Read Korea Online

Authors: Simon Winchester

Korea (7 page)

BOOK: Korea
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(Strangers might find it perplexing—I certainly did—to confront a population that is overwhelmingly composed of people all seemingly belonging to the same very small number of families. Most Koreans are either called Park, Kim, or Lee, which latter is also spelled Rhee, Ee, Ea, Yi, Yih, Lih, Li, Ri, Rhi, Rii and Ree—the Koreans having a great talent to confuse—and it can on occasion be trying if a Mr Park wishes to marry a Miss Park, or a Miss Kim a Captain Kim, or Ms Rhee a Mr Li. Only if it can be proved that the pair do not belong to the same clan are they permitted to marry. A Kimhae Kim—a Kim from the Kimhae clan—may marry an Andong Kim without any major problems; but it can happen that two less well-distanced Kims may to their horror discover on consulting their
chokbo
, the family-tree book most Koreans keep in a bottom drawer, that they share the same recent antecedents and are thus
of the same clan
. They are forbidden by law to marry. They often do, but illegally, and their children will not be registered.)

Thus we talked, late into the night and over tumblers of brandy, my Hong Kong friend drinking his with peppermint cordial, a mixture of such stunning vulgarity that only the Cantonese, I thought, could conjure it up, let alone drink it and stay living. Dawn was beginning to break when I finally slumped into my bed, my head reeling with Andong Kims and Pusan Parks and Namwon Rhees. And when I woke, head still reeling, the sun was glaring down on a copper sea. I had a mountain to climb.

 

‘In this Island there is a Mountain of a vast Height,’ wrote Hamel, ‘all cover’d with woods and several small Hills which are naked, and enclose many Vales abounding in Rice….’

Cheju Island, to which Hamel referred, is a vast volcano, the flanks peppered with fumaroles and lesser escape routes—now built into substantial hills themselves—from which steady streams of basalt lava once eased themselves down towards the sea. The island summit is in fact Korea’s highest mountain, Halla-san, 6,397 feet, and at this time of early spring, quite covered with snow. (British charts once named the peak Mount Auckland. The Royal Navy had brief imperial ambitions for Korea’s southern coast, annexed a tiny island now named Komun-do, and with rather absurd grandiloquence styled it Port Hamilton. Nowadays there are two ratings’ graves there, the headstones roped off as a sanctuary, a memorial to a somewhat forlorn and unconsummated colonial idea.)

I was far from fit, but a friend who had flown down from Seoul to guide me—a tough young Korean woman named Kim Mae-young, whose firmest friend in Seoul was, she said, one of the country’s best-known rock climbers—goaded me: to travel through Cheju without climbing Halla mountain would be an omission verging on sacrilege. I laced my climbing boots, she tied on a dainty pair of sneakers, and we set off on the trail.

It was a crisp early spring day, and the woods behind the small Buddhist temple where and trail began were flecked with patches of melting snow. A tiny stream trilled down beside the path, and in places it broadened, and on its sandy banks small birds picked twigs to build their new nests. Tiny alpine flowers, pale blue and primrose yellow, grew by the stream, and on the trees there were clumps of bright scarlet or umber lichens—all very Scandinavian, wintry, and starkly beautiful.

The path was well marked and utterly without litter; the Koreans who climb have, I had been told, the utmost respect for their countryside. Every half mile or so there was a map and a shelter, and beside some of these rest stops a basalt trough of water, constantly fed by the stream, and a wooden dipper nearby
to make it easy to take a drink. The dipper had evidently been there for years: in Korea, no one would think of stealing it.

We rounded the plump bole of a tree, and there, sitting with solemn equanimity beside the trail, was an old man. He was dressed in a dark grey coat with a white blouse beneath and brown baggy trousers and white slippers. He wore a tall hat, slightly tapered towards the top, with a wide, oddly transparent brim. His face was an almost perfect oval but with a straggling grey beard and a long moustache that reached well down the front of his tunic. His umbrella was open and standing next to him should there be a rainstorm or should the sun become too strong. He was smoking a cigarette in a contemplative sort of way and looked a vision of peace and contentment, though as we approached him he looked up, sat up straight, and beckoned to us.

