Ain’t no D in the DMZ
developed for The Lifted Brow
I’m on a bus headed for the DMZ. Demilitarised Zone. The Cold-War buffer between North and South Korea. It’s four kilometres wide and has two things in abundance: military hardware and unmolested wildlife. Or somewhat unmolested wildlife. I once met a writer named Kim Young-ha who grew up just south of the DMZ. He’d be drifting off to sleep and in the stillness, every now and then, he’d hear this whumpf. A deer hitting a landmine.
There is a third abundant thing: tourists. I’m here for work, minding a bunch of touring writers, and it’s our day off. On an idle whim we go to a low-ceilinged cubicle in a plush Seoul hotel where we flash our passports and for $75 each are driven to the no-man’s land between two warring nations. Wearing visitor’s badges. What kind of batshit scheme is this? There are two million soldiers along the border with just a rusty ceasefire keeping them apart. South Korea’s proud and stubborn. North Korea is demonstrably unstable, like my best friend in high school who collected knives and lived with his racist foster grandmother and burgled houses on his lunch break. The two Koreas have fire-fights on a semi-regular basis. Tourist heaven. Bus ‘em in.
On the bus, our tour guide’s a Korean woman in her late thirties with round cheeks and dead-fish eyes. She repeats everything at least twice. She punctuates her sentences with an affirmative yeah and brisk nodding, like you’re doing the talking and she’s just agreeing with everything you said.
If you make trouble, you make trouble for every people on this bus, yeah. No-one will get the photographs. If you wave or smile or make contact with the North Korean people there will be big trouble for everyone, yeah? Yeah. You can not be selfish. If you want to take the photos of the North Korean people you must obey every instruction. All the people on this bus will be punished, not just you. And when we get to Military Demarcation Line you know you can cross over to the North, yeah, but you can never come back.
I think this last bit is a joke. Then she tells us about some Americans who strayed over last year. It took four months to get them back. I shelve my plans to do some Planking on the Military Demarcation Line. No waving, no pointing, no gesturing of any sort. If there’s fog we have to turn around because “the North Korean people” could sneak up undetected. I’ve never been on a guided tour before. Are all guided tours like this? And if this is the official line in benign, democratic R.O.K., what the hell do the North Koreans tell their own tour groups?
My fellow tourists – the writers I’m travelling with and miscellaneous backpackers and baby-boomers – stare at bronze-hued paddies and apartment blocks drifting past in the haze. We’re following the Han River north. North Korean commandos have used this river to launch attacks on Seoul. Razor wire separates the river from the road and there are guard towers every few hundred metres. I’m starting to feel uncomfortable. But it’s the guide’s chatty authoritarian tone that’s doing it, more than the possibility of enemy action. As a liberal Westerner it’s compulsory to get riled by suspected authoritarianism. Getting shot’s a little more abstract.
After the on-board lecture it’s time for lunch. The bus pulls in at a cluster of raw concrete hotels, incongruous among farmland and low hills. The hotels are for people awaiting reunification meetings with family members in the North. There’s no time to digest any of this; we’re herded up the stairs for a Fordist lunch. Me and the other writers find ourselves seated alongside two poorly stereotypical Americans: lovely, friendly smiles, fat legs. They try to engage the table in a conversation about foreign policy. We devote the meal to an elaborate in-joke about pork buns and hot sauce.
The next stop is Imjingak Park, just before the DMZ. This is the furthest South Koreans can go. The place feels melancholic and awkward. The Bridge of Freedom that once welcomed POWs home now terminates in a chainlink fence. Scattered around are heavy stone monuments, displays of rusted military hardware, propaganda photos of life in the North. But it’s the epic, empty, rain-strafed parking lot that dominates. Building a vast empty carpark to commemorate a war would make an amazing work of conceptual art. But this is not art. Elderly Koreans in rain ponchos huddle round a pile of plastic plates, taking their lunch. A woman in a red polar fleece vest, the uniform of Korea’s militant middle-aged ajuma, plays murderous tenor sax. It’s a traditional North Korean melody about loss. Her honking echoes across the flat expanse and it is strangely affecting.
The locals are here to send prayers to family in the North. When the wind is right, those prayers are sent literally, attached to balloons and floated up over the DMZ. Their prayers were answered in 2011. The North Koreans sent word that Imjingak would be shelled if the practice continued. I suspect the woman playing atrocious saxophone would be their true target.
Beyond Imjingak we reach Camp Boniface, guarding the entrance to the DMZ. Camp Boniface was named for an American officer killed by North Korean soldiers with axes. The buildings are simple, square, temporary-looking. There’s a golf course with a single hole and landmines in the rough. Tour groups file this way and that like ragged companies of newly drafted cadets. The first American soldier I’ve ever seen corrals us into a theatre for the official PowerPoint briefing.
