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Finding peace in Korea’s mountains

Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “Going to another country doesn’t make any difference¡¦I’ve tried all that. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that.” He was right. Moving to Korea hadn¡¯t solved any of the problems I sought to escape. It hadn¡¯t salved the melancholy feeling from leaving my beautiful ex-girlfriend behind in Georgia, nor had my job as an English teacher provided an immediate financial solution to the debt I incurred in college. I struggled to adapt but was confounded with the challenges of learning a new language, a culture, and ultimately confronting my own personal demons in a summer rainstorm on the side of a mountain.

From my classroom window on the 7th floor, I looked out to the dirty-gray skyline of Wonju. There were towering apartment buildings in all directions. They resembled Soviet era housing projects. There were factories with blue chimneys pumping noxious fumes into the sky above. Smog hung inside the city and many people sported surgical masks on the streets.  My students were adults. They were mostly engineers for one of the Korean conglomerates or chaebol such as LG, SAMSUNG, or DOO-SAN. As students they were committed learners but they seemed rather dissatisfied with their careers, often working 60-70 hours weekly.  They followed Confucianism, the most pervasive, quasi-religious influence on Korean society today. It is a not a democratic philosophy, but a relationship of respect and submission between master and servant. It seemed archaic at the time and it was difficult to find my place as a foreigner in this unusual vertical hierarchy of life.

I was desperate to make new friends, frustrated by the language barriers before me, and was overall disillusioned with what I thought would be the land of the morning calm. The isolation and culture-shock had climaxed, rendering me deaf, mute, and illiterate; I was socially paralyzed.  Later that year, when the rainy season ended in mid-August, my perspectives of Korea had shifted yet again. I began to learn the basics of the Hangul language and I¡¯d come to terms with an un-repairable relationship stateside. At this point, I was still a visitor, not an inhabitant of this new land.

There was something that drew my eyes up to the mountains. They were green and virgin. No buildings stood on them except the Buddhist temples. The natural innocence of the mountains contrasted against the sprawl in the cities below. Korean Families went there to bury their dead on the mountains and returned annually to worship them in a ceremony called ki. Of the nine deities of Korean Shamanism, one of the most revered is the San-Shin, or the spirit of the mountain. I became fascinated with the sanctity of these mountains, and why the Koreans regarded them in such high esteem. The following weekend, I set out to answer that question. I established my itinerary and planned to travel to Taebaek-San or Taebaek Mountain in the Gangwon Do province in the northeastern corner of the country. Traveling through the province would be difficult without a hired car, so I resolved to find an alternative.

There was a junked bicycle, abandoned in front of my apartment, with a flat tire and busted brake lines. It was painted red and yellow, the chain and crank had rusted badly. It said ¡°Made in China¡± below the plastic seat. With 4,000.00 won and a few turns with a monkey wrench, I had reliable transportation. The following weekend, I made plans to escape the city, to do some hiking in the Taebaek Mountains far away from the pulse of downtown.

After a late breakfast of kimbap on Saturday morning I left on the bike for the winding roads of Gangwon-Do. I rode out of the city and into the countryside, through rice fields, past apple orchards, and over the high passes of the Taekbaek range. When I arrived at the trailhead it was dusk. There was an older couple sharing a bowl of rice and kimchi under kerosene lamps. They were squatting on the ground in front of their hut. They kindly summoned me in Hangul to join them. I obliged. We could only communicate in simple gestures and they spoke in an accent I didn¡¯t understand. When the spoken word fails, facial expressions and hand gestures conquer all. The meal was delicious and gave me the strength I needed to ascend. We said goodbye and I rode up further up the trail on the decrepit Chinese bicycle.

I locked the bike down and started climbing up into the mountain. The damp ground was soft underfoot.  My lamp shone bright on the trail ahead. There was a profundity of flying and crawling insects that were drawn to the light. There were poisonous snakes here too. The Korean short tailed viper (Gloydius saxatilis) would be out hunting tonight. My timid steps were carefully placed in the direction that led upward on the lightly worn trail. After two hours of climbing through thick brush, my legs fatigued. I was tired.

There was thick grass growing inside. The edges were flanked by tall Korean pines (Pinus koraiensis) on all except the Eastern end. The Eastern end backed up to a rock face where moss covered boulders stood silently. The clearing made a great camp but also perfect habitat for vipers. There was a strong wind blowing in from the North. The dank odor of evergreens rode along the breeze. The needles rustled above me. Heavy pine boughs swayed with the rhythm of the wind. I felt the first gentle drops of rain pepper my face. Between the gusts, it was calm in the night drizzle. The rain was coming but not now. I had to make fire quickly.
An old pine had fallen from a previous storm some days earlier, and it stunk of turpentine. The oily center of the stump would burn easily, even in a heavy downpour of rain. I took the kindling to the boulder and within an hour, the fire was burning bright. I hung my boots to dry and feelings of warmth and safety came over me. I was entranced by the dancing flames. I listened to the hisses, cracks, and pops of the wet wood burning in the rain. I feared no snake now, as a good fire brightens up the darkest of nights. The Siberian Tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) once prowled in these mountains a hundred years earlier before the Japanese-Korean war, industrialization, and urban development drove the beast out of the Korean peninsula. I imagined a time when men slept here restlessly in the night, in fear of the great hunter, but guarded by the fire.

I gazed deeper into the flames, enchanted by the light. Time paused. I thought of how many men had stared into the same flame over the eons of time and been lost in the suck of the orange glow. The negatives in my mind ceased for once. I felt in tune to the ways of the mountain. My world was amber and smoky. I lay back against the boulder and closed my eyes. I was unhindered by language barriers, rigid socio-religious structures, and liberated from the troubles of my heart.

Languages are only different arrangements of sounds and letters. Religions are but branches of a great tree, and time does heal a broken heart.  The wind picked up and I heard the sound of rain pounding in from the forest. I opened my eyes and sat up in the darkness. Wind gusted and the rain came down in sheets. Sparks showered in the wind. I didn¡¯t move from where I was. Everything seemed peacefully connected to the mountain.

In the Hangul language of the Korean people there is a phrase they use  to describe connections among living and non-living things called ¡°¹° ¾Æ ÀÏ Ã¼ ¡°. Muil-il-Chae, which translates to mean ¡°when the ego, the physical, and the spiritual world in nature collide as one¡±. When I left the next morning, I was soaking wet from the rain, but restored, rejuvenated, and finally at home in Korea. I had never felt so alive before. Mountains do speak, but if you¡¯re only willing to listen to the San Shin.

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