Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Surviving Jirisan

Because the letter “j” in Jirisan is pronounced with a decided “chuh” sound, this tallest mountain cluster in mainland Korea sounds like the word “cheery san.” A more likely misnomer never existed.

The first time I heard about the Jirisan mountains was after one of my co-workers, an avid hiker, returned from a trip with a severely injured knee. She could barely walk and hobbled about the office, only now and then referring to her trip, with a certain bitterness, as being the hardest hike in Korea.

"Oh, cheery-san, horrible cheery-san," she would moan as she limped through the university grounds.

I was interested in hiking, certainly not the dreadful cheery-san, but an easy, pretty little mountain would do. I received a FB message from someone I'd met at a party. His name was Warren, and he was a dedicated hiking leader. The message was an invitation to me and a number of other people, to trek though Jirisan. The problem was that as I read this word, I mentally pronounced it "jeer-esun."

In blissful ignorance of the actual destination, I replied to Warren's message by asking a few questions. What was the difficulty level of the hike? I was fit, but had not done mountain hiking since visiting Hawaii five years ago. Would this be a problem for me? Oh no, Warren quickly responded. It was an easy hike; even small children would be skipping along the trail.

Warren was an optimist.

And so was I.

I boarded the bus for Jirisan at 11:30 pm on a Friday night, as part of a group of about 40 hikers. The ride to the mountains took several hours and then, still sleepless, we began our hike before dawn. Our hiking group was comprised of all different nationalities, though mostly everyone was communicating with each other in English. Before leaving the bus, Warren, our group leader, suggested that we should all form mini-groups of five so that no one would get lost or left behind. This resolution was disbanded shortly after we started the trail and everyone immediately determined their own individual pace. While reasonably fit, I had not trekked a mountain in almost five years. The earliest section of the hike was easy, with a wide, smooth, clearly-marked path. Inspite of being tired, the autumn chill and excitement tempered my mood, so that my body felt alert and I climbed the first few hours with ease.

Going up the mountain was only a slight challenge. We set out in the pre-dawn, and as I had no torch, I kept my pace slow, but silvery threads of moonlight shone down through the trees and cast sufficient light, so that I managed to reach one of the lower summits before dawn and waited, with a cluster of other hikers, to see the sunrise. We could not see much in the way of bold colour change – Jirisan is infamously famous for holding back on its sunrise displays, but the subtle softening of the sky as it digressed from a rich black to mother-of-pearl grey to pale, almost-transparent blue was still lovely to witness. The lifting of darkness revealed clouds halo-ing the mountain tops below us, so that the mountain peaks appeared to be islands floating in a creamy, misty lake.

The path had pretty vistas, but continued to lead further and further up the mountains. It lead through forests with trees that still had the remnants of brilliant scarlet and gold leaves. There was a thin, silvery stripe of water running through the mountains and, at places, stone fountains built for easy access to the mountain springs. As I went along, the path grew more narrow and steeper. It was also treacherous considering the large number of rocks and boulders strewn in the path. I began to worry that, like my co-worker, I would also twist my leg as I shakingly set it down on the large, sharp rocks that decorated the latter part of the trail.

Midway through the hike, I came upon a clearing that had a cabin for those who chose to spend the night, and wooden benches and tables for those who were hungry. Also around this area, there were mounds or cairns, where rocks had been carefully piled by hikers passing through.

I fell further behind the group and only maintained any sort of momentum at all out of shame as the wizened little adjuma who appeared on the trail in front of me leant down and grabbed boulders in the path with both her hands and then leapt over them, like a determined gnome in a fairy tale.

After about 6 hours of climbing the mountains, my legs were starting to shake. I'd already begun the twisting descent of the trail and was feeling a drain to my energy. I was tired, never having slept the night before, and though I "exercised" nearly every night by dancing, different muscles in my legs were now being called to use, muscles that I'd never even noticed as a part of my body until they protested for me to stop torturing them and rest.

But at this point, I was alone, behind the others on the trail. I was slow, so much slower than the other hikers, a large number of whom hiked several times a month. So I stubbornly pushed my body forward.

The real challenge of the trek was not, as I had originally anticipated, going up the mountain. No, the hardest point was coming down the mountain. The path was strewn with a series of rough-edged, grey boulders, both large and small, and these were a constant threat for either stumbling and twisting an ankle or sliding off. The fact that I was not wearing athletic footwear did not help. I am not so dim as to not appreciate the value of athletic footwear; it was just that the brand new sneakers I had brought to Korea turned out to be a half-size too small. To compensate for this, I bought a daisy-patterned pair of Vans which were a half-size too big. On the positive side, they had been on sale for only 20,000won ($18). On the negative side, the soles’ level of traction was equivalent to satin, which meant I could potentially slip and fall to my death. But since I’m more of a glass-half-full kind of girl, I decided to concentrate on the daisy pattern and not falling. My optimism, however, failed to quench the physical pain that ensued during the last hour of climbing down the mountain. Every step down resulted in a shock of pain in my knees. It felt as though invisible men were pounding them with mallets, without any intention of stopping before each knee had turned into a quivering mass of jelly. I did not complain, nor did the people around me complain, but I noticed that several hikers’ legs were shaking and did not stop shaking until we’d ended the hike.