I was expecting historical context, or at least something to link the random anecdotes and tour stops, but the briefing is like a YouTube clip put together by an aggressive eight-year-old. The Korean War is reduced to a series of animated blue squiggles. We get info about gunfights and defections that have taken place in the DMZ, and a whole lot more about the famous axe murders. North Korean guards attacked and killed two US soldiers and wounded nine others who were, of all things, trying to prune a tree.
I look this story up on the internet later. The tree was blocking line of sight between two guard towers. Three days after the murders the US/ROK Command put their entire army on battle alert, then sent platoons of soldiers, special forces teams, helicopters, bombers, fighter jets and two teams of engineers armed with chainsaws to finish the job. They didn’t just prune that tree. They cut the fucker down and not a shot was fired. I’ve heard a lot about how the cold war was fought through proxies and in symbolic ways, but pruning?
We cross a bridge with more road-block than road and enter the DMZ proper. We’re in a fogged-up army bus now, passing through hills that open and close on views of bald North Korean terrain. Tank traps and huge coils of razor wire unspool beside the road. We see soldiers in rain gear unloading a ute beneath dripping trees; farmers knee-deep in rice paddies. We are told the farmers live in ‘Freedom Village’ under military curfew and grow ‘DMZ rice’ and don’t pay tax, yeah. Seems they’re experimenting with some sort of militant futuristic capitalism out here.
By this point my sense of safety has been short-circuited. It’s called the Demilitarized Zone, but as the American GIs like to say, ‘ain’t no D in the DMZ.’ They’ve been banging on about enemy action and death all day, and we’ve all seen Team America. Shit could get ugly.
But in spite of what we’re told, it feels like pure theatre. So far in this war zone we’ve seen farmers and tourists. We’re on an organised bus tour, the kind of thing for tourists who play it super-safe. We’re here under the auspices of the US and Korean governments, and these tours have been running for decades. Surely we wouldn’t be here if there was a real danger of whumpf. I can’t align these two perspectives in my head. Why exactly are we here again?
The bus finaly pulls in at the Joint Security Area. This is the end of the line. North Korea is fifty metres away. We get off the bus and form up in two school-kid lines. We’re marched into a silver and glass folly called Freedom House. It looks amazing from the outside. Inside it’s a huge, empty light-filled atrium with echoing marble floors and two peach-coloured armchairs and nothing else.
When we come out the other side we’re at the heart of the DMZ, a hollow the size of a soccer field filled with six or seven squat prefab buildings. These are negotiation buildings. A concrete line runs left to right through the exact centre of the precinct. This is the Military Demarcation Line. On the other side is the mythical North Korea. On a rise opposite Freedom House sits the North Korean equivalent. It’s a large concrete temple with a lone guard dwarfed out front. I wonder if their building’s empty on the inside as well. Everything feels two dimensional, cardboardy, like a film set after all the actors have gone home. It feels fake, even if the guns are real.
When we march into the central blue prefab that straddles the MDL, where thousands of meetings between North and South have led to agreements on the size of the delegation flags and not much else, where the aviator-wearing guards stand in Disney-like Tae Kwan Do poses, and where we get to cross into North Korean territory for just a wisecracking minute – it’s difficult to feel anything. Even the dominant sense of anticlimax only emerges later, when I finally realise: that was it. Stepping over an imaginary line and back again. The apparent point of the whole rushed exercise. None of it connects. The next tour group is waiting outside.
As we climb back onto the bus I start thinking about why I’m feeling so weird. It strikes me that we’re not just tourists, we’re war tourists. And not buffs or experts who know the history, but casual war tourists, passive and compromised, here on a whim, fed a version of events that collapses the Korean War into bizarre scraps of propaganda and titillating stories of random violence from the 70s. Ain’t no history in the DMZ. You’d be forgiven for thinking the war is being fought over a tree. The tour has successfully emptied this landscape of all meaning. No wonder it feels like theatre.
So I ask myself again: why are we allowed, even encouraged, to be here? We’ve been brought here to witness the evils of North, and in turn to be witnessed as walking advertisements for market capitalism in the South. The rest, as they say, is history.
And so it’s no wonder I’m being so sarcastic, why the ironic distance, why this feeling of distaste: I’m a casual war-tourist engaging in a propaganda exercise. Underneath the nervous laughter I’m angry at myself for not thinking this through. It’s the pornographer’s self-loathing, expressed as antagonism towards their subject. Way to disrespect one of the darkest, most complex situations of our times: drive a government tour bus through the middle of it.
