|Mount Bukhan is one of the national parks and beloved by Seoul citizens because its accessibility./Courtesy of National Park Service|
By Kim Se-jeong
Seventy percent of Korea is covered with mountains, big and small.
Among them, 22 are under the care of National Park Service, which maintains the mountains' natural beauty, cultural assets and biological diversity, while keeping them accessible to the public.
Last year, almost 45 million people hiked around national parks. Mount Bukhan in the capital city of Seoul attracted more than six million visitors.
The National Park Service builds trails and paths for them, as well as amenities both to make hiking convenient and to protect nature.
To see the list of 22 national parks, visit english.knps.or.kr.
|Mount Jiri became the first national park in 1967./Courtesy of National Park Service|
A brief history of national parks
The first attempt to designate a national park began during the Japanese occupation (1910-45). A Japanese scholar is said to have pushed to make Mount Geumgang in modern-day North Korea a national park, but failed. Mount Jiri in southern Korea became the first national park in 1967, after a push by a group of residents near the mountain and a few scholars. Mount Jiri was followed by other national parks, most of which were designated during the 1970s and 1980s.
David Mason, a professor from Sejong University who has studied Korean mountains for more than three decades, said national parks were a part of former President Park Chung-hee's nation-building vision.
"Park was going to imitate the rich countries. International advisers said you can't have it, but Park's attitude was Korea will become a rich country and they will be preserved for future generations," Mason said.
Mason added that for Park, the national park system was also a way to lift rural people out of poverty. "People in those villages lived in terrible poverty and he wanted them to be able to make money and make a better life. By the 1990s, there were paved roads, parking lots, nice motels and beautiful restaurants."
After the 1988 Summer Olympics, the number of foreign visitors to the country and its national parks increased.
The Korea Times interviewed four foreign hikers about their experiences with the national parks.
All praised the parks' accessibility, facilities and conduciveness to exercise and outdoor activities. They also mentioned some aspects for improvement, such as the lack of diverse language assistance services. The summaries of the interviews are below.
Melaina Sharpe, the U.S.
|Melaina Sharpe at Mount Seorak|
She has hiked with Climbing in Korea (CIK), a meetup group, since January 2016. She's been on many national park mountains in Korea, and she is fascinated by the rockiness of the mountains and the amount of workout it required of her.
She is also a member of the Sierra Club, a U.S. nonprofit environmental organization that promotes hiking; earlier this year, she hiked Mount Kilimanjaro with the Sierra Club members. She said her hiking experience in Korea helped her prepare for the hike on Mount Kilimanjaro. "I had the fear, but I'd already overcome it in Korea," Sharpe said.
Her most memorable hike was on Mount Seorak because of the mountain and surrounding nature's beauty. "It was in the fall. It was a crystal clear day, blue sky and white clouds. When we got higher up, you could see clouds below. It was a clear perfect fall day."
When she hikes in Korea, she usually follows her group leader, which meant she doesn't have to pay much attention to other things during the hike. However, she hoped to see more maps and signs in English.
She completed her mission with the U.S. military in Korea recently and returned to the United States early this week. She had something to say about CIK: "I feel privileged to have hiked with these folks and been exposed to the beauty of mountains. I know that's a place which I want to come back to."
She said she will continue to hike and volunteer to take children out for camping and hiking in Washington, D.C., where she will be located. With her retirement approaching in a couple of years, she plans to pursue outdoor education for children.
Catherine Germier-Hamel, France
|Catherine Germier-Hamel, right, with her husband and friends at Mount Bukhan|
She enjoys hiking on Mount Bukhan. "It's the choice of my heart," she said. "It's very familiar to me. I've hiked there so many times."
Her expertise in sustainable tourism gives her insight on mountain management. She praised the National Park Service for the park's efficiency and modern trails. While acknowledging Korean mountains' crowdedness, she said the National Park Service is doing a great job in maintaining the parks and providing services.
What she truly enjoys is drinking makgeolli at the end of a hike.
"After my Korean experience, if I don't drink makgeolli, I feel like something is missing."
Germier-Hamel said France has 10 national parks and its overseas territories — French Guiana, Guadeloupe and Reunion — have three.
She said she wants to see more signs and maps with different languages in Korean national parks.
"I want to see new technologies for interpretations for different languages — for flower names, villages and history of villages."
Parie Molaei, Iran
|Parie Molaei at Mount Bukhan|
Mount Bukhan is where she goes most often and where she takes her family when they visit her.
"It's so easy to get to. You just have to take a subway," she said.
What she particularly enjoys on this mountain are the Korean temples. "There are a lot of temples that are so beautiful."
She said she couldn't think of a particular thing that needs improvement. "They are mountains. I don't expect much."
She was already a hiker back home. From Kurdistan region, she said she often hiked on Mount Abidar, which she said has a landscape that is just as fantastic as that of Mount Bukhan.
David Mason, the U.S.
|David Mason at Mount Jiri|
Mason said national parks are a good place to get fit.
"In general, they are not that big, but they look high because they're very steep. But compared to Himalaya, they're not really so high. It's actually a good thing. It's a challenging experience. You're getting a real workout getting up there, to the peak and back within the same day."
He also likes that there is so much to enjoy near the national parks.
"There're restaurants, motels and even hot springs in which to relax. So it's a very pleasant experience."
He said another advantage of Korean national parks is safety. "With the modern trails done by the Korea National Park Service, it's a safe experience. And there are very few plants and animals up there that are very dangerous to human beings."
Asked to pick a mountain on which he had the best experience, he said it's difficult to pick one.
"Mount Seorak has got to be the most beautiful mountain in Korea. Mount Taebaek is so fascinating — a lot of shamanism culture and mythology related to the founding of Korea. Mount Gyerong is rich in Korean Buddhism, very rich in shamanism. Mount Bukhan is right here in the capital city. It's easily accessible."
Like many others, Mason also wanted more English information services on the mountains, but especially about the mountain's cultural heritage.
"The English signs only emphasize the natural aspects, plants and animals. But there's more than that. There is not enough about cultural history in those places — about Buddhism and shamanism."