They say that if the all countless ranges of mountains in Korea were flattened out, it would stretch out as big as China – a country almost 100 times bigger! Combine that with a country obsessed with being thin and you get a legion of hikers, from casual to crazy hardcore, swarming the mountains with their designer brand neon hiking attire, alloy hiking poles, oversized shades and rugged hiking boots.
Not avid hikers ourselves – in fact, Jen having never hiked in Korea before – we planned out a trip to take two of my favourite hikes in the country. We invited two of our good friends from Busan to join us, Jason and Krissy, who we have come to adore for their spunky personalities and up-for-anything attitudes. We all piled into my car on a Saturday morning and barrelled all the way from Busan to the Korean midwest.
First on the list was Mai Mountain, known as “Maisan” in Korean. Located next to the town of Jinan, it’s two peaks located next to each other and known as the “horse ear peaks” thanks to their unique shapes. Only the smaller peak measuring in at 686 meters and with a much less treacherous crest is open to hikers. But the hike wasn’t the only highlight of our trip to Maisan. After parking at the north lot and taking a stroll past several street vendors, we arrived at our first stop – Tapsa Temple. Definitely one of the most mysterious temples in Korea as it features several pillars built by stacking small stones on top of each other without cement in between – yet they never fall, come wind or rain. Weathered photographs of the original architect, Gapyeong Lee, could be found hung up everywhere on the grounds, an ancient smiling scholar with a wooden staff, crisp white clothes and silvery long hair in a man-bun paired with a long white beard. It is said he collected stones during the day and built the towers in the darkness of night, with the tallest pagoda standing nearly 6 meters high.
With our luck, it of course started raining, but we had come prepared with ponchos and bust them out for the hike up ahead. We continued past Tapsa along a slick stone path, finding brief solace from the rain under thickets of leaves above. We made it to a clearing right in between the two big peaks to expose the third hidden peak of Maisan. Less than half the size of the other two, it resembles a giant’s face, complete with ears, deep-set eyes and a long nose. Legend has it that two gods bore a child while living on Earth, but the family transformed into these three mountains upon their return to the Heavens and remained on our realm. At the base of this third peak lay a massive ceremonial drum next to a tiny temple. I was taught by a Korean hiker that for good luck, you should bong the drum three times in succession, which we all took turns doing as the bass echoed across the valley.
Krissy went gungho to try some mysterious local brown beverage being peddled around the corner, and after we spent a few minutes trying to sit out the drizzle that suddenly turned into a windy torrential rainfall, we decided to take on the hike head-on. The first part felt like a hiking designed for city folk like us, with rubber-matted steps followed by a hemp carpet covering the soft dirt trail, and then more solid wooden stairs going up the face of the mountain. That all turned upside down as the steps suddenly gave way to steep rain-slicked rock, leaving us to heave ourselves up via the steel railings on each side of the path. We stopped at wooden decks here and there for a breather and to take in the amazing view of the neighbouring horse ear peak, sheathed in a mist from the rain and the lush green valley below.
Much to our relief, the rain tapered off at the halfway point. Before long, we finally made it to the flat crest and made the best of it by throwing up the full-size Canada flag I brought along for big smiles and quick snapshots. We laughed about the climb over some snacks and took a look at the time; an amazing dinner was waiting for us an hour’s drive away and we knew we would be hungry by then. Happy and accomplished, we started our descent and back to hit the road.