Taebaek Days

17 Aug
Once again I have ventured out of the suffocating heat and clouds of pollution that make up life in Bundang.  I had Saturday off, which meant a full weekend, a rare event at my place of employment.  Others stayed back and continued alcohol-infused antics; I decided to make a break from that ultimately frustrating routine and get out.
My schedule in the past month or so has been jam-packed, six days a week.  Other than the sole trip to Jeju, I haven’t done anything other than teach, eat, sleep, and go out with friends.  My urban life became a vicious cycle of consumption: eat, drink, eat, drink, nothing but the expenditure of money for passive and insignificant experiences.   And I felt limited by my group, always depending on others to organize and solve problems.  I didn’t come to another country for such things.  So when the opportunity arose to visit my friend Walker in Taebaek, I did.
Among the clouds.
Among the clouds.

Taebaek is a mountain town about three hours from Seoul.  I took an early subway to catch the 8:00 AM bus from Dongseoul Station.  Not making a reservation was a mistake (although I’m not sure I could have communicated what I wanted).  I was fortunately able to get onto the 10:25 bus but I was amazed that I found a spot at all.  Throngs of Koreans would sprint across the street from the Gangbyeon subway stop as soon as the crosswalk signal turned green.  Everybody was escaping Seoul on this, one of the last weekends of summer.  What was supposed to be a smooth three hour ride turned into a five-plus hour ordeal as the highway leading out of Seoul became a parking lot.  An ajoshi (old man) sitting next to me spoke good English and we conversed periodically throughout the journey.  “All these people,” he said, gesturing to the cars around us, “spend maybe five hour in car, maybe all day.  Not get to where they are going until evening.  Ha!  They so tired, they sleep, then get up and come right back tomorrow!”

The bus wound its way through the mountains and finally arrived in Taebaek.  I could only think of how awful it must have been to fight the Korean War.  No nice rolling plains of fields and trees like Western Europe.  No, it’s all flat ground and steep hills completely covered in thick trees and brush.  If you weren’t climbing or attacking up a hill, you were probably in a rice paddy getting shot at from the top of one.  Taebaek is down in a valley and by down, I mean I heard a bus downshift into the lowest gear possible for the first time in this country.  My friend Walker Pfost met me at the bus station, where he’d waited for three hours in anticipation.  It was slightly frustrating, if only because much of the day had been wasted waiting for a bus and stuck in traffic.  Yet I enjoyed it because of my lack of a cellphone.  I wasn’t able to communicate constantly about my whereabouts.  I was simply crossing a strange land, the language unknown to me, with a phone number written down on a piece of paper in my wallet.  It was a very anachronistic feeling, one which travelers must have experienced in the days before automated E-tickets, mobile phones, and international ATMs, and it was liberating.

After a quick bite to eat, we took a taxi to the base of Taebaek-san, one of the tallest mountain in Korea.  The hike up was pleasant and not as difficult as the Stairmaster-like Halla-san I hiked in Jeju.  Smelling trees and feeling the cool damp air rushing off of a fast-moving stream thrilled me, for city life cannot offer such spiritual rejuvenation.  Once we got to the top of Taebaek-san, we were blessed with unbelievable views all around.

Shangri-la.
Shangri-la.

There was a stacked stone altar atop the mountain.  Several Korean men clad in cutting-edge outdoor gear sat cross-legged and silent on the top, facing the center where they had stacked food in some sort of offering, motionlessly meditating or praying.  The juxtaposition of old and new was striking.  The externals of this country may seem modern but the most fundamental elements are ancient, even time-defying.  An ajoshi walked over and offered Walker and I some u-ee, Korean cucumber, as soon as we reached the top.  In return, we offered he and his wife cans of Cass beer, which they gratefully accepted.  Instances like this were far more common in the countryside.  Foreigners are rarely seen in a place as rural as Taebaek and we were perpetually greeted with smiles and “Hello!” or “Annyong haseyo!” wherever we went.  In Seoul, you’re ignored as just another white guy.

