Life is So Cool: All-Night Hiking on Yeong-do

Friday night and into deepest, darkest Saturday morning, I experienced one of the most beautiful adventures of my life, testing myself, my strength and ability to function on very little sleep, all while making several new friends. And, it almost didn’t happen because I stayed out late the night before, all because of a chick.

The awesome Busan Daytrippers group organized an all-night hike on Yong-do for April 27. The plan was to arrive and begin hiking on the island shortly before midnight. We would scale three mountains slowly over five-and-a-half hours, arriving at the final peak to view the sunrise at about 5:30 a.m.

I had heard about this a couple weeks ago but didn’t seriously consider it until just a few days before. The thought of staying up all night, hiking, seemed impossible. But, it also seemed too interesting to resist.

Then came Thursday night, when I stayed out until 3:30 a.m., talking with a girl I knew had a boyfriend back home in the U.S., who was just visiting her brother who was leaving Busan, who was only staying in Busan for one more day, who didn’t give any indication she was anything more than someone interested in good conversation. Ah well, anything seems possible with a few in you.

This excessively late night left me, however, in not terribly good shape when my body decided to wake up at 7:30 a.m., less than four hours after I had fallen asleep in a heap. Heart pounding from excessive alcohol, a mild headache and the certainty of supreme exhaustion to come, I knew there was no chance I would be able to stay up all night to hike. Hell, I was worried about passing out at school.

But, I didn’t pass out at school. Sucking down a pair of Hot Sixes (the Korean version of Red Bull, sold side-by-side Red Bull for about 33 percent the cost) and a couple cups of coffee, I powered through the six-class day and headed home, at this point thinking I was 50/50 on trying the hike.

I stopped by Lotte Super and made a few purchases, just in case: a cheap flashlight to accompany my head lamp, a couple cups of ramyeon for the evening. If I ended up not going, at least I would have a cheap meal and a light in case my power ever goes out.

I laid on my bed, fiddling with the Internet. 8:30 p.m. bled into 9 p.m., into 9:30 p.m. I was holding my own but I knew, if I turned off the light and closed my eyes, that would be the end of the night within minutes.

Sometime near 10 p.m., I made the decision: eff it, I’m going. Drugs may not be available in Korea, but perhaps I could hallucinate on a mountain due to sleep deprivation.

I packed my bag and hustled down to the main road, where Bus No. 96 would take me to the Goejang subway station, which would take me to Nampo-dong, where I was to meet with about 20 other brave souls who think sleep is for the weak.

The 20-minute bus ride to the launch point was met with a few introductions, to Kat and Brian, the latter which would soon be my “buddy” for the night, as we all made sure someone was a buddy in case we got lost.

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In Nampo, where future friends wait for the bus to the island.

Soon, we arrived on quiet Yong-do.

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We made introductions around the entirety of our group, which ranged from folks in their early 20s who just arrived four weeks ago (my buddy) and folks in their 40s and 50s, native Koreans and people who have been here for several years.

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At about midnight, we set off. The buses were done for the night. A taxi ride back home would likely be pretty expensive, and besides, taxis were likely harder to come by out here. There really was no turning back.

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The first leg was deceptively easy. We ventured down to the beach and hung around there for about 20 minutes, checking out the waves, rocks and the city skyline beyond the water.

Then, we were offered the opportunity to pray for a good hike at a makeshift Buddhist temple under some rather heavy, earthbound rocks. One of those rocks I did not realize was so close to my head, and the night may have been over before it began.

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Just kidding. I never really thought it would knock me out. Unless I, of course, actually ended up knocked out. It was certainly a shock, and it did leave one hell of a dent in my head.

And then, the real climbing began. Considering how little sleep I had the night before, I held my own just fine. Adrenaline is powerful stuff. There were a couple of noodle leg moments but, really, what was the alternative? Sadly, there were no hallucinations.

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Along the way I also made friends with Anne and Alex, two Busan Daytripper regulars. As we reached one summit of the three small mountains comprising our journey, Anne shared with me some of her Yerba Mate, the deliciously bitter brew from Argentina that wires up college students for cram sessions. It helped keep me from falling off a cliff, literally.

Later, at about 3:30 a.m., plenty of time before sunrise, a chill setting in, our group convened under an open-air hut, where more Mate was sipped, as was coffee, maekolli and, for some, Scotch.

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We traded stories and laughed at John from Ireland who kept making humorously morbid comments about the dangers of the mountain in the middle of the night. Those who brought sleeping bags pulled them out and opened them up, cocooning ourselves from the chilly nighttime weather.

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At about 4:45 a.m., we packed up and prepared for the final leg of our ascent, to a peak about 350 meters up from the ground, which would provide an excellent view of the city below and of the sunrise above and beyond.

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That it did.

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Moments were spent in silence as the sun ascended and light descended on the city. As the sun’s rose-colored light cut through the mist, slowly and then rapidly, some of us edged out onto a rock that, if you looked at it a certain way, seemed to hang mid-air. My tired mind pictured falling off into the rocky, wooded abyss below more than a few times and shivered. Thankfully, no one was harmed in the making of this night (well, except for my head).

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At about 6 a.m., the sun risen, we prepared to conclude our hike by gingerly stepping down the narrow path leading to the main road, 30 minutes away. But, first, a group photo for posterity.

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Not that I need the photographic evidence to remind me of this night, but I will gladly take it.

Later, on the bus heading back to Jangnim, the only waygook on Bus No. 2, the only English language song came on the radio, as that sun who was mild and rosy just two hours before cut through our bus ride in bright and dominant beams. It was poppy, short and simple, which was just fine as anything more complicated might have been hard to digest as I crested 24 hours awake on three-and-a-half hours of sleep.

The pretty, soulful voice behind the hip-hop, trip-hop beat cribbed from “Canon in D” crooned, “Life is so cool. Life is so cool. Oooh yeah, from a different point of view.”

Coincidence, sure. But, even if I am a bit of a pragmatic, cynical realist on more than a few occasions, I like to believe in things beyond what’s in front of me that I can touch, taste and recognize as real. On that bus in the morning hours of Saturday, the lone foreigner on that bus at that particular time when the bus driver could have had any radio station on or none at all, he happened to have on the one that played Sweetbox’s “Life is Cool,” a popular song in South Korea in 2004. It wasn’t lost on me.

Soon, I was home. I took off my clothes, put on the fan, draped the window to block that mighty sun, laid down and closed my eyes, thinking about the new friends I had just made, the adventure I had just had, the memories that had just been created on a night that, for me, was a lot closer to not happening than I wanted to admit. I would be drifting into a much deserved sleep in a few minutes, but not before I hummed an appropriate tune.

“Life is so cool. Life is so cool. Oooh yeah. From a different point of view.”

This is what traveling to and living in a foreign country is supposed to be about.

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