When I posted #163, I expected it would be one of many more to come about my partially-successful cross-country mountain hiking trip in Korea (mid-September to early November 2013), the "Baekdu Daegan Trail". I had many ideas for posts floating around in my head. Somehow, no other posts materialized. I got too busy in November and then got out of the habit.
Executive Summary: Below I explain why I posted only erratically during my hike; reasons for leaving the trail; about my trip to Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Thailand; how I returned to Korea and settled my affairs. Now I'm in the USA.
I wrote in a small notebook every day on my hike. I only made about five total posts to this blog, though. It's amazing that I managed any posts at all here after mid-September. Each post was the product of a lot of willpower and some difficulty. Most of the days of my hike I was not even in a position to reliably get a phone signal, much less have access to the Internet. Unlike my earlier posts of 2013, which were written in my apartment at a nice little desk, my posts after mid-September were all made 'outside', wherever I could manage to access a workable computer and the Internet. This usually meant I was paying by the hour at a dank, smoky "PC Room" (Internet cafe), or paying by the day in a motel with a computer, in whatever city I was in at the time. Posts were only sporadic because getting into a city meant making a big detour off the trail. When did I leave the trail? --
Reasons for Leaving the Trail
One unfortunate reason I sometimes left the trail, especially in the early days of my hike, was physical. I got hurt and needed rest to recover. There is one particularly dramatic memory related to this I will post later.
Rain was another reason, including the case of the unexpected tsunami while going through the Deogyu Mountains in early October. I reached one of the so-called "shelters" (which are really semi-serviced mountain-hostels costing 7,000 Won for a berth). The pair of shelter rangers took me in, but were astonished I was there. I was the only guest. The more-jovial of the two seemed to be laughing at me condescendingly for trying to make the journey in such conditions (though he was actually trying to be friendly; "condescending laughter" is a way, in my experience, that older Korean men try to bond with younger males).
The biggest "problems" causing me to leave the trail were running out of food and water. Those were problems I faced even living in my apartment in the middle of Bucheon (a large city) for two years, though. In the latter case, it was just plain-old laziness that I didn't stock-up on food until I ran out of it. In my cross-country hiking attempt, it was because space in my backpack was so limited. I made many, many mistakes on the trip -- I'd like to write about them another time -- but this was lack of backpack capacity was the most serious mistake, which enabled/caused/exacerbated many other problems/mistakes. Mine was 35 liters. I met one hiker along the way who was carrying an 80-L bag. #5-liters is just too small. I could usually find water near the trail, in mountain runoff, and I almost never bought water, but in dry periods this was sometimes a big headache. Food always required going into town. I would stay at a motel (price usually $25-$30/night), try to get quality rest, eat heartily, and stock up on food. A secondary goal was finding a computer to charge my camera batteries and upload pictures/videos.
I really enjoyed the trip, in the end. It was absolutely worth doing despite the problems I allude to above. The problems are even part of the fun. My goal of crossing the entire country was overly ambitious. I made it halfway across.
My Last Hiking Day
Skipping ahead to my very last day on the hike, I was surprised to find myself staying at a Buddhist temple near Woraksan National Park. I didn't plan it; it just all fell into place that way. The temple had some austere little guest rooms, and they gave me some food. I'd like to post more about this, and about much else (with photos), later.
I walked across the ridge for the last time early the next morning, found the town on the other side, and found a bus-stop. I rode the bus into town and and returned to Seoul. From waking up in a temple to Seoul, in a few hours.
Back in Seoul / Ten Days for $130
Back up north in Seoul, I rented a tiny little room for 15,000 KRW/night [$13]. It was a mangy little place in some ways, and I shared close quarters with fifty or so others, many of whom were middle-aged men. Those who stayed longer got even better deals than mine. One strange thing about the place is that the manager never asked for my name or ID. There is no record of my having been there. It so happens that I heard Chinese being spoken there sometimes, in the hallways and the kitchen area. I speculated that the speakers may have been illegal immigrants. Since no names are taken down and no papers are needed, just cash, it's the ideal living place for an illegal immigrant who wants to be off the radar and leave no paper trail. It's also much cheaper than a real apartment. The longer-term residents of that goshiwon [고시원], I think, paid more like $8 a day (=$244/month to rent a small room in Seoul; a great, great price). I stayed ten nights. The place was near Sindorim Train Station [신도림], a very busy and crowded area.
