|I run through the Windows, or red-light, district of Seoul, somewhere near the War Memorial, following a trail of esoteric, chalked symbols and handfuls of flower mixed with fruit loops that have been slapped onto the pavement. Everything is pink from the neon lights that glow over the windows where beautiful, tragic Korean girls display themselves under make-up that is more substantial than their lace underwear. They're like glossy, feral cats, and one of them hisses at the American GI I'm running with.
On the pavement at the far end of the district is written, in bright blue chalk, "BT," which means "Bad Trail."
"They tricked us," says my companion. They are not the girls behind the windows, but rather the people we are chasing, the hares.
The hares and the hounds who follow them are the runners who make up the Yongsan Kimchi Hash House Harriers, one branch of a very large, international running group generally know as the Hash House Harriers. With over 1500 different Hash groups in most of the world's major cities, this running club is made up of thousands of members--mostly expatriates or American military employees who crave a little bit of familiar comraderie within whatever country they are working or stationed.
Most Hashes are run once a week, and are set up like a hunt where the bulk of the group has to follow a chalked-out trail set by the hares, who get about a half-an-hour head start. There are different chalk markings to send runners in certain directions, and the club is also riddled with enough rites and tradition to merit a handbook called a Hash Bible.
The run usually ends with what is called a Down-Down: snacks, beer and well-versed-somewhat raunchy-ceremony underneath the shade of a few trees. During the ceremony, members are sometimes obliged to chug down beer for offences like wearing new shoes or failing to blow whistles at the right time-and they love it.
Hashing is an old tradition; the first one started up in 1937 in Kuala Lumpur and stems from a 19th-century game called Paper Chase, where boys would follow trails of paper left by a group of playmates, or "hares."
"The Hash is all about fun," says Dirk "Dirk Off" Foster, who has been running with the Yongsan Hash for about three years and is part of the management, or in Hash terms, "mismanagement," of the club. He also joins other Hash branches around Seoul: the Seoul Hash and the Korea Mystery Hash, which he co-founded in 1998. Most branches in Seoul are made up largely of military personnel, with a smattering of the odd expat.
With a name like Dirk Off in the management, you wonder about this club. When a new clubmember has completed six runs, he or she is rewarded, or punished, with the official Hash name, decided upon by other members. The names are usually pretty risky; a play on words with a very sexual slant, and reflective of the whole concept of Hash humour. Names like Gulping Grades Eh and Necro Fill-Me-Up are spoken matter-of-factly as if they were given at birth.
"You don't have to be politically correct," says Foster, who loves to Hash because it keeps him in shape, and alleviates the guilt of drinking beer on a Saturday morning--beer-drinking being one of the goals from the beginning in 1937. A few other Hashers have shared the same sentiments. They like the fact that they can pass any dirty joke, at nearly any vulgarity level almost to the point of misogyny, and not have to worry about getting a slap in the face or being charged with sexual harrassment.
New runners are warned right away that hashing is not for those who are easily offended.
"About five years ago Yongsan was a very raunchy Hash," says Foster. "You can't mix that atmosphere with the military." Yongsan did, and still does, sing many songs ("body songs," in Foster's words) that could be considered offensive. Most of these songs and jokes come from the rugby songbooks, and all Hash members--women and men alike--sing them in good humour.
Foster says that because of some false accusations, the powers that be have tried to shut the Yongsan Hash down in the past, but have failed.
"If you get too out of hand and too vulgar, the military will do anything they can to shut you down," he says, but also that not all Hashes are x-rated. There is another group in Seoul called the Mash Hash, which is made up of mostly expats and is rated as a family Hash--but there is still beer every time, in true Hash spirit.
Hash spirit is loud and distinct, and begs quite a reaction out of the locals in whatever place it is run.
"I do feel bad when we get on a train or bus and we get loud," says Foster, referring to some trails that take the hounds onto public transit--where they sometimes proceed to sing. "But problems only arise when you blow the Koreans off." He says that the reception of Koreans is usually quite warm. They simply want to know why there are some 150 Westerners running and hooting past their shops. Foster admits, "The Hash is not about culturalizing expats. That's an individual responsibility."
But as an individual, I have enjoyed a few Hash runs myself, and because of that, seen more of Seoul than I would have on my own. Hash trails weave around the inner city, through markets and old neighborhoods, and up and down all of the mountains around Seoul.
The hash is also a global community; every 18 months there is an Interhash, where club members from all over the world come together for a few big runs. The next one is going to be held in Goa, India. Within Seoul, there is also a yearly National Hash, called "Hash Around the Rock," which was recently held in May.
Foster remarks fondly, "you do get to see the culture and the beauty in every country you hash in."