South Korean mountains are filled with hikers these days. Bukhan Mountain, just north of Seoul, for example, is flooded with so many people at the weekend that there are even jams on the most popular trails.
Bukhan Mountain park management authorities expect four million visitors this year, up 25 per cent on the past two years. About three million will visit Seorak Mountain, in the east, while Jiri Mountain, in the south, will play host to 2.5 million, all representing steep increases.
There are some hikers, however, who still manage to avoid the crowds, starting off in the evening with torches, and finishing in the morning, thus enjoying the tranquillity. Travel agencies even offer bus rides at odd hours to accommodate their needs.
What has made hiking so popular in South Korea? The key reason is the sudden health awareness among people. As one of the hardest-working peoples on the planet, South Koreans are plagued with health problems. According to government figures, men in their 40s have the highest death rate among their age group in the world. Of course, people indulge in a variety of exercises to improve their health. But hiking is the most popular because people get to enjoy the fresh air, too. And there are plenty of mountains in South Korea, where almost 70 per cent of the land is mountainous. Residents of Seoul are perhaps one of the most blessed people in this regard. The city of 10 million is surrounded by mountains. With their changing colours each season, the autumn shades, in particular, draw huge crowds.
Hiking is also very inexpensive, as it costs little to enter the parks. In fact, many unemployed, who cannot afford any other form of sport, are taking full advantage. But in some ways, it is sad to see so many middle-aged or older people hiking during the week.
The surge in this inexpensive form of exercise has coincided with the decline of golf, one of the most expensive sports in South Korea. When the economy was booming, membership prices were sky-high. But now, they have plummeted.
Other people, however, are benefiting from the slump. Makers of boots, outdoor clothing and equipment are enjoying an extraordinary boom. Columbia, an outdoor apparel maker, reportedly expects a 120 per cent increase in sales in South Korea this year. Black Yak, another hiking apparel maker, has seen its sales surge fivefold over the past three years. Many South Koreans lament the protracted economic slowdown. But with more people indulging in this poor man's sport, their health might improve.
Someday, people might actually be grateful that the economic slowdown made them healthier.