San – A Hill In Korea

by NB Armstrong (October 2012)

Michael Caine’s 1956 movie debut was A Hell in Korea. His company of British soldiers must deal with advancing Chinese and misdirected American fire. However, Michael Caine the actor never saw action on a hill in Korea (the movie was shot in Portugal). Michael Caine the soldier saw action on a hill in Korea in 1952. Four years later, serving as an onset technical adviser, he would have known that hills are everywhere in Korea, even in the cities.

The Korean word for mountain is ‘san’. Korea is practically one long mountain range. Seventy per cent of the peninsula is san. As the eleventh biggest economy in the world, South Koreans must be the most successful mountain people ever. Not that they actually live on the mountain. Before the advent of 23 stories and land-from-sea reclamation, South Koreans were mostly squeezed into narrow straw-hutted villages at the mountain’s foot. Today, viewing the peaky vista from the summits of their apartments, visiting the mountain has become mere convivial leisure. Where once san were scoured for wild boar, timber, or fugitives, they now serve as a refuge from the incessancy of 2012, and as a handy place to grill meat and drink soju during the warmer months.

It is a matter of irrelevant pedantry to Koreans that the majority of their mountains would be defined as hills according to the Oxford English dictionary, in which hills become mountains only at 610 meters high. South Korea’s want of grass, its apparent passion for summitry naming, a rocky topography, and need for both drama and simplification have rendered the land definitively mountainous.

The south coast port city of Masan is squeezed between the East Sea and the Mu-hak (dancing crane) mountain range. At night – and admittedly from on high – it looks Monte Carlo-ish, except without the yacht-filled harbor, casinos, and strong links to unconscious desires. But it has better internet connection and something Monte Carlo doesn’t: the whiff of honest production supporting its prosperity. Masan’s Free Trade Zone has provided the cash and cement necessary to build its apartments.

Recently the city disappeared. Masan was merged, along with the nearby naval port city of Jinhae, into a greater Changwon, the more modern planned city it adjoins to the east. But the Masan district is more prototypically Korean in the way in which city and mountains are as close as lips and teeth. Its people therapeutically stomp up their mountains’ sides as an assurance that modernity seeks to include them as it tunnels on through. And they adorn them with the appliances of recreation.

Select pathways coursing through select mountains have been kitted out with facilities, renovated with the leisure comforts of the urbanites. One minute’s drive from Masan’s southern downtown is Cheong-ryang Mountain, which, I’m sorry to say, is an Oxford hill. Cheong-ryang (‘cool and refreshing’) backs onto a complex of suburban apartment buildings, like carefully planned window dressing. The locals frequently don their Black Yak hats, Eider waterproofs, and bring out their K2 canes and bottles to dung-san (hike). A broad smooth artery has been laid through Cheong-ryang. There are two ways to its base.

The Hard Way

This involves actual hiking on the mountain side, scaling a path helpfully forged by local government. Its entrance, sandwiched between elementary school and kindergarten, is signalled by eight taps serving aqua san. Here the mountain coolly tends to humans in return for the promise of their help should it ever go up in summer flames. The elderly are usually busy gathering this elixir, which magically reduces their household bills. On the other side of a barbed wire fence, which is camouflaged by dry twigs, the sight of a New York Hot Dogs advert hung between pine needle trunks reassures walkers that any Malloryesque calamity is unlikely during this ascent. The way up is safely stepped by securely screwed down logs and there is even a banister effect column of wooden decking if you’d prefer not to touch soil at all. Street lamps light the way for litigation prevention purposes.

In winter, the stream though which Cheon-ryang’s water appears freezes over, Toy Story suspended animation like, as if pausing for a ‘real’ hiker to pass so that it can start running again. The mountain road…

The Easy Way

The suburban route doesn’t begin easily: 88 steps at a 50 degree angle. One third of the way up I was already wondering what the Korean word for funicular is. The steps, cut between two apartment complex blocks, arrive at eight lanes of traffic. You turn left and walk single file on a narrow pathway alongside a flurry of makeshift rural gentrification, including purple cauliflowers in plastic pot plants. A pre-mountain municipal gardened rest zone with benches and a hip-turner machine provides a last opportunity to sit down, take a swig of water, and decide not to bother. Two occupied tomb plots are there to discourage the thought. It is time to bid the highway farewell, which looks pretty stupid if you actually do it. Cheong-ryang has a car park. Is the fact that a mountain has a car park a sign of its success or of its failure? The mountain road…

