Thor's Korea Diary


Mountain Walker

@25 October 2000
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They come in a slow trickle of ones and twos, quietly disregarding the clutter of taxis, concrete mixer trucks, and teenage girls picking at their lipstick. The pilgrims find this detritus of urban life just a place to pass through. For a college of languages at this spot is dug into the crease of a mountainside, where its stone skirts fan out into a steep valley. Once, here amongst the ferns, splashing over rocks, was the beginnings of a stream. In nearby valleys there are still streams which chatter down to join a small river below the town of Bansong Dong. Now though this valley is infested with a pestilence of concrete structures, and scarred with bitumen. Yet even today pine trees crowd to the edge of the carpark, and unobtrusively behind the last building is the beginning of a dirt path, fully a metre wide.

As any hobbit knows, the beginnings of a path are always a portentous spot. That little track you know so well to the next bridge, may lead on from The Shire to the very edge of evil Mordor. So the pilgrims who pass silently by my college interest me, hint at another meaning in the shadows that lie about these hills. Indeed, many of them could easily pass for hobbits. They are on average a short people, but stocky. Of those who have been drawn to the margins of urban life, many are found in Bansong Dong.

Take the ajumas who wait patiently on the pavements with dishes of apples to sell, or shelled garlic cloves, or fish laid out on low tables covered with yellow vinyl cloth. They squat there cackling, in cotton print pants crimped at the waist with cheap elastic, and as I stride past their old faces are barely level with my knees, but they all seem a good metre across the backside. Their grandmothers trudged from ridge to ridge with bundles of firewood strapped to their backs, and their grandmothers before them, and so back for perhaps five thousand years or beyond. Tough mountain people, unlovely but as hardy as the vegetation, impervious to cold and privation. Nowadays some of these ladies can make five times my salary as a so-called professor of English. Their daughters have suddenly become brownettes or straw blondes, grown half a metre taller than their parents on fast food, live in heated apartments and go to school in America. But like a sigh in the warp of time, on Sundays the pilgrims still pass by on the way to the mountains.

When I look a little more closely at the pilgrims though, I am assailed by a flutter of doubt. They wear a uniform which is, well, designer regulated. Firstly there are the boots, always light brown, of soft unbuffed leather -- or is it vinyl? ( I can no longer tell; they even impregnate the plastic with leather smells..). The waterproof soles have large, robust treads and are never worn down at the heels. De rigeur above the boots to just below the knees are leggings of bright check patterned wool. Somehow these are never stained with mud or spotted with grass seeds. The knee breeches are of strong khaki cotton blend, carefully pressed. Essential to the complete mountain pilgrim is also a crimson or olive green hunting vest with many pockets. For the basics of life he will always carry a back pack well stocked with a bottle of soju (potato whisky) and a mobile phone. He will most likely be wearing a baseball cap of any colour, to soak up the sweat of labour, and on our pilgrim's hardy hands will be a pair of unstained white cotton gloves for grasping rocky outcrops and rusty safety chains. Finally, to support twisted ankles and fight off wolves, this traveler will have an aluminium walking stick with a translucent blue plastic handle. The walking stick may be collapsible, so that it can be concealed without embarrassment on the subway, and may have a removable point for striking into the ice, or poking out the eyes of snakes.

My flutter of doubt came from comparing the pretensions of my Australian compatriots. Perhaps you know about the Marlborough Man. Before legislation moved in on tobacco advertising, he rode out of countless billboards, tall, bronzed, straight-backed on a stockman's chestnut horse, a faraway look in his eye, and of course lighting up one of those life-giving, manly cigarettes. He was everyman's Australian, the ideal male. Australians .... a hardy, practical people, travelers across the barren wastes, outdoor dwellers ... Visit any Australian urban shopping center to find cohorts of chunky four wheel drive Land Cruisers, off-road vehicles to tackle the great unmapped interior of the continent. Except, alas, that Australia has the most urbanized population in the world after Belgium, and those tough four wheel drives never get past the K-Mart carpark...

Hmm. There are extremes and extremes. I recall visiting mountainous places in China last year, with a large party from the editorial department of a university. The men wore dark suites, white shirts with cufflinks, conservative ties and those polished slip on shoes that are ubiquitous in the middle kingdom. The women had taken great care with their makeup and coiffures. They wore tight dresses for ladylike walking, and high heels. In a mountain town we transferred to a "special" bus with disintegrating seats and windows that wouldn't close. This was a country bus, meaning that it was too clapped out to be licensed for even a Chinese city. The road became a track, scratched like the trail of a giant fingernail up the side of sheer mountains. Dust poured in the windows, and the ladies put tissues over their dainty mouths. At last, at our scenic destination, we took to a track in the footsteps of the ancient immortals. Well, the ancient immortals could reputedly fly like feathers when push came to shove, but our party of citified literati bravely clambered over logs and wedged themselves up cracks between the cliff faces in the name of claiming they had visited the prescribed places. I've never seen tight skirts and stiletto heels put to such innovative uses...

