The small mountain or large hill is an apparently unnamed one south of town. Becccccccccc666ffcccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccc.yyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy,syhp.ysrchrsch
Sorry about that. I had to clean out my keyboard.
Because it’s small and unremarkable, it also didn’t seem to have an obvious trail to the top, at least not one that Sean and I could see. If there was one, it would have to be across this little bridge ahead of us that goes over the river at the bottom of town. We crossed the bridge and found a T-junction, the right road leading to a building, the left one to a ginseng field, neither one looking much like it led to a mountain climbing path. Sean thought there might be something on the other side of the ginseng field, and I thought there might be something behind the building, but I decided to go along with Sean. The road petered out within a hundred feet. We had to walk along the dirt at the edge of the field. Ginseng is a strange crop to grow. It needs shade, so you can immediately tell a ginseng field by all the black shade cloths each held up by a little wooden structure to shelter the precious plants underneath. When we got closer, I could also see that it apparently has to be grown on bales of hay. I can’t see how it’d be possible to harvest it by machine with all those shelters, so they must go through the fields on foot at harvest time and pick out every root by hand. It must take weeks. No wonder ginseng is so expensive.
Behind the field was a rockslide coming down from the mountain. “We could go up the landslide and blaze our own trail,” I suggested, half joking, half trying to figure out if Sean would actually be up for such a mad adventure, the kind of thing that I usually suggest just to hear people say, “Yeah, maybe not.” But Sean said, “We could do,” and we walked across a part of the field where nothing was being grown and came to the rocks.
We started scrambling. The rocks were still loose, and I figure they probably slid at some point in the last ten years. There were trees growing at some points, but the situation was still too volatile for much to have colonized it. Because it was a landslide, it was steep, and we got tired at pretty short intervals. There was also a lot more of it than we thought, because most of it was hidden by the trees when we were at ground level. We thought it only took us a little way up. It turned out to go nearly to the top. So we just kept on scrambling. I was in front, so occasionally I kicked rocks down and nearly hit Sean. He took this in good sport, mostly. After much longer than we had ever expected, we made it up to the top of the slide, where all the original rocks had come loose from. Because it was a place where all the ground had caved in, we were in a moderate hole there, and because the dirt was loose and the rocks were as unstable here as anywhere, it was fairly hard to get out. But with dubious help from dead trees, we managed it, and then we scrambled up the soil—even looser than the rocks, at times, but with trees in helpful places—until we got to a flatter place on the mountain.
We went generally upward, and ran across a sort of a trail, where it looked like maybe a few people had been through a few years ago. We followed that, and when there was any doubt, we looked for garbage to point us in the right direction. All the mountains we’ve been on so far have had garbage strewn around them. Sometimes it’s hard to see, and sometimes, like here, it’s all over. I guess Koreans aren’t too shy about just tossing wrappers aside. You wouldn’t see that in America. There are some pretty carefree Americans when it comes to littering, but I feel like there aren’t as many, and there are also people who come to pick up after them all the time and keep the wilderness beautiful. I think Korea is still in a stage where it’s just learning the breadth of power over the natural world that can be wielded, and thinks it’s pretty neat to be really modern, and in that, respect for the natural world has in some cases just fallen into the gutter. I hope they get over that soon.
The trail of garbage led us through trees and then through shrubs up to an abrupt flat, cleared-off place. On inspection, it turned out to have a big H on it, made out of white rocks, and also three mysterious black-and-yellow metal asterisks. This was a helipad. We thought that was pretty cool, and in order to properly appreciate it, we sat back and ate baked goods. Sean told me about how you can get pasties in just about every shop in England. I’m looking forward to England.
We came back down by way of what we thought was a trail, but ended up being just trackless forest. But we knew down was where we wanted to go, so we just headed that direction. We ended up going down another rockslide, this one old enough to have a bit of a creek flowing in it toward the bottom, and that creek took us to the river. We forded that and went back home, calling that a highly successful little ascent.
