The Kaya Mountains and Kyeong-Ju. Friday April 6th, 2001 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)
On Sunday Pak U-chun (박유천) and her husband, U-no (소유노), picked me up and drove me to their apartment. Here I spent several hours giving Ga-in and her cousin, Min-ju (민주), an English lesson. As usual, U-chun had prepared a meal and this time we had bibimbap (비빔밥) which is boiled rice, vegetables and red pepper paste. Afterwards, we drove out to the Dasa (다사) area of Daegu and met Min-ju’s parents in a cafe there.
The cafe was a traditional building made of mud. Inside, even though the walls were mud, there was electric lighting and even sockets in the wall. The inside was large and there were candles everywhere which had been allowed to drip onto the woodwork to form interesting shapes. Outside was a small stage for live music. We drank beer accompanied by dried snacks, including squid, my favourite and pa’jon. Pa’jon, also known as Korean pancake, is strips of leek fried in a mung bean pancake which is eaten in strips dipped in soy sauce. My favourite drink at the moment is dong dong ju. This is a farmers’ drink and is usually homemade as it ferments in the bottle and cannot easily be marketed. The colour of this drink various from milky white to creamy yellow and I am told it is a drink you either love or hate. Often, ginseng has been added to it. A little while later, U-chun asked if I wanted to go to the sauna, apparently there was one right next to the café and part of their premises. We went outside to the small mud hut adjacent the cafe, and which is known as a hwan toa bang. Inside, a bamboo mats covered the floor on which two children lounged, their faces dripping in sweat. The room was filled with the smell of pine as pine needles and cones were strewn around the outer edge of the bamboo floor. The room itself was heated by a burner that used pine logs. At first the dry heat was intense but before long all of us were strewn out on the floor relaxing. We stayed in the hwan toa bang for some twenty minutes before returning to the cafe. It was an interesting experience and I am told hwan toa bangs are even fired up during the hot summer months.
On Monday lunchtimes I have started going to another go to another mokyuktang, as the one I usually use is closed. In less than a month I have made over 15 trips to mokyuktangs. On this visit one of the attendants asked if I wanted a rub down and I bravely said yes. This was something I was intending to do but at a much later date – why wait. For the rub down you lie naked on a couch and have warm water poured all over you before being rubbed vigorously all over, and I mean all over, by an abrasive cloth. They rub your crotch and up your bum crack. As the attendant progresses from one side of your body to another, you have to adopt certain positions by putting you arm of legs in various positions. The attendant wore boxer shorts which were wet and on quite a few occasions I could feel his dick resting on my arm. The whole procedure is performed publicly and with a conversation in progress.
Life at Di Dim Dol gets more and more boring everyday with exactly the same routine and the same books. I am beginning to wonder if I can really teach here for another five months. I am even considering if I should go back home early.
Thursday was a public holiday, this time for ‘Arbor Day” when it is believed anything planted will flourish. The teachers from Di Dim Dol were all wishing me a ‘happy holiday’ as if I were departing on a two week vacation. I told them it wasn’t a holiday but simply a day off and not even that as they would have to make up for lost time by working on the coming Saturday. Regardless, most of them see it as a holiday. Pak U-chun and her family picked me up from my apartment at ten in the morning and we drove out of the city towards Sang-ju (상주) and the Kaya mountains which lie further north in the province of Kyongsangbookdo (경상복도). Travelling in Korea is interesting as you travel along the highways which are situated in the and between the valleys which are surrounded by farms, rice paddies and enormous cloches. Small yellow melons not much larger than the size of a pear have just appeared on the markets and I recently read that the appearance of these melons is a traditional sign that spring is well under way. Anyway, these melons are one of the main products of the province and were on sale from many small markets stalls on the twisting road that led from the highway to the mountains. Often small lorries, filled with the melons, were parked in lay-bys.
The scenery was absolutely beautiful as the lilacs were almost in full bloom. In Daegu they were already in full flower. Everywhere, cherry blossom (벚꽃) and yellow forsythia (개나리) coloured the hillside. Spring blossom, in Korean, is known as pom namu (봄 나무). Up in the mountainside you could see the various shades of green from emerging foliage speckled here and there by dashes of pink and yellow. One flower, particularly common, was the national flower of South Korea, adopted after the liberation. This flower, Hibiscus Syriacus, known also as the Rose of Sharon and in Korean mugunghwa (무궁화). The atmosphere in the car was wonderful and Ga-in and Min-Ju were excited at the various sights. We climbed the mountain for quite a while, the little car straining when suddenly, out of the right hand side of the vehicle, the peaks of the mountain range appeared. It was a breath taking sight; the jagged peaks of bare rock were highlighted against a bright blue sky. Almost at the top of the range, there was an observation point where we stopped and took some photos. In the small car park were several farmers selling various fruits and vegetables. I took a photograph of some elderly women sat among their produce. One made a fuss of me and said she was too ugly to photograph, but she wasn’t, she was beautiful and she reminded me how lucky people are who still have mothers and grandmothers. I wanted to take a photograph of them sat naturally but instead they sat upright, hands on knees and all looked very serious.
