Up My First Mountain

Yesterday, i.e day five, was one of those days when you seem to go through a whole year’s worth of experiences over the span of a few hours.  I woke up nervous, wondering if anyone was going to kick me out of the harbor, so I packed up and left without even eating. Over the next twenty minutes, I passed several excellent beaches, many with shower facilities and drinking water, and I kicked myself for not having persevered a little more the night before. Then again, I forgave myself, because I had in fact persevered for about 45 minutes, and only gave up on finding a good spot when the gas station attendant told me that none of the beaches in the area had good camping spots. What a goon!  
 Not my most scenic camping spot
I stopped at a little rest stop, (which also would have been dandy to camp in, or at least better than the harbor), had my usual breakfast of raw seeds, roasted peanuts, and whatever fruit is rotting in my backpack, and pushed on, hoping to visit the DMZ before lunch time. I had heard that Gangwondo, the most mountainous part of the country, was tough riding territory, but this section of the cost was pretty mild, so despite my lethargy I made it to the checkpoint pretty early.  They told me that I wasn’t allowed to bike the last 10k and that I had to hitch a ride. I went back and forth on whether or not to bother, but I saw a giant tour bus and figured I’d ask the guide if there was an extra seat. It turned out to belong to an “international school” taking a group of students on a round-the-country road trip. They didn’t let me on the bus, but I got to ride up with one of the admin dudes.  I tried to make light conversation, but the guy for some reason couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact that I was speaking Korean, so that his first response to everything I said was “yes,” then a chuckle, then he’d look away. Only after a few seconds would it register to him that I’d actually said something that made sense and had a meaning, after which he’d answer.  “Oh, the school is in Daejeon.”
Unification Road
The DMZ lookout point itself was, again, underwhelming.  Not only had my thunder been stolen when they wouldn’t allow me to finish the last 10k of my 500k trip up the border, but there was actually not a whole lot to see.  At the base of the lookout point, there were a bunch of shops selling souvenirs (mostly North Korean booze), local food (corn, potatoes, rice cakes), and summer treats (shaved ice and even Dippin Dots!), along with a couple restaurants. Then there’s the DMZ itself, which of course is mostly devoid of activity, so that all you get from gazing out over it is this sense that the North and South are indistinguishable. There’s no natural boundary, no river, no mountain, just arbitrariness.  I was also a little frustrated that you had to pay to use the little mounted binoculars.  I guess I just felt it ought to be free, given that the lookout building was full of stuff about how desperately the South wants unification. Not that you could see anything through them anyway, but there was just something sleazy about how whoever was running the facility was intent on making money at every point possible. I know that even the basics of life aren’t available to many in the North, but it rather depressed me that aside from the fact that nobody in northern Gangwondo is starving to death, there doesn’t seem to me to be much to recommend the region.  Aside from the tourists and farmers, most people I saw seemed to work either for the army, at convenience stores selling shitty plastic beach toys, in factories, or on road crews.  I’m sure most in the North would be better off under South Korean conditions, but the rhetoric of sharing one’s blessings with one brothers doesn’t seem to hold up so well when one’s own country comes off as a bit pathetic and money-grubbing. 
Time Warp!
NK Booze: Acorn, Ginseng, Other Odds and Ends
 The tiny little floating hill there is SK territory; beyond belongs to NK.
Hungry and disillusioned, I rode back to the nearest park I could find, whipped up another bowl of noodles, then set up my hammock on a park bench next to a fenced-off building, which I assumed was an abandoned church and went to sleep.  About half an hour later, the sound of ATVs roused me from my dozing, and I was able to hear some older people mumbling things like “What is that?”  “What’s the deal with that bike?”  “I think he’s a foreigner?”  “What’s he doing sleeping here?”  I wasn’t yet awake enough to get out of my hammock, though, so I just lay there pretending to sleep and hoping they’d move on, which they did soon enough.  Not ten minutes later, though, the whole thing repeated itself. By this time I was too awake and too conscious of the heat to stay in the hammock any longer, so I got out, exchanged some pleasantries with them, and set about packing up my stuff.  Then another wave of old people came, and one of them, a chatty 70-ish gentleman, struck up a conversation, explaining that I had fallen asleep out of their “Gateball” (i.e. croquet) grounds, where all the seniors gather daily at 1pm to socialize, horse around, and exercise.  He invited me in for a coffee and even offered to let me join in the festivities, but I was feeling pressure to ride further since I had hardly even done 40k and the time was nearing 2pm.     
Better every day
Too ashamed to take photos of the old people
Having already made it to the northeast tip of the country, I had to figure out a new route and decided I’d try to stick somewhat to the northern border, so that when I finally make an online map of where I’ve been it’ll look like I attempted to circle the whole country.  The roads from there more or less constrained me to head slightly south towards Mt. Seoraksan, and  then inwards towards Seoul, though, so that’s what I did.  The trip up had followed the coastline, and so had been full of beaches, ports, and little towns, but as I moved inwards they were slowly replaced by farms, bed-and-breakfasts, and military bases.  Suddenly, I realized I could see nothing ahead of me but mountains, and that there was nowhere for me to go but over.
