Mountains cover 70 percent of the Korean peninsula, and in South Korea, an estimated 1 in 3 Koreans goes hiking more than once a month. Over the past few decades, hiking has become way more than a weekend activity. It's part of the Korean national identity.
Across the Pacific Ocean in Southern California, second- and even third-generation children of Korean immigrants are keeping alive and well a tradition that connects them to their ancestral homeland.
LA's Griffith Park comprises 4,000 acres where dusty trails weave up and down the bone-dry scrubland. Every day, but especially on early weekend mornings, you'll find the trails packed with Korean hikers rocking hiking poles, face masks, and enormous visors to block the Southern California sun. There are Korean-Americans of all ages using the trails, but a good number of those hard-core hikers are in their 50s and older, immigrants from South Korea.
"You see grandparents, pushing their walkers up, walking with their canes," says 26-year-old Moonyoung Ko, a second-generation Korean-American who grew up hiking in Southern California with her parents and recently took NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji along for a walk in the woods.
One of Ko's favorite short treks in Griffith Park is the Amir's Garden trail. It starts so close to the I-5 freeway that you can hear the hum of traffic, and it offers a peaceful and verdant oasis at its end. There, you can take a breather and cool off on a bench in Amir's Garden before hiking on or heading down. It was named for an Iranian immigrant who visited Griffith Park regularly. After a devastating fire in 1971, the late Amir Dialameh brought plants up to this spot, one by one, to create the lush landscape.
It's an immigrant story Ko loves, and one of the reasons she keeps coming back. Her parents are also immigrants; her father left South Korea in 1978 and her mother joined him a few years later. Ko says when they weren't working to keep their Orange County dry cleaning business afloat, they were hiking or camping with their three daughters. It gave them a break, not just from the long hours at work but from their struggle to understand English and American culture.
"My parents sacrificed a lot for us to be here," says Ko. "Nature was their only solace. It was one of those places where they could go where you didn't feel isolated."
She says trips into the mountains jogged her parents' memories of home. Pine trees would elicit a story from her father about steaming New Year's rice cakes with pine needles. Her mother would stop and point out flowers along the trail, saying things like, " 'I know this flower. We used to take those petals and use it to dye our fingernails,' " Ko recalls. "It was kind of them recollecting their childhood and sharing it with us."
Ko was 4 the last time she visited South Korea but knows her parents are from a mountainous region called Gangwon-do with a lake that's close to the ocean. Family vacations were always camping excursions up and down the California coast, and she's certain it was her parents' way of taking her back to their home country.
Five thousand miles away, you can exit a subway station in Seoul, turn a corner and be on a trail up rocky Inwangsan, one of the half-dozen mountains in or near the South Korean capital.
"It has one of the clearest views of the entire city, and you can also see old fortress walls along the trail," says Kang Seok-bong. He keeps a day job as an eyewear store owner. But every weekend he picks a peak and guides a group on a morning hike. He's better-known to hikers around here as Kang Gyver, a play on the name of the iconic '80s TV character MacGyver.
"If hiking sticks break, bags, cellphones, what have you, I fix it. I tend to fix things just in the nick of time," says Kang.
When Kang Gyver learns that Korean-Americans in places like Los Angeles are trying to keep up the hiking tradition, he wonders about topographic differences.
"In LA, it's probably pretty different than hiking in the Korean mountains with your kids," Kang says.
Speaking of gear, the hiking culture here means a huge boon to outfitters, because no South Korean goes hiking without wearing an entire North Face catalog's worth of gear. We're talking sun sleeves, hats, neck guards, hiking poles — even for short, one-hour hikes. NPR's Elise Hu recently joined a hiking group that Lee Geun-rye meets up with on many mornings.
"People who like hiking here, they also enjoy the preparation process. It's probably a little strange and not understandable because we have so much stuff," Lee says.
So it's hard to call this just hiking. It's more like hiking plus plus. And for many South Koreans in their 40s and 50s, it's as much about socializing as it is about nature and exercise. Case in point: Every 20 minutes along the hike, the group stops to snack and drink booze — most often it's makgeoli, a fermented rice drink that's best served chilled and provides a good buzz.
When you finally reach Inwangsan's peak, the achievement means more libation and food with friends, with an even better view. There's so much collapsible gear packed that everyone has a handy hammock for a quick post-lunch snooze at the summit. American Peter Beck, who joins Kang Gyver most weekends, sums up the experience.
"These guys don't mess around," he says. "This is hard core."
HaeRyun Kang contributed to this report from Seoul.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Come on, let's go for a hike. We're going to take you to the hills of Southern California and the mountains of South Korea. Hiking is a Korean national pastime. And it's alive and well in Southern California, which is home to the largest Korean community in the U.S. Shereen Marisol Meraji, from NPR's Code Switch team, has been reporting on diversity in the outdoors. She and Seoul correspondent Elise Hu take us on a trans-pacific trek. We begin in Los Angeles with Shereen.
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: What's your name?
MOONYOUNG KO: Moonyoung Ko.
MERAJI: And how old are you?
MERAJI: Moonyoung Ko is a second-generation Korean-American. And she's taking me on one of her favorite hikes in Griffith Park. The park is 4,000 acres in the city of LA, where dusty trails weave up and down the mountains through bone-dry scrubland. The hike she chose is called the Amir's Garden hike.