Finally, around mid-day, I stumbled out of the forest, to the small town at the end of the mountain. This was where our bus had driven and was waiting to take us to the nearby city of Namwon, the city of love.

Ending the hike a rough 12 km from where we’d begun, our group ended in a small town on the other side of the mountain. The group seemed smaller than before, but I couldn't be sure. I had been so tired on the bus ride over and had been sitting at the front of the bus. Perhaps it had not been full on the ride over. It certainly was not full now, as we wearily trooped onto it for the drive to Namwon. In Namwon, we’d been promised festivals, romantic legends, a musical performance, and a type of porridge special to that region of Seoul.

“Well,” said Warren, looking around at our group, “we may have left a few people back on the mountain.”

We waited a while for the dilatory hikers to show, but the rest of our day had been divided into a fairly strict schedule. There was music to hear, drums to beat, porridge to eat! As much sympathy I felt for those few people left on the mountain, my biggest motivation in joining this tip was not in scaling the mountain, but coming down the other side so that I could do the fun cultural activities as promised. Namwon was the proverbial carrot on the stick for me. I then felt happy, with only the smallest possible twinge of guilt, when Warren decided the group would continue on to Namwon and he would stay in contact with the other hikers via cell phone.

In Namwon, we gathered for a much-needed dinner. There were dozens of different food items laid out on the long tables, as we sat crossed legged on the floor in front of them. There was a reddish-orange porridge that was special to the area and a type of fish that was decidedly pungent and delicious, in addition to the dozens of items I could not name but that probably contained some form of seaweed, tofu, rice, or a combination of the three.

After dinner, we were given about 30 minutes to explore the town. Quite frankly, this was done at my demand. We had been told beforehand that we were going to spend several hours in Namwon, but after dinner, Warren attempted to hustle us on the bus, saying that we'd taken too much time in trekking. No, I insisted, half entreatingly, half demandingly. I'd dragged myself hours up and down the mountains in anticipation of arriving at this famous city. I would not leave until I'd at least walked around a bit. Warren kindly relented and I walked through the city with the contentedness of a cat before cream.

The legend about the lovers of Namwon is really quite famous throughout the country -- I've even listened to a Korea opera sung about it -- and I was excited to see its romantic origin, remotely similar to Romeo and Juliet, but with a happier ending.

As I stood looking down the street, I noticed a long black car slowly approaching. It had a floral wreath tied to the hood and drove at such a slow, somber pace that I lowered my head, believing it to be a funeral car. Imagine my surprise, then, when I looked at the trunk and saw a doll-like young bride dressed in a long, red Hanbok and sitting among piles of brightly coloured flowers. There were red and yellow and pink ribbons wound about her hands. Following the car was a young man, his wrists bound by the other end of these same ribbons, motivating him to trot along behind the car at a steady pace.

(different honeymoon car in Namwon)

After we’d spent a while in Namwon proper, having seen the sights and having eaten our pumpkin porridge, we boarded the bus once again and drove to the music and culture center, which was located on the outskirts of Namwon. Trimmed into the ground shrubbery behind this huge building was a series of silhouettes of a man with a guitar-like instrument. We were late in entering the building, so the attendants of the music center quickly rushed us into an upstairs room that had a large, empty wooden floor and a slightly elevated stage filled with instruments. In spite of our tardiness, we were given a complete, if abbreviated, performance for several traditional forms of Korean music. A woman – someone from the group translated for us – requested that we politely clap after all the performances. Another woman then shyly entered the stage and sat behind an instrument that had the appearance of a keyboard but the resonance of a harp. First, she played a traditional Korean melody. We all listened quietly and then politely clapped. And then, in case we were homesick for standard American tunes, she played the Beatle’s “Let It Be” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The latter is a favorite of mine and I clapped with more enthusiasm than was polite after she’d finished her performance.

Next, two other women, beautifully attired in pastel hanbok, came to the stage. One of the women kneeled in front of a large pansori (drum) at stage left and the other woman took center stage.

Perhaps feeling that the crowd was not participating enough, one of the Korean singers then led us in a sing along, which can generously be dubbed "an interesting performance" considering that most of us had trouble saying "bibimbap" in Korean, much less doing a listen and repeat of the turbulently high-pitched lines in traditional Korean opera. One of the few girls who possessed dual proficiency in English and Korean later explained the meaning of the song to us. Apparently, we’d been attempting to sing a song that was not just romantic but rather risqué: please come to my bedroom, please climb on my back, please be my monkey of love we’d sung with quavering seriousness. That’s traditional Korea for you. At least they used "please."