What’s more, in spite of this absurd tour, the DMZ is incredible. Free of humans, it’s become a world-leading wildlife haven, home to thousands of rare and threatened native species as a glorious, random side-effect of industrialised slaughter. At Imjingak there is a huge, constant, collective outpouring of grief over the ten million people separated from their families. There are ten thousand unburied war dead littering the DMZ like discarded fish bones, and empty bombed out villages whose 5000-year habitations ended in 1950, and roaming through this horrific pre-post-apocalyptic paradise are cranes and herons and herds of wild antelopes and black bears and gorals, a type of goat that drinks sea water and has four breasts, for real. We get none of this. Not a word. Instead, I am invited to photograph a ring of stones placed to mark the spot where soldiers pruned a tree. What the fuck?
Afterwards we literally exit through the gift shop. The army bus stops at the Command / Gift Centre where the highlight is an irony-free rack of children’s camo uniforms. I go outside to wait for the others, in a sad attempt to elevate myself to the status of meta-tourist. I’m not really part of this, I’m saying. I’m just here to take the piss. Standing on the deck, a short and wiry US soldier whispers in my ear, That’s why you’re such a good leader, sir.
There’s just the two of us standing on the deck. He has an almost incomprehensible southern accent and his cap is pulled low. I can’t see his eyes, just a lean jaw like a greyhound. I stare at him. He wanders off mumbling and I realise he’s wearing an earpiece. Everyone emerges from the gift shop eating ice-creams.
When we climb off the bus outside the hotel in Seoul no-one has anything much to say. The dusk traffic is bright and loud. I feel dehydrated and wrong. It’s windy and cold and our half-arsed comic banter quickly dies.
While in Seoul, the writers I’m minding are doing a residency at the Yeonhui Writers Village. We have private apartments high above the city. It’s spring. In the morning a humid breeze brings birds and traffic-song and the tidal murmur of children at play. At dusk the red neon crosses of the churches blink on one by one. It’s a beautiful suburb. A place to retire and contemplate.
There are two retired Presidents living on our street. One is Chun Doo Hwan, an army general with a flat fish mouth. He was not so much President as Dictator. He helped himself to the Presidency in 1980, imposed martial law, banned political association and shut down the press. Students marched in the southern city of Kwangju. They were met by police and soldiers with clubs and bayonets. Civilians were killed. The demonstrations exploded. Militias drove police and soldiers from the city. Chun sent in Special Forces troops with automatic weapons, and between 200 and 2000 civilians were killed. Chun’s face is smooth as a stone. We learn that he lives quietly over our back fence.
A week after we arrive, eating kimchi pizza under the pines, our Korean friend Balloon tell us Chun was sentenced to death for these crimes. He was granted pardon by a man Chun had once pardoned for his own crimes; one good turn deserves another. Yesterday was the anniversary of the Kwanju Massacre. It passed without much notice. Most young Koreans have never heard of it.
It seems it’s the older writers who remember most, like poet Lee Si Young, jailed for publishing work on North Korea. He’s Chair of the Korean Writers Association, formed in a public square in the heat of the demonstrations. When we meet he wears a turtleneck and heavy tortoise-shell glasses and seems weighted with his history. Or Ch’oe Yun, whose writing speaks of Kwangju, the pro-democracy movement and the dictatorship. In person she is lucid and warm. It’s strange that the country’s pre-eminent writing residency, host to many who spoke against the dictatorship, should be next door to the dictator himself. Do they speak to each other over the fence? What would they say?
Barry is one of the Australian writers on the tour and at 67 years of age, he remembers Kwangju. He’s curious. We climb onto a park bench and look over the fence, hoping to catch a glimpse of the old man watering his plants. The fence is an ornamental facade. Beyond is the real one, a barricade of razor wire. An armed policeman stands in the no-man’s land. I wonder who is protected from who. I call a mangled greeting in Korean. Annyeong Haseyo! The policeman is not impressed.
The next day, Barry’s back packs in. After the gruelling flight and a succession of meetings seated cross-legged on the floor, nerves have been pinched. His face is freighted with pain. The residency becomes a kind of imprisonment. He can barely walk or sit up and even talking is an effort. He lies on his bed and at night he cannot sleep.
In the slow hours Barry fixates on the dictator next door. It’s not hard to imagine Chun also unable to sleep on the other side of the fence; the dictator and the writer, both alone with their thoughts, both troubled by history; the one trying to erase it, the other bring it to life. Barry’s back pain starts to take on the dimensions of history itself, of empathy and vicarious suffering. He munches painkillers and writes sparkling, hallucinatory poems. One is called ‘Minor suffering next door to a retired bloody dictator’. In the mornings he lies on the heated ondol floor and reads them to us over cornflakes. Cuckoos call, a soft touch at dusk. / At dawn the clack clack clack of choughs / under the stone pines– / like a firing squad.
