The Chunchŏn Road

Giles Ryan

© Copyright 2024 by Giles Ryan

Image by Pexels from Pixabay
Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Most of us remember the first time we saw a place where we spent a significant period of our lives — a new neighborhood, or a college campus seen for the first time — but I have an even more vivid memory of the journey that first took me to such a place, Chunchŏn, the town where I was a school teacher for two years, and I still have the clearest recollection of the bus ride that took me there.

It was a frigid mid-winter day in late January 1970 when our Peace Corps training group arrived in Seoul, and soon we all had our assignments as teachers in middle schools around the country. Our schools had all sent someone to meet us and take each of us to the towns which would be our new home for two years, — assuming we could last the distance. We were scattered over several provinces, none of us in Seoul and only a few in large cities like Busan or Daegu, and most of us were assigned to much smaller places. Ten of us, a quarter of our group, were sent to Kangwon-do, the northernmost province that stretched from the mountainous spine of the peninsula out to the east coast. I was going to Chunchŏn, the provincial capital up near the DMZ.

It was evident that the Peace Corps was sending only single men to this province and we all knew why, although I can’t imagine how a single American man would have dealt with an invading North Korean Army any better than an American woman. But perhaps another consideration was the weather, noticeably colder than Seoul — and the snow was in no hurry to melt. And later, after first arriving in Chunchŏn, I considered the possibility that the Peace Corps might have mistakenly believed a fellow would have a better chance of surviving the bus trip. 

The school had sent Mr. Kim Geun-su, a soft-spoken, kindly gentleman near my father’s age, to take me to my new home, and he met me at the inn where I was staying and helped me with my bags — not much, for I owned little, having sold everything else before leaving Williamsburg — and he took me by taxi to the Chŏngnyang-ni bus station on the far eastern edge of Seoul. In the coming years I came to know this bus station well, but at first sight it was a daunting scene with crowds of people and loud trucks and buses belching exhaust in the vast parking lot, unpaved and muddy with melted snow and edged by small shops and fruit stands and a gas station, and hawkers calling out their wares to people arriving and leaving. The station served all the towns of Kyonggi-do, the province surrounding the city of Seoul, and the towns of Kangwon-do all the way past Chunchŏn and across the peninsula to Kangneung, Sokcho and Chumunjin on the east coast.

Mr Kim told me to keep a close watch on my bags while he went to buy our bus tickets. For some moments, I watched the bustle of the crowds and listened to the noisy engines and the tumult of people’s shouts, trying to pick out any words I might know on the shop signs or understand from the shouts of hawkers, but all this in vain.. Soon Mr. Kim returned, took one of my bags and led the way to our bus, and there I was pleased to be able to read our destination in Hangul on the side of the bus— 춘천 ! —  and, feeling heartened at recognizing something in all the confusion, I followed Mr. Kim on board. I was concerned that my bags would be too bulky until I saw other passengers who carried even more, and I joined the good-natured bustle as we all stored what we could in the overhead racks and held the rest in our laps as we settled in our seats.

Mr. Kim insisted I sit by the window and enjoy the view. I knew it was a two-hour trip, and he told me the bus would stop twice along the way to drop off some passengers and pick up a few more, and that the two small towns along the way were Chŏngpyŏng, and Kapyŏng, but these stops would only be a few minutes. Certainly we would be in Chunchŏn in two hours.

Korea is a mountainous peninsula with high peaks in the center and higher still as the peaks range out to the east coast, with streams and rivers making their way through valleys, and terraced fields rising up the hillsides. The rugged terrain and narrow, two-lane road demanded a measure of caution from any driver, but as our bus left the city behind and picked up speed through the countryside, I began to think our driver might be paid by how many trips he could make in one day, or perhaps there was a bonus each trip for arriving beforetime? I looked at Mr. Kim and a few of the other passengers and saw nothing to match my growing sense of alarm, which only increased as the road began its ascent into the high terrain — and higher still. The road was cut into the side of the hills — now mountains — and, seated by the window, I could, in many places, look down a precipice, and at times the bus seemed to lean into these curves. No one else appeared concerned by the reckless pace, so I tried to assume a stoic air which I certainly didn’t feel, and it didn’t seem to help when I closed my eyes. No, I thought, better to look my fate in the face.

Along the way, this thrilling drama was enhanced by a flat tire. We became aware of this as the bus slowed on a rising incline, then lurched to a stop at a level point before the road began its next descent. The driver pulled over to the side of the road — no guardrail, of course — and I saw that the edge of the road fell away sharply, not quite a cliff but steep enough, with brutal outcroppings of rock all the way down.

The driver announced the problem and told everyone to get off the bus while he and his assistant changed the tire. Mr. Kim translated this for me — although the sense of the words was clear enough — but I still recall learning the word josu, meaning assistant, in this case the young boy, scarcely a teen, who was there to help the driver. 

We all stepped off the bus gingerly, minding the edge and its steep drop, and spread out along the  roadside, the men smoking and the women striking up conversations among themselves. No one else seemed surprised by the event, and I assumed this was a usual occurrence, (although later, taking many, many country bus rides, I never again had a flat tire — although once I shared a seat with a couple of trussed-up chickens, bound for market, poor fellows.)

The bus had been warm but now I felt the biting chill of the wind on the mountain as Mr. Kim and I stood by the road, our street shoes in the snow. The road had switchbacked again and again, and the low clouds obscured the sun, so I was disoriented and asked, out of curiosity, “Which way is north?” He understood me, correctly, to be asking how far away is North Korea, and he pointed and said, “It’s about thirty kilometers — but you say miles, yes? — perhaps twenty miles that way.”

Our conversation went on from there and I learned that he was from Pyŏngyang and had left there twenty years before, and had fought in the war, like every other man his age. But he changed the subject and asked about my family and was astonished when I told him my father had served in the American Army during the Korean War and had gone as far north as Hamhung. Later, I learned that he shared this information with the other teachers at school, and this earned me a certain cachet, wholly undeserved.

Soon enough we were on our way again and the driver clearly intended to make up for lost time, but I was determined to focus on my companion and keep up my end of the conversation. There are times when our lives are clearly not in our own hands, and the best we can do is assume a decent air of unconcern.

The rest of our journey was uneventful, except for a short stop in Kapyŏng where Korean Army MPs boarded briefly to check the papers of each passenger in uniform— and there were a few — but apparently all was in order. (This was a routine practice, and more than once on future bus trips I saw soldiers taken off the bus for whatever rough fate might await them.)

Looking back on this decades later, I reflect on how much this episode, this first trip on the Chunchŏn road, captured a quality that characterized so much of my early years in Korea, the surface harshness of it, the sense that this experience might require more of me than I imagined when I joined the Peace Corps. Part of this was the coldness of the day — the frigid wind, the grey sky, the snow on the ground —and part of it was what I may call the remnant war that was always there, lingering a few mountains way, even when I didn’t think of it. And perhaps part of it was the dawning realization that I’d be sharing each day with survivors, people who had seen things I hadn’t — and didn’t want to. 

Clearly, I was now among exceptional people in an exceptional place.

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