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At the summit of Daechongbong, the highest peak of Korea’s Sorak mountain range, Yim Soon and I got chatting to a young Norwegian man who looked like he had sprinted up what for me was probably the toughest climb I’d ever done.

It was at the end of my first of four weeks in Yim Soon’s homeland and the following day as we waited at the local airport for a plane to Jeju island I bumped into him again. We spoke once more of how much we had enjoyed the hike and I remarked, “If nothing else exciting happens on this trip, that day on Daechongbong would be enough!”

My journey East had begun not at all in the way I’d expected but led me to recall a recent conversation with my friend Jim about ‘Plan B’ and how it can often turn out to be better than our original plan. When booking my trip I’d paid a bit extra for a Lufthansa flight via Frankfurt that left after lunch on a Saturday so I wouldn’t have to stay somewhere on the Friday night, and it was due to arrive in Seoul on the Sunday morning. In the event, the flight to Frankfurt was changed to early in the morning and the impending rail strike meant that all hotels near Heathrow were booked so I decided to simply spend the Friday night in the terminal. ‘No problem,’ I thought, ‘it will be an adventure.’ An adventure it was, which included seeing the sunrise at 4 a.m., but a sleepless one! There was more waiting due to the flight being delayed, which meant that following a mad dash through Frankfurt airport and a fraught showing of the various visa and vaccination certificates I only just made it onto the plane to Seoul. We were two and half hours into the twelve-hour flight when the captain announced that due a technical difficulty we were now turning round and returning to Frankfurt! After five hours in the air we duly arrived back where we’d started. And when I was being a bit philosophical about it later on, I ruminated that it was a sort of metaphor for how life is sometimes: we spend such a lot of time and energy and stress rushing to get somewhere and don’t really get anywhere at all!

Lufthansa were doing their best to get everyone organised with a hotel room for the night and assured us that the plane would take off again the next day at noon. I couldn’t face standing in the queue of 400 people so waited the two hours till it had cleared and ended up having some nice conversations with various people. And after speaking with others the following morning it seemed that I ended up with the best hotel: luxurious and quiet with a ‘full German breakfast’ and pleasant exchanges with the taxi drivers there and back. There was more drama the next day as our ‘extra’ plane was not on the departure board and none of the airport staff had any information about it. At one point I even wondered whether travelling to Korea was worth it for all the stress involved. By some miracle I eventually found the right gate, as did most people, and I chatted with more of my intrepid fellow-passengers and by the time we got back on board a real sense of community had been established. Usually when I fly I might talk to one person, sometimes nobody at all. On this occasion I must have spoken with twenty people and knew half of those by name.

And so, having left home on the Friday I finally landed in Seoul on the Monday. It was hot and humid, the monsoon season had just begun, and I was exhausted: hungry too, since you don’t get fed on planes the way you used to. After a couple of nights with Yim Soon’s eldest sister Son Ja, whose apartment was mercifully close to a mini-mountain with wonderful views over the city, we were picked up by Son Ja’s daughter Son Young for the three-hour (if there’s no traffic, otherwise it’s seven hours!) drive East to the Sorak national park. It’s a place that holds special memories for me: good walking, beautiful waterfalls, also its close proximity to the East Sea, where we had some fun times on the beach, partly due to the mountains being closed to the public due to the heavy rain. Thankfully they were reopened for our day to Daechongbong and Yim Soon and I were on the trail at 8 a.m. having dropped our bags at the temple where we would be spending the night. We were on the top at just after 2 p.m., having almost given up a couple of times on what seemed impossibly steep sections. I’m glad we pressed on and we were rewarded with stunning views over the lower peaks and all the way to the sea. We made it back down to the temple just in time for the final check-in at 6.30 p.m. but having missed dinner! No matter, we were both too tired to eat but what a good fatigue it is that comes from extreme physical exertion. There was a ‘full Korean breakfast’ on offer at 6.30 a.m., the only condition being that we had to wear the ‘temple robes’ that had been assigned to us on arrival which were grey trousers and a yellow jacket. I’ll wear anything for a good meal!

We had time for a short walk before the 10 a.m. check-out and so headed for another Buddhist temple, whose meditation hall is carved into a large cave on the mountain. We did a little session of meditation and as we were making our final bows we were called over by a Buddhist monk and his two female companions who were working over in the corner. They gave us coffee and snacks and were excited to hear that we were in Korea to mark our thirty years of marriage. They were interested as well to hear about our children. As we got up to leave we were each presented with prayer beads and neckerchiefs plus a table cloth with Buddhist writing. The first few days of my trip had had their trials with stress and fatigue and hunger and heat and adjusting to a new situation and a new language and I’d been wondering why on earth I had come to Korea at the hottest time of the year and in the monsoon season to boot. As we walked out of that simple but spectacular temple in a cave I thought to myself that I wouldn’t have missed any of it.