As a larger group, we at this house have actually gone to see two waterfalls since I last wrote. The first one, Gugok, is named after the nine (gu) twists and turns (gok) that it makes on its way down. Amanda, Sean, Russell, and I all walked diligently up these twists and turns in order to get to the main waterfall, very much looking forward to having a swim in the pool at the bottom. Each gok was marked with a sign that gave its name, all of which started with a kk. So we had kkum (dream), kkang (heart), and kkoe (wisdom), as well as some more dubious ones like kkeun (networking) and kkon (professional). Finally we reached kkeut (an end). It was at the top of a big wooden staircase, and there was a spectacular view of Gugok’s 50-meter drop down to the rocks at our level. I haven’t seen a lot of waterfalls, but I can say this was a good one. There was just one problem: there was no pool at the bottom, only rocks. So it turned out we had just come to look, and not to swim. But that was okay, really, because it was, as I said, a very good waterfall.
The second waterfall is the one we visited yesterday, the same group. This one is called Guseong, this time named after the nine different sounds (seong) it makes.1 I guess nine is a lucky number or something. Getting to Guseong was a bit more complicated than getting to Gugok. For Gugok, we just took a bus, and it dumped us off at the trailhead. For Guseong, we took a bus, but it dropped us off at the top of Soyang Dam, not at the trailhead. We walked to a spot on the lake behind the dam where the trailhead was, only to find out that the trailhead wasn’t there. Instead what was there was a water taxi. Since there was no trail whatsoever, we had to pay 6,000 won ($5.40) to take this boat to a dock. Then we could start walking. And despite how out-of-the-way this place is, there were Koreans everywhere. I guess it’s quite the popular thing to do on a Saturday, going to a waterfall. There was also a temple beyond it, which may have been even more popular than the waterfall. The thing about temples here is, though, that they all look exactly the same. So if you don’t know the story behind it, it’s not special. It’s just like every other temple you’ve already seen. So we were there strictly to swim in the waterfall.
After a kilometer of walking, we found it. It wasn’t nearly as tremendous as Gugok, only maybe fifteen feet high. But it dropped into a wonderful little pool and then flowed out among chaotic rocks that could all have been carried there by monks, so old and wise they looked. Koreans were sitting on the rocks, getting pictures of the falls, looking down from the path that continued upward past the falls. It made Sean, Russell, and me hesitate a lot before taking off our shirts and diving in—would we ruin everyone’s pictures? would we be profaning a sacred site?—but we said the heck with it and jumped in anyhow. (Except Amanda—she forgot her swimsuit and thought the water was too cold besides.) And it was a really nice swim—especially since I hadn’t swum in so long. Sean and Russell agreed it was really refreshing. And while I was bobbing underneath it, I swore I could actually hear most of the nine sounds it makes. There’s the sound of one channel of the stream falling the whole distance in one go, and the sound of another channel hitting some rocks on the way down, and the sound of that same channel hitting the pool as a shower of drops broken apart by the rocks, and I could probably name six more if I sat there underneath it for a while.
Now let me try something. I said I was going to try to give you an idea of what my friends here are like, as practice for writing characters in a story. I figure describing people who really exist might be a little like training wheels for describing people made entirely out of imagination. Though it may be trickier, because real people can be pretty subtle, whereas fictional characters can be totally obvious and loud and describable. Also, at least one of them will probably read this. Well, we’ll see how this turns out.
At the beginning of anything Amanda sets out to say, you’re liable to hear, “When I was in Bali…”. She taught for a year in Busan, and shortly after that, flew to Bali to teach English there, where the living is cheap and the parties are great. And so it was. She had found her ideal situation, apparently: teaching from 1 to 9 pm, and then going out to dance with all the friends she met there, some of whom taught English, some of whom were just there for the night life. Each night she would leave into the swirl of lights after school and come back around 4:00 am, in time to sleep and be able to teach the next afternoon.