He was a fortune-teller, so strategically located that it was quite impossible to pass him without buying a reading. He asked me two questions only—the date I was born and the time. I told him, whereupon he took an enormous chart from a pocket in his tunic and wrote with great unhurried speed in Chinese characters. He frowned a lot, then smiled, put away his notes, and spoke in Korean. Mae-young interpreted. ‘This man says you are a writer, and you come from England. He could tell that from your voice, I suppose. He says that you have written six books, and that you will write fifteen more, and you will be successful and happy. You will die when you are eighty-eight. Please give him two thousand
won
. That is all.’

I was astonished. Had she said anything to him? I wondered. She insisted not. Had she winked, given him any sort of clue? She swore blind she had not. She was as amazed as I was, for she knew that in all he said about my past, he was exactly right. There was no vague dissembling, no catchall generalization. This man was sure—his entire attitude and demeanour radiated self-confidence and certitude—that I was a writer, and yet I carried no notebook, gave no hint that I might be anything other than a foreigner on his holidays. He had the number of books exactly correct. How on earth could he have known? ‘He
knows,’ said Mae-young, and that was all she said on the subject. So we tramped on, with me beginning to wonder exactly what the next fourteen books would be about, and whether it would be prudent to begin planning my funeral for some time in the year 2032.

After an hour the trees thinned out, and the mountainside became dominated by huge vaulting walls of dark brown basalt, with shrubs nestling in the fissures, and occasional clumps of hardy stunted pines. It was cold up here, above three thousand feet, and a thick air-frost had settled on everything, whitening the rocks, adorning branches with fronds of ghostly crystals, making the narrow paths treacherous. At one stage we inched our way along a tiny ledge, slick with new ice, and with a thousand-foot sheer drop between us and—I could just make out his hat—the old fortune-teller in a clearing in the woods below. Logic and faith imbued me with the certainty that I would not, could not, fall: the old man had told me I had another four decades to go, so there was no need to hang on like grim death to the mountain wall and pray. I did, however, just in case he had made a slight miscalculation.

The climb became more arduous, and I began to slow down. It was, at first, quite humiliating. Not only Mae-young bounded ahead, leaving me gasping in her wake. Koreans have the capacity to be fantastically energetic and quite tireless. Old Korean grandmothers, small children, a man in his eighties with a tweed suit and a Harry Lauder walking stick—they all scrambled up the pathway like goats, and whenever I stopped, panting like a grampus, legions more would pass without the slightest trace of weariness or sweat. By using them as pacemakers it had taken me no more than an hour to reach the frost line, where the views (for I stopped a great deal to look about me) took in villages and farms in every quarter of the compass, and it became clear that this was, after all, an island, shaped like a lozenge and out of sight of any other land. But once we were up in the cold, they rushed past me, totally in their element.

We stopped at a hut at the 5,577-foot mark, broke the ice on
a spring, and drank deeply of the purest and sweetest water. I had a bar of chocolate and found a tiny bottle of whisky I had been given on the plane. It might have done on a Scottish mountain, but here it was very much spartan fare. The other climbers had more ambitious luncheon plans: the same grandmothers who had whizzed past me now untied their haversacks and produced, in short order, positively Lucullan feasts—sausages, fried fish, boiled eggs, seaweed, pickled vegetables, seasoned squid, tuna rolls,
kimchi
and rice, and packets of strong soup, which they heated in pots filled with melting snow. A small fire was glowing in a corner of the hut’s living room, and we all sat close to it, huddling out of the cold winds that now blew incessantly. But without warning a thick bank of cloud suddenly descended over the main peak, which rose, jagged and formidable, a temptingly few hundred feet above us. A frost-covered climber clinking with expensive-looking ironmongery (which both the Koreans and the Japanese will spend small fortunes on, just so that they achieve the correct
look
up on a mountain) appeared from its slopes and made an announcement that sent up a groan from the waiting throng: we were advised not to go farther. It was going to snow, and the peak would be doubly dangerous.

