Friday, September 01, 2006

Korea Memories #1: The Magpie Crags

Pia encouraged me to write some memories of my time in Korea. Here's my first collection of thoughts, adapted from my journals from 2000.

The sounds of the bell tolling down off the mountainside wake me. I turn on my flashlight. It’s 4 A.M. For a few moments, I lay on my back, the warmth of the floor soothing my body. Seung Hwan had told me the floor would stay warm throughout the night. I had my doubts, but it’s still warm even though the air above is quite chilly. A small fire consisting of just a half dozen pieces of split wood had been placed in the hearth just under the flooring late yesterday afternoon. And now, 12 hours later, long after the coals have died out, the floor retains the heat.

I pull on socks and my pants and thrown on a coat, step out of the sleeping room into the bathroom where I slide on my boots. I don’t lace them up, I don’t plan to be gone long, but I want to be outdoors. The air is cold. I walk to ward off the chill, going to a ledge out in front of the lodge. In the distance I can hear a train making its way through the valley. In the west, a good piece away, is Wonju. The city isn’t yet awake. The sky is clear, the rain and snow of the day before has moved out. Above Wonju, Orion is perched just above the western horizon. I make out several other winter constellations setting in the west before I turn and look toward where the sound of the bell came. The mountain is dark; it’s a couple of hours to dawn. I imagine the priest at the temple, in the cold darkness of morning, getting up daily for their prayers. I’m now ready to go back to my warm bed. Sleeping on the floor has never been this good. The floor is warm and my covers lay on a rice mat. I lay down and fall back asleep, only to awake when the sun pierces through a small window.

I am on a two week trip through South Korea. Seung Hwan arranged for me to stay in this retreat lodge located just out of town, up in the mountains. He’d given me the option of staying in a western hotel or traditional style lodging. I chose the traditional. There are only a few others staying here, and none of them seems to speak English. We’re each assigned our own quarters consisting of a small bathroom with a toilet and sink attached a raised sleeping room. There's showers in the main lodge. There are no beds. The room is raised and has low ceilings, barely six feet high. The walls are mud. The floor is also mud with, I presume, slate or some kind of rock underneath. In the front of each sleeping chamber is a hearth. The fire in this hearth, which runs under the sleeping room, heats the floor. Once warm, the floor maintains its heat through the night.

Seung Hwan arrives shortly after daybreak. We have breakfast. It’s Monday morning and as we eat, we catch a bit of the Superbowl being played back in the States. St. Louis is playing Tennessee at the Georgia Dome. I try to explain the game to him. When it is over, we head out. We have a long climb ahead in Ch’iaksan National Park. We drive to the south end of the park, leave the car behind, pull on packs containing heavy coats and crampons, and head out on a dirt two track road. Although the cities have modernized, it doesn't appear rural Korea has changed much in centuries. We pass several small farms. Chickens run loose and there are many dogs penned behind the homes. After a few kilometers, the dirt road ends and we begin climbing a small path up into the mountains. The climb is steep and we often have to stop and catch our breaths. Soon, the dirt and mud give way to packed snow and ice. We strap crampons onto our boots and continue climbing. It’s a long ways up. Occasionally we hear trains making their way through the valley. There is a circle tunnel just south of us where the train makes a loop as it climbs into the mountains. There are a few birds. Although this mountain range is known as the Magpie Crags, I don’t see any.

We take a break and eat lunch at a spring located below Sangwona Temple. Seung Hwan explains that pilgrims stopped here to bath and purify themselves before going to the temple to pray. The water is cold and refreshing. The wind comes up and while we’re stopped, we both pull on heavy coats, keeping in them on for the final climb.

The temple appears to be deserted, although we can tell its well kept. We see only one monk, walking away. The most notable feature is the bell, a huge cast bronze bell that is mounted on the side of a ledge that looks out to the South. A large log, suspended from two chains, is used to strike the bell. The monks have taken precautions and have padlocked the bell so that tourist like us won’t ring it at an inappropriate time. I ask Seung Hwan if this is the bell I heard in the morning and he said probably not, for there are many temples in his range and that the bell I heard was probably at the Ipsoksa Temple, located on the flanks of Mount Pinobong.

We take our shoes off and go inside the temple area. There are several beautifully cast statues of Buddha. Although neither of us are Buddhist, we are both respectful and reverent. There is a holy aura about the place. I could stay here a long time, but we must get going. Going down is easy. The spikes on our boots hold our feet on the icy spots. As we walk, I ask Seung Hwan about the temple and its bell. This is rugged country, it took a Herculean effort to build a temple with such fancy statues and such a wonderful bell. I’m told the temple was built late in the Shilla Dynasty, at a time when Confucianism was taking root in Korea. A while later, under the Yi Dynasty, Buddhism was seen was begun to be seen as an enemy of the people and many of the temples were closed due to the lack of priests. Then he tells me a story.

Once Confucianism became entrenched in Korea, anyone desiring in a government position had to take a national exam at the capital. One day, a man passed along the mountains in which we’d been climbing, heading to take the exam. A kind man, as he made his through the valley in the shadow of the mountain we’d been climbing, he heard a bird cry for help. Looking around, he saw a snake squeezing the bird that would soon be its dinner. Feeling compassion for the bird, the man shot an arrow into the snake, killing it but freeing the bird. Shortly afterwards, as it was getting late, the man came to a home. He knocked on the door and a beautiful woman answered. He asked for lodging and she agreed. She even prepared him a wonderful dinner. But after dinner, the woman turned into a snake and wrapped herself around the man, telling him that he’d killed her husband and now she was going to do the same to him. He begged for his life and the snake, playing with the man, said that if the bell rings three times before dawn, he’ll be spared. Otherwise, she’ll kill him in the morning.