But after not too long she discovered that going out and partying all night every night, without any breaks, was making her feel more surreal each day. And worse, it was impossible to stay in and not party some nights, because the internet was too slow to download movies, and she can’t bear reading, and “the parties were always just there, outside my window, and I just had to go out, do you know what I mean?” The only other option was to sit motionless all night. So she kept on living less and less in the real world and more and more inside her own mind, where things weren’t as firmly connected by cause and effect. All this reached a head some eight months into her year, when she started living entirely inside an imagination only suggested by the outside world of senses, and in a bout of clarity, she called her mum and told her the situation. Her mum came to get her, because Amanda believed that if she went alone, and stopped thinking about the airplane for any time at all, it would disappear.
She enjoyed a few restful months in England, during which her mum cleverly kept her from going out partying by coming up with fun things to do at home on weekend nights. Then, in the mood for a lot of quiet time, she signed up to come to some small town in Gangwon, any town really. She ended up here with us. She’d actually already been here for a month when we arrived. She’s created a steady routine for herself, where she teaches, then watches a movie and eats a chicken sandwich. Currently she’s on chicken sandwiches. In a month or a few, she’ll move on to a different food, but for now she’s content to eat a chicken sandwich for dinner every day. Sometimes she comes along when we all go traipsing up a mountain or down to the store or something, but a lot of the time she says, “Ah, I can’t be bothered to hike up a mountain.”
Sean has come to Korea for two reasons: to make money and to climb mountains. Well, also to see Asia. He lent me a book called Vagabonding, which I mentioned before, but I didn’t mention that he called it “my personal bible.” He’s taken a lot of its teachings to heart. Basically, life should always be an adventure, and if it gets boring, you know you need to fix something. The author of the book, Rolf Potts, also came to teach in South Korea, and said it was probably the best time he ever had while making money to travel. And Sean, in what he swears is coincidence and not copycatting, came here, presumably for the same reasons that attracted Rolf: to turn a profit for travel purposes while also experiencing a totally different culture and seeing some of the staggering number of things there are to see in Asia. Not all of his money is just going toward traveling, though. A lot of it is going to the new life that he and his girlfriend Natalie are going to set up once he gets back to England. He left her back home, but she’s coming here for a visit very soon, and Sean can’t wait, although he’ll have to anyhow. They’ll hang out together and tell all the dirtiest jokes in existence and use the foulest language at the most unexpected times. This is what I know of their relationship. You would never suspect. He’s this calm-looking redheaded guy with the poshest pleasant English accent, which I guess just makes it even more hilarious when he slips nasty language into the most mundane of conversations.
When not oriented toward the future, he focuses on the present by immersing himself in the outdoors, of which there’s a great supply in Gangwon. He and I get along great, because we’re both up for pretty much anything, as long as it’s not stupid, reasonless stuff like going out and blowing a whole month’s pay on a night at the bars. Being up for anything, after all, is how to experience this place or any other. The hike up the landslide was one of our finer moments of deciding together to ignore what’s supposed to be responsible behavior in favor of just going for something because we feel like it.
Before they go back to England, he and Natalie are going to do a lot of traveling, but I won’t be coming with them, because Europe is unexciting to them—the whole place feels like home—so what’s left for them is southeast Asia. They’re taking the Trans-Siberian Railway back, but not until quite a while after me.
While we were all sitting on the roof discussing how Sean and I are keeping blogs, Amanda asked Russell, “So what are you doing then? Are you keeping a journal or a blog here?” He shook his head. “And you don’t take photos—what are you going to do?”
“He’s just going to tell tons of stories when he gets back to Scotland,” I suggested.
“No, I’ve got a shoddy memory,” he said. “I’ll just forget it all.”
I don’t believe it, although there may be a few nights that slip by him, like the ones where he goes out drinking until superhuman hours, without regard for how little sleep he had the night before or how awful his hangover was. But he does seem to live mainly in the present. What did he do before he came here? Something or other, it never seems to come up. Presumably he had friends and family or something there. He had a mustache. What’s he going to do after he’s done in Korea? “I don’t plan that far ahead.” Instead he serves to keep us grounded by quietly, in a very plain and matter-of-fact voice, making sarcastic comments that remind us of reality. This seems to be in keeping with his tattoos. One of them, in anyone’s handwriting, says “nothing matters”.
“What were you thinking when you got that?” Sean asked him.
