Thor's Korea Diary

Hill Gods and Ghostly Signs

@15 February 2001

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All day I feel its presence, the hill which rises almost vertically behind my fifth floor apartment. It is really a spur from the rugged ocean of mountains that roll, wave upon green-brown wave into the receding distance everywhere in Korea. This hill though is my neighbour and companion. The local duty god sits for a moment here or there on fallen timber, peeking over my shoulder as I peck away at the keyboard, and on moonlit nights you can almost see the quick shadows of goblins dancing upon the carpet of fallen leaves. In this winter season the so-na-mu (pine trees) struggle to keep a decent cover on the land, while clusters of do-to-ri-na-mu, ddeg-gal-na-mu and o-dong-na-mu (kinds of deciduous trees) stand in embarrassed huddles, their bare slender trunks waiting for the gallantry of spring.

It seemed time, this afternoon, to make a social visit to the hill. Not far from the end of the building, hiding in the wall of a precipitous driveway, I found some crude stone steps, and a slight dirt path beyond. To the left, someone has been making the rudiments of a vegetable patch in the thin topsoil. To the right a little used track skirts the hill like a leafy braid. But at this point a creek bed also creases the hillside from above. Except after heavy rain, its course is a tossed pitcher of worn dry gravel, cut here and there by the bones of old rock formations jutting out from the hillside. Though the way was steep and almost unmarked, I decided that the creek bed was the fastest way to the hill's crest.

Very soon, something startling made itself known. As it fell from the blue sky almost directly above, the creek bed made a number of small natural platforms where the topsoil had been washed off underlying boulders. At the first of these, propped incongruously against the rockface, were a plastic broom, a brown plastic bin with a lid, and a plastic basin. Then I looked below the ledge. Crudely cemented with some fragments of broken paving, someone had formed a couple of small shrines. Inside the grottos were bowls of fresh mandarins, stainless steel goblets of water (?), a gutted candle, and .... a packet of soap. Well, I guess gods need to take care of their body odours too...

This private college where I work in fact advertises itself as a Buddhist institution, not in the sense of a seminary, but in the way that there are, for example, Christian universities (quite a few in this country). In a small park by the front gate a large elephant statue, on a plinth engraved with lotuses, casts his benevolent eye on all who pass by. At the top of the campus, up against the mountain wall, is a discreet shrine that is always tended with some libation of fruit. However, the small, primitive shrines that I had discovered in the creek bed did not seem to have a flavour of the Buddha about them (though my eye is unpracticed). I suspected a more local god or spirit was being propitiated here, and mentioning it to a Korean acquaintance later, he agreed. How common was this? He hesitated. No, it was not the commitment of "educated" people (he suggested), but shamanism was still an important part of many ordinary lives..

This was late winter, yet dry leaves from autumn were still shin deep on the hillside. I trod my way carefully, pulling back from time to time on the point of tumbling into hidden pits. What creepy crawlies live in Korea's neglected corners? I had no idea. In Australia this would be prime country for snakes and spiders, but such critters are usually thoughtful enough to give crashing invaders a wide birth ... Anyway, hibernation would be a smart move for any snake at this time of year. The incline was so steep that I was forced to grab for roots, shrubs, small tree trunks, reverting like my distant ancestors to 4-limb drive.

It seemed though that someone else had also made this ascent not so long ago. Some way above the first rocky platform with its grottos, I came upon a second, also with libations of mandarins and water. It took perhaps ten minutes of vigorous scrambling to reach a point where the cap of the hill began to flatten out. My skyscraper apartment had shrunk to insignificance far below. By this time I had passed five rocky platforms, each with its gift for unseen gods, and each successively more difficult to reach. With that kind of devotion, my welfare was in good hands. Just one small prayer from an infidel to whoever is listening out there ... please spare us from an earthquake: it's a long way down from my kitchen sink to ground zero, and the walls already have cracks in them ...

Afternoon shadows were beginning to lengthen, and although the sky was bright blue, the breeze had a bite in it. I pulled my topcoat closed, and perched on a fallen tree trunk for a breather. In a small shoulder bag, quite accidentally I had a newspaper and some wafer biscuits. As brains compulsively form plans, in the process of climbing mine had set for itself the goal of a reward. My inner eye had pictured sitting among the trees on the hill crest, basking in the warm sunshine, dreamily flicking through the newspaper and munching wafers. I shivered. The cold pointy fingers of the winter wind snatched at my newspaper and blew wafer crumbs all over me. Oh well...

There was barely the hint of a track along the hill top. From up here though, I noticed that it formed a ridge, jutting like a redoubt into the valley behind Bansong-Dong, towards the main urban centre of Tongnae several kilometers away. Back into the mountains, the ridge dipped into a saddle, then rode higher on to other peaks. After two years of central China's leaden skies and turbid air, it seemed that in Kyongsangnam-do I could see forever down the converging valleys, winding waterways, tiny cars on distant highways. But I turned from the panorama and began to pick a way towards the saddleback ridge. This place had been trodden before, but perhaps not for many seasons, for the shrubbery was thick, and spiky arms plucked at my clothing. Soon the way was barred by a giant's shovelful of grey boulders, forming a kind of natural cairn, and from its top grew a strong, slender pine which I am sure had been planted by some human hand.

