Land of Morning Calm
By: Helen Booth, Calgary, Canada
Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant
Midsummer in South Korea means the crops have been
planted in the countryside, and the intense humidity is unrelenting.
Endless rice paddies filled the view from the train on which my
thirteen-year old daughter, Wendy, and I rode this day from
our city of Miryang, in Kyongsangnam-do ('do' means 'province').
Located in a predominantly rural area, Miryang is three hundred
fifty kilometers south-east of Seoul, and seventy-five
kilometers north of the port city of Pusan which, during the Korean
War, became the capital of Korea after the capture of Seoul.
Miryang used to have a factory where utilitarian clay pots and finer
porcelain were made, but the factory became a casualty of the 1990's
Asian monetary crisis. Hanguk Fibreglass is now the biggest
employer. For the past nine months, I had been teaching English-as-a-second-language
at ECC - English Centers for Children - a private language institute
that offers classes to students from kindergarten to adults.
Many people have asked me what may have motivated
me to go to South Korea to teach English. In 1999, when I
was 'between jobs', a friend challenged me: "Helen, you have
a degree, and you can walk and talk...Why don't you teach English
in South Korea?" I had never even THOUGHT of doing such
a thing, but three months later, Wendy and I were on the airplane,
with a stopover in Hawaii for five days before we flew on to South
Korea. Little did we know that our final destination, Miryang,would
be just a few kilometers - over low hills and through a series
of fertile valleys - from Pugok ("Caldron Valley") Hot
Springs, or "Bugok Hawaii" as it is euphemistically known
because of the tropical theme of the country's hottest natural sulphur
spring. Discovered in 1973, it is also the country's newest.
Train rides in South Korea provided great opportunities
for us to study 'what makes Korea tick'. From our train on this
particular Saturday in June 2000, we saw apple orchards, vineyards,
rice paddies - and more rice paddies - cities with red brick churches,
along with rows and rows of huge apartment buildings. The
passengers came from all walks of life - old and young, students,
soldiers, mothers with small children, and the odd 'foreigner'.
How I hated being called a 'foreigner'. I vowed then and there
in South Korea, I would never refer to someone as a 'foreigner'
if I could possibly avoid calling him a 'foreigner'.
South Koreans surely know how to run a railroad
- cleanly starched headrests on every seat, regular train service
to all parts of the country, courteous ticket agents, conductors,
flag men - all with some knowledge of English. Because so
many people travel by train in this country, the Korean National
Railroad uses the train as a vehicle for communication. One
of my mementos is a railroad pamphlet with a photo of Kim Dae Jung,
South Korea's (then) President and his North Korean counterpart,
Kim Jong Il, after their historic meeting in 2000.
On we went... through the cities of Dondaegu, Taejon,
and Chonju where we took a taxi to the small town of Chinan.
Known for its mushrooms and 'insam' (ginseng), Chinan is also the
gateway to Mai-san, or Horse's Ears Mountain ('san' means 'mountain').
Three trains and a 30-minute taxi ride seem like a lot of travelling
for a weekend. However, our destination, situated between
the peaks of Mai-san, i.e.,T'ap-sa - Pagoda Temple ('sa' means
'temple') - would make it all worthwhile... or so my students
had assured me. T'ap-sa is a collection of eighty neatly stacked,
rock-piled conical towers - created over a thirty-year period by
one Yi Kap-yong, a hermit who made this valley his home.
Once we had settled in our cozy hotel room
at the base of Mai-san that evening, we retired early as we were
eager to take advantage of the cool air the next morning
for the start of our hike. Korea is, after all, 'the
land of the morning calm'.
Following Sunday's breakfast of 'Bibinbap'
- edible greens, red pepper paste and raw egg atop boiled rice -
we began the hike by climbing five hundred steps. Yes...
five hundred of them! One of my students had counted them
on her trip. After the steps, there was a "V" -
a choice between two paths. Both Wendy and I asked fellow
hikers if we were on the path to T'ap-sa, and we both got positive
answers. Well, we climbed and we climbed. I am not a
mountain climber and I never want to be one. This was a treacherous
climb - straight up - and the terrain very rocky. All I could
think of was even when/if? I got to the pagodas, I would have to
make the descent afterwards! The ascent was VERY steep.
I, like most of the other hikers, was wearing running shoes.
Unlike the others, I, alone,was wishing I had been wearing
complete climbing gear.
Wendy was saying all the right things: "It's
okay, Mum. We don't have to hurry." "Take
your time." "Do you want to stop for awhile?"
I told myself that were it not for the fact that we had made
such an effort to get here, i.e., travelling on three trains, I
would have turned around and gone back without seeing the pagodas,
regardless of their fame in Korea! I was petrified - numb
is more like it- and, yes, I did pray- to remain calm, to be guided,
to be reassured. I also forced myself to think of all the
positive experiences that Wendy and I had shared with South Koreans,
so proud of their nation's rich history, as they continue to rebuild
the nation and plan for its reunification (with North Korea) in
the years to come.