This was a cruel reprieve. Both the snake and the man knew there were no monks living in the mountains to ring the bell. So the man spent the night embraced by the snake, waiting for a fateful sunrise. But right before dawn, the man and the snake was surprised to hear the bell ring. The first time, it was very loud. Then it rang a second time, a bit weaker. Then they heard a very weak third ring. The snake kept her word and allowed the man to go free. Instead of heading on the capital, he decided to climb the mountain and to see who it was that rang the bell. Sure enough, the temple was empty. But there under the bell was the bird that he’d saved the day before, it’s beak shattered from having flown into the bell three times. To this day, the bell is known as the “Compassion Bell.”


That night, back at the retreat house, a light breeze jingles the wind chimes along the porch. My body, tired and sore after climbing in the mountains, immediately falls asleep upon the warm floor. Again, I wake at 4 AM with the toll of the bell. It's more muffled than the morning before. And again, as with the morning before, I get up and go outside. A light snow falls, dusting the ground.

Note: Whenever I get around to building my cabin, I would love to have a sleeping area like this one; it was better than any spa!


27 comments:

  1. I always love to read those fairy tale like stories found in just about every culture. The compassion bell story would have been perfect in the complete works of Brothers Grimm.

    I've always thought houses found in the pacific rim were a perfect mix of comfort and beauty without all the modern clutter that haunts most houses here in the states.

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  2. Most modern Koreans live in high rises, but they still have heat in the floor (a concrete floor isn't the same as sleeping in a traditional style house). In these "mud rooms," you got a certain about of humidity with the heat that made it perfect sleeping in cold weather. Also, the hearth was in the cooking room, so that it also served tas a place to prepare food while warming the floor. I was told this type of heating came from Monogolia.

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  3. Hi from Michele's....
    First time visiting here. Very interesting blog. I especially loved the snake and bird story.

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  4. wonderful post, especially the 'compassion bell' story.

    Michele sent me.

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  5. The compassion bell story is so beautiful! *Thank you* for sharing that... wow.

    I'm here via Kenju's, and I am SO glad I stopped by today.

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  6. I love the story about the compassion bell, Sage. The trip sounds great - especially the temples and bells.

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  7. I'll havta come back later to read your story but wanted to stop by to say, "have a great Labor Day weekend, Sage!" :-)

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  8. Are your siblings as adventurous as you are?

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  9. Love it when you share your stories! Sounds like an amazing place to be.

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  10. That was a stirring story, Sage; thanks for sharing it with us.

    Michele sent me.

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  11. Thanks for all the comments and glad you like the Korean fairytale. I have a book on Korean legends and it's interesting how similar they are to some of those in the West.


    Tia, come back again. I enjoy Kenju's blog (the knick-knack lady).

    Murf, my sister is also adventurous, but in different ways. I don't think she'd be interested in backpacking or climbing on ice or wilderness travel, but she likes to scuba dive and travel.

    Kontan, yes, it was amazing, but then, all places have their charm.

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  12. It sounds like a place I'd enjoy very much. What I like best is that no matter where you go, the earth has a way of making you feel at home - even if the customs, people, or sites are different, there is still the earth beneath us that grounds us.

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  13. I'm going to have to use the 'compassion bell' story in class this year. Thanks.

    By the way, explaining our football to anyone outside our hemisphere is kind of like explaining cloud seeding to a middle-linebacker.

    Good stuff, Sage.
    p

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  14. Wow... what a beautifully illustrative tale! I honestly felt like I was right there with you. I am assuming your wrote the story he told you in your journal? Otherwise I'm very impressed that you remembered the whole thing. Anyway, thanks for taking us on that journey and climb with you. It was great.

    Here via michele today!

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  15. It's really beautifully written, and gives a total sense of your trip

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  16. Oh and if I encouraged you--it's you who brought it to life

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  17. Sage, you have a way of transporting us along with you in your adventures. Thank you.

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  18. Dawn, profound words about our "grounding"

    Prego, I like your analogy of explaining football

    Panthergirl, yes, I wrote the story in my journal that evening

    Pia 1 @ 2, you were the one who encouraged me to write some stories when I mentioned the possibiity

    Tim, thanks for the kind words (you make me feel bad for some of my cynical, smart ass comments) :)

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  19. I enjoyed reading your story. Here via Michele tonight. Have a great weekend!

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  20. So, I have a new nickname? The Knick-knack Lady? That's funny - and I came by it honestly (since my mom was the original one!)

    I hope you will post another story
    about your time in Korea soon, Sage. And I hope you build your cabin someday. Michele sent me today.

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  21. To back up a bit...what was your reason behind the trip to Korea?

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  22. Kenju, I've looked for plans on how to build that kind of heating system.

    Murf, let's just say the trip was both fun and work--I did give a few presentations to earn my keep

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  23. I'll be sure to come back - and to answer your question, no I haven't read the Alchemist, but you have me curious now. I'll have 26+ hours to read while flying.... so I'll have to look it up!

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  24. Murf, a presentation on the extermination of Smurfs for Orkin Korea ;-)

    Tia, I read the book this weekend, which is why I recommended it to you with your travel coming up.

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  25. That sounds fascinating. Send me the Powerpoint slides, please.

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  26. Guess I was late to this post. And I sure wish I could have read this wonderful post sooner. Anyway, I second what Tim said. And, like everyone else, the story of the Compassion Bell is simply magical.

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