Beyond that again were more uplifted slabs of rock, and as I scrambled past them, a regular black line caught my eye. It was at shoulder height, sliding comfortably over the finger joints of trees and bushes, disappearing anonymously in each direction. A twisted pair of insulated wires. Clearly a telephone line of sorts, a relic of earlier technologies. Who needed such a thing in the age of mobile phones? Come to think of it, who would have ever called their girlfriend from this spot regularly? I tracked the wires back until they ended mutely in a pile of stones, then like Theseus tracking the Minataur to his lair, I followed them inland. The clue came quickly enough. On an earlier walk in the mountains I had been mystified by shallow circular pits, a couple of meters across, at irregular intervals beside the path. Was grave robbing a Sunday afternoon habit here? Did they signify some esoteric religious practice? Now it was suddenly and bleakly clear. These were places for the living dead, of paralysing fear, and they might well have their own ghosts about them. Military foxholes.

In quick succession I encountered more foxholes. Some were butressed with low ragged walls of loose granite-like rocks, enough to deflect a rifle bullet perhaps, but just as likely bury some unlucky soldier in a bone breaking grave when hit by heavy artillery. The path was becoming more distinct. At one point a grassy mound rose beside the track, a grave sized mound, or was it just buried ammunition? What had I stumbled on here? An old movie set from the Korean War? As I had noticed already, the ridge formed a natural redoubt, looking towards the ancient fort of Tongnae, and overlooking a pass that led to modern Ulsan. Given the conflicts which had racked the Korean peninsula, extending back into a misty past, it would be scarcely surprising to find fortifications in the area. Then off to the right, perching precariously in a hollow, I saw a plain wooden box, solid, maybe a metre long. One of the galvanized hinges was still bright, and half hanging from under the lid was a plasticized cloth cover with a nylon draw cord. Nope, this was definitely not from ancient Karak, nor even from the Korean war. More likely the careless abandonment of some cold conscripts on a winter training exercise...

Past the saddle, rising to a broader hill but soon not steeply, those soldiers had had a harder time of making credible defences. Presently the foxholes were fronted with old vehicle tyres, hidden in hasty mounds of earth. Rather them than me belly-squirming down there thanks. But I was not expecting the small mountain of old tyres that confronted me a little further on, let alone what sat on top of the rubber mountain.

It was about here that the telephone wires petered out, hanging stupidly over a branch, as if some kid should tie a tin can toy phone on the end... But my eyes lifted to the new attraction. At some time, long slender saplings had been nailed end to end, horizontal in the grass, with one extremity propped against the dirt-filled tyres. It was a forlorn bit of engineering, making a perilous terrace on the incline. The slightest tremor would bring it all sliding down the hill. Yet atop the pile was the high net fencing of a tennis court, and the court surface, miraculously, appeared to be flat and paved... A tennis court?? What the hell? For eerie moments I had a sense of stumbling into a dream. This after all was an untended mountain ridge, a neglected forest that had taken me sweat and scratches to approach. Did the ghosts of departed heroes don cream flannels to play gentlemen's doubles before cocktails?

No humans were in sight, but as I crunched and tripped my way around the perimeter of the strange construction, I came to see a storage shed, its doors ajar, and then a small Christian church. The church itself actually seemed little more than a tin shed with a cross nailed on one gable, but it was neatly painted white and the grounds about it seemed well looked after. Hidden by trees, the landforms had tricked me. On the far side of the ridge that towered beside my college, the floor of another small valley rose to the crest, and by this way a narrow road came to these buildings. Further back down the road there seemed to be some light settlement, a few buildings, and something that might have been an electricity substation. So much for trekking in the wilderness. Well, if there were people here at least some of the time, there was sure to be a walking track leading back to my valley.

It did not take long to find the track. No highway to be sure, but fairly well trodden with small wooden signs in various places. Firstly the path skirted the shoulder of a hill, to the base of a huge, no-nonsense high tension electricity pylon. Beside the pylon on a post was a slender blue wooden box with a letter slot at the top. Maybe this was the place to post petitions to the hill god. From here the way wound down, soon to the crease of another creek bed. In this area, unlike the ridge I first came to, there was little underbrush, just a thin carpet of leaves and twigs between the trees. Perhaps it was cleared regularly.

This creek showed signs of having water. At one point a concrete sump had been sunk, with a large plastic bin inside and the water piped in. An overflow continued the trickle of water down the hill. Two plastic dippers hung on a post, presumably the quench the thirst of weary pilgims. Twenty meters from this on a slight rise was a makeshift platform. It had been nailed over with the linoleum which makes a universal floor covering here, and above it was strung a large banner announcing its purpose in hangul (which I couldn't decode). Strangest of all though were the two rainbow coloured plastic hula hoops which lay abandoned nearby. Had the shamans been whooping it up? I'll have to come back here at the witching hour one night after sacrificing to the spirits, just to be sure that ecstatic Dyonsian revelers don't make a human sacrifice of me...

I guessed where the path was leading, and somehow it seemed appropriate. Though I hadn't seen a soul, I knew by now that walkers must pass this way regularly. They were the strangers, almost always dressed in hiking gear (Koreans are self-conscious about such things..) Whom I meet on the college road in early mornings, and towards dusk. They always walk up the hill to the last building, then vanish like the Pied Piper into the hillside. This is at the point of the small well-tended Buddhist shrine, a doorway to other worlds. So it was here that I emerged, back onto the hard bitumen road that told of daily cares, and Time which has no time to spare for idle dreams.

* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"Hill Gods and Ghostly Signs"... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
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