It’s not easy to communicate pain from person to person, generation to generation. And it’s hard to understand if you’ve never experienced it. I’m thinking about this when I walk down the hill to the Yeonhui shops. I’m on my way to find Barry some stronger painkillers. Inside a small chemist shop I find no common language with the two neat women behind the counter. Instead of speaking I hunch myself over and clutch my back and twist my face. I look up at them, eyebrows raised – You understand? They laugh and nod and one turns to the shelves. I hold up a hand – Wait – then do it again, twice as bad, bent double, my face grotesque. This time they don’t laugh. But the pills I get are still too weak. Perhaps they knew my pain was second-hand.
Barry needs stronger painkillers because he has an unmissable appointment with the rebellious, playful, hard-drinking Ko Un, perhaps South Korea’s greatest living writer. Ko Un is seventy nine. He forgets nothing. His masterwork, the Maninbo (Ten Thousand Lives) contains a poem written for every single person Ko Un has met. All of them: his wife, parents, teachers, friends, other writers, neighbours, taxi drivers, shop keepers, policemen, prison guards. After bearing witness to the Korean War he became a leader in the resistance against the dictatorship. He was sentenced to twenty years for treason. He began the Maninbo during a two-year stint in solitary confinement. Meditating on people helped him stay sane.
Barry tells me about meeting Ko Un. He manages to hobble to the back gate and fall into a taxi. He lies across the back seat as if in hiding. The taxi driver watches him nervously in the mirror. Barry rolls himself out of the taxi into an expensive restaurant. When the two writers finally meet, Barry is on serious pain killers, and Ko Un drinks like it is the end of the world. They get on famously. Ko Un enthuses about Barry’s latest book. Barry proposes to write a chapter on Ko Un for his new project. Ko Un confesses he drinks too much. His wife and translator Lee Sang-Wha says she sometimes finds him sitting in the garden, crying. Then in mid sentence, in the middle of the restaurant, Barry excuses himself and slips quietly onto the floor. Ko Un, Lee Sang-Wha, the venerable translator Brother Anthony of Taizé, the waiters and other diners stare at the empty seat.
It’s okay, comes a dignified voice from the floor. We can keep talking. I just have to lie down.
Ko Un doesn’t hesitate. He leaves his seat and takes his jacket and props it under Barry’s head.
Where does it hurt, he says. Let me rub your back. Here? Here?
Barry tells me it was agony. The old man was drunk, his hands hard. But who could say no?
I end up taking Barry to an international hospital. The lobby has marble floors and brass elevators. We have an appointment with a Dr Kim. The receptionist tells us Dr Kim has been called away to attend the President, Lee Myung-Bak. I’m not sure what to believe; this further connection between writers and Presidents seems so unlikely.
The young doctor who sees Barry instead of Dr Kim has smooth moisturised skin and wears a sharp suit under his white coat. He asks Barry about the cause of his pain. This is not an easy question for a historian to answer. Barry starts at the beginning.
“When I was fourteen – ”
“So you have this pain fourteen years,” the doctor says.
“No,” Barry says. He grits his teeth. “When I was fourteen years old – ”
“Yes yes,” the doctor says. “Fourteen years ago. What happened?”
The doctor just wants to know if Barry has had a fall. Barry wants to give a complete history of his spine. A slow-motion, cross-cultural argument ensues.
“Have you had any other treatment,” the doctor asks.
Barry catches my eye. It could just be the pain, but I think he’s grinning.
“Yes,” he says. “I had a back massage. From Ko Un.”
For the first time, the doctor doubts his own English. “From who?”
“From Ko Un. In a restaurant.”
The young man is speechless. It would be like telling an Australian doctor you’ve had a massage from Patrick White. The doctor nods slowly, but he really means to shake his head.
“And,” he finally asks, “what pain killers have you been taking?”
Two days later an MRI shows no serious damage, and Barry is safely on a plane home. A few days after that the other writers catch their taxis to the airport. I’m staying on for another few days. On the hill overlooking Seoul it’s just me and the dictator left. It’s been a stressful couple of weeks. I burst into tears. But I haven’t really got much to worry about.
I’ve had enough of history. I’m going to climb Mt Daecheongbong in Seoroksan National Park. It’s one of the most beautiful, and most heavily touristed spots on the Peninsula. In narrow sections people queue for twenty minutes. It’s hardly the off-track climbing I love but I only have three days. I cook myself an entire packet of pasta and some mangy vegetables. I put the mess in a plastic bag, then stuff it in my pack; dinner for the next couple of nights. Then I catch a taxi to Sinchon Rotary.