So we all set off back down again, some to the north of the island, and the hotels of Cheju City, while others, like Mae-young and I, retraced our steps back down to Sogwipo. Late lunch parties had sprung up on the hillside—gatherings of ten and fifteen people getting pleasantly tight on bottles of milk-white
makkoli
and singing mournful ballads into the wind. No one climbed alone: the Koreans claim that they dislike solitude, and the contemplative Korean, even on hills where contemplation seems so suitable, is rarely found. Wordsworth is not popular: wandering lonely as a cloud is an unfathomable Western trait. Mountains, someone explained, are for group enjoyment: ‘People don’t come here to enjoy nature. You Westerners talk about communing with nature. Here people come to commune with each other. The nature is incidental.’

 

From back down at sea level the yellowish, waxy clouds that quite obscured the mountaintop looked full of snow; but down here it was warm, the wind had eased, and the setting sun was reddening the western sky. We found a pathway down to a beach of iron black sand, and dabbled our toes in the freezing water. I had come to look for a group of Cheju’s women divers—the
haenyo
—who might, about now, be finishing their daily hunt for abalone and sea cucumbers in the shallow waters off the cliffs.

The most difficult task for anyone wandering through a foreign land with the hope of gaining some insight into it is the profound need ‘to come to terms with the lives and thoughts of strangers’. William Franklin Sands, an American diplomat who was invited to become a counsellor of the Korean royal house in 1900, when he was only twenty-five, was one of those rare individuals who tried thus to come to terms. He left a slim book,
Undiplomatic Memories
, as a record of his ventures into the wilder parts of the country he so dearly loved. He came to Cheju—though he called it Quelpaert, as Hamel’s men had done—and he found it dominated by a remarkable society of women.

 

Man, in this lost corner of the world, was an inferior being; the woman was everything. She was the real house-bond. She owned all the property; her children bore her family name, and she never took a permanent husband. Men were allowed to come over from the mainland once a year, but they were not encouraged to stay long, and when they returned took with them all boys who had reached thirteen years…

It was more like a matriarchy, a real Amazon community, for the women were always ready to assert their power and uphold it by force.

The women were fine swimmers and divers. Young and old would swim out through the breakers, leave a basket buoyed by gourds floating on the surface and dive fathoms down for abalone shell or a bunch of edible seaweed. They would cut it out with a short sickle (the same weapon they used on the men when annoyed), attach an empty gourd to it, drop the stone with which they had weighted the gourd and let it float to the surface to be picked up when they were ready to come
up themselves. They could swim and float about for hours, dive as simply as a duck, and work or move about from place to place under the water as easily and as long as so many sea fowl. While resting on the surface they would keep up a monotonous whistling in different keys to warn chance men in the fishing boats to keep their distance.

 

I played the chance man. Whether they whistled or not I could not tell, but here they were, emerging from the sea like seals—a dozen or so women, most of them near middle age, all in tight-fitting black rubber suits. From a distance they looked like police frogmen or a team of specialists from the Special Boat Squadron who had been laying limpet mines on the hull of the
Scharnhorst
. They scampered out of the foam and up across the rocks with great agility, and each sat down at a little chosen site sheltered from the breeze to sort and pack her catch. Most of them had slimy bubbles of sea cucumber or bundles of weed—sea kale, perhaps—while a few of the luckier ones had managed to pluck up ear-shaped abalone, whose shells looked like oysters and that had (as I remembered from a seaside dinner some months before) the consistency of eraser rubber and the taste of Styrofoam. Abalone is reputed—along with ginseng, dog soup, snake stew and powdered deer antler—to work wonders with a male’s sexual performance: to me it has always, in Korea at least, tasted so awful as to quite put me off any experimentation.

There was a small concrete hut up on the cliff where the women stored their gear—their rubber suits, their face masks, their catching baskets. A few of them gathered by the hut to change into their market clothes—baggy trousers, drab shirts, sandals—and gossip about the day’s catch. ‘Bad day,
onnyi
,’ said one woman to another who was slightly older and deserved the term of respect. ‘Only four kilos of
hae-sam
, and the water is so cold.’ She said she could only stay under for a minute at a time; in the summer she could easily make four minutes without once coming up for air and might pack ten kilos of sea cucumber into her basket before swimming back to shore. But early spring is not the best of times; the wind and currents ruin the visibility,
and the storms have loosened some of the more fragile creatures from their moorings. The divers work all year, though, and they fell into helpless giggles when I asked why. ‘The money,’ they yelled. ‘How do you think we live if we don’t work?’

BOOK: Korea
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