In this period after my hike, I did a lot of relaxing and meeting of friends, including my Korean friend B.W. (whom I met in 2009 in Ilsan), who has become now a hotshot with Lotte Group. His hours-worked on the week seem more like a slave's.
I once created a list of things I wanted to do in Korea, and with so little time left, I felt a bit sad in those ten days because I wouldn't be able to do them all. I knew I would be leaving Korea, and maybe forever. I'd be walking away from the life I'd created there; friends, routines, favorite places, foods, memories. I'd spent enough time and mental effort to feel established in Korea, for better or for worse (and people in the USA, who have seen it fit to give me unsolicited advice on the matter, almost always say or imply that it has been for the worse, a waste of time; I think a lot of friends, family, and acquaintances in the USA viewed my Korean time as akin to a prison sentence; they were interested only in when I was getting out).
I've spent three years and three months in Korea. This short period at the goshiwon is the only time I slept in Seoul.
Zipping Around Hong Kong
I left Seoul bound for Hong Kong aboard a plane belonging to the surprisingly-nice China Eastern Airlines, which even served ice-cream. I spent around 36 hours in Hong Kong, and met a colorful Guatemalan in his 40s who has lived in Los Angeles for 10 or 15 years. (He said he was no good at remembering specific years, like the year he arrived in the USA, but that it was something over ten years ago.) We spent the day together, zipping around Hong Kong seeing the sights/sites (I'm conflicted about which of those words is more befitting). Maybe in another post I can comment discuss Hong Kong's bustle and the surprisingly-poor English of the native people there considering the British heritage.
Hospitality in Malaysia
Before I got the invitation to Malaysia, I'd intended to venture into China again, as I did (too-briefly) in May 2010. I planned to return to the USA in late November 2013. I didn't have a China visa, and getting one in 2013 is a big headache for foreigners in Korea, for some reason. I was going to try to get one in Hong Kong, but that was uncertain to succeed. Fortunately, my father proposed an alternate plan: Malaysia. (Both he and my mother had been U.S. Peace Corps volunteers there many years ago). He was supposed to be there at that time anyway, and he convinced his friend R.B. to go with him, too, and we all met there in mid-November. R.B. is (in his term) an "ex-Malaysian", a nonreligious Sikh born in Malaysia but who emigrated to the USA in 1970, the same time my father left. They were both teachers together and have remained friends in the USA lo these past forty years. I will post more on Malaysia later, I hope. The warmth and hospitality of the people there impressed me. We crossed into Thailand for a day. I spent not a single minute on any beach in my time in Malaysia. Mostly the time was spent visiting old students my father and R.B. had.
Cashing-Out of Korea
I spent nearly two weeks in Malaysia, before returning to Korea for three days, gathering up my possessions being held by various people, and doing a bunch of other "leaving the country forever" things like going to the bank to send money home, the post office to send stuff home, and going to the pension office to "cash out". (All salaried workers, legally, have 4.5% of their salaries deducted monthly to set aside in a government-run pension fund, and the employee's contribution is matched by the employer. This means that, in effect, we get a 4.5%-bonus on all the wages we earn [i.e., the employer's contribution]. As a U.S. citizen, I was able to "cash it all out", and send it back to a U.S. account if I show them a return plane ticket.)
The pension office woman, in her 30s, was very kind and efficient. I think she specializes in dealing with foreigners enrolled in the Korean pension system. She had an odd habit, though, of switching randomly between English and Korean when speaking to me. Her English was very good and I showed no sign of knowledge of Korean in my dealings with her, but she switched into Korean several times. She may have done this for her own amusement, to try to gauge my reaction. I also heard her do this on the phone during my 15 minutes with her, when somebody called asking how they could punish an employer who was refusing to contribute to the national pension program on that employee's behalf. She spoke 90% in Korean, which I tuned-out to focus on the plethora of documents before me I had to fill out. Then, suddenly, she delivered one sentence in English: "We don't have the power here to force them to pay, you have to contact the....", then back to Korean.
As of this writing, two years' worth of Korean pension money in my name has been 'repatriated' to my U.S. bank account. It took only two weeks or so.
Back in the USA
I arrived in the USA in time for Thanksgiving, and today is December 10th, thirteen days later. Some things have changed in Arlington, my hometown, but much more is the same. I've busied myself visiting people and visiting the library. I really missed the library.
I have plans set for January and probably for February, but 2014 is still more of a question-mark.