But by the time I arrive downtown, it’s too late to catch the bus east. I’m stuck in Seoul for the night. A friend directs me to the hotel district in Sinchon. At dusk I shoulder my huge and grubby pack and walk through narrow curving streets. There are young couples everywhere. Sharp jackets, gauze and silk. I miss my partner Beth. The slender black and grey towers above are love hotels. Couples rent them by the hour. The English neons blink Eros, Venus. I decide it’s funny rather than weird. I walk into the next one I see.
The lobby’s well appointed but as small and dark as a cupboard. I pay for a full night and the concierge hands me a key and a bag through a bank-teller’s slot. The elevator’s all textured leopard print and mirrors. There are disco lights in the roof. Beneath flashing green and pink and blue I rifle the bag: condoms, lubricant, toothbrush. Two toothbrushes. I miss Beth more.
The room itself is a weird mix of traditional Korean house, teenager’s bedroom and porn film set. I’m delighted. The wallpaper’s half red and white candy striped and half photographic prints of roses. There’s just room for a king size bed with red satin covers, and a deeply filthy velvet love seat that I find strangely erotic. I imagine the couples who have used it, and how. They say trauma lingers in a place. I wonder if lust does too.
I drop my pack and ride the disco elevator down to find some food. I can’t bring myself to eat my bag of cold pasta for dinner; I’m not in the mountains yet. After dinner I pause beneath an open second story window. I hear a deep-throated drum and gentle bells and something like a shakahachi flute. It sounds live. I’m enchanted. An elderly couple in filthy tracksuits and work gloves sit beside me. They pass a cigarette back and forth between them. Their faces are turned up towards the music.
Back in the room I push open the small window. Seoul rushes in. Humid air and swarming traffic, the thunder of a metropolis in summer. The towers jutting around me are all love hotels, lit like cooling towers on a power plant, flaring off into the night. I ring Beth. I hold the phone out the window so she can hear my world. After, I strip down to my boxers and film a slow pan for her around the room: mini-spa, vanity crammed with home-brand makeup, rattling air conditioner, the love seat, and me, reflected in the huge mirror, pale and grinning.
The bus east is warm. I doze on and off. It takes forever for the apartment towers to thin and fade. Then we’re climbing into hills. The landscape dissolves and reforms out of mist. After the horizontal plains of Australia, the landforms here feel intricate and restless. I eat bananas and salted nuts and drink iced coffee from a can. We pass through humble towns and when we stop it’s mostly soldiers getting on and off. The scale of the places is small, familiar. I begin to feel more at home.
Hours later we reach the far coast of Korea. The eastern ocean is a flat concrete slab under drizzling skies. There are gulls overhead and a salt-iron whiff in the breeze. Any sense of familiarity is smashed when I glimpse a stocky woman standing with her back to the ocean. The sea and the sky and the foreshore are drab and her clothes are drab but her face is vivid. She has a round red moon face, ruddy and chapped from wind and sun, and her features come from some in-between place. She’s Korean and Mongolian and Chinese and Eastern European and I remember that the ferries at her back will end the day in Vladivostok. In Russia! I get a childish thrill. I know the world wraps around in a seamless continuum, but it’s rare to really feel it.
When I finally reach the entrance to the National Park my pack is fully stocked, I’m rugged up against the drizzle and ready to go.
The warden shakes his head. He tells me it’s too late to begin climbing. It’s eight to ten hours to the nearest available shelter. I can’t possibly reach it before dark.
I think for a second. I don’t have a tent. But the drizzle’s easing off, I only have two nights left, and there’s no way I’m spending another one in a love hotel. I’ve got a shower-proof alpine sleeping bag and a Thermarest camping matress. I’ve got my plastic bag full of cold pasta. Bugger it.
I smile at the warden. Can I still go for a stroll in the park?
He looks uncertain.
I’ll just go for a quick walk then come out. I’ll come back tomorrow and do it properly.
Okay, he says. Sure.
He sells me a ticket. I’m off.
I bolt the first section. It’s a narrow valley that’s carefully manicured and full of food stalls. It feels more like a metropolitan park than a wilderness area. I’m moving against a long and colourful tide of hikers, all heading towards the exit. The gates shut in 45 minutes. There are casual visitors in city clothes and day hikers in expensive shoes. The odd group of pack-lugging long-distance walkers streams past, tired and happy and ready for beer. For the first couple of kilometres I call Annyeong Haseyo! every ten or twenty seconds, then just smile, then just walk.
The stallholders are packing up too. They cover their wares with plastic tarpaulins then leave for the night. This gives me an idea. Maybe I can steal one. The crowds have thinned now. I slow down. On a long rocky shoulder beside a stunningly clear river I spot some empty stalls. There’s an old blue tarp lying on the ground. While the last few walkers come by I take out my camera and pretend to photograph the river. There’s a gap in the traffic. I crouch down and pick up the tarp. Damn. It’s enormous, and really heavy. I’ve got my pack off and I’m digging out my Swiss army knife to cut a square when I hear voices. It’s an American family – mum, dad, two kids. I pretend to fumble with my camera, balancing it on my pack.
