So why this project? Well, I confess that when I moved here for an art residency, I didn’t realize that this bustling city had so much nature to offer. Seoul to the outside world means palaces and shopping malls, K-pop and Gangnam Style. I thought I would create projects primarily around these. But soon I realized that mountains are the bedrock (pun intended) of South Korea. Approximately 70% of South Korea’s topography consists of uplands and mountains; early European visitors compared the country to “a sea in a heavy gale” because of all the mountain ranges. (via Wikipedia) Despite the rapid urbanization of Seoul, these mountains still exist, and Oh! the stories they must tell.
The hiking culture in Korea is fascinating, most especially with the elderly, the ajusshi and the ajumma that conquer each ascent with great humor and a stylish wardrobe to match. On all my hikes, I have been overwhelmed by the kindness of these people whose language I cannot speak yet. Always, there has been an ajumma giving me candy or an ajusshi showing me the way (and sometimes even personally escorting me). They have been an inspiration to this project, especially each time I feel like collapsing on the bigger mountains and they all pass me by.
During my interactions with them, I cannot help but reflect on the suicide rate of South Korea, which is the highest in the developed world. According to an article in the New York times this year, suicide rates among people aged 65 or older have quadrupled in recent years, to 4,378 in 2010, from 1,161 in 2000, largely due to the changes in family structure. While on my hikes, I often found elderly people who were quietly sitting, deep in thought. I always hoped that the connection with nature alleviated their moods and made them happier.
I also realized that mountains in Korea aren’t just for trekking. They are for stationary exercise, because each mountain has gym equipment that are always used. They are for meditation, because of the many Buddhist temples that exist. They are for community, because each hike I did was always marked by the shrill laughter of many a group of ajumma having a picnic, or ajusshi playing a game of baduk. And they are for history, with the many fortresses the protected Seoul, the shamanistic practices that persist today, and the traditional architecture that is embodied by many a pavilion.
As I said, Oh! the stories they must tell.
It was difficult to determine the actual number of the mountains. In a phone interview, we were told that the Korea Forest Service did an assessment from 2006-2007 to determine all 43. But in the course of my research, I found other mountains that were not on their list. I realized that some mountains lost their status as such because of modernization. They have been turned into parks, botanical gardens, universities, and shrines. The official number the city has to this date is 43, but this also made me wonder if this will remain the number in the future. I doubt it. But for those mountains not on the list, I hiked them anyway, especially for those with such a fascinating history.
Again, Oh! the stories they must tell.
I created this site to document the project and tell the stories I have found on each of my hikes using text and photography. The actual physical pieces—the mountain soil—will be exhibited, planted, and returned back to the mountains, and so I wanted the stories to still be read by anyone from all over the world when these physical artifacts can no longer be viewed. I hope that this project is a reminder of our fundamental human need to be connected to nature, and that we are responsible to take care of it.
If you ever find yourself in Seoul, I hope you check out some of these amazing structures of nature. They are peaceful (and free) oases from the hard-charging pace of this incredible city that I am so happy to call my fourth home. Put your hiking shoes, pick a trail, and ascend. And while you’re at it, bow to the elderly, make some friends, balance some rocks, or meditate in a temple.
I hope you encounter stories that you can tell.