There’s an array of things that I’ve promised to write about but still haven’t gotten around to. One of them is my birthday. It’s nearly a month in the past and no longer topical, so I’ll write about it just briefly. I woke up that morning to find that Korea had decided the perfect birthday present for me would be an inch of snow. But it was a Saturday and I had no responsibilities, so that tempered any disappointment. I gave myself a present first, by trying sundae (as I mentioned in the post about the market). Then I lounged around, chatted with a college friend on Skype, that sort of thing. In the afternoon, Sean and Natalie came up. Natalie had just arrived from London, and she’d brought some English candy with me. The English do candy pretty well, I’d say. For the next several weeks I was completely set for liquorice allsorts, Cornish dairy fudge, and rhubarb & custards. When it became a suitable time of evening we all decided that the party ought to start up. So everyone came up to my room and we had green tea cake from the bakery in town (pretty good) and ate pizza and just chatted. And then, at a rather convenient time, we all decided the party had run its course, and I got online in time to chat with Nana & Papaw. That’s always sure to give me that back-home feeling. And later Dad showed me his carnivorous plant bog over Skype. So the day was just the right mix of hanging out here and talking with people from back home.
That wasn’t actually as brief as I’d planned. Well, anyhow, the other thing I’ve been putting off writing about is the hike Sean and Deanna and I went on to Candlestick Rock way back in the beginning of March. So I’ll get on that now.
Early on in our year here, we found an illustrated map of our county (the “Hwacheon-gun” that you see when you mail stuff to me). It was hard to get a sense of how big it might be from the little illustration on the map, but what was clear was that just down the road from us was a sizeable stone monolith projecting out of a hillside. It would be preposterous not to visit it. However, we didn’t get around to it before winter, and then when winter came we all lost motivation to do anything outside, so we didn’t actually get around to it until this day in March. Practically and technically speaking, it was still winter. There was snow all over, patchy but definitely present. And there was definitely a chill in the air. But we had a day off in the middle of the week, and it was forecast to be a few notches warmer than all the iron-cold gray days we’d gone through up until then. So it was clearly time to do something special.
After poring and puzzling over maps that were all in Korean, we figured that we should probably set out at 9:30 in order to get back at a reasonable time of day, so that’s when we all met and left the house. We walked south, well bundled up, and felt warm from the activity. In fact, Sean felt warm enough that he declared it to be just like summer in England, and undressed to his T-shirt. (This was the first time Sean claimed it was just like an English summer, but he’s been doing it variously ever since. I’m still not sure if I believe him, but there was the day last week when he said it and it was actually pretty nice and warm out. Not the sort of thing I’d expect from a summer, though. Maybe it was like a day during a cool spell of an English summer. Or maybe England is really that cool all the time.) We followed a stream, known as Jichon Stream, as it flowed along the road , mostly under ice.
And in not too long at all, we came upon a great little surprise that buoyed our constitutions. In the middle of the stream was a giant boulder, vaguely cube-shaped and a couple feet taller than any of us. On top of the boulder was a gazebo. How about that? Just a serene little gazebo perched on top of a smooth, timeworn, white boulder with a Chinese character carved on one side, in the middle of a tumbling mountain-fed stream in a bed of round rocks, almost more idyllic than any painter would dare to put on canvas. A tall green fence separated it from the road, and near a gate in that fence was a sign in Korean, English, and Japanese explaining that the gazebo had been built by a monk or a king in the 1600s who thought it looked like the perfect place to meditate. And he was absolutely right, though these days the road running alongside it and the not-the-prettiest fence would drive me further up into a mountain. All the same, I climbed up the side of the rock to stand on the gazebo. It was a modern reproduction, but probably built the same way that the ancient meditator built his. As I recall, the roof was even made out of thatch. With some difficulty, Sean climbed up too. Apparently I make climbing look too easy. Deanna couldn’t make it up, but she tossed both of us bananas from Sean’s backpack, and we ate them while looking out at the scene around us.