Hey, the man says. Do you want me to take that picture for you?
Ah, thanks, I say.
I pose against the river and he takes a couple of shots. While the kids mill around I shoulder my pack and continue up the track. When I look at the photos later I have to laugh. I’m blushing.
The light fades. I increase my pace. There’s no-one around now. Despite having no shelter I’m feeling better with each step. The air is moist and the valley sides are draped in mist. Rain has seeped into everything. The trees and bark are luminous and dripping. I pass from the valley floor and begin to climb. Cliffs of warm ochre and orange rock rise around me. The tracks are like footpaths. I clamber up stairs. I’m sweating now. I wonder if the warder at the front gate will notice I haven’t come back out. It’s an absurd idea given how many people are in the park, but once I have the thought I can’t shake it. I’m keen to get off the track, scanning the terrain for somewhere flat and preferably dry. I consider bunking down under a boardwalk like a troll, but it’s far too visible.
I’m on the main track, high above a rushing river, when I spot a faint trail heading up into the trees. I follow it through the undergrowth to a perfectly flat tent-sized clearing. Bingo. But there, in the dead centre of the clearing, right in the ideal place to bunk down for a good night’s sleep, someone has done an enormous poo.
Without even stopping to consider my options I just keep going. Straight up through the trees. The valley I’m in is basically a gorge, with high steep sides and the river flowing away at the bottom. If I’m going to find somewhere away from the track I have to get high. There are cliffs above. Maybe I can find an overhang, or find a way through to a flat ridgeline. I’m climbing between bushes and trees, then scrambling, using branches to pull myself up. It’s not dangerous but it will be in another twenty minutes when it gets dark.
I reach the base of the cliffs. The rain-slick rock vanishes sheer into mist. It’s too late to go any further. I can’t see any overhangs but even sleeping against the rock face will offer some protection from rain. So. All I need is a flat surface.
I wedge my pack behind a tree to stop it rolling into the river then have a quick scout. I find a narrow ledge that’s about two metres long and a metre wide. It ain’t flat. I’d roll straight off. I brush away the top layer of leaves. Beneath is mulch and dirt. I can work with that. I find a rock with a long flat edge. Using both hands I go to work, using it to make a flat surface. I switch on my torch and I dig and dig. Nearly there. I spread handfuls of leaves over the raw dirt so I won’t get filthy. The platform that results is just long enough for my Thermarest, and just wide enough for my shoulders. Perfect.
Two minutes later I’m super cosy in my sleeping bag, reading my book by torchlight and digging into my bag of cold pasta. I’ve been hauling it around Korea for two days now, unrefrigerated, and the mushrooms are starting to smell weird. But like all food eaten in places you’ve busted your arse to reach, it tastes fine. I finish it off with some chocolate. The light’s too dim to film a panorama for Beth on my crappy phone but I try anyway. Then, torch off, the brim of my beanie pulled low over my face against the drizzle, lying with the warm pulse of blood in my veins, I’m suddenly hit by the total absurdity of what I’m doing.
I’m sleeping on a two by one metre rock ledge terraced out at the base of a cliff, liable to roll into a river, in light drizzle, in South Korea. I’ve slept in some pretty weird places but I think this wins. More than absurd though, the spot I’ve stumbled on is, somehow, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. It’s utterly fucking exquisite. I look around. I’m at tree-top height, enveloped in a rising mist that’s suffused with the last dying glow from the sky. All I can see is the silhouettes of star-shaped leaves drifting in and out of mist, and an elegant filigree of branches ghosting from crispest black to the faintest trace of white. There’s a sapling clinging to the cliff face above me that looks like it was painted by a master-calligrapher. The soft, irregular percussion of water drips and chimes all round and beneath that comes the river’s soothing voice. It’s too much. I’m giddy with pleasure. Ecstatic, even, with the beauty and the absurdity, and the childish fact that I’ve gotten here all by myself. I haven’t been this relaxed or happy in a while. I nestle into the cliff face. I tell myself not to roll over in the night, and fall asleep.
First light comes just before five. I open my eyes and it’s no less beautiful in the morning, or less ridiculous. I look down the steep slope and can’t help laughing. Goddamn.
Then I realise it’s not the light that’s woken me. It’s the sound. The occasional plash of water dripping through the leaves is coming quicker now. It’s starting to really rain. My Dryloft sleeping bag has coped fine with the drizzle but not this. Time to go.
I dress in layers of wool and expensive plastic and head back down, picking my way carefully in the wet. For some reason my guts are a bit sore, a kind of clenching twist. I decide to walk before attempting breakfast.
