If it weren’t for some splendid natural sights to see in Korea, the deficiencies in housekeeping would surely drive me out of the country. Once or twice in the past, I had a cleaner come into my apartment and clean. Upon coming home from work, my first impression was that it was clean. My shoes in a neat row, the dishes clean, the stove wiped-down all gave the impression that it was a damn sight better than it was when I left in morning. But, upon closer examination, I found I could have done better myself. Books were unmoved for dusting, floors swept instead of scrubbed, grimy windows and corners completely ignored. Is this what passes for clean here?
There I was in Sokcho for the five day Lunar New Year holiday, looking to get away from the mounting dishes—it’s amazing how quickly two plates and one set of silverware can pile up—and divest myself of pages of fiction that were mounting angrily in my head—angrily because they were ideas only in my head and yet to find their way to the page. Surely, staying up to the sunrise two times in the last week had something to do with that. And the impending end of the contract, not eleven weeks away. And the need to find a new job. And the need to finish a complete draft of the novel. While some went skiing, and others went to China on this busiest of all holidays in Asia, a simple seaside-mountain retreat was what I needed.
I checked into for the first night, wanting to check in for two, but unwilling to shell out coin for what could be marginal accommodations. And they were. In the last three hotels I have stayed in, I have found a black hair near the top corner of the mattress. And, upon further inspection, tabletops are gone over once with only a wet cloth, white sheets have shoe soles imprinted on them. I always say a little bleach goes a long way in giving, if anything, the illusion of cleanliness. But, I was tired—not to mention, lacking in the ability to express dismay with my 40,000 won room. So, I dealt with the subtle but disturbing smell of sex-sweat—don’t get me wrong, I like that smell as much as anyone, but only if it’s mine and my lady’s. I tossed and turned into sleep over an hour later. I did wake, however, rested. After I wrote for a couple hours in the room and checked out, I found a café near the water that I had been to on my previous visit. This place is on the cold side (owing to its large windows all around) and feels the need to play music for me even though I am the only one there and I immediately throw in my earphones. The proprietor is nice enough and left me be as I wrote.
When I was done with the writing, the quality of the fifteen-hundred words and three hours spent hardly produced elation; there is so much shit that one needs to write to get to a piece of truth that it is often difficult to see past the pile of steaming shit produced. But, even after all these years of writing, I still have to remind myself draft draft draft, sculpt, sketch. What it takes to move past that is a reminder that, with more coffee and patience, the steaming, formless mass of verbose dung can be made into something better with an eye to optimism. It is a lesson that for some reason I need to remember—not only in writing and when being housekept in Korea, but also in other seeming social failures and perceived political slights.
Having written nothing but garbage, I checked into the Hotel Good Morning, hoping that my last experience a couple months previous was an aberration. Later, I returned from an outing to find a hair at the head of the bed, a footprint on the sheet and some sort of dried substance with lint coating it in spurted splatter on the sheet underneath. Now, anyone who’s been here for even a short amount of time knows what “love motels” are for. But, given the seepage and splatter that occurs in a good romp between the sheets, why don’t the housekeepers keep a better eye on details? Again, I was hampered by my own apathy in learning the Korean in my time here.
My faith in Korean housekeepers would not be crushed until later in the day. Since I had already spent half the day writing, I dropped my bag, found the 7 bus across the street from the Express Bus Terminal and took a fifteen minute ride to Soraksan National Park, noticing a storm about a kilometer off the coast. With the impending snow, the promise of this exploration could either be in peril or in for a serious shot of life. I forged ahead, eager to salvage something of this day that had so much promise for worthy, uninterrupted creation.
On one two-lane road going to the park’s main entrance, the traffic was quite congested. So I got out and walked beside the large creek, walking at a faster rate than the bus I was just on. In addition, I was able to set my own pace, be out in the relative fresh air—there were still the fumes of cars to contend with—and take pictures. One thing that I took with me on this excursion was a little bit of angst, and you’d think after a year and a half of being here, there are certain things I would learn to deal with, including never leave the house with an idea of discovering personal space; and searching for peace and quiet in a place as beautiful as Soraksan can prove just as difficult. Despite the late hour, thousands of people still crowded the sidewalks, many of them walking down the hill. The problem there was that the sidewalks were only one and a half people wide with people walking by twos and threes. It does not cease to confound me as to this logic and it just seems inconsiderate to my western sensibilities. But I must keep in mind that the idea of manifest destiny gave Americans a sense of personal space that is much different from that of Koreans, a place that is no larger than Indiana and much of the land uninhabitable due to its mountainous geography. Nonetheless, I kept my shoulders square to the oncoming traffic after taking a few unacknowledged sidesteps on the slippery ice or deep snow. Needless to say, a few Koreans were jarred into recognition by my unyielding. I wonder if the people walking behind me saw my change from semi-courteous to semi-truck and saw justification or blame in my actions.
