Saturday, July 28, 2007

Of Daeryongsan, Songnisan, and Noraebang

As I’ve only been in Korea for three weeks and immersed in an unavoidable bubble of fellow Americans for that entire time, I can’t say much yet about my experience of Korean culture. However, there are two particularly Korean practices I’ve enjoyed so far: Hiking and going to noraebangs.

Teungsan (hiking)

Korea is a mountainous country, and Koreans love their hiking – especially older Koreans, as this is a great way to stay in shape in a more relaxed, noncompetitive atmosphere. Also, one of my goals in coming to Korea was to do as much hiking as possible. For the past few years I’ve been interested in becoming an active hiker, but for some strange reason good hiking trails are limited in Illinois. So I knew that I would be challenged by Korea’s mountains, but I was excited to give them a try.

I’ve been hiking both weekends I’ve been here so far. Our first weekend here, one week after we arrived, several of us walked to a nearby mountain. Yes, we walked there – a two-hour walk through the outskirts of Chuncheon, through small farms and rice paddies, and underneath a highway bridge. The mountain we climbed is called Daeryongsan (san = mountain). It was a difficult hike too – we were moving steadily uphill, and the trail didn’t have many steps, even stone ones, built onto it. But the view we got of Chuncheon at the end? It made the entire experience worthwhile:

At the top we relaxed, drank water and an apple cider-like drink called sagua suqueeja (given to us for a free by a Korean driver on the way to the mountain who thought we looked tired!) and took in the view and the feeling of the mountain air. Yeah, totally worthwhile. Even the long walk back into Chuncheon!

Then last weekend we went hiking again in Songnisan, a mountain resort town 4 hours southwest of here that the Fulbright program took us to so we could “relax” and “forget about the Korean language.” This hike was, in my opinion, even more difficult than the last, but that’s because I got frustrated with all the slippery stone steps. We tended to go uphill, then downhill, over and over again. It was a misty day, so we didn’t have a view at the top to reward us, but we did have a rock that seemed to rise, solitary, from the mist – an ethereal, almost other-worldly experience. Beautiful. We rested at the top of those peaks and enjoyed some apples (apparently our unofficial Hiking Flavor). I had a picture posted, but the t-shirt I was wearing gave away the program I'm here on, which apparently has a blogging policy about not revealing what the name of that program is. So you'll just have to imagine it. Sorry.

Meeting people on the hiking trails is a great part of the experience. As I said, hiking is very popular, so you pass a lot of people going up and down the mountain. We were friendly, saying hello and receiving the usual stares/giggles/indifference in response. Even if you don’t (or can’t) stop to chat with the people you meet, it makes hiking that much more of a communal experience. However, I should add that those Koreans totally kicked my butt on the hiking trail. They come equipped with the clothing, the gear, and apparently the legs that allow you to rocket up the mountain. But give me year, let me keep doing this regularly – I intend to show them that Americans aren’t always unathletic pansies. And even if we are, we can get ourselves in shape with the best of their elderly.

Noraebang literally translates to “singing room,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like. You rent one out for a set period of time with a group of people and karaoke to your heart’s content! Noraebangs are very popular here in Korea, and I can see why – they’re a blast. The first time I went, I wasn’t sure how much I would enjoy it. I am not a good singer, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to listen to mediocre renditions of overplayed pop songs for two hours. But oh, how wrong I was.

First of all, they do something with the microphones in the noraebang so that even the worst singers don’t sound too horrible. Second, you’re likely to be drowned out by everyone else singing along anyway! I think it also helps that each room is a closed environment, so you’re surrounded by people you know and can therefore cheer each other on and help each other out. Additionally, once it gets going it doesn’t matter who’s actually holding the microphone – everyone is up, dancing, singing along. It’s basically a singing/dancing party where you have complete control over what songs are coming on. So far, I’ve found that Bon Jovi, Avril Lavigne (hey, the songs themselves don’t have to be good) and absolute classics like “Buttercup” (why do you build me up, Buttercup baby, just to let me down…) make for an excellent noraebang experience.

And if you go to a noraebang with Koreans, it can be a great bonding experience. It’s fun, albeit still impossible for me, to try to sing along with the Korean songs. And I love it when our Korean friends can sing along to one of the American songs.

As you can tell, mountains and noraebangs have little to nothing in common, other than being two parts of Korean culture I’ve engaged in and loved so far. They’re not uniquely Korean by any means, but the way they’re done is, naturally, Korea-specific. I definitely hope to continue enjoying these aspects of Korea as much as possible!

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