Korea is a land of Ajummas. Middle-oldaged women, are often called ‘Ajummas’ – a term for an Aunty. They are an integral part of walking here; whether you are going for a stroll in your local park or climb a mountain, Ajummas with their fluorescent, clashing, headache-inducing outfits, bells, radios, hiking sticks and fondness for spitting will always be there. I have grown so used to their presence that it was a surprise to me to climb a mountain in Daejeon where there were so few (or indeed, many other people at all).
Welcome to winter climbing.
I was headed towards the popular Gyejoksan Mountain in East Daejeon. It is here that the CEO of the local soju company covers the paths in a red clay once a year for the enjoyment of Daejeon citizens and so the mountain has become very well known for barefoot walking. It is even one of the ’12 Tourist sights of Daejeon’ according to the local government. But, the red clay washes away over the colder months, and so do the crowds.
Views of Gyejoksan
The day was a hazy grey and when I ascended the mountain, all turned brown and ghostly. It was as if late Autumn had been left on pause. The higher I climbed, sights of my every day life: tower blocks, rivers, chimney stacks stretched below me, there was even more sheilded by the haze that remained stubbornly invisible to me. Nonetheless, this was the first time that I was able to appreciate the city from far away. Picking out landmarks of my made me feel like I knew my place here in Daejeon and that I might be starting to understand this labyrinthine landlocked city.
Daejeon Dam and the city limits
My initial plan had been to climb the peak of Gyejoksan but poor navigational skills meant that I instead followed the path to Gyejoksanseong – the Fortress of Gyejoksan.
This fortress, like many historical sites in South Korea, has been renovated in recent years and so even though the design of the fortress walls remained the same, there is a strange newness to the place that makes Korean history feel extremely present.
The original fortress was the largest of Daejeon’s 46 and was built to protect the outskirts of the Baekje Kingdom around 400 AD. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the Fortress is the Bongsudae – the Beacon Tower. When I saw this my mind instantly jumped to Lord of the Rings where ‘Light the beacons!’ is shouted and just like in Tolkein’s stories, this beacon tower was used to transmit urgent messages. Word could easily get to Seoul via Cheongju and Chungju and this method proved popular for hundreds of years. ‘Bongsudae’ in Korean is a compound word: bong means ‘torchlight’, and su means ‘smoke’. At night, fires would be lit to communicate over the vast distances but in daylight, these towers would billow smoke to send messages across country.
Hiking is not an activity that I did much of in the UK but here in Korea, it has been an invaluable way to get out of the city and also appreciate the history of the area. And, of course, there were some Ajummas on the way down after all (they were faster than me too).