The Restroom

The first scenic attraction of Cheong-ryang Mountain, before you apprehend its cherry blossom boulevarding or pine scented sea views, is its public restroom. It is Swiss chalet in style and worth the hike alone. The gentlemen’s is signed, as you would expect, by the image of a cartoon Jazz Era bon homme standing to attention in a bow tie. He eyes you neutrally as if to query, “You do know that the Prelude in E-minor will be gently audible as you urinate, don’t you?” As well as Chopin, I had a wall poem to read which exhorted me to have creative thoughts. I tried my very best. What do you think in the toilet? That we urinate to remind ourselves how life has no magic elixirs, only tragic mixtures? Who was it who said that…? Other men came and left, and left quickly when they saw me mumbling thoughts at the wall, as I stood around like a vocal daydreamer. I didn’t care, and I hung around a bit longer and I enjoyed it. Indeed, I have never been so reluctant to leave a urinal. Classical music, poetry, pinewood effect, electric hand dryers, pink soap dishes – I cast about, surprised not to find a bathroom valet polishing coins with his breath. But I eventually departed – for the first time ever after a visit to a bathroom- a better, rather than merely lighter person.

The Mountain Road

The mountain has a paid guard. He has a cramped, covered octagonal seat post in which to sit and observe, though it is no Benthamite panopticon. When present he sits in it and listens to mountain music, which is whatever he decides it is. But anyway he is almost always absent, away on ‘inspection’. The gam-si-won gets about on a scooter and, no lord of climate and time, mainly keeps a look out for dead squirrels. All I will say about him is that he wears a paramilitary uniform and can probably identify a fire when he sees one.

Nearby is the sole entrepreneurial venture on the mountain. A woman of unimpeachable hardiness, though perhaps (and so what?) someone with no life off the mountain, huddles inside her three sided glass wind-protector, selling marked-up sachet coffee and juice. This impromptu set up presents three blue plastic stools to sit on, so harshly excluding groups of four. Nothing of man or animal kind has yet interrupted her knitting habit. If she was one day not there it would be one of those signs, you feel, like ten thousand whales besieging Manhattan as frogs fall from the sky, that something calendrically Mayan was in the offing.

Before the ascent proper there are a couple of signboards whose advice and instruction you may wish to heed. One, for the true first timer, is a demonstration of how to walk. I bet I wasn’t the first to gap-mouthedly glance through the illustrated phases of the correct ambulatory process, and murmur, “Wow, I’ve been doing it wrong.” Up above, a whiff of politics, of local civic disgruntlement, hangs in the air linking two trees. “If you like the electric pylons so much, set them up near your own house! We don’t want them!” reads the banner. Dogs are more timorously requested not to detach themselves from their owner’s lead.

Follow the Soft Green Road

Masan city (as it was) promotes nine mountains, museums, and markets as sights of visitor interest. With Cheong-ryang itself, I would unhesitatingly lobby to expand that number to ten. But I wouldn’t have pressed for Cheong-ryang’s inclusion before its road was resurfaced. This new track of synthetic clay, laid like soft green cement, covers one side of the mountain road. It provides an easing escalatory feel, lessens the need for specialist footwear, and makes the climb feel like a gentle track and field event of nature. My weekly trip would become annual without it.

At 200 meters:

At two hundred meters a defining view of the city is opening up back over your left shoulder. I know that it is exactly 200 meters because the distance is painted on the ground every 100 meters. Each successive kilometer is stage posted with a wooden sign. And the entire road has been turned into a 10km training track for the local marathon club. This is not conducive to getting away from it all. But the regular curves of the route entertainingly rotate the scenery, even as it is impossible to shake off the electricity cables and pylons which follow you up like an estate agent round a house.