The sun set, reflecting off of the mist which settled into the valleys.  I snapped dozens of pictures, hoping for some perfect ones.  This place really did feel timeless, like a great ship whose crow’s nest cut above the clouds and the mizzens of smaller peaks below.  I finally gained my “Asian sense,” something indefinable I feel every time I see a Japanese woodblock print or a picture of women with coolie hats in rice paddies or a pagoda.  It was a feeling of seeing something untouched and utterly foreign, something that defied any normal categories which I and my Western mind might try to impose.  It was of a beauty that is not measurable or repeatable.  Korea simply lay before me, unchanged, tranquil, the same as it is, ever was, ever will be.  The old man who arrived, promptly spread out a mat, and began bowing and praying in each of the four directions didn’t have to know or articulate that.  That was he.

Sunset meditation.
Sunset meditation.

Modern man seeks out places such as this because it is not a part of himself and he, delighting in novel things, selfishly wants yet another new experience.  Yet he always leaves and returns to his hustling city ways, forever separated from whence he came.  Bertrand Russell, in the June 1921 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, wrote that modern industrial society  “forces men, women, and children to live a life against instinct, unnatural, unspontaneous, artificial.”  How true for my experience of big city life so far and how accurate Russell is in pointing out that it is our instincts which are crushed.  We attempt to build some sort of framework of rationality in our world, one which can support and justify our crowded, intense modern existence.  Yet we cast away the standard of the previous generation with the maturation of a new one.  As a result, we are perpetually in flux.  Our principles and our relationships with each other and the physical world are always either being reformed or criticized to the point of ostracism.  We cannot live as we sense that we should, as something Greater than ourselves would have us.  We are chained to the Wheel of Progress, even as it smashes us with each great revolution.

On top of the world, for a little while.
On top of the world, for a little while.

Yet some, like the bowing ajoshi above, are perturbed not by the machinations of the perpetually hustling world down below.  He has found his own little pocket of peace, his own bulwark against the absurdity of the world, one which matters far more than any cynical or nihilistic attitude.  For indeed, if this man and his Buddhist ancestors or the bent-knee christophoros or the crippled Ionian slave who found tranquility in desiring only what happened to him were wrong in their hope and lightness of heart, then their instinct mattered as little as any other wretched life.  Yet they held held firmly to that which came from within.  It is they who stand to gain once the sun sets for the last time and the humble but bold gamble of one or the other pays off.

Korea is an innocent land in that regard, in that reverence for what has been and what is unexplained.  Culturally, they are an innocent land as well.  While at the beach at Donghae, an hour’s train ride from Taebaek, I commented to Walker about how much I liked Korean families and Korean kids.  I have yet to see an ill-behaved or angry child in this land.  They are perpetually happy and well-behaved and their parents are incredibly attentive.   In contrast, American parents treat their kids like liabilities to be fed and clothed, and most American kids I would prefer to drown like a sackful of kittens.  Walker made the insightful comment that Korea is the cultural equivalent of 1950s America.  Everything is blissfully ignorant.  Drugs are unheard of.  Promiscuity is not common or at least well-concealed.  Homosexuality is utterly inconceivable; as a result, I saw two grown men sound asleep together, one embracing the other, on the floor of the bus home last night.  Any sort of underground or counterculture exists at the farthest possible periphery.  Crime is virtually nonexistent.  Eight year old kids wander around the streets with their friends, unwatched.  Some would sneer at their ‘innocence’ and lack of ‘sophistication.’  But that innocence makes Korea a wonderful place to live.  There is no anarchy of the individual ensured by a tyranny of thought as in the West.

It was with regret that I left Taebaek and Donghae and made my long trip back to Bundang, watching inane historical dramas on the plasma screen TV in the bus.  The openness and friendliness of the people in those two places cheered my weary city heart and the sights of sounds of tree, creeks, and mountains reminded that it is truly outside cities that you discover the real character of a people.  Yet for those who are without strong will or great skill in these times, it is where we all will live one day.  Seoul, it is massiveness, its alienation, its unbelievable and unknowable complexity, is the future of our race.

“Vast is the power of the city to reclaim the wanderer. More than mountains or the shore-devouring sea, a city retains its character, imperturbable, cynical, holding behind apparent changes its essential purpose.”

– Sinclair Lewis, “Babbitt”

The Asia of the mists and forests, the Asia of myth: here.
The Asia of the mists and forests, the Asia of myth: here.
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