KO: The reason why I picked it, aside from distance, was the story behind it.
MERAJI: Which I'll ask you about when we get up there. But right now we're going, like, straight uphill.
KO: (Laughter) All right.
MERAJI: It's late in the afternoon on a pretty hot Saturday, so the foot traffic is minimal. If we were here at 6 a.m. sharp, we'd be in the company of one of the many Korean hiking groups that trek these hills, outfitted with poles, facemasks and enormous sun visors - hikers Moonyoung's parents' age and much, much older.
KO: Exactly. You see, like, grandparents, you know, pushing their walkers up, walking with their canes (laughter).
MERAJI: We approach our destination at the top of the hill with places to rest and relax and check out the views of the gritty city below.
KO: So you can see the green bench up ahead.
MERAJI: It's Amir's Garden, named after an Iranian immigrant who hiked Griffith Park regularly. After a devastating fire in 1971, the late Amir Dialameh brought plants up here - one by one - and created a lush oasis. A sign tells the story - an immigrant story Moonyoung loves. And she reads the last line.
KO: (Reading) Setting a lasting example to all, Amir, indeed, planted trees over and over again, creating this magnificent garden for us all to enjoy and care for. We thank you, Amir, over and over and over again.
MERAJI: Her parents are also immigrants. And when they weren't working at their dry cleaners, they were hiking or camping with their three girls. Moonyoung says it was a break from having to struggle to understand English and from long hours working to keep their business afloat.
KO: My parents have definitely sacrificed a lot for us to be here. And I think nature was kind of their only solace. You know, it's - it was one of those places where you could go where you didn't feel - you didn't feel isolated.
MERAJI: She says trips into the mountains jogged her parents' memories of home. Pine trees would elicit a story from her dad about steaming New Year's rice cakes with pine needles.
KO: To get that flavor. Or when I'm out with my mom, she'd be like, oh, I know this flower. We used to take those petals and use it as a dye to dye our fingernails. So, in that aspect, it's them recollecting their childhood and kind of sharing it with us.
MERAJI: Moonyoung hasn't been to South Korea since she was 4 years old but has spent everything single vacation she can remember hiking or camping, which she thinks was her parents' way of bringing her back.
KO: They grew up in Gwangwon-do which is mountainous. And then there's a lake and the ocean. So whenever we went out, it's always out in nature. So Joshua Tree, Big Bear, Big Sur - we were traveling up and down the coast of California.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: I'm Elise Hu, 5,000 miles away on the other side of the Pacific Ocean in South Korea. Seventy percent of this country is covered by mountains, a natural reason hiking is such a popular pastime and also why, if you want the authentic Korean hiking experience, it's still best to do it in Korea.
KANG SEOK-BONG: (Through interpreter) In LA, it's probably pretty different than hiking in the Korean mountains with your kids.
HU: Kang Seok-bong is a business owner during the week and a hiking club leader on the weekends. On this morning, he chose Ingwangsan, one of the half-dozen guardian mountains of Seoul.
SEOK-BONG: (Through interpreter) It has one of the clearest views of the entire city, and you can also see old fortress walls along the trail.
HU: Kang is better known to hikers around here as Kang Gyver.
SEOK-BONG: (Foreign language spoken).
HU: You know, a play on the name of the iconic '80s TV character, MacGyver.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
HU: Have you ever done any, like, fun tricks or, you know, hacks just like MacGyver, the character?
SEOK-BONG: (Through interpreter) If hiking sticks break, bags, cell phones, what have you, I fix it. I tend to fix things just in the nick of time. So people call my Kang Gyver.
HU: Speaking of gear, the hiking culture here means a huge boon to outfitters because no South Korean goes hiking without wearing an entire North Face catalog's worth of gear. We're talking sun sleeves, hats, neck guards, hiking poles - even for short one-hour hikes. Le Geun-rye is part of our group this morning and many mornings.
LE GEUN-RYE: (Through interpreter) People who like hiking here, they also enjoy the preparation process. It's probably a little strange and not understandable because we have so much stuff.
HU: So it's hard to call this just hiking. It's more like hiking-plus-plus. And for many South Koreans in their 40s and 50s, it's as much about socializing as it's about nature and exercise. Case in point, every 20 minutes or so along the hike, we stop to snack and drink booze.
HU: Tell everybody what makgeoli is.
SEOK-BONG: Rice wine.
HU: When you finally reach the peak, the achievement means more libation and food with friends, only with a much better view. And there's so much collapsible gear packed that everyone has a handy hammock for a quick post-lunch snooze at summit. American Peter Beck, who joins Kang Gyver most weekends, sums up the experience.
PETER BECK: It's hard-core.
HU: Hard-core is an appropriate way to describe it. There are so many hiking groups that during campaign season, South Korean political candidates join weekend hikes as a way to cultivate support. It's the right target demographic. Kang Gyver, who's already in his 50s, says he'll keep trekking Korea's mountains into old age.
SEOK-BONG: (Through interpreter) I expect for the next 20 years, I'll be hiking - 20 years.
HU: A pastime connecting so many Koreans - and Koreans who live abroad - to their country's past lives on. And you can keep hiking well past retirement. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.