We were now in the heart of the Kayasan (가야 산) national park and in U-no’s little car we travelled down from the observation point into another valley before climbing back up into more mountains towards the Haeinsa (해인 사) temple. May 1st in the lunar calendar this year marks the celebration of Buddha’s birthday and so the roads in the park were edged with yellow, red and purple lanterns which at night are lit. The park was impeccably clean, not a piece of litter anywhere. We passed through a number of small villages where up in the surrounding hillside people could be seen tidying up their relatives tombs after the long winter. Arbour Day is one of the days when people walk up to their relatives tombs, tidy them and then present offerings which involve paying their respects by prostrating themselves on the ground, forehead to earth.
At many places on route to the temple, there were interesting sights. Small stupas, small pagoda constructions which house the spirit of Buddha dotted the landscape. We stopped at a larger sight where there was a small temple nestled up in the hillside. At the foot of the hill, just off the road and through some trees, stood an enormous statue of a Buddha flanked on either side by stupas. In front of the Buddha ran a burpling river which meandered down from the mountain. Stupas are common across the Buddhist world but Korean ones are very distinct with small bells hanging from the corners of each protrusuion. The stupa tapers into a pointed spire. Like other Buddha statues I had seen in Korea, a large stone like ‘hat’ sat on his head, from this one hung a large bees’ nest. From the nearby temple drifted the sound of a monk chanting and striking his small, spherical wooden percussion instrument made from hollowed out oak. It makes a hypnotic sound when continual tapped. Behind the Buddha was wall housing twenty or so class cases each containing a life-size Buddha in a different pose. In front of the statue stood a stone table where visitor placed offering of food for the monks, bags of rice or fruits and nuts. Those making offerings lit joss sticks and then prostrated themselves in front of the Buddha. There were several elderly women who had been busy prostrating themselves for the entire 20 minutes of our visit. U-chun told me a respectable number of prostrations is ten but if you want to be particularly devoted you perform 180. This is no mean feat as a complete prostration begins and ends from a standing position.
Eventually, after a further journey, we parked the car in a large car park high in the mountains and joined the enormous conga of people progressing up to Haeinsa Temple. The walk talks about an hour. In places the climb was quite steep. One of the first sites we stopped at was a pond, called the -Yong-ji. This lay just outside the entrance to the Haeinsa complex. According to the legend, seven sons wanted to become monks and left home to travel to Haeinsa. Later, longing for her sons, their mother travelled the long distance to visit them but as they had already taken their vows, they could not see her in person. Instead, they looked at each other’s reflection in the pond.
The temple complex was full of fascinating sights. The elaborate art work of the central temple, which housed a golden Buddha, consisted of intricate patterns of blue, green, orange and gold. Inside the main temple, monks prayed in front of the large golden Buddha, the air scented by both spring and incense. The Haeinsa Temple, was built in the Shilla (57bc-935ad) period though it was destroyed by a fire and rebuilt in the 15th century. The temple houses the Triptaka Koreana which is the most extensive Buddhist text and is written on 82000 wooden engravings. The text is in the process of being translated. The wooden engravings are housed in outhouses surrounding the main temple.
After spending several hours in the temple, we walked down the mountain and headed to a picnic area further into the Kayasan range. Koreans love to picnic and are well equipped with picnic mats, barbecues and baskets and when the finish, they meticulously tidy away all their mess. U-chun had cooked pulgogi and chap’che – a fried noodle dish with pork and beef through it. As usual the meal was accompanied with kimchee. After the meal we drove back to Daegu.
On Saturday, the Yon San Dong school had planned a staff trip to Kyong Ju (경주). Matt and I took a taxi down to the school to meet the mini bus. All the western teachers went except for Lisa who never seems to want to mix with anyone but who, in fairness, has been ill during the week. She continually moans anyway, so perhaps is it a good thing. There were four Korean staff coming with us, To-yung, Amy, Meg (who has a mouthful of wonky, impacted teeth and who looks like one of the Cenobite’s from Clive Barker’s ‘Hellraiser,’) and Qui-Aie. We all brought packed lunches and set off in high spirits. I can’t remember if I have previously mentioned the significance of Kyong Ju, but it was at one time the capital of the Shilla (57bc-975ad) dynasty. Between approximately 40bc and 400ad the peninsula was divided into three kingdoms – the Shilla, Koguryo and Paekche. Around 400ad, the Shilla dynasty, situated in the east and militarily very powerful, overthrew the other kingdoms and united the peninsula. The Shilla dynasty ruled until approx 900ad. Needless to say the area is full of interesting sights and it is particularly famous for its spring blossoms.