The burghers of Bansong Dong would curl their lips at those lowland, delicately boned Chinese. They plod to a different drum. It was a fine day, late in the autumn. Outside the sky was luminous blue, a gentle breeze barely rippled the sunshine where shadows from pine trees fell at the edge of the car park. There were no classes today. What was I doing in a dull room, staring at the phosphorent unreality of a computer monitor? A few short steps and I was at the beginning of the path. It climbed rapidly, and within fifty meters the college, which had seemed to dominate the surroundings, shrank to its true proportion as a bauble on the landscape. At once it was obvious that this was a well-tended entré into the wilderness. Polished stainless steel signs were set at strategic points, in Hangul of course, so I couldn't read them. Stainless steel is not a medium you would expect to be consonant with ye olde forest path, but perhaps the cultural slant here was more practical than sentimental. I was puzzled by a crate of large, used, plastic soft drink bottles, each of which had been carefully refilled with water. They sat strategically by the side of the path, and were made official by another one of those stainless steel signs. Was this an early waystop for parched pilgrims, half a kilometer from the bus stop? Was some wiry ajuma paid to trudge from rest station to rest station with plastic soft drink bottles strapped to her back? That seemed a little excessive, even for a society as regulated as Korea. Days later somebody told me that they were intended to put out forest fires... Um, well, you could dampen a cigarette perhaps, but I have seen a pine forest on fire. It was catastrophic: the trees literally exploded. Some middle-level bureaucrat who had been a hardy pilgrim one Sunday in times past must have impressed his managers with this economical inspiration of the drink bottles.

Although the path was clearly marked, the steepness of the incline lent itself to rapid erosion. The clay soil in places had been washed down to little gullies with sharp edges, roots protruded to trip unwary feet, and sometimes it was necessary to clamber over the furrowed brows of boulders, embedded up to their eyebrows in the hillside like petrified giants. I had just worked my way around one of these spots when I noticed a hobbit coming down the path. He wore the regulation uniform of a crimson hunting vest, his face was ruddy and animated, and he gave me the cheerful greeting of a fellow traveler. As we were about to pass our eyes met. He held my gaze and began to speak, unperturbed by my obvious lack of comprehension. Then he paused, and from his knapsack gingerly withdrew the sturdiest looking mushroom I have ever seen. It was perhaps three times the size of your anemic supermarket product, and seemed to be flushed in shades from cream to reddish brown, to the deepest purple. He displayed it with all the pride of a fisherman who has just made an enormously rare catch. The compulsion to show off his bit of fungus was simply overcoming any embarrassment about talking to a stranger and a foreigner, but he suddenly seemed to become aware of my perplexity, pausing for a moment in mid-spiel. Only for a moment though. Instead of talking he decided to educate me by pantomime. Turning to some rocks at the side of the path, he demonstrated in detail the technique of finding such precious mushrooms. His hands searched rapidly along the rock face, slipping into dark crevices, while he continued to watch me with bright eyes. Where I come from, slipping a hand into dark rocky crevices is an excellent way of encountering a snake or a poisonous spider. No second mushroom appeared, but I got the point, reached into the dark crevices of my mind and found one of my exceedingly rare Korean words to thank him with.

As I ascended the mountain it was natural to look around for a view of the landscape below. For the most part, there were no openings, so I could only look among the trees. The ground was fairly open, lit with soft light filtering through the pine needles, and it would not have been difficult to leave the path. In some places along the slope someone had collected large bundles of kindling, perhaps to reduce the fire hazard. There was remarkably little of the clutter of cigarette packets, plastic bags, compressed foam noodle containers ... that you could count on in China or many Western countries. From time to time there were benches for resting, and just a couple of these were in places where the treeline had been cleared enough to see retreating rows of mountain ridges, with separate settlements clustered from valley to valley. At last I came to a kind of ridge, and the path turned along this like an exposed backbone. Right on the turn there was a larger than usual cleared area. It was not a pretty spot. The ground was exposed and eroded clay. But this was evidently some kind of waystop for enthusiasts because there was a collection of gymnast's parallel bars, chin-up bars, and a set of ugly, chest high stainless steel pipe hoops, looking for all the world like a giant toast rack. Heaven knows what they were for..

