hiking Man for 8 hours straight and still look like they just came out of the shower.
Koreans hike for 6 to 8 hours, then head to small tents for the after-party. But instead of doing drugs, they do shots of soju and magkeolli (a milky rice wine) in joyous constellations of friends, family, and random dharma bums. Drinking several bowls of pure, uncut magkeolli after hiking all day is one of the best highs in the world. Hiking creates surrogate families, postmodern mountain tribes, linked not by biology, but by the mountain spirits, or San-shin.
Seventy-five percent of the Korean peninsula is covered in mountains. As David Mason points out in his survey of the spiritual landscape of Korea, Spirit of the Mountains, this is one of the few places in there world where mountain-worship, a hybrid of Shamanism, Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism, is still practiced. The mountains of Korea have been serenely multicultural for thousands of years, waiting for the rest of the country to catch up.
When you approach the mountain, you see various tribes merge, combine, and then split off on different trails. As you climb a bit, you begin to smell incense and hear trance music in the distance. But instead of Nag Champa and Sasha and Digweed, it’s Buddhist chanting, gongs, drums drifting out of one of the 2000 temples that punctuate the mountainsides.
The chanting and incense blend with the pine-infused mountain air (much healthier than a surgical mask coated in Vics), piercing your lungs and mind, and suddenly you feel alert in a way you never do in they city. Problems and anxieties dissolve.
You become mindful of leaves and trees and clouds and horizons and rocks and smiles and annyeongs. Your mouth tastes clean, your sweat feels warm, you feel connected. People spend a lot of money and waste a lot of time trying to feel this way, and all you’re doing is walking up a mountain with friends or in a densely populated solitude.
At its best, rave culture hoped to tap into something primordial, deep spiritual beats that have migrated from Africa and Asia through Euro-America and back again. Rave culture is alive in Korea, not in the nightclubs, but in the mountains. While there is a desperate shortage of PLUR on the streets of Seoul, there is an abundance of peace, love, unity and respect on the mountains.
Riding the subway home from the mountain reminds me of the bus-ride home from one of those renegade parties back in the day. Some hikers are exhausted and passed out on their backpacks, some still high and chatting and joking and flirting with their friends, some are just dazed and just staring out the window.
Like a good party, coming back from the mountain leaves you refreshed, and a bit cracked out, ready to deal with work, school, or whatever. And after a good long sleep, you wake up, and the first thought that pops in your head is doing it again next weekend.
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I'm a cultural studies professor and Pacific Rim dharma bum. I've published one book, entitled: "The Imperialist Imaginary: Visions of Asia and the Pacific in American Culture." I'm currently living in Seoul.