Kyong Ju isn’t a large city but when we arrived it was teeming with people on bicycles hired from one of numerous shops. Matt shared a tandem with the Cenobite and the rest of us all hired standard bicycles and headed off to the nearby Shilla tombs. The most impressive tomb in the site we visited was the Heavenly Horse Tomb. Though several other tombs lay in the same location, only this tomb had been excavated and inside a coffin and 15 items, including a sword of 98cm long. The tombs are all large mounds and the Heavenly Horse Tomb had been hollowed out so we were able to walk around inside it. Nearby was the oldest observatory in Asia and this was a large circular building made of stone. From here we went to the Kyong-ju National Museum which lay next to the Anapj (Goose and Lake). In 1972 the lake was temporarily drained and over 41.000 artefacts were found which now appear in the museum. Outside the museum was a large bell known as the Emelie Bell. Apparently this bell was cast in the ninth century and its unusual tone is attributed to the fact that a baby was thrown into the smelting metal during its casting.
We ate lunch in the gardens of the museum and then set of to visit a large lake outside the town. The cycle took ages and all along the route cherry blossom showered onto us like snow whenever a breeze blew. Pauline found the cycle strenuous and no matter how many times we asked where we were going, how long the cycle was likely to take, or how far it was, our host Koreans avoided our questions. After an hour or so cycling, Matt decided to stop and complain. We had all become split up and there were thousands of other cyclists travelling in both directions along our route. Despite our protestations, Qui-Aie wanted to push ahead and as soon as she saw Pauline struggling in the distance, she continued cycling with renewed vigour. I actually think it was part of her master plan to stop us getting together and moaning. After about another fifteen minutes, we reached this large lake which sat on top of a hill. All around the edge of the lake the cycle path could be traced by the line of cherry blossom. At the far end of the lake stood an enormous pagoda which I later discovered was a Hilton Hotel. On a large grass bank teeming with relaxing Koreans, we sat and had some refreshments bought from nearby stalls. We thought we would be able to sit and enjoy the beautiful scenery but under the leadership of ‘Hitler Tours,’ other plans were afoot.
All to soon Qui-aie and the other Koreans ushered us to continue cycling towards the Hotel. It was an awkward cycle as the path an narrowed and was packed with walkers and cyclists in an enormous conga that seemed to travel in both directions unbroken, around the lake. As is natural, Koreans didn’t get stressed with the incompetent cyclists who frequently blocked out passage or slowed our journey. I don’t think Koreans are very well organised in terms of driving on the roads, walking in packed supermarkets or cycling. Mopeds and motorbikes can be seen everyday using the pavements and I regularly see potential accidents about to occur. In busy supermarkets they will push and shove each other in order to squeeze through little gaps. They do exactly the same when driving yet rarely do they loose their tempers or get stressed. Matt and I have a time limit when we shop in a supermarket – usually about half an hour, after which we deteriorate into a frustrated state. On the path around the lake there seemed no consensus about which side of the pavement to cycle on and it seemed total chaos to us westerners. We cycled for another half an hour, making painfully slow progress and on the few occasions on which I stopped to take a photograph, I was made to feel I was wasting time. Next, I suggested we stop because we had lost Pauline. Twenty minutes later and she appeared in the distance and immediately, Qui-aie jumped on her bike. Matt wouldn’t get on his and was looking very cross.
‘Are you alright?’ I asked. He didn’t look up.
‘If there’s one thing I fucking hate it’s being asked if I’m alright when I’m fucking not,’ he snarled. Qui-aie was still trying to prompt us to cycle and I said we were going to wait for Pauline so she could take a break.
However, it wasn’t long before Qui-aie was leading us towards the fast approaching hotel. Soon, the path turned away from the lake. Our Korean guides, ‘Hitler Tours,’ grouped up ahead and were busy talking. I joked that they were probably deciding whose job it was going to be to tell us that we still had another few hours cycle ahead of us. Suddenly, To-yung told us we were turning towards the town and that we would be back at the minibus in some 20 minutes. We were momentarily relieved as this is Korea and Koreans and often lacking in organisation.