We still had progress to make, though, so we jumped down from the boulder and hit the road again. The sun kept shining, and we talked about how nice a day it was, even if it was a little chilly. And within the hour, we arrived at another place to stop and look around. We’d known about this one beforehand, unlike with the gazebo, but all we knew was that it was a temple called Beopjangsa, and it was at a good place in our journey for us to take a look around. So we turned onto the little side road. On our left was a tributary to Jichon Stream, and on our right was a very steep hill. We turned a corner and a metal staircase appeared, leading from the road up to the top of the hill. The staircase was encased in ice. It appeared to have been built in a waterfall that was now frozen over. The ice was several inches thick toward the middle of the stairs. I was thrilled. I took point and, slipping several times, crossed the ice coating a metal walkway with no railings before making it to the bottom of the stairs where I would actually be able to hang on to something with my hands. Mostly using arm strength, I made it up to the top of the stairs and found an old man with a dog standing outside a temple painted in all the intricate red, green, and white that cover Korean temples. He told me it was fine for us to look around. So we did, once the other two got up. They’d been delayed by the dog, which apparently was adept enough on the ice to walk down to greet them and make them wonder if it was going to chase them back down the ice stairs. Luckily it just accompanied them up to the top.
There was more than just the one temple. That one was quite nice, in the general sort of way in which most temples around here are pretty nice while looking mostly the same. But the other stuff around was cooler. Off to the left, for instance, was a pile of boulders surmounted by one big, flat stone, stood up and covered with inscriptions. On the smaller boulders in the pile, people had made stacks of rocks. I’d never seen these before. An oyster-shaped rock about the size of a beanbag or maybe a book is at the bottom. Then a slightly smaller rock is put on top of it. In order to stabilize the top rock, the stacker puts little pebbles between the two as shims. Then another slightly smaller rock is put on top of these two, with pebbles between again. The sizes are graded down very gradually, so the whole stack can get to be skyscraper-shaped and several feet tall. And these spires were all over the boulders, perched anywhere someone could get a bottom rock to stay still. They set the mood: this was a place where the world was still and at peace.
A little ways away were some statues of pagodas and the Buddha. There was a shelter where they had a big drum suspended from the rafters. One or two other temples like the one that had greeted us when we came up the stairs, though smaller. And another staircase, this one thankfully not flooded with ice, leading up the side of a mountain, with the sounds of chanting coming from above. We climbed.
Temples were stuck onto the side of the hill next to the staircase through sheer determination. The first one was covered with murals depicting a story that I couldn’t quite figure out. I think it was something like this: A young man comes out to the countryside to meditate while looking at the vast mountains and fields of Korea. Then a bull comes along, and the man jumps on it and rides it. As he does, both of them become purified, symbolized by the bull turning from red to white. The bull stays with him and he continues meditating. It was all shown in the misty, eternal, philosophical style of ancient Asian paintings.
The other temple wasn’t just on the hill, it was a part of the hill. The builders had taken a huge rock overhang and put it to use as the temple’s back wall. So it was more like it had grown there than like it had been placed. Cautiously, in case we might be disturbing some meditation, we looked inside. Imagine blending a Buddhist temple with the fantasy of a little boy who’s seen caves and decided that a clubhouse there would be way cooler than one up in a tree. The Buddha images were arrayed in front of the rock back wall, and hanging from the ceiling were hundreds of golden pieces of paper, probably each one representing a donation or a blessing or both. I think I have no other choice but to call it perfect.
After this we were out of temples. We came back down to the level place with the sculptures and discovered that there was a back way down to the road, a hairpin turn that cars could travel, so we took that rather than sled without sleds down the stairs. And we continued on our way.
Jichon Stream started meandering away from us and the road was free to wave up and down through the mountains, though we kept following it from a bit more farther away. We walked some and rested some, and Sean and Deanna gave me snacks. I had just written the post about consuming as little as possible and only shopping at the market and not accepting plastic bags, so I didn’t have anything with me to eat. (I was in the middle of the longest period without a market day in four years—eight days from February 26 to March 4 with no days ending in 5 or 0, including February 29, which seemed added in just to taunt me by not being the 30th.) Without their kindness I would’ve surely shriveled up and blown off a cliff.
Candlestick rock snuck up on us. It was in the shadow of the slope behind it, and its outline was almost impossible to see unless you knew just where it was. But when we got closer it became clearer and clearer. It was about 60 feet tall, a serious monolith. We rounded a sharp hairpin turn up a steep slope and at the top of it we were right downhill from the Candlestick. But there didn’t appear to be any path. That was rather a let-down. Here we had come all this way and we wouldn’t even be able to go touch the rock and take pictures of ourselves leaning against it? But there was in fact no path.
