Seoul43: A Study in Mountains and What a City Did with Them

Seoul43 has given me a lot of moments to reflect on the impact of humanity on nature. This, of course, was not my initial intention. I wanted to climb all these mountains as a personal challenge. A city with mountains—how wonderful! I still believe it is one of the reasons that I found Seoul to be a clean city, compared to the other capitals I have been to. Before Korea, I had hiked only one mountain in the Philippines. It was a disastrous and traumatic experience—I nearly fell off of the peak, slipped many times on our descent, and slowed everyone down. I was, in chemistry terms, our group’s limiting reagent.

44 - Bukhansan

My second intention was to get people to share my experience. This is why I brought the soil from these mountains so that people can plant with them and then bring them back. “Borrowing” instead of “taking” the soil was an important part. It has always been my view that no one is exempt from environmental responsibility, artists/scientists/explorers/designers included. The tasks I asked people to do were also deliberately chosen. I wanted to ensure that this project had some positive environmental and cultural impact.

What I didn’t expect, aside from the extreme fatigue, were my unique experiences for each mountain. Many pushed me to my limits, some nearly killed me, others were places I found so fascinating that I want to revisit them. A number disappointed me for their smallness (This is it? Really?) while others made me ask a lot of questions.

As these are mountains in a bustling capital, one thing I found consistent about them was human activity. If Seoul’s mountains were a system that ensured the coexistence of nature and humanity, then it was determined by these parts:

First, there were the modern city officials, or whoever governing bodies that mandated which trails should be open to the public and what was allowed to be done. They were the ones who permitted the landscaping and gardening of these mountains, who added trails, tennis courts, exercise machines, trail signs, and other things that make them “usable” to the public.

exercise ajumma - Ansan

Second, there were the citizens and tourists, both young and old, who use these mountains everyday. Hiking is an everyday activity for many Seoulites. Although I always hiked alone (which was a stupid idea, but I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to come with me), I was never really alone—there were always groups of ajusshi, ajumma, or young people who were also on the trails and giving me a hand. For the smaller mountains that served as neighborhood parks, it was the residents’ way of getting away from urban noise. Indeed, I could not help but think of these mountains as refuge in a city whose aging population is affected greatly by Korea’s rapid change.

lonely old man - Achasan

Finally, and no less importantly, are the people from Seoul’s past—the historical figures who added fortresses, cemeteries, and many a Buddhist temple to these mountains, turning them into rich canvasses that illustrate a city’s past and provide interesting questions as to how they fit into contemporary culture.

temple - Suraksan

The historical and cultural value that these manmade structures add undoubtedly “elevates” the status of a  mountain to something more than just a park. The exercise machines and other sports amenities added in recent years add utilitarian value for the citizens who make physical fitness a priority. These make me pause to think, because as a naturalist, one would balk at mankind altering nature, and yet, adding something of historical and utilitarian value perhaps encourages the city to preserve it better.

Because Korea is a very mountainous country and one that rapidly urbanized, I observed that: 1) Many mountains that used to be bigger have been “broken” into smaller ones because of apartment buildings, schools, etc. that found their homes in the lower areas, and 2) Some mountains seem to have all but disappeared because the buildings were right on top of them. Is it alright to do this to make room for city dwellers and businesses, as the country has so many? Indeed, as the official list I obtained from Korea’s Forest Service dates back to 2006-2007, I think that 43 will not be the number once they review the list once more. It will be interesting to see how the face of a city changes and how modernization affects these natural structures that are as old as time.

Seoul43 – The Mountain Tracks, or the Shapes I Made with My Feet

Here are the tracks I made while hiking. It feels a bit like drawing with my feet. These are not to scale; I wanted to show the shapes I made. Hover over each to see the distance and time I hiked each mountain. I used the MyTracks app to record these.

Have you ever hiked a mountain? Send me your trails! I’d love to see them. Or hike these yourselves and email me your trails at theperceptionalist[at]gmail[dot]com. Visit the Missions page to get a list of tasks.

The Shape of a Hike: How Technology Helped Me in My Natural Explorations

There was something comforting in employing technology when I hiked all these mountains. Tracking my hikes became the digital bread crumb trail that helped me orient myself. On a near-unfortunate experience on one of the mountains when the sunset beat me on my descent, technology was a source of comfort and safety, reassuring me, via GPS, that I was almost at the end of my ordeal.

After this project, when I have all of these tracks on hand, it is interesting to see the shape of all of my hikes. For me, it gives me information about the terrain I encountered, post-hike. It also tells me a lot about myself as a now-experienced hiker. In this hike on Bukhansan National Park, for example, I remember wanting to cross the mountain instead of descending the same way. Below is the shape of it. The green bubble shows where I started, and the red one shows where I ended. I smile at the little red hanging squiggle near the middle, which represented the climb to Baekundae, the peak. When I see that squiggle, I remember these micro-stories—the awe-inspiring views of nearby mountains and of the city below, as well as various emotions, such as gratitude at the kind family who helped me on my way, and amusement at the freshness of the ajusshi I ran into at the top.

More shapes coming up soon.

Bukhansan trail

Seoul43: A Photographic Flashback

Now that I’m done with hiking (for now anyway), here is a look back at all the mountains (or remains thereof) of Seoul, South Korea:

Hiker Profile: 배슬기 Bae Soul-Ki

One afternoon, this lovely lady knocked on my studio to plant in the exhibit. She was awesome. She planted with soil from nine mountains and took a lot of consideration in what she was doing. She sent me this email and photos after finishing her mission. Thanks, Bae Soul-Ki!