Dayenu! It would have been enough. But there was more to come. The woman at the temple-stay place said we could leave our bags there at 10 a.m. and go for another walk. We returned to the Biryong waterfall that we’d visited with our then young children in the Autumn of 1999, pictures from which are displayed in our house. Another special return was to Hallasan on Jeju island, which is South Korea’s tallest mountain at just under 2000m. We’d climbed it in 1992 following our traditional Korean engagement ceremony in Seoul. And even Seoul has a tall mountain on its Northern fringes, Bukhansan, which was another strenuous but enjoyable ascent.

Dayenu! It would have been enough. But there were also the incredible meals. Every single day was a feast for the senses when it came to eating. There were numerous platefuls of raw fish, bits of which are wrapped up in a lettuce leaf together with a clove of garlic and a dob of hot chilli sauce and put away with a swig of soju, the Korean schnapps. There were bowlfuls of steaming rice, of a variety of soups and stews, of the multiple banchan, the side dishes which fill the Korean meal table. There were pancakes served with makgeolli, rice wine, which always evokes my first ever trip to Korea in 1992 and a company president treating us to spring onion pancakes and makgeolli after a long hike in the mountains. There were barbequed eels prepared by Jee Hae, Yim Soon’s best friend from high school. I was a bit unsure at first but with all the garlic and chilli sauce you could be eating anything! Eels are good for stamina apparently, and they really are rather tasty.

Dayenu! It would have been enough. But there was also music. The highlight appeared to have been a night-time concert on Daecheon beach at Boryeong on the West coast. After swimming and eating (naengmyeon, cold noodle stew) and walking barefoot on the long stretch of golden sand we took our seats on the tiered seating area where just below a man was playing a keyboard and singing lots of well-known numbers in both English and Korean. I was especially touched when he played the opening chords of Let it Be. It’s one of the songs I like to sing. Twenty-two years before when teaching English in Seoul, I’d sung it to mark the end of my ‘Advanced Housewives Conversation Class’, a group of woman I’d had enormous fun with over the course of the term. I also happened to have sung it the night before in a ‘Song room’ (karaoke) in Seoul, where we’d gone with a family who had once spent some time in Canterbury. The piano man appeared to have forgotten the words to the final verse so I took my chance. I sprang down the steps and he willingly let me take the mic: ‘And when the night is cloudy there is still a light that shines on me; shine until tomorrow, let it be. I wake up to the sound of music, mother Mary comes to me; speaking words of wisdom, let it be.’ We sang the last chorus together and as I climbed the steps back to my seat I received a huge ovation from the crowd and several people wanted to shake my hand.

We were picked up the next day by Sook Young who we got to know when she spent five years at L’Arche Kent. On our previous trip to Korea we’d enjoyed staying at the therapy centre she has established in the mountains not far from the West coast, and which has a waterfall in the garden. The centre has expanded since then to include a dedicated meditation hall and a new building, where we stayed, that includes a large natural-spring bath. We gratefully indulged one afternoon when it was raining. Arirang Free, as the centre is called, can now welcome larger groups for programmes of meditation, running or walking in the mountains, group counselling, good food and trips to the seaside. Sook Young asked if I’d give a concert on our final evening for the Arirang Free team. After doing a few singalong numbers I invited the others to take the mic and one of the women sang, in Korean and very beautifully, Blowing in the Wind, so that I was able to accompany it easily on the guitar. For the final song of the evening there was a request for U2’s With or Without You and once again I was most happy to oblige.

When Sook Young was driving us back the following morning she received a call from the woman who had sung Blowing in the Wind. She had, back at the centre, just been listening to With or Without You and said it would always remind her of that special evening. Sook Young explained that when that woman first came as a participant on an Arirang Free programme (which are attended by people who want to work on a particular personal difficulty) her over-riding issue had been her huge fear of singing in public and her dream was that one day she might be able to do it. As a young girl in a church choir she had been told by a man that she couldn’t sing and she had never again sung in front of people: until as a fifty-two year old woman she had sung Blowing in the Wind in Korean, whilst sitting next to a foreign guy playing along on an old Yamaha guitar; who told her afterwards what a lovely voice she had. I was so incredibly touched by that story, and that I could be the channel for a little miracle to occur in that woman’s life.

When I look back in years to come at those four weeks in Korea I’m sure that the ten and a half hours we spent on Daechongbong will remain a highlight. But there was so much more: the return to Jeju island and Hallasan after thirty years, swimming in a large tidal rock pool and seeing dolphins for the first time, the daily taste explosions as I was plunged full-on back into the incredible world of Korean cuisine, Let it be on the beach and the time at Arirang Free. So too the multiple acts of kindness and friendliness; the little chats, whether with Yim Soon’s family and friends or with taxi-drivers, or with any number of passers-by who were just curious to see a foreigner out and about. Or, at the start of Mass at a national shrine, being asked by the priest to say a few words about myself and explaining that Yim Soon and I were making a special trip for our 30th wedding anniversary, and the congregation clapping, and a nun saying to us afterwards, “Come back when it’s your 40th anniversary.”

It was enough, it was more than enough; and far, far more than I could ever have hoped for from the trip. And how my body and my heart and my soul had been filled with goodness.

Eddie Gilmore

Author Eddie Gilmore

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