Losing Wonmisan

Okay, okay, I’m being dramatic.

But, then, it was dramatic.

Mark and I were hiking up Wonmisan as usual, except we found a couple of new features on our dirt trail. Now, if you don’t know Wonmisan, you should be informed that, unlike some mountains in Korea, it has both stairs and a diirt trail to the top. If you ask me, stairs are for shopping malls and apartment buildings: I don’t go out into nature just to climb stairs. Especially crappily-built, unevenly-sized stairs like you see on a lot of mountains. So Mark and I, we usually take the dirt trail to the top.

We’re far from the only people who used the dirt trail, though, yes, the stairs are more popular. Part of that is just because stairs  are “safer” — the dirt trails  can be slippery — but anothe part of it is this very Korean sense by which nature can be “improved” by being hedged in, fenced up, controlled, and humanized. If a mountain is nice, then a mountain with stairs is nicer. And a mountain with stairs and piped in music is even nicer. (One cannot help, in darker moments, to imagine that the eventual endpoint is mountains with roofed-in escalators that go to the top.)

I should have known that this aesthetic of improvement would slap me in the face eventually.

You see, it seems that guys working for the city have been tasked with preventing the ostensible mountain erosion that is going on along the dirt trails. I haven’t noticed much erosion, mind you, and I think it’s really just big talk for an “improvement project,” but anyway, I have no objection to preventing erosion. I just don’t think the way to do it is the way they’ve chosen, which is simply to block all the dirt trails and make everyone take the stairs. What’s wrong with reinforcing the trails? They’re there, after all, because people use them.

Anyway… the method they chose is piling timbers just high enough so that one cannot get by along a dirt trail. So when Mark and I encountered the first such thing, we simply took all the timbers and chucked them aside. The problem was the second blockage we found. When we were disassembling that, passersby jumped into the fray to try and stop us, and finally summoned the city workmen to come yell at us.

Now, to be fair, one of the workmen was , well, okay. Sure, he tried to make it out to be a foreigner thing — how dare you come and screw up our mountains, don’t you understand Korean people love and want to protect nature? — but at least he was talking. One of the guys, when he turned up, was shaking a handsaw at us and shouting, till I told him if he didn’t want to talk, I wouldn’t listen to him.The other guy, though, was asking me questions like, “Which country are you from?” and “How old are you?” and “What’s your name?” and my response was, “Why don’t we talk about this problem? Let’s talk about the mountain. I’ve been hiking this trail for a couple of years now, and now I can’t? Why?”

The gist was, these guys were saying, “If you wanna climb the mountain, you have to use the stairs, like everyone else. Nobody can use dirt trails. The dirt trails are not okay.” We were saying, “But we are among the people who prefer the trail, and some of them really need to use the trail instead of the stairs. We want to walk in nature, not on stairs.”

Well, when I said, “Are all people the same? Is every person the same?” All three guys shouted, “Yes!”

There’s reasoning with a crowd like that. No point explaining how for a lot of people climbing stairs aggravates injuries and so on, while climbing natural dirt trails is much more healthy and comfortable. No point in explaining to someone why natural trails are a better way to walk in nature than poorly-designed flights of steps.

By the end of it, they were busting out their phones — as if we were going to stay around for their supervisor or the police or whoever it was they were calling to show up. In exasperation, I said, “I can’t really hike if I have to use the stairs. I love this mountain. Are you saying I can’t come here anymore?”

The prick with a saw shouted, “Yeah! Don’t come here anymore!”

My fantasy is to go up on the mountain nightly and diassemble whatever barrier they put up, until they give up. But the reality is, that’s unlikely to happen. The reality is, I’m losing my beloved Wonmisan, as it slowly gets turned into a stair-climber’s zone. Which is sad. The mountain has been a refuge for me in hard times, given me somewhere to work on my health and fitness for a couple of years, and been a place of  near-religious importance to me in the past year.  Since the beginning of the summer, it’s been one of the most important places for me to go on a regulaer basis, almost at the level of pilgrimage.

But I’m losing it slowly, I guess. Mark suggested we find another route up to the top. I guess that’s what we’ll do… till they block that, and the next, and the next.

Until Wonmisan is nothing but covered escalators and men in suits, looking upon what they have done and pronouncing it good.

15 thoughts on “Losing Wonmisan

  1. Also, if I were you, the point at which all of them said all people are the same would have been the moment I decided to leave the country. I’d have a hard time living in a place where people think homogeneity is a good thing.

  2. Dude, that totally sucks. Stair steps are exactly the height that bothers my bum knee when I’m going down them, so I’ve always preferred rocky descents as well. Stairs are almsot needed in Korea because the mountains are SO busy, and without very clearly set trails, people wander off and leave soju bottles and empty nacho bags in nature… but it’s still a crying shame. Sorry to hear about that.

