A foreign-white-girl’s guide to tropical forest hiking in the mountains.

I have not run in days. Actually, I believe the time period is almost a week. Now I think I will have to wait until I return to Canada. I really miss it, but I am sure my sneakers do not. It is too hot by 630am to do much of anything, but I am able to go hiking up the mountain almost everyday. For the most part, the trails are covered by trees, so it is cooler and the view is definitely worth the work. Jajaehaeng took a van of us to the top of the mountain that Mihwangsa is located on. It is eloquently named Dalmasan (Dharma Mountain). From there, we could look at the three sides of the sea that surround the mountain. At the very tip of the mountain there is the tiniest temple I have ever seen. It is partially hidden by rock and trees.

A handful of years ago, one of the monks that used to live at Mihwangsa had a dream in which Buddha told him to build a temple. He had this dream three times. I am told that he was relatively new to the area and did not recognize the location in which he was to build the temple. He stumbled upon and recognized the area one day while hiking. He spoke to the head monk about this and they set out to build the temple that was illustrated in his dreams. It took them 32 days to build the temple and living quarters, and he now lives up there all year long. There was even a kennel shaped like a temple for his dog (who has since passed away). It was an amazing experience to see how much work they completed in such a short period of time. It would have been very difficult to even get the materials up to this location. Truly amazing!

Francesco (my fellow foodie at the temple) and I wanted to walk back to Mihwangsa instead of drive. It seemed like a good idea, but there was some confusion over how much time it would take us. Lunch was on the line, which was not something either of us wanted to risk missing. Luckily, one of the women who works at the temple said she wanted to walk back as well, so a group of five of us headed back to the temple together. She said we would head straight down the mountain, and we really did! I should have been issued a foreign-white-girl’s guide to tropical forest mountain hiking before the adventure commenced, as I was ill-equiped. Maybe there is one in existence and I didn’t do my due diligence in finding it (oops!). I kept a list going during the trek back, so I would be more prepared next time. Actually, every time I tripped I wrote down why it happened in my little pink, pocket poetry book. Here are the main points:

  1. The first thing I learnt is that most of what I do will result in me falling. When a local says let’s go down the mountain, they are going straight down. There is no weaving involved. You must be sure you are not wearing a pair of beaten up flip-flops. This will inevitably result in you falling, a lot.
  2. Be careful when you grab that vine, it isn’t attached to the ground and you will fall.
  3. Along the lines of number two, do not brace yourself against that tree when you lose your footing. Its inhabitants (spiders, centipedes, or whatever creepy crawler is on it) will become startled and will bite you. This may result in more falling.
  4. The position in the pack is as important on the acceding parts of the mountain as it is for the descending ones. This is what I call the rocks vs snakes debate. On one hand, you do not want to be taken out by falling rocks. On the other hand, you do not want to be the one to step on a snake. Here are a few key things noted:
    1. On the way up, you want to be close to the front. That way if an unstable rock gets dislodged and hurtles down the mountain, your ankles will not be the ones being taken out (if they are your ankles, yes, you will fall).
    2. On the way down the same logic applies, only in reverse positioning. You want to be near the back. If no one is behind you your ankles are safe. If you are up front you can’t see what’s coming from behind you.
    3. The person who is leading the pack will be the one disturbing all the indigenous animals (e.g. snakes). In general, this is not a position a foreigner should hold.

I was quick to take up the second person position. I did have to jump a couple times for rocks coming from behind (successfully too I might add, as there were multiple people behind me that served as a warning), but there was a person in front of me to point out the snakes. I was, however, considerably taller than the person leading. Which raises another problem: do I look up or down when I walk? We were moving fast and I couldn’t really cover both view points at the same time. If I looked up to make sure I wouldn’t get a tree to the face I usually ended up with a mouthful of spider webs. If I looked down to make sure I didn’t trip on a rock or tree root, the webs would go in my hair (I considered this acceptable), but then you risk getting your head taken out by a tree branch or vine. This is more of a personal choice.

It is important to note you should also have tools like a walking stick and  hat. The stick can be used to alert snakes of your presence and it is better than grabbing that vine or tree truck, for the reasons I mentioned earlier. If you are looking down, the hat collects all the webs. It is also important to have insect repellant and sun block. The inset repellant does not really work on those tiny pesky flys that land in your eyes every five minutes. The ones that hover together spinning around your head. For these, I usually have a rag or shirt that I use to gently guide them away, as they are just an annoyance. But the mosquito repellant does save you the agony of meditating with over 40 itchy bites on your feet and calves (yup, I reached over 40 bites this morning, just from my knees down). Mediation malfunction (please see previous post) is now at a new level of distraction! The sun block, for obvious reasons, will help out too. Not only does it prevent you from becoming burnt, but it also makes you the most popular person in the pack and it may be used to barter for snacks.

In the end you will still fall and doing it gracefully is probably not an option (neither is grabbing onto anything stable), so just go with it. I prefer the arms flailing about while you try unsuccessfully to balance yourself approach. This didn’t actually prevent me from falling, but it did give my fellow hikers a good laugh. Which I would say is worth it. Here is a picture of the woman who led us down. I could only take a pic when we arrived at the bottom and were on flat surfaces again. Before that, I needed both hands free for flailing.

Have a great day out there folks!

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