Saturday, November 20, 2010

Gym: Gunsan Style Day 17 (16 October)

On my third weekend in Gunsan, I decide it is finally time to explore Wolmyeong Park, which is directly behind my apartment building.  I’ve seen people coming out of the park and my curiosity has been sufficiently piqued that an exploration is now becoming essential – plus I can’t bear the thought of staying in my apartment this weekend.  Before I go any further, let me just clarify that the park is more like a nature reserve than a park with swing sets, screaming children and happy couples sitting on benches or picnic while watching swans or ducks on a lake.  That part of it does exist although I don’t recall seeing any birds on the lake or swing sets. 

I have a mental picture of myself sitting under a shady tree looking interesting while I catch up my much neglected journal.  In my mind, I’m sitting in a park in England or the one opposite the University of Victoria, Vancouver Island.  I’m well prepared with a bottle of water, my journal, camera, handbag and wearing comfortable ballet pumps which are about the only flat pair of shoes that I currently own apart from flip flops and practical for just such a day.

There are two entrances to the park.  Most people seem to be taking the wide, flat path but I somehow understand the stairs to be some type of shortcut to the same destination.  I bounce up the stairs of which there are just the right quantity to make it seem that the path up the mountain has stairs all the way.  Once I get to the end of the stairs, I am faced with what appears to be a hiking trail.  It’s not too steep but I’m not really dressed for hiking.  I keep wondering if I should turn back but the view makes the trip worthwhile.  15 minutes later, I reach a small clearing with park benches and a pretty good view of my side of town.  Thinking that I’ve made it to the top, I spend some time doing exactly what I’d pictured myself doing when I first set out.  I may just have found my writing spot – until winter properly sets in.  It’s quiet, it’s beautiful, it’s fairly secluded…and it’s only the first rest stop along the way. 

Feeling adventurous, I set off once again feeling more athletic than I have in months.  Several Korean hikers pass me – kitted out in proper walking shoes and backpacks – and probably think that all foreigners are crazy in their choice of walking shoes.  I’m starting to wish I were wearing sneakers but the view is so beautiful that I keep climbing higher.  That’s when I see the first one:  a set of strange looking apparatus that I initially think are a children’s playground.  There’re no garbage bins anywhere but the Koreans do have what appears to be a playground on top of this mountain.  Since everyone else has already passed me, I try out something called the surfer.  I nearly fall flat on my face getting on to it but it’s a lot of fun once you get the hang of it.  Slightly further ahead, I encounter more such apparatus and that’s when it occurs to me that it’s all exercise equipment – there’s even a set of weights in this clearing. 

I have a good chuckle at this latest oddity on my way to the next clearing.  I’m wondering who would use this equipment in the middle of what I thought is a hiking trail.  From my current viewpoint on an observation deck, I get a better idea of the size of the park – and a clearer understanding of my little corner of town in relation to the rest of the city – and I realise that there must be several of these ‘exercise’ spots in the park.  How odd: Most Westerners would probably consider the hike to be the exercise part of the excursions not just the travelling to the ‘natural gym’.  I’m surprised to suddenly see about half a dozen people, all dressed for a workout, suddenly converge on this gym.  It seems quite popular and there are even two hula hoops hanging from a tree.  I can’t help laughing at this latest bit of madness I’ve uncovered when it occurs to me that each piece of equipment has been cleverly positioned.  The bench for sit ups, for example, ensures that each sit up is rewarded with a magnificent view over the park and it’s lake.  I’m suddenly more enthusiastic about doing sit ups than I’ve ever been in my life.

Feeling rather inspired, I decide that sneakers are now essential and ‘gym’ seems more appealing than ever before.  With great excitement, I head back down the mountain and am thinking a trip to Lotte mart is needed.  I am soon back in the first clearing and I suddenly realise there are in fact two paths that look identical.  I stand at the entrance to each path and look back on the clearing, trying to work out which ‘first view’ looks right but I can’t remember.  My mantra, ‘when in doubt, stay left’ has yet to fail me in Gunsan so I choose the path on the left.  About 300m in, I realise that this is not the correct path but a quick glance over my shoulder reveals a rather steep climb back to the clearing and I’m lazy. 

About 800m down this path, I’m starting to realise that getting back down the mountain is, surprisingly, more difficult than getting up it.  Also, this path seems to have a few steeper sections than I expected.  It also consists of more rock face than the other one.  Feeling less and less enthusiastic about turning around and heading back up the mountain to change paths, I convince myself that the difficulty of this path can’t be that different to the other path and I push ahead.  Every step leads me to a steeper rock face that is starting to require serious mountaineering gear.  With each step, I can’t help thinking, Oh God, I’m an idiot and I am going to die! and I can’t see anywhere soft to land except on my arse.  It occurs to me that no one knows where I am and if I die up here it could be days before anyone else stupid enough to use this path stumbles upon me.

Suddenly, another person appears before me and I’m horrified to realise how correct my initial assessment of this path’s grading was: This hiker is dressed in proper mountaineering gear with ropes, boots with a sensible grip, and little handle things to help pull himself up.  He looks like the serious type who spends every weekend climbing mountains just like this one and spends hours in the gym the rest of the week to prepare for these trips.  I can hear people talking so I can’t be too far from the end which is encouraging – I just need to get over the enormous rock with no real footholds for a novice like me and then about 100m down what appears to be an almost vertical rock face.  I consider my options: Slide down on my arse since any other attempt will only result in my landing flat on my face in the surrounding bush, or climb back up to the clearing.  Both options seem almost impossible and the arse-sliding approach seems less dangerous.

I eventually tumble off the path and onto a flat surface that I realise is the starting point to this treacherous journey, which is indicated by a big red sign.  I can’t read Hangeul but I’m fairly certain that the red sign is a warning for idiots like me (surely it should be at the top of the path too!).  I think it says something like: Beware of tumbling foreigners in silly shoes.  This is one of the steepest paths to the top but don’t tell the waegooks that because it’s more entertaining to watch them emerge from this path looking like they’re just completed tough  field exercises in the Marine Corps.

I’m so relieved that I’ve survived that I start laughing, somewhat manically, while parents pull frightened children to safety.  As I stumble down the sensible path out of the park, I notice another foreigner watching me with a look that seems to say: You must the luckiest idiot alive.  A glance at his clothes reveals that he’s in the US army and I quickly walk away laughing more and more hysterically as I think about the past 35 minutes.  My apartment is looking more and more appealing with every step.

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