This past Chuseok was something else. Chuseok isn’t a holiday that I usually spend much time or energy on. Usually, it’s just a season for some rest and quiet time in a busy city that momentarily slows down. This year was different. To be honest, all holidays have felt odd since my best friend died. Christmas, his birthday, my birthday, anniversaries, Chuseok, all days that are ‘special’ have been ‘especially painful’ this past year. I’m sure anyone dealing with a profound loss can relate. There’s no logical explanation to why those days should be worse than any other but that’s just how things are.
This Chuseok, I had originally made plans to get together with my best friend’s brother (who I for the rest of this post will refer to as Hyung, meaning older brother to a man). When we met a couple of weeks ago, Hyung had been worried that I would be lonely over Chuseok given that I now had no one to spend it with and had suggested that we get together sometime over the three-day holiday.
A few days before Chuseok he texted me asking me if I wanted to go hiking in the Bukhansan mountains together with him. I was thrilled. I had wanted to hike that mountain for a long time but never had the opportunity. He said that his mother would join us as well. I was so happy. I had hoped to meet her again. The last time we met in Ilsan in July, we shared so many memories of my friend and were a great comfort to each other. We grew a lot closer through that exchange, and I have slowly started to consider her my Korean mother. She also now speaks comfortably to me in banmal, which makes me feel more like a part of the family. I call her Eomeoni, which is Korean for ‘mother’, so that’s how we call her from now on. (Side note: I don’t call my friend’s brother Hyung but my friend did, and it’s easier to use that term here, since I prefer to keep his name private.)
On Saturday, the third day of Chuseok, we met at Gupabal subway station in northern Seoul at 10 am. I thought I was suitably dressed for hiking in my running shoes, long running pants, t-shirt and a backpack full of water and gatorade. But, alas, I had forgotten that I was among Koreans. The hiking champions of the world (probably). Any Korean with a dash of self respect owns a pair of mountain boots, a full set of hiking clothes that include fancy colorful trekking pants, a sweat absorbing t-shirt, a wind breaker, a handkerchief for wiping away sweat and a sun visor hat if you’re a middle-aged ajummah like Eomeoni. Oh, and a special hiking backpack that matches the bright colors of the entire outfit and has specially designed side pockets for carrying your water bottle. As you can see, I was far from the perfect Korean hiker look. Anyway, I hail from a country where the highest point is 147 meters above sea level – and I’ll let that be my excuse for my noticeable lack of advanced trekking gear.
From Gupabal station the three of us took a cab to the foot of the mountains. When we arrived some 10 minutes later, Hyung told us that he would go and buy some water bottles and that we should just start walking, he would catch up with us later. Together with Eomeoni I started walking slowly among the many other hikers who wanted to use the holidays to get some exercise and enjoy the nature. After a few minutes we decided to stop and wait for Hyung. He was nowhere to be seen.
We both wondered how long it would take to buy water. Finally Eomeoni lost her patience, pulled out her phone and called him. “Where on earth are you?” I heard her say. Then she hung up and told me he was on his way. We waited for another five minutes – still no Hyung. Growing increasingly impatient, Eomeoni called him again only to catch a glimpse of him the moment she called him up the second time. When he finally caught up with us, he handed me two beautiful scarves decorated with maps of the mountain range. That’s what had taking him so long. He wanted me to have small keepsake from the day and had had trouble choosing the right colors for me. As you can all imagine, I was deeply touched by this incredibly kind gesture and had to summon all my self control not to start crying. I have yet to meet Hyung or talk with him on the phone without crying at some point, but let’s hope it happens someday.
Finally all together, we set out on the hiking route to the top of peak Munsubong. They had told me that we would take the easy route, so I wasn’t at all prepared for what waited ahead. I had figured that since Eomeoni who’s in her late 50s wanted to join too, it couldn’t be that strenuous. Besides, I’m quite athletic and in decent shape. Oh, how people can be wrong.
If you’re ever going to venture into the Bukhansan mountains, let me warn you right now: It is hard! Not only is it uphill (No shit, Sherlock?), it is also very rocky and steep, and even slippery at times. I started breaking a sweat 10 minutes into the 5-hour hike and my legs hurt three days after.
Despite the rocky ascent and many obstacles, we managed to reach the top after a good two and a half hours of constant climbing. This was mostly thanks to Eomeoni, who was the fastest of all of us. Several times, Hyung and I had to call on her to slow down so that we didn’t get separated. Whenever Hyung and I wanted to have some water or take a picture or just a plain rest for 30 seconds, we were rushed on by Eomeoni. “You can take pictures when we reach the top” and “We’ll rest before we descend, now come on!”. Yep, she’s one feisty ajummah. And we did manage to take pictures despite struggling to keep up with her.
When we finally reached the Munsubong peak the most amazing view awaited us. We were more than 700 meters above sea level and had a free view to all the other peaks of the Bukhansan mountain range. It was a bit misty that day, which made it look even more magical.
We stood on the peak for a while taking in the scenery. We also managed to take a group picture together and we all felt happy and proud that we had made it all the way to the top of the mountain. There was great healing for all of us in having braved the rocky slopes as a team and now being able to enjoy the immensity of the mountains around us.
Before starting our descent, Eomeoni suggested that we take a short rest (finally!) and eat some songpyeon, since it was Chuseok. Songpyeon are half moon-shaped rice cakes that taste delicious. We sat for a while enjoying our Chuseok treats on the mountain top before making our way down again.
I can’t decide whether the way up the mountain or the way down again was the hardest. The way up was definitely tough, but the way down was extremely hard on my knees and we were all in a great amount of pain when we reached the bottom of the mountain a few hours later. It had started to drizzle just as we began our descent, which made the many rocks on the trail a bit slippery. We held hands when passing difficult areas and took great care of each other, and luckily no one got injured.
Well down from the mountain it was time for a very late but well-deserved lunch. It was almost 3 in the afternoon, and the moment I sat down in the nearby restaurant I realized that I was starving. I had been too focused on paying attention to my step down the mountain that I hadn’t even felt my hunger. The three of us then shared a meal of shabu shabu with chicken and noodles. It felt nice and comforting to sit inside and enjoy the hot soup after having hiked down the mountain in the rain.
I was so thankful for this chance to grow even closer to my best friend’s family. Together we made some wonderful memories and we all agreed that when the three of us who all loved him so much were together, he could not be far away. I’m sure that my friend would have loved being there too.