The ride back from Namwon to Seoul was uneventful, except for the fact that at this time Warrent revealed the stats to the hikers who remained. Out of the 40 people who started the hike, 18 had been left on the mountain. All the time I had believed I was one of the slowest hikers was not exactly true. I was merely one of the slowest out of the fast group. What's slightly more alarming is that out of the 18 left on the mountain, only 16 eventually made it back by themselves. Two of the hikers had to be airlifted off the mountain, due to exhaustion and the intense muscular pain of the hike.

(The lovers of Namwon: TLA or just another hiker being carried off the mountain?)

Vacation Buddha School

"Don't eat the radish!" my neighbor whispered fiercely to me, a slight murmur that delicately broke the air as we ate breakfast in silence at the Bubheungsa Temple in Gangwon-do.

"I wasn't going to eat the radish," I hissed back, which earned a stern look of disapproval from the Korean-to-English translator. The monk in charge kindly pretended not to hear.

The monastic breakfast was a complicated procedure, and intense considering it was meant to replicate simplicity and man's commune with the farmers and fields that created it. First, we quietly arranged the set of bowls and utensils we'd been given. I unfolded the brown place cloth and laid it in front of the thin mat on which I sat, cross-legged. Next, I carefully arranged the four bowls. The rice bowl I placed at the front left, next to the soup bowl. The side foods bowl belonged directly behind the rice bowl, and across from it was the rinsing bowl.

Small portions of the food were then ladled by servers into our bowls. Next, the communal bowls of food were passed around a second time, where we could take a second serving if we were so inclined. However, we had to be very careful not to take more food than we could eat. In order to honor the farmers and spice harvesters, we were bidden not to leave a single grain of rice in our bowl, not even a speck of spice was to be wasted.

Even the actual process of eating was something of an art. To eat in a polite and proper manner, we were to hold a bowl with our left hand and tip it upwards so that our mouth was modestly covered the entire time. Our right hands held the wooden chopsticks to bring the food into our mouths. Because of this, our breakfast took a while to consume -- nearly two hours. For some people, such as myself, it was difficult enough to eat using chopsticks, much less while hiding my face and scooping out every speck of food.

It was not until every white grain of rain, every red flake of spice had been consumed that we could wash our bowls with the drinking water and scrub them clean with the bright yellow slice of pickled radish. Following that, we drank the water and then, finally, ate the radish. It was a very neat way of doing the dishes. To prove we'd sufficiently cleaned our plates, our bowls were rinsed a second time with water which was dumped into a large bucket. If the communal rinsing water was tainted by anything - even a single flake of spice - we were to take turns drinking the dirty rinsing water until the bucket was empty.

Eating was only one element of the weekend I spent at the Bubheungsa Temple. Another basic necessity of life also treated differently was attire. Upon arrival at the temple, we exchanged our worldly clothes for outfits traditionally worn by practitioners of Buddhism. The deep-pocketed vest and balloon-like pants were cut in a slouchy fit, so that the vanities and temptations of our bodies were hidden beneath their loose folds. Though unfashionable, they were made of soft linen and were some of the more comfortable items of clothing I'd ever worn. They were died a natural terra cotta colour, like soft dirt, and a Korean man (not part of the group) told me this signified the colour of earth dying. I'm not sure what that means, but it sounded somewhat poetic.

Other spiritual elements, such as meditation, were also part of the temple stay experience. On Saturday, the group of temple stay participants gathered together to take a meditative walk through the woods. The monk bid us to think only about the physical process of walking. So, I slowly placed one bare foot in front of another in the velvety-soft dirt path, focusing on nothing more than the wind and my breath, which did not seem so very different. As there was a rather large group of participants in the meditative walk, we attempted to keep a certain pace and distance between us. Dressed in our faded, matching clothes, we solemnly marched through the woods in pairs, like a raggedy wedding party.

A different sort of practice that was taught and then practiced throughout the temple stay was full-body prostration. While spending time in the temple buildings, dedicated Buddhists, as well as temple stay participants, bowed their entire bodies low until their foreheads touched the ground, and then leaned back somewhat upright on their heels. They repeated these deep prostrations sometimes upwards of 100 times in a row. Whenever I entered a temple, I bowed my head briefly to show respect for the Buddhists and their way of life; however, I refrained from making the full-body prostrations because they conflict with my Christian faith. Most participants viewed the temple stay as a "culture vacation," but gods are gods, and I wasn't about to mess with them.