“I was thenkin’ that—everything matters,” he said.
The other one is a reproduction of a Matisse sketch, Nude with Oranges. “What inspired you to get that particular drawing?” Sean asked, shortly after the other question.
“It’s semple, so I fegured the tattoo guy wouldn’t fuck it up too much.”
Ben has been here a long time, 2½ years. He’s set himself up pretty cozy. He’s got a car now that he can use to commute from here to Hwacheon, where he actually works. He goes to yoga three times a week when he can afford it. He’s not sure exactly where all his money goes, but he’s not worried about it. “The great thing about Korea is the pension. They just take out a bunch of money from my paycheck and give it to the government, and when I leave, I get it all back! I save without even trying.” He’s also not worried about pretty much anything else, including but not limited to: North Korea, picking up tabs for us, the presidential elections back in America, the economy, smoking lots of cigarettes, and driving really fast. This makes him a great person to go drinking and playing pool with, because at the end you feel so great, because you know now that everything is going to be okay. Even physically he’s comforting, a six-foot-and-some teddy bear with a fuzzy face. Because he’s been here so long, he seems like a fixture, hard to imagine in Michigan instead of cruising down the mountain roads of Gangwon Province. He says he’ll probably stay here another year. That sounds about right. He’s made friends with Koreans—parents of students, shopkeepers, guys who invite him over to drink because in Korea it’s weird to see someone drinking alone. He talks with them in broken Korean, but always manages to get his point across pretty well anyhow. And the Koreans seem to love hanging out with him too. It’s not hard to see why.
And then there’s the matter of Deanna. I don’t know Deanna. I’m not sure if anyone, besides maybe Ben, knows Deanna. She came here from Chicago six months ago, and appears sometimes. She hung out with the rest of us at the festival, but only briefly, and then she wandered off to do her own thing. Amanda explained that that’s how she does things. She ticks on her own eccentric orbit, and it occasionally intersects with ours. “Deanna is a dark horse,” Ben summed up once. (And I said: “You’re just saying that because she’s black.”) Perhaps in the future I’ll be able to say more about her. But for now, she could be a serial killer or a secret nun.
That’s everyone. Now a bit of something that I realized recently. I’ve made a miscalculation. Throughout my application process, I’ve been rounding down. I noted that the contract said I get 2,200,000 won per month, and thought that sounded like a pretty good deal—two thousand bucks a month. Multiply by twelve months, hey, that’s pretty close to ten, so, twenty thousand bucks in a year. If I live on a thousand bucks a month, that’s half that, so I could save ten thousand this year. Sweet! Right? Well, yesterday I bothered to do the math for real. I’m not actually getting 2,200,000 won a month; I get an extra 100,000 for living in the boonies, so it’s actually 2,300,000. Also, twelve months is not the same as ten months, so on the year I’m actually making 27,600,000 won, except that for completing our contract we get an extra month’s pay for sticking around, so it’s actually 29,900,000, and then you also have to take into account the money they give me for my travel on the way here and back, which is two payments of 1,300,000 won, so now I’m up to 32,500,000, and that’s darn near $30,000. Also, I was allowing myself $1000 a month to live on, but I’ve had a pretty active month this month, and I haven’t even quite burned through $590. So if I can live on, say, an average of $650 a month, I can save something like 24,700,000 won, or $22,000. In ideal conditions, I could pretty much make my student loans disappear, and being free of debt is nothing to sneeze at in an economy as toasted as America’s is, despite what Dan and Tracy might say about the wisdom of paying it off a bit more slowly. Of course, the conditions won’t be ideal, and I’ll do some traveling on my vacations, so I might not quite reach that number, but I’ll have enough to be a fairly comfortable hobo. And that’s a nice thing to think about.
Gok and seong aren’t actually words in Korean on their own. The names come from Chinese. A lot of Korean words come from Chinese, the same way a lot of English words come from Latin and Greek. So Guseong is named after nine (gu) sounds (seong) in the same way that an octopus is named after eight (octo) feet (pus). Although gu actually is a word that means nine in Korean. ↩