Home to fast-paced and ultra-modern cities, South Korea also boasts some stunning and eminently hikeable hills and peaks, providing the ideal activity for those looking to let off some steam and get out to enjoy the fresh air. However, a once-healthy outward-bound culture has evolved into one of severe competition. In 2015, the South Korean government launched a $10 million “Slow Hiking” campaign to encourage its citizens to take things at a more leisurely pace, and focus on simple enjoyment when they head for the hills. Join us as we explore what factors colluded and combined to create the hiking craze in all its craziness.
You could argue that heading for the hills is in the DNA of Koreans, at least culturally if not biologically. Across the country stretch mountainous ridges and soaring peaks sloping down to rolling green hillsides. It is perhaps only natural that Koreans should feel an affinity with their natural environment, and an urge to explore and experience it. The statistics certainly seem to support the idea that hiking is the national pastime, with one in three Koreans participating more than once in a month. It helps that the nation’s populous capital, Seoul, is surrounded by some of South Korea’s most beautiful mountain hikes. From the modest 263m Umyeonsan trail – leading up into the hills from behind the Seoul Arts Center in Gangnam, with Daesongsa Temple at its base – to more arduous trails like Dobongsan trail, which begins half an hour outside the city and leads hikers up steep, rocky terrain, there is something for all abilities. Indeed, Seoul’s inhabitants both young and old advocate the activity with enthusiasm and frequency, especially in the Autumn months when the mountainous national park north of Seoul attracts city-dwellers in droves. Visitors to Mount Sorak alone hit the 720,000 mark during the month of October in 2015 – more than the Grand Canyon.
This is no new phenomenon, however. Since the Joseon Dynasty, Koreans have extolled the virtues of outdoor activity. Accounts from that period describe Confucian scholars scaling the country’s peaks for reasons of spiritual as well as physical edification, and study. According to the depictions, however, the pace in those days was rather more sedate, with these members of the noble classes being conveyed up mountains on palanquins carried by monks. Often their entourages would include musicians and gisaeng (female entertainers), ensuring their enjoyment when they reached their chosen destination. A hike in those days might culminate in the participants taking a seat to enjoy a beautiful panoramic vista – not necessarily at the mountain’s summit – to write poetry or cook up a picnic and enjoy a little entertainment. So how did this bucolic and entirely more relaxed picture of an enjoyable pursuit turn into a highly competitive race to the top?
For decades, South Koreans felt it their duty to work unflaggingly to turn their war-torn country around. This nation-wide effort was a success that saw a once impoverished nation transformed into one of the world’s most prosperous which, in turn, shaped a national identity rooted in endurance and achievement. At that time, the mountains may have still been considered a natural outlet for the endless pressure, but there was little chance to explore them and their purported benefits to citizens’ well-being. With stress levels among the highest in the world, South Korea finally established a five-day work week in 2004; now, with disposable income and leisure time to spare for the first time, citizens could turn once again to the great outdoors and the craze began in earnest.
As hiking grew in popularity, so too did the outdoor gear market, which has been booming since 2006. The pressure to have the right apparel was infectious, thanks perhaps to the style-conscious and competitive people’s natural compulsion to fit in, look good and “prove” oneself. Hikers in jeans and sneakers are likely to feel very out of place among the locals clad in the latest range from North Face, Marmot, Lafuma and Montbell, but there is nothing to worry about for anyone showing up underdressed. At the starting points of even some of the more leisurely trails around Seoul outdoor-goods stores have popped up, in case you want to stock up on the latest sweat-wicking lycra items, carbon walking sticks or, most importantly, sun protection gear. At the end of the trails, meanwhile, it is also not uncommon to see facilities for blowing the dust and dirt off your precious gear, to keep it clean and in good condition. Much like yoga wear in the US, hiking apparel has made its way into the everyday fashion of city folk, such is its ubiquity.
The approach to dressing reflects the sense of competition that has increasingly stolen into the hiking culture in South Korea. Hikes up are brisk and everyone seeks to reach the summit as quickly as possible, pausing only to take a selfie. Hikes down are often just as fast, and little time is taken over enjoyment of the activity and the surroundings themselves. However, there is one ritual of modern-day hiking that bears a resemblance to those of the more leisurely Joseon Dynasty days. During the hike, groups stop to spread out blankets and open their picnics – often sharing their goodies with strangers. Steamed dumplings, marinated beef and ramen are eaten out of tupperware and lots of rice wine is passed around and consumed enthusiastically. With such vast numbers congregating, though, the peaceful surroundings are arguably marred.
Perhaps, with the government’s recent efforts, change is on the way though, and the ferocity with which hikers approach the mountains will be eased. The campaign, rolled out across the country’s 20 national parks encourages hikers to move away from ‘peak-centrism’ and towards hiking for the sake of hiking. They are offering performances, concerts and workshops at lower levels, to take the focus from the summit; there are calls for locals to act as tour guides, and storytelling initiatives in which hikers learn the myths and legends of the national parks. All of these activities are aimed at fostering a more emotional connection between the hikers and the natural environment. Perhaps then we’ll see the pursuit make something of a return to its original form. Meanwhile, though, don’t forget your selfie stick.