But, those impediments were minor when compared to the increasing beauty around me. Mountain peaks soared sharply up to six and seven hundred meters at seventy-five degree angles above the Ssangcheon Stream and traditional rooftops in a village looking as if coated by a heavy layer of white frosting; the stream itself ran slowly around snow-covered rocks; the leafless trees stood naked like a emaciated spine along the white ridges; the deep crags that had received less snow and the dark pines provided contrast to all else that stood dusted with recent snowfall. As I continued the ascent, the snow was two to three feet deep in parts, discouraging the searching I might have done in search of an area of quiet.
Something in me soon gave up on that idea, and it must have been the mountain peaks around me, the peace of a nearby Buddhist temple. After paying ₩2500 for park entrance, I bought my ₩8000 ticket for the cable car and had an hour until my ride to the top of a seven hundred meter peak. I came upon a massive Buddha statue that sat about three stories high. I had seen this on the tourist map, but that didn’t really prepare me for the magnificence of this massive representation of the deity. I walked on, all that disappointment from earlier in the day all but a memory. I walked over a few snow-covered bridges and entered a Buddhist temple that was slightly overrun with those not respecting the sanctity of such a place: two crazy agimas having a snow fight or the children making snow angels in an adjoining field did not disturb my docility; as the snow started, I was reminded of the great qualities of snowfall, providing moments of silence and a muted characteristic to the commotion around me.
It is difficult to find stillness in this country—or much of life, if one is a city dweller trying to accomplish a little something in this chaotic world—and I started to conjure up some nether-regions of this park that could be explored given proper time and equipment. Though I could not be sure which was Daecheongbong in the obscured vistas I had most of the day due to the snowfall, I think that is not a peak often attempted by anyone other than serious hikers at over 1700 meters (second tallest peak next to Hallasan on Jeju Island). But, I have been disappointed by this line of thinking, seeing women in heels on mountains—granted, lesser mountains—in this country; also, given the beauty of this region, the trails are surely like any other on weekends and holidays: flooded with people. But, my contract is up in April and I will have decisions to make about what to do before going home. Hike Mount Halla and Daecheong Peak on weekdays of lesser population or trek the jungles and trails of Thailand.
Many would say Thailand is the obvious choice. Others would say that if I were to come back and live in Korea for another year, what would there be left to do? But, upon reaching the top of the cable car, I found a peace in these mountains despite the swarms of people going up and down the narrow and icy pathway. The snowfall became heavy and I found an area with fewer people (due to icy conditions on the sheer rock at the peak) and I just stood for an hour or so watching people attempt to get up or down the icy incline. Mostly, though, I looked at the valleys and peaks around me as they came in and out of focus through the cloud cover, snow and mist. Again, I found the moments of stillness in the silent spectacle of snowfall.
Though I think I descended a few moments before the sun peaked through for a final appearance, my disappointment was short-lived, having been amongst all that splendor for a few hours. In an empty restaurant—the park was closing soon—I got myself some pa-jan (squid-onion pancake) at ₩10,000. This is well worth the relatively hefty price; not only is it one of my favorite dishes here, but, fresh off the cold mountain, it provided warmth for my body and satiation for my empty belly. I took the bus down and got off a little early, seeing that the Daepo Sushi Town was in full swing for the dinner hour. Unfortunately, I was full up and could not partake in my next favorite food—though, it must be said that Korean sushi is of different fish altogether and served much like any other meat dish here: with plenty of koch’ujang (red pepper sauce/paste), raw garlic and red-leaf lettuce in which you wrap all the ingredients. The place was mobbed and the stalls were many, as people gathered not only to sup but also to watch the show of the agimas scooping up live fish of every sort, slicing head from body. As both these parts moved independently, the women would divest the body of guts, skin and scales with precision knife-work you would not want to meet in a back alley.
And on a dark road I found myself as the sushi town gave way to a pathway along the shoreline. Traversed only by the occasional car and its headlights, the road was quiet. So, instead of trying to find the bus, I walked the two kilometers back to the Hotel Good Morning to call it a night. Even though my uncleanly ₩60,000 hotel room had paper-thin walls that allowed the drunken laughter of men and wild racket of children to seep in, I closed my eyes and recalled the snowy mountain. The shelter that houses my mind, body and soul had been sufficiently restored and I fell to restful sleep.