  3. Jer,

    Thanks, glad the story is more amusing than the experience. And all I can say is that I’m glad I know more than those city employees… I know enough to know that not all Koreans think as they do, and that some people here do value diversity and difference. Ha, in other words, I’m glad that I’m clever enough to see that not everyone is the same, despite their insistence.

    Some do.

    They were, after all, probably poorly-educated middle-aged men who aren’t used to having to defend their claim to authority over the mountain (or whatever else they’re doing). They’d say anything to win that argument.


    Yeah. And I know there are other mountains that don’t have stairs, but this is Wonmisan and other mountains are not a five minute walk away from my home. Ah well… seems I’ll be spending more time in the gym. I do hope there’s an alternate route around that blocked-off peak.

    Ah well… you take the good and the bad. And the bad, here, includes this notion of “improving on nature” when it’s just not necessary. (Or an improvement.)

  4. I’ve never been to Wonmisan and so cannot comment on the specific details of that mountain, but I think you might be dismissing the erosion argument too quickly.

    In Seoraksan (which likely has a far greater load of hikers), portions of some trails are thirty metres wide carpeted with bare, sandy soil and dying trees.

    Some stretches of the Appalachian Trail in the Eastern US are like walking in a shallow ditch. Hikers are advised to hike on (in) the trail even when it rains and the ‘ditch’ fills.

    I have to admit, I hate the steps myself as they are never a comfortable length for me. Even if they were, that many steps are hard on my knees, too. Good luck in finding a place to hike that you enjoy.

  5. Kwandongbrian,

    Yeah, erosion may well be a problem on Seoraksan. I’m pretty dubious about the seriousness of that concern with regards to Wonmisan, though. The path I was on is less than 30 centimeters wide, and surrounded by thick undergrowth. Erosion due to a thin stip of trail is a laugh, especially when much wider trails cover other parts of the mountain and aren’t being fenced off.

    That said, I suppose if everyone else is happy to have the whole frigging mountain fenced-off and inaccessible, then it’s their loss. If I really need to, I can hop fences. Sadly, most of the people from around here won’t think of doing that.

    a reader,

    Yeah, hey, remember, I was the one say there’s lots of diversity in Korea. I wasn’t saying there wasn’t. Your average Korean is much likelier to impose an imagined homogeneity on Korean society than I am, I’d say. That’s Korean culture for you. Anyway, it was the worker guys who were claiming heterogeneity of Korea — and of human beings in general — while I was pointing out that lots of Korean people use the dirt trails, not just me.

    As for the nobility of the “Hope Laborers”, these guys were city employees, and ranted about how it was a municipal decision to wreck the mountain thus. Slapping a fancy name on a laborer’s job doesn’t strip him of ignoble characteristics.

    And anyone who shows up in the middle of an ongoing conversation and, instead of listening, begins shouting at the top of his lungs and waving a saw at someone is, I cannot help but imagine, poorly-educated.

    (Moreover, the immediate jump to racializing the issue, pretending that I obviously don’t understand Korean culture, and asserting vehemently that all human beings are the same all bespeak poor education. We would say that in the West if someone made any of those moves, and they apply in Korea too. One guy was less bad than the others (he was trying to talk to me), but one was much worse. However, on the whole seemed quite poorly educated. I don’t know why that would offend your sensibilities…

    Which is not to say these guys don’t have good intentions, or that whoever made the decision to blockade these trails doesn’t have good intentions. But it doesn’t mean they’re good policies or a good method of “protecting nature.”

    By the way, I don’t know if there was an implicit jab there about my Korean ability. I’ll just note that I didn’t link any articles in any language. I was mostly letting off steam after having a handsaw waved in front of me and being yelled at. In banmal. If being yelled at in banmal annoys me more than being told what to do by strangers, then I suppose I know more than I’m sometimes given credit for.

    By the way — those pictures look nice. Those parts of the mountain aren’t the parts I’m talking about, though the site of the argument isn’t far from the first picture in the second article.

  6. Gord, welcome back. (I need to get your beer bottle back to you. It was very good beer). :)

    As for the mountain trail, I think it was one of three things that the city government decided to put up the trail.

    1) (most likely) the city government had budget left that they needed to get rid of. This is why in some city blocks, they install needless stuff all the time, or change the blocks on the pedestrian walkway even though there’s nothing wrong with it. If they have any budget left, the National Assembly or the Budget Office use it as an excuse to reduce the budget for the next year. Also, the city bureaucracy may have needed to lengthen its resume on what they did this year to show to the City Assembly. (And if the dirt trail is open, less people would use the stairs, and then some idiot assemblyman would complain that the stairs was a waste of money…)

    2) Genuine concerns about too many visitors to the mountains: You weren’t here during the summer, but one of the news items here during the summer was that there are so many mountain climbers now, and they go on improptu picnics where they dump soju, beer bottles and other trash, cigarette butts, and other assorted items – destroying not only the scenary but also killing the animals, but in worst cases, starting forest fires. Building a stairs and limiting access outside them may be their way of trying to limit damage from these idiots.

