On a cool sunny day, we gather at the Incheon Airport near Seoul, to start a stint of energetic hiking plus cultural immersion. There are 16 members of the 1818 Society, including spouses and friends. The group is wonderfully young, averaging 65 years of age, and culturally diverse, with folks from all over the world, including the U.S, Russia and China; Canada and Korea, Sri Lanka and Chile — to mention a few.
Amazing civilization. Coming from America, we might find Korea bewildering. Seoul, for instance, has been the nation’s capital since 1394. Yet it is modern, sleek, clean and green while bustling and full of energy. The streets are well paved and marked, with efficient layouts for mass transit and pedestrians. No cracks or potholes to be seen. Tall umbrellas are installed at many street crossings to protect people from the sun. Restrooms are clean and ubiquitous. At night, the city lights up with playful signs and giant video screens showing cosmetics and K-pops stars.
Kind people. Despite language barriers, Koreans convey friendship and kindness. People we meet on the street are always welcoming and polite, busy though they all seem to be. Even when they don’t understand our requests in English, they offer to help on smartphones or through gestures.
Hiking as religion. In Korea, hiking is the equivalent of soccer in Brazil. It’s a national passion that has spawned magnificent trails in every hamlet and town. Hikers and bikers are seldom commingled; Each group has its own dedicated trails. Wherever we go, we see people of all ages indulging in the love of the outdoors, with youths walking fast while seniors going more deliberately — often holding the hands of little boys and girls wearing cute hats.
Some of our members seem to have caught the Korean religious fervor. They hike 12 miles or so virtually every day. Four of them take on the challenge of conquering the Dinosaur Ridge – with an elevation of 4200 ft at the summit, requiring 16 hours of trekking plus an overnight stay in primitive mountain shelter. Despite inclement weather, the quartet successfully pass the test. The rest of us seek moderation, keeping the hikes to just a few miles a day, while enhancing the effort with window shopping, meditating or sipping sweet potato latte.
Creature Comfort. Of course, we are all here for learning and spiritual enlightenment. But a bit of luxury is not unwelcome. Our group rides a fancy tour bus meant for 30, with oversized seats, hot and cold beverages and USB ports. Our hotels are upscale, sensibly located, serving sumptuous breakfast buffets. Every meal on the road is different and delicious. One lady, who avoids spicy food at the beginning, demands more spices at the end.
Yeongsil Trail, Mt. Halla
Scenic beauty. With so much to love, the famous attractions of Korea — Mt. Sorak with its sparkling granites and curvaceous Korean pines, the gorgeous wildflowers carpeting Mt. Halla on Jeju Island — seem almost superfluous. But we persevere. We wade through miles of hiking trails surrounded by forests of soft green budding leaves under bright sky and cool spring air. We endure many world heritage sites, palaces, museums and ancient royal tombs — large green and smooth mounds. (A king and a queen, experts say, are never buried together in the same tomb.)
Sand Sculpture on Haeundae Beach
Pleasant surprises. The fun spills over with many unexpected encounters. On the first night, right from our hotel room, we watch whimsical and spectacular drone shows. Later on, we see beautiful sand sculptures the size of colonial homes on the Haeundae Beach in Busan. Our favorite one features Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam”, but with a twist: God’s finger reaches out to a robot. Then, on the final night, we see the unforgettable Nanta, a non-verbal (but not silent) comedy show so funny that our decorous grannies turned into raucous school girls.
Dedicated tour guides. Our tour was designed mainly by Kyung Lim of Sanbaragi Tours and Hyesook Leechor. A kind man in his forties, Kyung understands English perfectly, but is not fluent in speaking. His assistant, Marshall — a Gen Z, has very good command of English. In addition to their expertise, they show a total dedication to our group. They work hard around the clock to keep us well informed and entertained. They happily modify planned events on short notice. Add a stop to see city lights from the Seoul Tower? No problem. Drop tonight’s scheduled dinner for impromptu street foods? No problem. Cash refunds are given back to us to pay for the street foods.
Back home and negotiating a severe jet lag, we keep thinking: When are we going back to Korea?
Here is the link to the photo album from this tour: https://photos.app.goo.gl/iZous8fpxqSeiRMLA
KEYWORDS culture, hiking, K-tour, Korea, nature, Seoul