Not that we were going to let that stop us. We climbed over a concrete barrier and up a slope and found ourselves in a steep gully running down the hill next to the Candlestick. It was full of snow and loose rocks, but it looked like the only way up. I got to climbing. Sean and Deanna, more sane, told me to go right on ahead while they sat and watched. So I tumbled and bumbled up the slope, grabbing on to small rocks and loose stringy roots for grip, and eventually wrenched my way up to the very bottom of the monolith. My idea had been to get there and see how high I could climb it. But besides being exhausted, I could also tell pretty clearly that it wasn’t going to happen. For one, the ground underneath the monolith wasn’t flat anywhere. If I fell just so, I might stand a chance of landing in the saddle between the bottom of the stone and the upslope of the hill. But any other direction and I’d just keep falling down and tumbling for probably several minutes. Also, it was wet and slippery and looked like it might even crumble under weight. So I decided to content myself with touching it.
I picked my way laboriously back down and joined Sean and Deanna standing on a big rock looking out over the road we’d left behind at the bottom of the hairpin. The view was indeed majestic, and better than I’d had from among the trees at the bottom of the Candlestick anyhow. The tectonic plates under Korea sure know how to create a dramatic view. Forest and cliffs and the road following Jichon Stream. If only my shoes weren’t soaked with melted snow and it were a little warmer. But I took what I could get, and it was pretty darn good for a Thursday.
On our way back we found one more thing to do. Sean and I scrambled up a leafy embankment about fifty feet, closer to vertical than to horizontal, to get to a big rock looming above the road. There were pine trees growing on top that made it hard, but not impossible, to get out to the edge and wave to Deanna. We climbed, or rather basically slid, back down and walked home. We saw more cliffs and figured that, come warm weather, this place must be paradise for people looking to casually climb a cliff. I’ll have to remember to do some of that before I leave here.
Anyhow. What’s been going on more currently? It’s mostly not spectacularly interesting, so I’ll try to sum it up briefly. I’ve been getting bored with work, which is my sign that it’s time to move on to something else, but I can’t, so I’ll just have to make do. I stopped doing hapkido, which cleared up time for me to make serious progress toward finishing my font. Earlier this week I finished making all the characters (except the ones that need to be revised, which will be plenty, I’m sure). And just yesterday, I finished making a specimen booklet for it that’s pretty snazzy, if I say so myself. I posted it online here and people have been saying they really like it, which is encouraging, because I’ve been working on it for so long that I’ve started getting sick of it and wondering if it’s actually not that great after all.
Another recent development is that I’ve been doing a sort of language exchange with a Korean. His name is Lee Jin-won; he’s a second-grade teacher from my school, and he speaks better English than my co-teacher the English teacher. We get together a few nights per week in my room and talk about whatever, alternating nights between English and Korean. The Korean nights go a lot slower. I still have a pretty small vocabulary, so I tend to have to ask him for definitions after almost every sentence he says. Luckily, he can usually give them, because he studied English for a test, and though that’s no way to learn fluency, it can help you learn vocabulary, and he did that rather well. He says I’m doing pretty well for someone who’s only been studying the language for less than a year. He’s a pretty good guy. He recently went to see Lenny Kravitz in concert in Seoul, and he’s watched Into the Wild seven times and yearned at least a bit for that sort of freedom. I think most of the questions we ask each other over the coming months will probably be about each other’s cultures. Finally I have an actual Korean acquaintance I can learn about Korea from, instead of just judging it through conclusions I jump to based on stuff I can see.
Oh, and I’ve of course been cooking. I set aside last week for making bibimbap in various ways with spring vegetables from the market. So now I know what chwinamul is like: bitter but fresh. I got some chwinamul from this spring, as opposed to the dried, brown stuff that you can see wrapped in paper in the post about the market. Also I started delving into the realm of the unidentifiable roots. One that I’ve learned now is burdock root, which in Korean goes by the shapeless word u’eong (in more familiar-looking phonetics, that’s “ooh-ung”). I don’t know what to compare it to, really, but it’s sort of bitter, sort of earthy, and generally pretty alright. I’ll definitely be searching out burdock to dig in the States. Jin-won told me that during the Korean war a lot of people had to go into hiding in the hills, but they hung on okay, because they knew all the wild edible plants that grow there. Stuff like chwinamul and ssukgat, and even roots like u’eong and doraji. The sheer variety is impressive and admirable. Sometimes I wonder what will become of my Korean language skills after I leave Korea. Am I going to search out Koreans to talk with? About what? But now that I think of it, if nothing else, I’m pretty sure finding recipes online to adapt for American wild plants will keep me in fairly good practice for quite a while.