I used to think of mountains, nature, peace, quiet, a physical workout but spiritually rewarding. A connection with nature. Getting out of crowds and civilization.
Now, after three experiences hiking in Korea, that is no longer the case. Sure, I still think of mountains, and a physical workout. But I also think of huge crowds of Koreans, all dressed in more or less the same outfit. I think of people picnicking on kimchi and other Korean food, drinking soju (rice liquor) and using walking sticks that look like ski poles. I think of waystations selling fried beetles and crickets. And I think of designated photo-ops that everyone goes to.
Not to paint too negative a picture of hiking in Korea. There are beautiful mountains, with great scenery and well-maintained trails, all within an hour or two's cheap bus ride from Jeonju. The only problem is, apparently every Korean loves to hike, and does so in huge groups every weekend, in the requisite Northface/Columbia/etc apparel, complete with backpacks, walking sticks and hats. Today's hike was the most crowded I had been on, with the wide trail packed almost the whole time. I got pushed more than a few times, and swore if someone pushed me and fell on my camera, I would grab onto them and not let go until they paid me for a new one.
The vistas were amazing, with steep cliff faces and skinny rocks jutting up into the sky. The foliage was still pretty, although past peak. There was a suspension bridge which looked great, but we didn't get to it because it was literally a stand-still line to walk across it. The other hikes I've been on have been crowded until the first peak, but the parks were big enough that you could lose some of the crown the further you got from a starting point (the problem was you'd meet up with them again when you neared the other starting point). This mountain had a cable car up to the middle of the mountain, which also contributed to the crowd.
But what really amazed me was the food vendors, staggered all the way up the mountain, selling homemade rice wine and an assortment of bugs and roots. And, as usual, Koreans taking shots of soju on their breaks. A woman gave us some soju on the way up (we drank it to be polite) and then, I guess as a chaser, dangled a fried shrimp into our mouths like we were puppies ("goooood foreigners, way to drink the soju....here's a treat for you.").
As for the aforementioned 'official photo-ops,' there were places on the trail, especially at the top next to a statue, that almost everyone waited in line to take a photo in front of. I've noticed this on other hikes, that everyone takes pictures in the same places. I swear if you go to any Korean's house they'll have the same photos.
Which gets to my wider recent observation of just how homogenous Korea is. Don't get me wrong, I think its a fascinating culture, but everyone does the same thing. The restaurants all have more or less the same food, unless its a pizza place or a Western chain like TGI Fridays. The clothing stores have more or less the same clothes. The people all go to the same mountains and wear the same outfits. The older women almost all wear face masks and giant visors. The kids all take the same extra classes. The Korean bars are very similar, and everyone goes to karaoke. There's very few ethnic restaurants, and you don't see many different styles. Almost everything you buy is made in Korea. It's a little strange, but definitely an interesting experience. The people are very nice, and friendly. They usually try very hard to help foreigners, and want to expose them to Korean culture. Which is great.
Just not when I want a peaceful hike.