Since I skipped the many prostration sessions, I ended up several hours alone each day. During early Sunday morning, I took a walk by myself through the woods and into the clearing between several mountains. I was not pondering deep, reverent thoughts, nor was I attempting find my inner peace. I just wanted to have fun and take photos. I was so happy in the sweet, piney air and the breeze that lightly ruffled my hair that I nearly skipped along the path. I took some pictures. I sorted through coloured rocks and sprays of wildflowers, discerning which to leave and which to keep. I looked up at one of the tallest mountains and saw the outline of a big cat -- A tiger! I thought -- in the rockface there. I spun about with the dizzy happiness that only inner content can bring. My irreverent, happy-go-lucky attitude is what makes what happened next so inexplicable: A raw, eerie energy swept through the mountain. It was such a strange experience that I can barely describe it, and certainly not compare it in any normal analogy. The best I can do is say it felt like I was seeing a ghost, only nothing was visible. Nothing in the landscape had changed, only this feeling, only an energy.

At first, I was frightened and almost ran out of the forest, back to the safe and well-populated temple buildings, but then I refused to turn coward. How could I explain this to anyone in a logical manner? How could I possibly describe why I'd run away -- because I was afraid of the air? So I stayed and decided I would finish what I'd set out to do: walk along the trail and take pretty pictures. I set my camera on auto mode and, several times, tried to photograph myself against the dramatic backdrop of towering green mountains. The photos did not turn out; they were all over-exposed, tainting the scene with a lemony-white cast like a halo around the mountains. And here's a detail that makes the over-exposed photos inexplicable: The day was overcast. Shifting through clouds and shadows, from where did all that light come? When I returned to the monastery, I gave a brief version of my experience to the translator. He was not at all surprised; that area was renown for its energy field. And the tiger I saw on the face of a mountain? For hundreds of years, monks have identified it as "Lion Mountain."

At night, the only light came from the stars overhead and the lanterns that hung throughout the temple grounds. There was a line of lanterns in all sorts of colours -- pink, orange, red, yellow, and blue -- marking the pathway from the lower temples to the highest one, and there were multiple strands of lanterns festooned in front of the oldest temple. Some of the lanterns had the image of Buddha peeping merrily out from a lotus and some had images of the temple imposed on them, while other lanterns bore the cartoonish representation of a lion. I felt (probably impiously) they gave the temple a festive air.

The temple stay's main focus seemed to be the "wish fulfillment" program. I am dubious as to how much a serious application of Buddhism includes wish fulfillment and how much the idea was spun into an appealing romantic-religious ideal for Western visitors. For Disneyfied as it may seem, who does not want to believe that wishes can come true? Throughout my life, I've wished on loose eyelashes, falling stars, dandelion fluff, birthday candles, the times 11:11 and 1:11, and reluctant ladybugs waiting for release. As it turns out, all I really needed to do was write my dearest desire on a slip of paper, place it inside a small cloth pouch, and hang the pouch in a temple. Oh, and hit an old bell! A very important, or at least very fun, part of the wish fulfillment was to lift a wooden gong and swing it with considerable relish against an ancient, sacred bell while simultaneously making a wish.

Of course, I was tempted to wish that everyone thoroughly clean their breakfast bowls the next morning so that I would not have to drink the dirty water, but that seemed a rather short-term investment for a wish. In my heart-of-hearts, I've really only ever believed two things were worth wishing for: true love and adventure. The only problem is that I've already wasted enough wishes on falling stars for a true love that's never arrived. And adventure is something I'm creating for myself. So, since neither of those two stand-by wishes would do, I returned to an even older wish, one that I remember whispering to a reluctant ladybug when I was seven years old: I want to be a writer. I want to be a good writer and earn a sustainable living from it.

God only knows if my wish will come true.

Countdown for Breaking Cultural Mores

The following is a compilation of various mistakes made within my first four weeks of daily life in Korea, and - just in case you're unaware - nearly everything in Korea is written in Hangul characters rather than the Roman alphabet.

8. Buying fabric softener instead of laundry detergent.

7. Buying hair conditioner instead of shampoo.

6. Buying lotion instead of shampoo.

5. Stealing toilet paper from my workplace for nearly two weeks because I couldn't find a store where it was sold and also couldn't find anything else to buy that might possibly be mistaken for it.

4. Clasping my hands in a prayer-like position and bowing to thank every single Korean I met over the course of three weeks. It wasn't until someone asked me if it was a tradition I'd picked up in Thailand that I discovered typical Koreans don't actually clasp their hands to express gratitude.

3. Spitting out a half-chewed octopus while dining in a crowded restaurant.

2. Laughing loudly in a public restroom stall after pushing every single bidet button on the high-tech toilet.

1. Attending a company dinner (as the only foreigner) where I helped myself to communal noodles while using the wrong end of the chopsticks.