I didn’t know how far away the pass would be, or how high the road went, or how tough, or if I’d be able to make it in one night, so I figured I’d better procure a few more supplies before moving on.  I already had most everything, and only needed more raisins for my snack mix. Unfortunately, though, when I stopped at what looked like the last market before the road disappeared into the wild, the woman said that there were no raisins, and that I’d have to turn around and backtrack 10km to even have a chance at finding fresh fruit.  Ironic how out in the countryside, surrounded by farms, the shops only sell ice cream and bags of chips, whereas you have to be closer to the city to get anything fresh.  I was making it a point to do the trip without eating any such snacks – unless they came as gifts – so I plodded on. 
Felt more ominous than it looks
Eventually I got to a point where it looked like the climbing would begin.  There was a sign at the bottom of the road indicating switchbacks for 2.5 km and it occurred to me that things were getting serious.  So, like any serious adventurer would do, I postponed the inevitable by pulling over at a bus stop, taking a seat, and stuffing my face full of snacks.  I didn’t exactly feel afraid, but I did have a sense that I was about to be overwhelmed, that I had encountered the hardest part of my journey yet, and that  I was soon  be put  to a test.( Actually, it’s a very similar feeling to the one that has me continuously inventing new errands to do, recalling other people to see, and thinking up other ends to tie up before I leave for China.)  After scarfing down enough seeds to guarantee that I woulnd’t get that hollow-in-the-pit-of-your-sternum hunger that hits me on tough uphills, I resumed the journey, fully expecting 2.5km of torture.  What I got instead was a road that wound lazily uphill for about 0.3km then flattened out, following a river that cut through the mountain rage.  Instead of sweating blood like I expected, I was pedaling along  at a jolly cadence, smelling the pines and reveling in a blast of cool air every time I passed a little waterfall that ran down the side of the mountain, under the road, and into the river.  
Soon enough I passed a waterfall big enough to get into, and feeling free from both the fear of the mountain that had immobilized me just twenty minutes previous and from the dictates of society that say people just don’t do such things, I pulled over again, lay my bike down on the side of the road, pulled out my cooking pots and a toiletries kit, and proceeded to take my first shower (Not naked of course – maybe someday I’ll be that free.) in four days by using the pots to scoop up water that had pooled at the base of the falls. A few cars passed, but none honked or otherwise bothered me.
I resumed riding, my fear of the mountain replaced by an expanded sense of freedom.  How great it was that I could just bum around and get whatever I needed, whenever I needed it?  If I’m hungry, I’ve got my snacks.  If I’m thirsty, I’ve got my water.  If I’m tired, I’ve got my hammock and my tent.  If I’m filthy (not a very big if), there’s water somewhere.  I thought to myself, popular conceptions of freedom usually center on being able to do what you want, go where you want, buy or own what you want. This felt different, like I was free from wanting anything in the first place. I felt instead free to take and use whatever presented itself to me.  Not to do as I wanted, not to orient myself to the world in terms of (manufactured) desires, but rather to find a way to be content regardless of the circumstances.  Further introspection revealed that the sense of freedom was enhanced by a sense of being taken care of, and thus, gratitude.  How great of the mountain to give me shade; cool, clean, running water; trees to hang between and clearings to pitch tents in.  
Nothing but rocks, water, trees, crops, and a few houses.  Good times. 
This feeling then morphed into a sort of love for everything around me.  The fear from before receded into the background even as the road in front of me grew steeper and steeper.  Two racing cyclists passed me going the opposite direction and I instinctively began to shout out to them, asking how far to the top, then I realized I didn’t even care.  Pretty soon I came upon a construction crew who had torn up the road, leaving quite a mess in its wake.  Even here, riding uphill, on a mud path, under the hot sun, alone and in the middle of nowhere, I felt at ease, this temporary discomfort a necessary part of the process of providing roads to ride on in the first place. I trudged along, following the river past solitary farms, rows of corn shoulder-high, and grandmothers cleaning mountain ginseng.  Every time the road curved around the base of one mountain, another rose in the distance, such that I was amazed not only at their height, but at their number and depth as well.  
Before I knew it, I hit a new set of switchbacks, much more serious looking than the first.  Regardless, my attitude had completely changed, and rather than feeling outmatched, I simply felt challenged.  Worse come to worst, if I couldn’t make it up, I’d simply push my bike to the top, and I’d be stronger for the next trip. I switched the bike into the lowest gear – losing a great deal of psychological comfort, since when you’re in the next-to-lowest gear, you can always say to yourself “if it gets too tough, I can just drop down a notch” and pushed as hard as I could passing signs for 400 and 500m, stopping every few minutes to pant, take photos, and pound down liters of water.  After a few more turns and one final climb, I hit the top: 520m.  I let out a scream of joy, popped down to take a picture, and collapsed at the nearest rest stop.  

Going up…
 Still going up…

Woohoo!  Summit

Yup, this is how I dress when the day gets dark and/or the going gets slow…
By the way, that was only the first couple adventures! 
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5 Responses to Up My First Mountain

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Of all the posts I’ve read of yours, this one is probably my favorite (and the most humbling to read). The “lack of desire”…the lack of desire to desire…very profound insights here. Thanks so much for sharing your reflections!

  3. jepu says:


  4. AZ says:

    I love your reflections on your expanded sense of freedom. Something I yearn for every day! (How to find it, without an epic bike ride adventure? How to find it, here at home?)

  5. Kristin says:

    Such a sense of joy and love throughout this piece! Woo hoo! Thanks for taking us along for the ride, Michele. It sounds like the next big challenge for you isn’t biking across Asia, but bathing outdoors in the nude!