I didn’t look at a clock or my watch all day. Time ceased to be of any consequence. But not too long after the sun had risen, and well before it hit that point in the sky that said it was midday, we set out to see what Kelly called “real Korea”. When she said those words and showed some optimism I never doubted her for a second. Usually my cynical side kicks in and I laugh silently at anyone when they grow enthusiastic about something I dislike, but I trusted her fully.
We stepped out into the cool morning under the calm sun and walked along the street holding hands. We took a bus to Dongdaegu station and then transferred and took another north towards the mountains at the top of the city. During my time in Daegu I’d merely stared at the mountains, thinking of them as walls holding me prisoner in this awful place. I’d long since stopped thinking the beauty they might have held.
We stepped off the bus among smaller, older buildings on a steep road. Old people milled about in North Face gear, marching up towards the tree line. Everyone was dressed as though they were ready to climb Everest. Kelly and I stood out in our shorts and t-shirts and sneakers. People stared at us but we didn’t care. We were both smiling, lost in each other and in the fresh air that clouded the mountain.
We walked up the hill and away from the buildings and soon we were under the trees. The road wound upwards, covered in the autumn spread of leaves and pine needles that lay damp underfoot. The trees were thin and a stream trickled down alongside the road, and at times we would trek down and climb on the rocks and cliffs that marked the stream’s trail. Little fish darted about in the freezing water; chipmunks and squirrels tore up and down the tree trunks, watching us intently.
The higher we went, the smaller the path became – changing from a road to a paved path to a smaller rocky path to a set of stairs cut sharply into the rock and winding slowly up towards some invisible peak. All along the route there were old people in their North Face gear. No one wore anything less than a full outfit, complete with hiking pole and giant visor.
After a while we came upon a temple. It was my first visit to a Buddhist temple and it was gorgeous. The air was dense with incense and some chanting coming from the trees, and all about us were purples and reds, humbled before the otherwise encompassing greenery of the mountain side. The roofs of the buildings were slate grey and curved upwards, supported by the reddish-brown walls, which contained golden Buddhas, flowers and fruits. Coloured baubles hung and swung in the breeze, catching the sunlight and casting pink, green and yellows shadows upon the ground. Grey stone pillars stood with some purpose I couldn’t fathom beside a massive ornate bell, which was guarded by four dragons. It looked as though if rang it would either bring the mountain crashing to the earth or it would shatter into dust and simply blow away.
We walked around the temple very slowly, trying not to disturb anyone. I came to realise that this was a fully functional working temple full of worshippers I didn’t want to offend. They were all at peace and busy petitioning their Gods and I was just a confused spectator – a traveller passing through. What business did I have even to be there? I imagined the masses of tourists that must pass through, taking crude photos and trivialising the beliefs of those on their knees.
Beyond the temple there were two routes from which to choose – the busy route and the not-so-busy route. We chose the busy route and agreed to descend via the quieter of the two when the time came. It would be best not to get lost on the way to whatever it was we were going to see.
The busier path was indeed the steeper of the two – a stairway cut into the rock that climbed up the mountain like a ladder for a long, long time. Old people passed us in both directions and it amazed me. What could be up there that dragged them from their lives and compelled them to climb this outrageous mountain? My skin was drenched in sweat and it was showing through my clothes, yet these elderly folks – these adverts for the North Face – were marching at ease. They leapt from boulder to boulder both up and down, sure footed as mountain goats.
Halfway up the climb we came upon a ledge carved into the cliff and there was a women there selling boiled bugs and corn. The smell perverted the air into something unbreatheable and so we moved on hastily.
“Before America came and brought us their candy, people in Korea ate bugs for fun,” Kelly told me.
“Do they taste good?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “But people still eat them. It’s a tradition.”
We carried on up until we reached the top – where we found a shop that sold Buddhist merchandise and was run by nuns – and beyond that there it was; what we came to see.
On top of this giant mountain sat a statue of a Buddha wearing a hat that balanced magically atop his head. Light shone between the top of the skull and the giant stone hat, and it truly seemed like some ancient illusion. Up here the wind that was unnoticeable anywhere else ripped across the summit and yet the giant stone hat just sat peacefully, and had apparently done so for many hundreds of years. Incense clouded the air and those coloured baubles flapped about, obscuring the entire sky, and all around us people knelt praying to their deity and chanting, spinning beads in their fingers. I was between them and their Buddha and I could actually feel the energy of their prayers passing through me and whipping around me.
It all became too much. The atmosphere was so intense I could barely breathe and I ran to the side of the platform on which all this was happening and looked out – and there it was; Korea. All around me, thousands of feet below, was Korea in its magnificence. Mountains tumbled down from this one, rearing their rocky cliffs above the sea of green here and there, carrying on only broken by the occasional river, for as far as the eye could see.
Kelly stood behind me and put her arms around my waist as I stared out lost at the sight, my hair whipping back in the wind and caressing her face. I couldn’t speak. I wanted to tell her what I thought of what I was looking at but I couldn’t. She knew. She’d brought me here because of it.
I could feel everything washing away from me. All the shit I’d been covered in by my wretched life in Scotland, the abuse I’d taken in Korea, and the poverty I’d experienced in Japan – it all just washed over me as I stood in the wind with those soft arms around my waist and her breath on my neck. All the evils of the world drifted from my mind, drawn back, perhaps into the Buddha or the candles or the incense, or wished away by the prayers of the followers. I didn’t know. I just felt immensely cleansed.
I began to feel saddened and guilty by all the hate I’d allowed myself to feel for Korea and its people. It had not been a welcoming place by any means but I had failed to rise above it. I’d failed to give myself a fair chance; failed to seek out the beauty in the country. When I’d come here I’d fallen into a trap and taken the easiest life I could and followed it almost to my doom. I opened my eyes and waited for the beauty of the country to find me and it didn’t and I blamed it, when really it should have been me who’d gone out in search of what I wanted to see.
A tear fell from my left eye, which was strange because I never cried. I didn’t even cry when I’d told my parents I was leaving forever and they’d cried. It was just one tear but it fell and I felt better for it having fallen. In a heartbeat the wind dried it and left nothing there but it tingling sensation that washed over my head, through my hair, down my spine and out towards my fingers and toes; the sensation of a tremendous ecstasy come-up.
“It’s so beautiful,” Kelly said.
“It is,” I replied. “I could stay here forever.”
That’s right, folks. You just read a POSITIVE story about Korea… This is from a book I’ve finished writing and for which I’m now seeking representation. Any help welcome…