Every now and then a small group of walkers would pass, sometimes a family with small children, a courting couple, a party of middle aged women. In truth, the average product of apartment block culture seems to prefer video game machines (they even have special game machines for toddlers outside the corner grocery stores), so it was pleasing to see that actual (as opposed to "virtual") mountain walking was still on the agenda of some people. If designer walking gear encouraged them, then good luck to it. I wonder how many of them race up eighteen flights of stairs in their tower blocks. Nobody else showed the spontaneous friendliness of the mushroom man, though an occasional individual would manage "annyong haseyo". The real surprise came when I rounded a bunch of trees and almost bumped into a hoon van -- you know, one of those custom wagons with darkened windows and a forest of radio aerials, generally made for racing off chicks in. The cock and the chick in this case looked particularly pasty and sulky. The sort who would be out of breath climbing onto a chair. Yes, and there was a narrow road weaving up to the ridge. Ah well, we never claimed to be climbing Mount Everest.

The thing about climbing up a mountain is that tracks converge, and the thing about going down one is that tracks diverge. It is therefore easy for your unwary walker to get lost going home. That is exactly what I managed to do. Not seriously lost, but definitely in the wrong place. There was a warning, an elder prescient about my wrong choices, or so it seemed. He was lean and leathery, with a long mournful face, wearing the regulation red hunting vest and wielding the regulation aluminium walking stick. He addressed me at length, oblivious like the mushroom man, of my incomprehension. Perhaps he was addressing the world in general. I will never know because he was far too serious to bother with pantomime, but as I escaped his tirade and took a turning -- the wrong turning as it eventuated -- I looked back to see him watching me with dismay and shaking his head.

This path was actually rather interesting. It quickly became narrow and steep, and was clearly far more neglected than the one I had left home on. Soon it was running parallel to a creek, and then slid down the slope to a few lengths of rotten wood that made a kind of bridge. In a way I had been here long before, because as a twelve year-old boy I lived in the mountains west of Sydney, Australia, and a creek just like this had been my favourite haunt. It was a very small stream, full of rounded rocks that made eddies, interrupted by quiet pools, and sometimes falling suddenly over a ledge. Just the busy water and I, no other sound except for a soft rustle of wind in the trees on the ridge above.... until, after walking for a while I looked up and found myself face to face with a three metre high chain wire fence. Behind the fence was another world, those bleak, visually violent, white erections with giant numbers painted on them, those hives for the urbanized tribes of Bansong Dong, the tower blocks. Did I really want to make this transition?

No, there had to be another way home. There was a rough track along the back of the fence for a while, then it began to climb again. It had to, for the way had come to the next ridge. Wearily I began to follow it up again, and stumbled upon another surprise. In the clear ground among the trees were chooks (poultry), very healthy looking chooks too, black and gold hens, happily clucking as they picked among the roots. They were in chook heaven and seemed to know it, they were free while most of the chooks on earth lived in so-called scientific batteries, mere biological machines until they were ready to turn into plastic-wrapped drumsticks and filleted chicken breasts on supermarket shelves. They would be eaten by people who lived in batteries of tower blocks ...

Presently I noticed a kind of wooden stockade, and a rough wood shed which might have been part of the chicken run. Then a weather-beaten man came out of the shed to greet me. "Saudi", he said. What? "Saudi, Libya". What? No I was an Australian... "Ah, Osotareliya.... Saudi, Libya". This went on for a while. My new friend's demeanour was friendly enough, but we weren't getting far. I had an inspiration: "You worked in Saudi Arabia?" .. "Ne, two years". Ahaa. He was pleased that I understood at last, accepted that he too was a man of the world unconfined by the narrow horizon of Bansong Dong. Eventually a sketchy picture of his life emerged. Yes, he had an apartment in those things -- pointing to the tower blocks -- but this was where he felt at home. In his hand built log shed. Long live the human spirit. I had to find a way home, so at last I said "Sungsim?". "Ah, Sungsim.." He pointed up, a long way up, a steep climb over the backbone of another ridge.

Oh well. I struck out up country, no path, but the going was not too difficult. And yes, over the backbone of the ridge was the college in its narrow valley. I would never have guessed. And yes, there was the long lost path. And waiting on the path like a sentinel was the old man with his long leathery face. He watched me balefully, and began to talk again. A reproach? Who knows.. I smiled and walked on, down to the carpark, then took a short cut that turned out to be a long cut through one of the buildings. As I came out two floors down, there he was again, waiting. Yaah! I plunged back into the staffroom where it all began, back to the safe, virtual world of computer screens.


"Mountain Walker" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved
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