How the Fuck Can Ahjussis and Ahjummas Drink So Much Soju and Hike at the Same Time?
That’s my question.
Hiking is low key the national pastime of Korea, which makes sense, because even in Seoul there are mountains everywhere.
Soju is the national alcoholic drink of Korea – there’s nothing low key about that. It’s kind of self evident.
And generally, the older a Korean person gets, the better they can drink. This assertion is based on a number of observations: old Koreans drinking soju on the street at 11am, drinking almost exclusively the harsher varieties of soju, drinking massive quantities and walking away unscathed. Here’s a graph to illustrate this relationship:
Age (x) vs. Bottles of Soju (y)
So there’s three facts we can start off with before diving into this mystery. At this point, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, it goes like this: large groups of ahjummas and ahjussis going hiking together, carting massive crates of green bottles up the mountain, only to drink all of them and then come back down like they didn’t just consume the entire refrigerator cabinet of a gs25.
I’ve watched a group of no more than 8 ahjussis begin their ascent of a mountain with no fewer than 3 crates of soju. A crate looks like about 6 x 6, meaning one has something like 36 bottles of soju. 3 crates brings the bottle count to around 100, which, when divided by 8, gives us an average of 12.5 bottles per ahjussi. So, you know, that’s insane. Even if they were meeting more ahjussis somewhere on the mountain, an ability to consume more than 3 bottles of soju and remain conscious is impressive. The ability to consume significantly more than that, and then hike down a mountain in one piece? As an older person? Are you kidding? What the fuck is going on here?
No, this isn’t an isolated incident. As I sat in a café watching this unbelievable hybrid of geriatric exercise and aggressive day drinking, I commented to my friend, who was sitting next to me and is Korean. “Yeah,” she chuckled, “my uncle does that too. They take so much, and just spend the day up there I guess.” How? I asked. “I don’t know. I drink a bottle, and it’s too much for me. He just drinks and drinks, and doesn’t get drunk. None of them do.”
Do older Koreans have magical abilities to retain sobriety through a constant barrage of ethyl alcohol? I’m doubtful. But that doesn’t change the fact that they can probably outdrink a military platoon, easily, while doing strenuous activities instead of after.
At this point, I really just want someone to explain to me how this is possible.
Hiking is the perfect activity for people past a certain age. It requires you get out of the house, which we all should be doing. It lets you get suited up in plastic-y gear with questionably functional panels of grey and black, alternated with red, green, and orange, so your fellow hikers could see you if you got lost, I guess. A lot of ahjussis seem permanently decked out in discount hiking gear, either because it makes the physical labor of their day jobs easier, or because when they decide their day job can go fuck itself, they’re ready to go straight to the mountain. Hiking is good exercise, but it’s nothing too crazy; you can go as fast or a slow as your want, steep or level. At the top of the mountain, fresh air provides a respite from the busy city lives many of these ahjummas and ahjussis lead. They love nature, and who can blame them?
What I’m trying to say is, hiking and older people go together like white on rice. It’s a win-win, because the ahjussis and ahjummas stay healthy, all the while yelling at younger hikers for littering, smoking, or generally just existing. In this way, you could probably argue that they even keep the mountain clean. It’s tenuous, but I’d go for it.
As much as the drinking habits of this same group of people are respectable, if not slightly horrifying, at the end of the day they are objectively unhealthy. Drinking any kind of alcohol is just not good for you; drinking a lot of it is worse, and drinking a shit ton of it consistently over the course of a lifetime is fucked. Look, there’s no way in hell I’m going to tell an ahjussi or an ahjumma what they should or shouldn’t be doing, because a) they’re wiser than me and b) I don’t want to be slapped. But from a stone cold analytical standpoint, I think we can agree: old people hiking, good. Old people drinking, not good. So then, old people hiking while drinking… kind of brings us back to square one, doesn’t it?
I’m no scientist, but it seems unlikely that the pros of a gentle hike could outweigh the cons of a not-so-gentle session of binge drinking. But they could help? Maybe? Let’s check this out in more detail.
Hiking up a mountain to drink isn’t great, but it’s definitely better than walking down the street to a suljib or whatever to drink. So already, you’ve gotten more exercise than you would have before. If you’re drinking, you obviously need anju. But if you’re drinking on a mountain, you need anju that can work as a picnic. This is most likely going to be kimbap, small banchan, and liter foods that are on the healthy side when compared to the options us ground dwellers may flock to, like fried chicken or samgyupsal. So these are potential pros to mountain drinking. Two, to be exact.
But let’s say you’ve worked up a sweat on your way to the top of the mountain. You’d have to replenish all that lost water before hitting the “happy water.” Drinking while dehydrated is pretty dangerous, but it seems kind of likely in this scenario. Also, more importantly is, you know, falling down a fucking hill when you can’t see or walk or think straight. Running drunk would be stupid, but at least you could just stop running. Same goes for lifting, hooping, basically any other kind of exercise. But with hiking, you’re committed. Once you’re in, you’re in, and the only way out is to come back down the mountain. That, or spend the night in the woods. I’m sure it’s happened, but that’s not the ideal outcome here.
The only way that these negative points go away is if the person drinking the soju is somehow nearly impervious to its effects. Which, while physiologically impossible and reasonably ridiculous, is starting to seem like the only answer here.
I’m in my twenties, average height, medium build, with Russian/Polish ancestry. There’s not a lot I can do well, but a decent drinking ability has been my savior for years. I can at least keep up with, if not outdrink, most Koreans my age, but even so, if I drink any more than 3 bottles in Hongdae, I wake up in Jamsil wearing clothes that aren’t mine, with little to no recollection of what happened and 200,000 won missing from my bank account. You can see how even mildly strenuous exercise, only to be perched at the top of a mountain, is out of the question.
I want the best for everyone. Ahjussis and ahjummas should be safe and happy. And while the combination of mountaineering and bottle clearing should logically threaten one or both of these goals… it seems not to. It may not make sense how it works, but older Koreans stay drinking and climbing, and everything seems more or less fine in the world.
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Cover photo via flickr user Dave