BUSAN, South Korea – South Korea is a small country, the smallest of of the G20 nations, and ranked 109th in the world by land mass. But if you drive along the coastline, Korea isn't that small – the outer distance is 2,413 km.
Nam Sang-Bom has travelled the entire distance of the South Korean coastline 10 times in five years – not by car, motorcycle or bike – only on foot. Officially, he has trekked 10 laps around the country, approximately 25,000 km, from November 2005 to October 2010. As he walked along the entire coastline and visited hundreds of islands, he said his actual walking distance might be over 40,000km – the equivalent of a trip around the globe. Along the way, he figures that he has met as many as 10,000,000 people, and his unbelievable journey is expected to be recognized by the Guinness Book of Records.
Last July, he had his 11th cross-country trip, arriving in Busan in three weeks after setting out from Seoul. His dark tan explained what he had suffered on his journey, and the look on his face and voice were more powerful than ever. His journey’s around the peninsula speaks of a man with a passion for adventure, and a person coming to terms with the country he loves. Busan Haps had a chance to talk to him.
It`s hard to believe that you walked around South Korea 10 times. Could you explain how you did it?
On average, I walked 30~40 km a day from November 2005 to October 2010. It usually took three months, or as long as eight months to cover the country on foot. After an arduous journey, I rested several months, and then walked again. I did two laps a year. In fact, quite a few people find it hard to believe my locomotion on foot. Someone demanded proof. So, I've uploaded the 100,000 photos I took during the journey on my Internet blog and kept detailed diaries. I can pile the notes higher than my knee. Because I travelled alone, I was able to speak frankly and make about 2,000 friends with men and women of all ages. They all are my proof and witnesses.
What made you start walking?
I had enjoyed climbing mountains after retirement. So, I'd already known I was healthy. One day, I read one book at a bookstore by chance. The book was `The Silk Path` written by Bernard Ollivier, who was a retired journalist in France. He had gone on a long journey across the Silk Road for four years on foot. I shuddered after reading it, wanted to walk eagerly like him, and then tested my health in a hospital. The results showed I was as healthy as a man in my 30s. After a few days, I left home shouldering a knapsack with an Alpenstock and in heavy hiking boots. Then I was 73-years-old, 10 years older than the Frenchmen. So you know, he only walked 12,000 km.
Why 10 times?
At first, I had not planned to complete 10 laps. But when I came back from the first trip, I realized I forgot almost everything. It was a superficial journey. I refused to yield and hoped to do it perfectly because I am a thorough person. I made a resolution to walk 10 times to write a book. In addition, the number 10 means 'Perfection' in Asia.
You must have had a number of interesting episodes on your trip. Can you explain some of them?
While on my journey, I've had a few accidents, and been near death. On the second trip, I got buried in a mud flat chest deep. Because of the flood tide on the west coast, I had to clamber up a steep rock, which was over 20m, with my bare hands. And I was accosted by a mugger with a knife in a fishing village three years ago. When I walked along the 38th parallel one midwinter night, I shivered with cold, hunger and fright not being able to find a place to sleep. Even now, I break into a cold sweat when I recall that time. I've thought many times "Why should I suffer these things at my age?” But once I started, I felt the sense of freedom and happiness and I couldn't give it up. Walking is a like a beautiful drug for me.
Why was it important to you to walk such great distances?
To walk is not simply a tour, but a kind of journey of philosophy, religion and enlightenment, and can be a rich source of inspiration and energy. As a result of walking, I have become acquainted with many people and recovered my smile and health. To my surprise, my rectal cancer dissappeared. And it was the best method for remembering and thinking about my life. Furthermore, it led me to take some time for introspection with the Korean people.
An introspection with the Korean people? Can you explain that?
I`m seventy-nine-years old. I've gone through periods of Korean turbulence, Japanese Colonial Rule, the Korean War, the collapse of the military regime and democratization and the financial crisis fourteen years ago. The road was a place to reflect deeply on my nation and its people. My trips purpose was to feel the soul of my nation. I met and talked with innumerable people over the past five years, and I concluded that the Korean identity has not yet established itself. For example, the people who enjoy Haeundae Beach most are foreigners, not Koreans. Foreigners are amused with swimming, playing volleyball and sunbathing in a bikini on the beach. But Koreans really act like strangers. Although they come from far away by a train or a plane, many of them return after only a brief glance at the sea. The tables are turned. I feel that Koreans are still suffering from an inferiority complex and trauma. As an elder of the society, I feel sorry for this.
What is necessary to take a far walking journey?
Health and strong will, moreover money.
A walking tour of the country would cost about fifteen million won. All equipment, such as clothes, hiking boots and a backpack must be the highest quality. It is impossible without enough money. The total expense of my 10 trips was 300 million won ($269,000 USD). The journey on foot is the cheapest and yet, the most expensive. I made the first trip at my own expense. But from the second lap on, I was able to secure sponsorship from those friends I made in earlier trips. Believe it or not, I am no better than a beggar.
On your business card it reads: “The publicity ambassador of Seoul National University College of Medicine.” What does that mean?
I am literally a walking-publicity ambassador, who publicizes Seoul National University Hospital and College Medicine all over the country. When I met sick people on my way, I assisted them in seeking a cure by the Medical Specialist of SNUH. People treated at the hospital through me were estimated at over 1000.
Are you a doctor?
It doesn’t matter whether I am a doctor or not. What I’ve done, and my social background is of little importance. There is an expression that Kim Sat-gat wrote in his book on travel."It's an unwritten rule not to ask around the beggar`s past." Kim Sat-gat was the most famous wandering-poet who traveled all over the country for 20 years during the Chosun Dynasty. I want to be remembered just as a wandering traveller. Out on the road, everybody becomes equal, rich or poor.
Do you think it’s possible for anyone to do the same as you have?
The answer is, of course, yes. There are, however, a few essential prerequisites. To speak in Korean a little bit makes one`s adventure more abundant. As a result of walking, I have recovered my health and soul and realized how wonderful life is. If you want to feel that, go far away right now like me!
Nam Sang-bom has archived all detailed notes and photos of his round-the-country walks at his Internet blog cafe.daum.net/mi5267