    3) Fear of lawsuits from people who slip. Yes, I know this is ridiculous, but it has been some concern in other situations.

  7. Junsok,

    Thanks! Hey, glad you liked the beer! Giving the swingtop bottle back — yeah, that’d be nice as I’m going to start brewing the next batch next weekend!

    Yeah, I was thinking something along the lines of #1. #2 — I don’t think the fences will stop people, unfortunately. I’ve seen many an ajumma hop the fence and climb into a patch of grass for a nap up there. It’s too bad they can’t just threaten people with fines, but yeah, I suppose that wouldn’t deter such behaviour any more than the threat of fines for crazy driving deters crazy driving!

    And as for #3… wow, I thought that was just an American thing. So can I sue the city for screwing up my knee from having to take the stairs when I do my daily hike?

  8. I can’t stand the way that Koreans percieve nature. I think you have hit the nail on the head in the way you describe how they feel that nature is “improved” when it is sanitized and controlled in such a way as to be more convenient for humans. Korea seems to excell at turning their silk purse into a pig’s ear.

  9. Any time a natural resource becomes used to the point where it ceases to exist in the same fashion, it’s much harder to protect / save it for the future. Some hiking trails in more rural areas are simply closed off to the public to let nature refresh itself or whatever… Are stairs or an eroding mountain the lesser of two evils?

    Are they making EVERY path up the mountain stairs-only?

  10. Kelsey,

    Ha, despite the fact that in the big picture I think “controlling” nature is not SOOOO bad a thing — it’d be nice if we could fine-tune climate and eradicate certain diseases, for example — I agree that too much sanitization and control just takes all the pleasure out of being in nature. I wouldn’t blanket-condemn all Koreans, though. Policy-makers seem to me to be the ones to blame. I know Koreans who share the sentiment.


    Yeah, I never got the sense Wonmisan was being unsustainably taxed, but as Junsok notes, I wasn’t here this summer.

    The problem with choosing the lesser of two evils is that there are usually other answers to any question, which are completely sidelined by making it into an either/or question. I love Kierkegaard, but it was his fundamental error.

    I am not sure whether every path is becoming stairs-only, but for now there are probably some trails left as they are. I’ve seen nothing leading up to the top peak, which is the best part of the hike in terms of exercise, but my friend and I will be searching for another route either around and off to the back slopes, or up to the top.

  11. Well, when I said, “Are all people the same? Is every person the same?” All three guys shouted, “Yes!”

    You sure they didn’t interpret your meaning as “Everyone has to follow the same rules?”

    Because I can get behind their “yes” if that’s the case.

    As for the trail: It’s too bad, but Korea is lousy with mountains. Instead of making a stink over something not that important, just move on to somewhere else.

    In short- I think you overreacted.

  12. William,

    Yeah, I was talking with someone about it via email and basically chalked it up to being out of country too long. I forgot how to deal with annoying arbitrary crap striking me totally out of left field. Maybe it was an overreaction. Personally, I think all the other people who prefer dirt trails underreacted, but this is Korea and it’s to be expected. People don’t often kick up a fuss when faced with a man in a uniform. Especially not middle and lower class people.

    Also, I chalked it up to having someone yell at me. When people start yelling at me and telling me what to do, I resist them as much out of defiance and annoyance as out of any desire to do something. I know that’s dumb, I know it’s ceding control to another in a sense, but I’ve always been that way. Working on it, but I’m not there yet.

    To overreact is human, after all…

    In any case, we actually found an alternate place to use that’s almost all dirt trails. They’ll probably blockade all of that next summer when the extra municipal budget needs spending again, but by then I may be living off campus (or somewhere else entirely) so I’ll just go with that for now. It’s nice to see a different side of the mountain, as well. And if I can find the route bypassing the top peak and leading over to the (widely unused) back part of the mountain, I’ll be very happy.

  13. I understand completely.

    When I went back to Korea for a few weeks last year (Foolishly looking for work) after spending the summer and part of the fall bumming around, every single Korean I knew (except for the ex, funnily enough) rubbed me the wrong way… and they weren’t doing anything they didn’t normally do before: Being Korean.

    So when the opportunity opened up in Japan, I told everyone “Goodbye, see you never!” and got on the next boat to Fukuoka.

    Korea is a culture of extremes. There is no such thing as a happy emotional and societal medium there. And you either have to become total milquetoast and accept it all, or impotently rage at all of the idiocy there.

    Or worse yet, bounce back and forth between loving the place and hating it with a fury.

    As obnoxious as ajushi is, you can’t fight back against that Confucian bullshit because it’s like trying to change the direction a glacier moves in. But if you want to have anything resembling a sense of pride, kowtowing to it isn’t much of an option either.

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