Back on the track there’s not a soul in sight. I wonder how long I’ve got before the crazy crowds. My map says it’s twelve hours to the top of Geonbukgong, about 1600 vertical metres straight up. If I can get a third of the way up by 9am I should stay clear of the crush. I think back to the time I got the whole of Mont St Michel to myself. It’s the second most tourist-swarmed spot the France; I hitched there in the dead hours of winter and found the island closed due to a cold snap. I flirted my way past a couple of bored attendants and for a whole afternoon had the island to myself. From the chapel at the back of the island, looking straight out into the Atlantic, I got an inkling of the intense, isolated beauty the monks had sought. It’s a good tactic, visiting popular spots at odd times and in crappy weather.
The path winds its way up the gorge and begins to climb in earnest. There’s no real sense of the mountain range I’m heading into, just misty flanks rising on all sides and the bush spilling over and down. I feel small among the weight of such landforms. The light is flat but there’s an intensity to the greens of the foliage, and a sense of proximity to the sky that I love.
An hour or so in I stop to do yoga and eat breakfast. I drop my pack on a suspended metal walkway above the river’s fluent tongue and do some half-arsed sun salutes. The rain is coming in hard. In a minute or so I’m cold. With raindrops clattering on my hood I scoff my muesli and fruit and a can of coffee and keep moving. The only way is up.
The hours tick over. I’m in my rhythm now and the walking feels right. My head is clear. I stop and drink ice-cold water from my bottle. Still no other people, not a one. I’m gleeful. I’d seen YouTube videos of massive traffic jams on the track. I can’t believe my luck. The weather’s atrocious and I freeze when I stop, but holy shit it’s beautiful.
Around 9am I finally see people. No ordinary people either. A long lurching line of elderly, hunchbacked men and women making their way down a steep face. All of them clad in plastic rain ponchos. They look like they all have badly disfigured spines. I’m having trouble not staring.
The first one reaches me. Annyeong Haseyo, he calls.
Then I see he’s not a hunchback; he’s wearing a backpack underneath his rain poncho. They all are. The plastic skin of the poncho exaggerates every movement into a grotesque bob and twist. I must be tired. I grin foolishly at the man. The man grins back.
Around second-breakfast time something good happens. I thrash myself up a steep slope and take a side turning to a lookout and suddenly I’m above the first layer of clouds. I get a great sense of lifting, of things falling away. Looking back the way I came, I see scrubby mountain tops and spires of rock pushing out of the cloudy gloom. Up the other way, Daecheongbong grinds its way towards another layer of thin high cloud. It’s not a sheer peak, more a stubby bulk. The top looks close but these kinds of mountains are deceiving. With six hours left to climb I know the real peak will be a long way back. Still, I’m inspired. The rain’s just a faint drift here. I snap some photos, munch a couple of peanut butter sandwiches and head on up.
On top of Daecheongbong the clouds fly by but the earth is still. The peak is a broad shoulder holding up a great weight of cloud. Its skin is a stubble of rock. At the very top the natural outcroppings are interspersed with monuments to unknown causes. There are no humans, just a scattering of alpine plants and hardy wild-flowers. It’s hard to imagine huge crowds queuing to stand here. Wind comes from the valley and whips across the ridge. I sit on my heels in the lee and look to the north-east, towards North Korea. Here and there, magnificent islands of striated rock push up from the cloud-sea. The rest is white on white. I’m glad to be here, wet through, warm in my bones. I’m glad to head down to shelter when I’ve drunk my fill of the view.
There is a shelter not far from the top; a kind of Swiss-Korean chalet. The first thing to do is eat. I’m seriously hungry. Down in the empty, cavernous concrete dining room I unpack my ice-cold pasta. I open the bag and look at the sluggish mass and laugh at myself. Ridiculous.
I’m about eight forkfuls in when my belly starts grumbling again. Uh oh. I haven’t got that much else to eat so I persist. I’ve spent enough time in the mountains to trust my stomach to deal with whatever’s in my pack. But then my belly really starts to clench. Another forkful. My guts are twisting themselves into a grimy little knot. Shit. Achievements for the day: climbed Mt Daecheongbong in the rain; gave myself food poisoning. I close the bag and throw it back in my pack. There goes lunch. And dinner. I laugh at myself some more. It’s going to be a hungry couple of days. For now it’s best to unpack, unwind, sleep.
When I find the ranger to ask about beds, he shakes his head.
No booking? he says. Sorry. He has the bright, clear eyes and wind-chafed cheeks of all mountain-dwellers. This one, booking only, he says. Shelters down the mountain, open.
I start to nod.
But, he says, down the mountain they are cleaning. Open at four o’clock.
No worries, I say. It must be close to four.
