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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 teach me? 

            M        ums and daughters make good teams

            A        lways keep the faith!
            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 children

            N        ever give up!

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!    


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