After more cycling, I noticed that the fairground wheel which had lain behind the hotel now lay behind us and that we were in fact travelling towards Kyong-ju but by the longest route; around the perimeter of the lake. We were some two hours cycle away from the point at which we had arrived at the lake’s shore. Here we were in this beautiful location with cafes and boat rides and wonderful sights and all we were doing was racing amongst a huge conga of cyclists and walkers. At one point there was an enormous hold up and bikes were knocking into each other all over the place – which no one minded except us westerners. When some silly Korean in front of us, braked for no reason and then blocked our way we cursed but the facial expression of the perpetrator was one of innocence and bewilderment. There was a long lay-by next to us, lines with market stalls, not one Korean in the enormous hold up, broke ranks to circumnavigate the jam. I moved into the empty road, calling for Angela to follow me and within minutes there was a long clear path in front of us. For some fifteen minutes we flew down the almost empty path and when we reached the main road at the bottom, we had to wait forty minutes before we all re-grouped. Angela spent our time leering at sexy Korean lads and we both agreed that westerners are mutant mongrels by comparison. Our hair is assorted colours and textures, we have pallid skin, yellow teeth and we are usually fatter than Koreans.
The rest of our party eventually appeared, free-wheeling down the hill towards us but they did not look very happy, apparently, they had waited for us assuming we must have got held up. By now a tense silence had developed between the Korean and foreign teachers. We arrived back in Kyong-ju city centre, tired and with sore backsides but of course, once we had handed our bicycles back, ‘Hitler Tours’ wouldn’t allow us time to get a coffee or an ice-cream. Instead, it was straight back and onto the bus! Back in Song-so the foreign teachers went for a drink in the Elvis Bar which isn’t far from Kemyoung University. Tomorrow, April 8th, is Pauline’s birthday.
On Wednesday I went to the doctor’s to get my gout pills and to have Bill, the hernia, checked out. Bill hasn’t been bothering me lately though he is still there and pops in and out with a sort of squidgy, jelly-like feeling. Doctor Lee always wants to have a chat and practice his quite competent English. I asked him to check Bill out as I was worried it might be a cancer of something. I have multiple cancers at the moment and develop new ones regularly. He looked at me quite strangely when I told him this and so I had to explain that whenever I get a headache, a pain or a blemish, I assume it’s a potential cancer. He got to work with the ultra-sound and then showed me, by way of the monitor, that a small lump of fat was moving between different layers of my stomach muscle. He assured me it wasn’t a hernia or anything serious. I love my trip to the doctors as he is the first doctor I have ever had that actually I actually refer to as ‘my doctor.’ He genuinely seems interested in me and always asks if there is anything else wrong with me or anything he can do. No matter how long I take at the doctors, no matter whether five minutes or fifty minutes, the cost is always 10.000W which is less than five pounds. Even if one assumes the cost of living to be four less than in the UK, that puts my doctor’s fee at around £20. When my mother went to a specialist over five years ago she was charged £60. My doctor is actually an internal medicine specialist! It’s strange that my health seems more protected and guaranteed here in Korea than it is is the smug world of the ‘developed west.’ Even the poodle parlours here offer a better service than does the British NHS! Teachers like Matt and Angela from New Zealand all prefer the Korean medical system. We all seem to have access to drugs and medicine seen as too expensive to provide freely in our home countries. After my monthly trip to my doctor I went and relaxed at the sauna. I have been going to the mokyuktang several times a week.
My Taekwondo has been progressing very well and now it is warmer I have suffer less injuries. Spring is almost over and already we have had temperatures in the 80’s. Korea has a spring and autumn of only three weeks or a month and has long winters and summers. The blossom has fallen from the trees and now the streets around Song So are being lined with pink and yellow lanterns in readiness for Buddha’s birthday (May 1st of this years lunar calendar). I often train for forty five minutes at lunchtime either stretching at home or in my club. My stretching programme has paid off and I am able to do exercises I haven’t done for fifteen years or so. I can sit in a hurdler’s straddle and almost put my head on my knee and I can sit on my knees and lean right back so my shoulders are on the floor. From this position I can do sit-ups. My axe kick, one of my favourite and formerly most devastating kicks, is almost as good as it was when I took my black belt. I now have a purple belt and my blue belt exam I will take in a few weeks time. After blue, I will have brown, red, red and black belts to take before I can finally take my black belt exam. I would be quite content to go home with a brown belt but gaining a black belt is within my grasp. I realise how unfit I have become in the last four years – all due to sitting at a computer writing and riding a motorcycle. It has taken me a lot of effort to get fitter and a few months ago I was going to give up Taekwondo for good.