The man points to a clock behind him on the wall. It’s only eleven thirty in the morning. I’m confused. That can’t be right. It can’t have taken me six and a half hours instead of twelve. I’m fit but not that fit. Then I think about everyone else on the track: retirees in great shuffling groups. It would take them twelve hours. Anyone under sixty’s likely to be a little quicker.
I think about my options. I’ve got about five hours to kill, a few snacks for lunch and nothing for dinner or tomorrow. I’m far too proud to ask the ranger to feed me. My hair and clothes are wet and I’m getting cold. I’m too hungry to decide what to do.
While I eat my remaining peanut butter sandwiches and huge handfuls of salted nuts, I look at the map on the wall. There are three ways down off the mountain. Back the way I came: bugger that. There’s another route to the north-east, into the more remote part of the park. Stunning, but unless I’m prepared to gate-crash a monastery, no food. The third option on the map heads north. Back up the peak and down the other side to a tiny mountain town called Osaek.
Osaek. That name seems familiar. Then it comes to me. I met a Japanese man on the bus who had devoted his entire life to visiting hot springs. That’s where he was heading. Osaek! A mineral springs! Bingo.
The map says seven hours but if the morning’s anything to go by I could do it in four. Downhill all the way. So much for another night on the mountain. I’ll be soaking in a hot tub before dinner. I’m tracing the route with my finger when the ranger comes over.
Mineral springs? he says. Very nice. You go?
I nod. I think so. I offer the him some dried fruit. He smiles and scoffs it down then offers me some chocolate. I start feeling a bit more human.
I go with you, he says. Today is my last day. We go together. At two o’clock.
It’s a kind offer. We’re going the same way and it’d be rude to turn him down. But after weeks of intense group dynamics, I can’t face four more hours of extra-small-talk. I’m revelling in a bit of old-fashioned New Zealand lonerism. I mumble something that could be yes and could be no thanks and he wanders off. After an hour of resting I shrug my pack on. The ranger’s nowhere to be found. I leave him a message. Time to go!
From the top of the peak the path turns into a staircase. A very, very, very long staircase, dropping and twisting down through scrubby trees towards the forest floor, one and a half vertical kilometres below. It’s endless. One foot after the other, the weight of my pack carrying me down, my knees bending and straightening like rusty pistons. It’s no effort to walk down. The effort’s in keeping myself from simply tumbling down the slope.
The sky grows brighter with each hour. The long lakes of cloud that lie in the valleys begin to burn off. By the time I leave the sub-alpine scrub for forest, the sun is out, and a vast and glowing mist rises around me. The trees are broad-spreading mountain oaks with new spring leaves of startling green. Backlit by spring sunshine they glow through the mist with an inner fire. I stop to take photographs. I stop taking photos and simply stare.
A couple of hours in I pass a single party coming the other way. Then I’m right down in the valley bottom, following a skein of streams towards Osaek. The greens give way to a landscape of yellow and burning orange. Millions of leaves from the previous autumn have washed down the river beds and collected just before the village. I pad my way through great rotting drifts that lie like technicolour snow.
And then I’m out.
There’s a road and a small mountain village. Densely forested hills climb away on all sides and a soft drizzle welcomes me in. The world closes down to soft greys and misty greens. I love it. There are four or five streets, closed up hotels, waiters watching television in empty restaurants. I pass the fog-glassed public baths. In the main square there’s an inexplicable collection of bird cages with a scrubbing brush locked inside each. I meander through on autopilot. I’m exhausted – eleven hours climbing, 3.2 vertical kilometres of up then down – but I feel amazing: present, clear, my mind empty of stress and chatter.
After a love hotel and a rock ledge in the drizzle, tonight’s the night for comfort. I settle on a chalet with a soft yellow lamp in the window. The owners, a watchful Korean woman and her immaculately barbered Japanese husband, are visibly surprised when I take their most expensive suite at $70. I close the door and drop my pack and feel very pleased with myself. There’s a huge bed and a balcony looking out to the hills. Standing proud in the bathroom is a deep bath with the mineral springs piped straight in.
I start to unpack, and there it is: the pasta-in-a-bag. I lob it into the bin with a clang. I duck out instead for an epic dinner of salty-sweet beef bulgogi, then return with an overpriced bottle of Chivas and run the bath. The water looks clear at first, but as it deepens it grows faintly blue, and by the time the tub is steaming full it’s a glorious snow-melt azure. I pour several fingers of whiskey and lower my aching limbs into the sea. I feel warm and heavy, and growing heavier by the second. I try to drink the whisky and spill it everywhere. I pour another measure and spill that too. My mind’s gone. History too.
- Client - The Lifted Brow
- Date Completed - December 2012
- Details - This first appeared in The Lifted Brow Issue 15