These were some random thoughts: in Miryang
our church was near my school. Students always brought family
members over to meet us. Teachers are very respected in South
Korea, and education is highly valued. Sunday lunch after
church was always served to all. I smiled as I recalled
there was absolutely no escaping lunch: sitting cross-legged and
using chopsticks to eat noodles - with all the 'ajumahs' (grandmothers)
crowding around to watch us! We once attended a youth
church music service that was standing room only, where the drummer
was so enthusiastic he broke a drumstick. At a dinner
to which we had been invited in the home of an American
professor and his Korean wife, we had a chance meeting with
Miss Li. She is a wonderful teacher whose parents' hard work
in farming red peppers enables their children to have rich life
experiences that have, to date, eluded these parents. It had
been Miss Li who helped us with our itinerary for this
visit to T'ap-sa.
I remembered that Wendy had spent many happy hours
playing with my student, Hanna, whose family attends church
every day: her mother a teacher, her father a bank manager and her
older brother who hopes to study at a Canadian university.
They had once invited Wendy to join them skiing at Muju Ski Resort.
On my birthday, they had taken us to Pulguk-sa, a revered temple
filled with National Treasures. It was built in the year 751
in Kyongju, Korea's most celebrated cultural city with artifacts
dating from the time of the ancient Shilla Kingdom.
Amethysts, my birthstone, are mined in South Korea,
and it came to mind that I never would have visited the amethyst
cave I had read about, were it not for a kind student who gave up
a day off to drive me through the mountains near Orum-gol (Ice Valley)
to see this incredible cave. When my lips got dry, I thought
of the delights of teas that I had experienced in this country:
yam tea, brown rice and Job's tears tea, plum tea, wild berry tea,
brown rice green tea, strawberry black tea, persimmon leaves tea,
corn tea, mugwort tea, and even lavender and hibiscus teas!
However, it soon became apparent to me
that we were not heading to T'ap-sa: WE WERE CLIMBING THE PEAK OF
MAI-SAN! In my mind's eye, I could locate T'ap-sa on
the hotel's map: the pagodas are between the peaks of Mai-san:
we were climbing the higher of the two "ears"!!Wendy had
realized this sooner than I, but had not dared to tell me!
Putting one foot carefully ahead of the other, praying, refraining
from looking down and from letting "defeatist" thoughts overwhelm
me eventually enabled me to wearily enjoy the view from Mai-san's
summit. Success came in the form of exhaustion.
In retrospect, I know that my 673-metre ascent was
successful, in part, because of the actions of my cool-headed daughter,
and also thanks to three strangers - Chinese men on a university
exchange - on the path ahead of us. One fellow spoke fairly
good English. He was married, an expert on trees, and his wife
was at home in China with their young son. The sight of his
outstretched arm/hand to me, and his encouraging smile became
all the more welcoming the higher we climbed. We talked about
our lives for the hour or so that his hand became my vital
link: I learned of his work and family, his faith in God, and
in turn told him of my home and church in Canada, and my work
and family. This kind stranger's reassurance as
I progressed ever so cautiously upwards was the answer to my
earlier prayers. On the descent, after a brief period of rest,
I was less hesitant to grasp his hand. I readily returned
his and his two fellow countrymen's smiles.
We all hiked on to T'ap-sa, and were amazed by the
hermit's dedication: the pagodas are in reality a masterpiece created
by hand without mortar. Most of the rocks used in the
pagodas were the rubble that had fallen from Mai-san's peaks.
Although fragile and unsteady-looking, none of the eighty structures
has ever been blown over by the wind that sometimes rushes through
this gorge. We now knew - firsthand - why T'ap-sa is visited
year-round by millions in South Korea!
Yes, later Wendy and I COULD laugh about
our experience, and, yes, we did find the guidebook's clear explanation
about the "V" in the road where we had erred. In
the quiet of our hotel room, where I jotted down some of what
I had said to Wendy as we made the climb: "Don't push me"
(when she reached in my daypack for the water bottle!!), "No-one
will ever understand what I've been through", "It's the
closest to hysteria I've been since I arrived in Korea",
(choke, sob), I was mindful that on Mai'san, we were really not
alone or in danger - that help was always near at hand (literally).
What lessons did climbing South Korea's Mai-san
M ums and daughters make
A lways keep the
I t is important
to read the guidebook carefully
S trangers may turn out
to be 'angels on one's shoulder'
A dults can learn from
N ever give
It is great to reflect on the 'angels' who helped
with our adventures in South Korea. The three Chinese climbers were
only one of our encounters with 'angels', but one which, with my
daughter's help, made my ascent of Mai-San that hot summer's
day such an exhilarating - yes, life-changing - travel experience!