At 300 meters

Here there is an ironic opportunity to rest in the form of exercise machines. Sets of these appear at occasional intervals and get progressively more obtuse in design. The most demanding in the first bunch invites you to turn a ship’s captain’s wheel with your back, so drawing relief from the contraption’s rotating rubber nodules. This sounds better than it feels. But it feels better than it looks. The older hikers monopolize these facilities – older is the defining demographic – and so I press on and

At 500 meters

sit on a covered bench installation. Affixed to its sides are two clocks. One reads 8.51, though at that time it was neither morning nor night. The story goes that the principal of the nearby elementary school, a regular on Cheong-ryang san, was a hiker of pendulamic routine. On the return leg of his early walk he could, at the 500 meter mark, judge the time so precisely that he would arrive every morning to the assembly hall stage lectern at precisely 9.05 and thence deliver his daily threatening pep talk. Then one Monday morning, a little earlier than usual, as he rested under the clock (thinking he had time that he didn’t) he passed away, taken by unidentified natural causes. The clock stopped with him. In tribute to man and mountain, Masan City Hall left the time as it was: 8:51. They then placed an identical clock next to the school’s stopped timepiece to indicate the real time.

None of which is true. But at this point I’m just walking a green path between hill and sea and struggling for dramatic material. There are two clocks, I guess, because hikers can approach the bench from two sides. On one side begins a 3.6km off road hiking trail to the summit of Cheong-ryang mountain which we won’t be taking, ever, because this green floor is addictive. The sound of traffic is now barely discernible from the receding highway and the city appears like a silent screen grab.

At 600 Meters

You have reached six hundred meters.

I take the decision to cease counting the meters in hundreds for no other reason than that they are marked on the road by two painted yellow owls. Instead, my attention is taken by some real birds. A host of orange breasted sparrows occupies a pine needle tree for no good reason, but looks good for a 400 piece jigsaw puzzle. The 'notice me notice me' caws of several interested raven scare nobody. It is a rare hike on Cheong-ryang on which you won’t encounter a single one of the industrious feather light squirrels leaping between thin branches on their permanent food hunt.

Cheong-ryang san is no Serengeti, but I did once pass a grass snake (or vice versa). I’ve seen wild boar fearfully lope in front of the traffic on the roads between the hills and made out a stealthy family get together of three through the trees. (It was given away by the rustle every boar-breath creates.) I also accidentally once killed a toad as it jumped across my path, transforming a brisk step into a murderous kick for the first time that day. There are, all along the road, crossing paths designated as for exclusive use only by the animals. That’s how considerate the local authorities are and that’s how smart the animals are. And that’s how ignorant that toad was.

The equipment at the next exercise stop off point is more standardly gym-based. Machines employing the counter weight of the user strengthen his or her lower back while affording views of the ongoing land reclamation project along the coast at Ga-poh. And there aren’t many gyms about which you can say that. The road snakes on up and up through the range of minor non-hill peaks until at 2.8km there is a jong-ja, an ornate split-level temple-roofed focal point for rest that stunningly overlooks the 2 year old Masan-Changwon sea bridge. At night both are lit up, and with the sodium drenched perma twinkle of the city visible back west “it is a vision of modern east Asia.” The road continues on for a kilometer or so before it peters out and you must make the choice of whether to double back and complete the 10 km track or follow an inferior gravel path steeply down one side through an opening into the traffic below.

Walking back, I seek out flaws. There is graffiti. Two kids have chalked their names into the wall. It could have been part of some organized activity; it won’t take much cleaning. There’s an abandoned traffic cone. It has been dumped over the low yellow concrete wall castling the drop side, looking all cliché like. There are also regulation contraveners. Only about half those walking a dog follow the lead use rule. And that’s about it. No dumping, drinking, littering or looting,

It is not a busy day on Cheong-ryang Mountain. I intermittently join the occasional runner when the downhill momentum becomes more of an effort to resist than to yield to. A cyclist dressed in experienced calves is battling uphill. Many hikers are invisible behind chin-covering bandana and headwear. They have come to escape and hide. Others, usually gabbing on cell phones, look like they’ve been parachuted in from a regular street. The whole thing is a stroll really, even though some exaggerate their arm swings as if walking is a martial art.

The sun is setting and, if things go to plan, it will soon be dark. A maintenance truck rolls past providing someone with a pleasant job. The tea seller has moved. She rotates around the foot of the road, I’ve noticed, in sync with the solar glare like a human sundial. I spoil myself with one more visit to that restroom. As Chopin drowns out my shushing leak with his immortal counter tinkle, I recall that for distribution purposes the title of Caine’s movie was changed to A Hill in Korea. Who can doubt that he would find them more agreeable today.

NB Armstrong is a writer and translator. His latest book is Korean Straight Lines.

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