Autumn 1971

pastedGraphic.png This Chinese character, (commonly used in written Korean), means Autumn.*

Giles Ryan
© Copyright 2024 by Giles Ryan

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Kangwŏn Province begins in the central mountains east of Seoul, extends out to the Sea of Japan, and stretches down one third of the peninsula, its northern limit being the DMZ separating South Korea from North Korea. Many people in the province were from the North, found themselves in the South when the fighting ended with the armistice in 1953 and stayed in the province near the new border with the idea that this division was surely temporary, couldn’t last much longer, and if they just waited until the war really ended, they could rejoin their relatives in Pyŏngyang or Kaesŏng or any of a thousand villages called home. In 1971 they were still waiting. 

The war had never really ended and the armistice fooled no one. Both sides of the DMZ were heavily armed, and cross-border incidents were still common, and this included raiding parties by mujangkongbi – the armed Communist infiltrators – and in 1968 one of these groups got as far as downtown Seoul. On quiet nights in Chunchŏn, after the midnight curfew, with the breeze coming from the hills of the DMZ to the north, one might hear the faint sound of gunfire. One night it was quite loud, surely not that far away, but one never learned what happened.

In those years the Peace Corps sent only single men to Kangwŏn Province. When four of us —  Fred, Dan, Doug and I  — first went to our schools, we were told that in an emergency we must try to make our way to Wŏnju, two hours by country bus to the south. This was the headquarters of the 2nd Corps of the ROK Army.  No one took this advice seriously because the road to Wŏnju meandered over steep hills and through narrow river valleys, and one could too easily imagine this one route south choked with refugees making the same desperate run.

There was another American teacher who lived in Wŏnju, our friend Larry, and every now and then we would meet on the weekend. More often Larry would come up to Chunchŏn, the provincial capital, to see what little there was in the way of city lights, but on one memorable occasion Larry wrote that he knew a particularly good hiking trail and a place where we could spend the night on the mountain, so Fred and I took the bus to Wŏnju.

It was a morning in early November when Larry met us at the bus station. He had stopped by the market and picked up some fruit and other provisions which we shared between our backpacks. We took a small country bus several kilometers down a rugged unpaved road, got off and began a long walk along a path that wandered through the harvested paddies and then gradually began to gain elevation and took us up toward the mountain peak we could see in the distance, Chiaksan. 

It was a clear day with just the very faintest threat of severe winter cold to come, but our exertion and the bright sunlight kept us warm. By mid-day there were no clouds and the sky was the wonderful blue one sees in Korea on autumn days, the kind of day that recalled a famous line from a Chinese poem that evoked the season “when the sky is high and my horse is fat…”  

We made our way slowly up the mountain by following a stream which narrowed as we ascended. There were trees and shrubs along the way but the trees were not so tall in those days. The mountain vegetation was still recovering from the many years when the Japanese ruled the country and stripped the land to fuel their war in China. The Korean people carried strong resentment for this long passage of their history, a period they called wayjŏng-ttae, which translates literally as “the time of the government of the dwarves,” a reflection of the disdain felt toward people of a lesser stature, and a vivid example of the sort of ethnic slur commonly reciprocated throughout Asia. 

We stopped a few times along the way to rest and catch our breath. Each time I looked back down the way we had come and with each stop more of the land was spread before my gaze and I could see more of the hills and valleys and mountains that led away to the North. To me it was a vista of natural grandeur with rich green from the short young pines and the slate gray of the mountain granite, all set against the splendid autumn sky, but how many people had come this way before and looked in the same direction and seen something else, imagined a home far to the North, lost families, lost loves, lost hopes and endless years of separation, so many lives taken hostage by history?

Chiaksan had some well-known temples, but Larry was leading us to a smaller, very remote place, what we might call a hermitage, where only a few monks lived in a couple of simple buildings. Unlike the great temples commonly visited by crowds of people on the weekends – those grand structures with richly decorated roof tiles and fine wall paintings of the Buddha in various poses and the usual folkloric paintings of dragons and tigers, the typical hermitage was a building with similar lines but on a much smaller scale and little in the way of decorative art. Such places were intentionally out of the way and had few visitors.

We reached our hermitage in the early evening after the final steep, very arduous part of our climb, just as the darkness was closing in, and for the last few hundred meters the path was lit only by a few flickering candles from the hermitage and the thin sliver of a waning moon, which called to mind a favorite, intrinsically emotive word in Korean, chokakdal, a “fragment moon,” a word that speaks of separation, incompleteness, even loss.

The monks remembered Larry and greeted us warmly. There were only three of them, one younger man about our age and two older men in their mid-forties, (although guessing a man’s age was not easy in a place where so many people had suffered extreme hardship in their youth.) They wore the simple habit of grey hempen cloth typical of monks in Korea, the shaven head that showed dedication to the teachings of the Buddha, and the calm serene expression of those who spent their time in prayer and contemplation.

Our gift of fruit – apples and some early tangerines this time of year – was welcome, and we were equally grateful to share their dinner, a simple meal of rice and soup and side dishes of pickled vegetables, some of which were plants that grew wild in the mountains. Always curious about words, I asked the name and was told, sanche, which means simply “mountain vegetables,” and I had to be content with this. They were perhaps a little curious about us, asked how we had come to be teachers in their country, and we explained as best we could. But it was only the mildest sort of curiosity, a mere conversational courtesy, since they really lived outside the usual world. 

After dinner I excused myself and walked outside to stretch my legs. One of the older monks followed me and cautioned me to be careful in the dark, there was a precipice to one side and a fall would be fatal. I thanked him and we shared a few words together. I asked him where he was from, his kohyang, a term with more emotional resonance than our word, hometown. 

My family is in the North,” he said, and that was all.

I see.” And I sensed he had nothing more to say, and of course as a monk he was hardly accustomed to chat with strangers. Anyway, another question would have been wrong and quite unwanted in this place, this time, and with a man his age. His presence here was evidence of his history.

He smiled and suggested that my friends and I must be very tired from our long climb and perhaps we would wish to sleep soon. He and his companions would stay awake to pray again during the night but we were very welcome to take our rest in the room they had provided.

Most nights we fall asleep without knowing it, drifting into unconsciousness while unaware of the change, but that night it was as if I wanted to create a memory of falling asleep in this unique place and circumstance and keep the memory as a treasure. It had been a remarkable day and I had experienced something new, something never to be repeated.  I had seen this sparely beautiful place and met these men who had created their own contentment. I fell asleep to the sound of their soft voices chanting the mantra, “namuabitabul" again and again and again, striking the wooden clapper, tok, tok, tok.....

In the forty years since then, in many moments of harshness, hurt, pain, regret and mourning for things lost – friendship, affection, love – in the worst of times I always remember that place and that time, an autumn night in 1971 on Chiaksan, and men who had found contentment and perhaps had found it after far worse pain than any I would ever know.

February 2011

*It is  an ideogram; the left side written stand-alone is the character that means rice unharvested, still in the field, and the right side is the character for fire; joined together they carry the notion of the fall season.

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