I went to Hongik University ‘Wawoosan’ in the back.
When I was in high school, the first to come to Seoul, where I learned painting was in front of Hongik University. (Hongik University, did not attend:-D), and still often go to play in Hongik University.
There are meaningful to me.
From now on, every time I go there to play I will see plants planted. (Her name ‘B’)
This is a fun and valuable experience for me. Thank you so much.

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Hiker Profile: Micah Park

Among the individuals interested in the mission was Micah Park, who dropped by the studio on a Sunday. Not only did he very nicely translate for the other Koreans who came over to pick up my plant, but we had a very thought-provoking discussion about nature and urbanization. (More on this later.) After a few days, he emailed me:

Dear Catherine,

How are you?
This day I climbed two mountains. 불암산 (Buramsan) and 수락산 (Suraksan).
Actually I was supposed to visit one more mountain, 도봉산 (Dobongsan). but I changed my plan because it is a National Park (not allowed to plant in it).*
So I chose the two mountains.

It was very hot day. but I climbed to the top of the mountain.
And of course, finished the mission.
Actually I wanted to visit the mountain coming September but I think it would be better to plant it as soon as possible.
So today I visited.

Thanks for giving me a chance to come close to nature.
It was very wonderful experience.

When I was planting it, I prayed for my friend who has suffered from systemic lupus erythematosus.
so I named it Coco.

I wish you have great time in Korea till you finish your all journey.

Thanks again.

With warm heart

Yours,
Micah Park

* Artist’s note: Yup, if you would like to join this project and hike Dobongsan, Bukhansan, and other “sensitive” mountains or hills, please plant either near the entrance or the parking lot. Visit the Methods page for why.

When asked about how experience went, he wrote:

“For me, it was amazing experience. I tried, tried to find a good place to plant.
My feeling is like to look for good parents for an orphan.”

Micah also sent me these photos from his hike.

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Thanks so much, Micah!

Children’s Mission I

Midway into the exhibition, I held a workshop for elementary schoolchildren. After a quick presentation about the project and hiking rules, they assembled four plants using the mountain soil and local plants and together we went up Choansan, a hill near the studio, where they did the mission and planted on the mountain. Assisting me during the workshop are my friends, Kate Kirkpatrick and Hyomin Lee, and the staff of the National Art Studio.

I always think that my primary audience are children, so I was very happy to have done this with them. They asked a lot of questions, and I think they were quite excited with the planting. They loved using the exercise machines and thought very deeply about where they can plant.

Here are some photos:

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50 – Dobongsan 도봉산

50 - Dobongsan

Dobongsan 도봉산
The Ghostbusters Finale
Subway: Dobongsan (Line 7)
Distance hiked: 6.48 km
Time: 3:20:32

There is one day left before our residency exhibition and this is the final mountain. I am beyond exhausted, as is Mr. Kim, the facility manager of the studio who helped me install ten shelves for the exhibition. I am crying inside—there is still so much to do. At this point, I try to look back and think of what I could have done to prevent having to maniacally hustle a day before the opening. I am sorry, but I couldn’t possibly have hiked any faster than I already was. After the installation, in which I relearned what a drill was for, I hopped on a subway off for the last mountain, Dobongsan.

It is late, and most of the hikers are already leaving the mountain. They look at me curiously, wondering what I was doing entering the mountain at this time. I must look wild-eyed and on the run, for that was exactly how I felt. Keep calm and trek on, I tell myself. This is the final push. Go calmly, quickly, and try not to die.

My fears about Dobongsan are not unfounded. It is known for its rockiness, and by now, I know that I do not have the body type for a hiker. But what I lack for physique, I make up for in determination. I need to climb this mountain to complete all the 43 ones on the official mountain list. I need to track my trail to get a final number of how long I hiked, so I can finish the video for the digital media part of my exhibition piece.

This is the fastest I have hiked up a mountain. I power past a temple and a number of rock formations, and had to be helped by an ajusshi to climb a smooth rock that had nothing to hold on to. I finally see one of the peaks up close. I squeal. It has been a couple of hours. This is as far as I go and I will leave using the same route as I entered as it is getting dark. Perhaps the exhaustion is making me hallucinate, but doesn’t that cloud above remind you of the Ghostbusters logo? Something to keep in mind for one of my many other projects. But I digress. I take my photos and start to descend.

On the way, I meet a nice lady who helps me on my way. We stop by the temple to drink some water.  The lady points out calligraphy carved on a rock made centuries ago. So if it is done eons ago it is an important relic, but if it is done today it’s graffiti? Hmm. It is beautiful, nonetheless. I borrow some soil beside a bench near the entrance. I say goodbye to this last good samaritan of my project, and on the way I see nearby mountains I hiked previously—Suraksan and Buramsan. I smile at them as though they are old friends. They are a lot harder to climb, and I feel relieved I did not save them for last.

In the studio, there is barely time to cheer, as there is an opening to prepare for. I shower and think to myself that it is good to do these projects while I am still relatively young. I just turned thirty years old yesterday—I had almost forgotten because of all the hiking. I calculate my hiking hours and distance—124 kilometers in 60 hours. Oh my goodness.

This is only the first part of the project. But for now, all the hiking is over. No more mountains. Yipee!

49 – Gureungsan 구릉산

49 - Gureungsan

Gureungsan 구릉산
The Farmer’s Mountain
Subway: Bonghwasan (Line 6)
Distance hiked: 0.57 km
Time: 14:35

Another elevated land formation—I am not even sure what a mountain is anymore at this point—I see no human, but what I think is a farm of some sort. Trees of some fruit that was not in season line up perfectly. A scarecrow is off to the right. Up ahead, my view is cut by a highway. I look around for more space to trek but give up. I borrow some soil near where they leave the garbage, and left, not a little dejected.