We walk past the iconic bear at the entrance to the Seoroksan National Park near Sokcho, South Korea, towards the diverging forested paths beckoning lovers of mountains. Each one of these takes one to a specific trail where one can indulge your love of mountains in various ways. Some meander along the side of a stream, luring hikers deeper into the bosom of the mountains, where waterfalls and translucent pools elicit gasps of admiration from nature lovers; others lead up towards the heights of these awe-inspiring mountains known collectively as Seoroksan – literally big snow mountain, because of the distinctively white rock, resembling snow from a distance.
Today we are aiming for one of the higher peaks, time-permitting, having spent the two preceding days exploring the “fence mountain”, the waterfall route and the Buddhist mountain cave located high on the side of a sheer rock face, accessible via steep stairs built by the Korean forestry authorities. Ulsanbawi rock towers over the (rather ugly) city of Sokcho; one is tempted to infer that it is such an eyesore because the mountains adjacent to it more than compensate for its ugliness. Admittedly there is a beautiful lake on its outskirts that we explored a few days ago, so not everything about it lacks beauty. From the top of Ulsanbawi the views of the city, the sea and, in the opposite direction, the whole expanse of mountains comprising Seoroksan make one forget the arduousness of the almost one kilometre climb to the top. People who suffer acrophobia would find it difficult to perch on the small patch of rock at the end of the climb to take in the breathtaking surrounding views, but it would be worth doing it anyway, holding on to a friend or lover’s arm for stability.
Climbing up to the Buddhist cave was rewarding in a different manner. It was not as strenuous a climb as the one to Ulsanbawi – although it required a fair amount of effort – but its rewards were rich indeed. When, having reached the cave, you turn around to look out over the expanse of mountains and streams stretching out below, a wonderful sense of peacefulness descends on you, which is probably rooted in a kind of atavistic memory of our hunter-gatherer forebears occupying caves like this one centuries ago. The Buddhist priest – who seems to live in the cave, judging by the modest amenities, must have noticed our silence-inducing sense of awe, and made our day by spreading his hands, gesturing towards the mesmerising vista before us, and simply exclaiming: “My garden!” Right at the back of the cave there was the smallest Buddhist temple I have ever seen, what with candles, incense and Buddhist statuettes.
These recent experiences were still in our bones, as it were, as we made our way up a steep ravine between magnificent rocky promontories, moving along a rocky path dappled with sunshine filtering through the canopy of trees above us. Unlike most of our mountains in South Africa, these Korean mountains are – with the exception of rocky stretches like Ulsanbawi – mostly covered in forests, so that even an upward climb takes place under trees. When we reached the split in the path where we branched off to the Buddhist cave the day before, our dry throats reminded us that we should take in some liquid and perhaps have a bite to eat. Sitting on flat rocks next to the path, eating peanuts and raisins, we quickly attracted some of the tiny, striped chipmunks that are abundant here. Unafraid, they eat peanuts from our hands, their tiny feet resting on our skin – a testimony to the benevolence of the hikers who frequent these paths.
Our brief repast over, I hoisted the rucksack on to my back again and we continued our climb, absorbing the spirit of the mountain as we went. To people not familiar with this kind of thing it would probably be incomprehensible to be told that one becomes aware of an almost tangible, natural beneficence when one is immersed in an encompassing, individual-surpassing space such as that of Seoroksan, particularly when one has left most of the many visitors behind, who tend to remain in the lower reaches of the mountain along the streams and in the forest clearings. Once you have reached elevations like the one where we were toiling upwards to one of the peaks, you can literally hear the “ringing of silence”, as Heidegger (who was no stranger to mountain spaces) memorably remarked in one of his essays.
It should not come as a surprise that one feels a pervasive sense of being at home, of peace and relaxation, despite the physical strain, in these environs. Evolutionary psychologists would tell you that this is comprehensible against the backdrop of human evolution under similar circumstances – our species was not shaped in urban environments such as those where the vast majority of human beings live today; on the contrary – we became what we are in close proximity to nature, which means that we are part of nature, even if many people keep their distance from it, immersing themselves in an increasingly artificial, techno-constructed world. One feels at home in the mountains because, in a word, your body is telling you that you have returned to your original home.
Not that such a homecoming is without an awareness of its potential perils. When we get to the ridge of the mountain, which will gradually take you up to the peak, it is as if you are walking on the narrow back of a gigantic dinosaur, and although the omnipresent trees block out most of the views of near-perpendicular precipices, you do occasionally catch a glimpse of them. When a particularly inviting rock-formation comes into view one has to decide whether or not to climb up to take in the giddying surrounding view, sometimes on all fours, if the sheer height is just too much to bear standing up (with no safety rails around one).
On one of these I have the uncomfortable experience of holding my partner by the back of her shirt-collar, stabilising her while she takes photographs in all directions. This is nearly the highest point on this particular peak, and she ventured up on this slightly leaning rock at my instigation, being a sucker for a good photo opportunity, even if she does not really deal too well with excessive heights. And yet, once up there with me her presence makes me acutely aware of the danger of the situation: the rock slopes slightly downwards, and although about three metres separates her from the edge, if she should start slipping … I can’t bear thinking about it. From where we are it is well in excess of a thousand metres to the bottom – a virtually sheer drop. And yet, although neither of us is an adrenaline junky, it is exhilarating to be literally on top of the world, and to stick your neck out just a little bit to relish it to the hilt.
Ultimately one’s sojourn in the mountains drives home a fundamental truth, not only about the provenance of nomadic human beings in spaces like these, but also about our relationship with space and architecture. Counter-intuitive as it may be, the way we make interior domestic spaces into places of intimacy, or of social interaction, as well as our appropriation of public spaces, is grounded in the always-available, but seldom activated repetition of the primordial experience of natural spaces such as those of Seoroksan. The difference between high and low, safe and dangerous, shades of beauty and sublimity, or “intimations of immortality” (to quote Wordsworth) is potentially to be experienced here, and goes back to the dawn of humankind. If this is where Homo and Gyna sapiens came from, our sense of “space becoming place” was shaped here, and returning here occasionally yields rich rewards.