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Seokgwan-Dong Seongbuk-Gu, Seoul  21st April 2002


We've had a pretty hot week, though a frustrating proportion of it has been in sweaty classrooms and rehearsal rooms.

On Monday, I had no commitments until 5.00, and although that morning it was cloudy and threatened rain, I felt the time had come to head for the hills. So I set off early, to conquer somewhere before my evening rehearsal.

There are various fairly substantial mountains close to Seoul, and some pretty big ones actually in the city. The biggest and most famous is a whole mini range known collectively as Bukhansan, which figures looming impressively in the background in many views of Seoul. It is only a twenty minute tube ride to get to the bottom of one of the parts of Bukhansan called Dobongsan ['san' is mountain] and so this was Monday's peak of choice. I have my mountain boots with me, and generally felt pretty pleased with myself for getting up in time, and avoiding the weekend crowds.

Actually there were plenty of people on the carved footpaths, mostly older people, with regulation flowerpot men hats, and sleeveless fishing-type jackets with pockets, many of them with impressive ski-sticks and ice axes. The crowds thinned, the weather cleared and the gradient increased gradually all the way up. There are no proper maps, Wainwright never made it to Dobongsan, and navigating is done by following the signs, with no concessions made for foreigners. I tried to follow signs for the ridge which looked most promising in the tourist brochure, but the signs for all I know might have been saying 'under no circumstances attempt this route' My rich fantasies of the path never before trodden were blown away a number of times, as I passed a coca cola machine at an estimated 25,000 feet, and higher still a whole complex of Buddhist temples, with a very full congregation, and painted lanterns. But just as I was feeling it was more of a park than a proper mountain, I noticed that it had imperceptibly become much more scrambly, and I was having to use my hands as well as feet. The trees were fewer, the people too, the ground underfoot had become rock, and I started having not to look down. Thinking about it now, I can't really say why I didn't realise this would happen. The peaks of the mountain are perfectly visible, and even from a distance you can tell they are pointy. I suppose I thought that the paths with all these people on wouldn't lead to that sort of top. As I got nearer, the one in front became more and more like the Matterhorn, and the visions of my little adventure ending with a thud like a Whymper began to take a grip. But I seemed quite close to the top, and I had come this far......

I had scaled a longish section of fairly steep 'path' completely on all fours and very slowly, when the only other visible man went round a corner out of sight, and I just froze. Something about the angles. I could see down to nasty drops in three directions, and although the piece I was on was quite broad, nothing would convince my legs that any other movement was possible. I tried to concentrate on what I had in my bag, and even tried to take some pictures to prove how far I'd got, but that made me think about the view, and then the thought of tumbling down. In the end, I started very slowly down, while still looking up. It was at this point that a woman of about 85, with a uniform tabard and a broom, came skipping up past me. She was cleaning the mountain. My humiliation was complete. I'm glad to say, it didn't stop me saying 'annyong hasseyo', and attempting to bow without leaning forwards at all.

Today I went to the park instead. Very nice, no precipices, but one or two other people had had the same idea. My peace is punctuated rather often in public places by children who either say 'hi' or just point and laugh. More intrepid ones come up and say 'Good morning Sir, my name is Jeong-Hwan, how are you today, Sir?'. On Sundays, fathers appear, and so there is quite a stream of smaller children pushed by a Dad, to come up and show off their english. They bring me iced coffee and greengage juice. It sounds nice, and I am always very smiley about it, but that slightly upsets me now, because I've been finding out more about the drive to learn english. There is a growing practice of children having the little thing under their tongues removed surgically, because of a rumour [nothing more than that, it is complete rubbish] that the reason Koreans have difficulty distinguishing 'r' and 'l' is because the movement of the tongue is restricted... Qualified, intelligent surgeons actually take their money and do this operation.

The World Cup is getting closer, and preparations are more in evidence. A 'silver army' of elderly volunteers has been recruited to help, and a team of students is also lined up for each team, to do the cheering. Soccer has in some ways been slow to take off here, and the feeling is that the atmosphere in games will need a little artificial assistance. I now have a ticket for a match [Brazil against Costa Rica] which was hard to get hold of and expensive, but I think I have to get to at least one match since I'm actually here.

In the news, the Japanese Prime Minister has annoyed everyone here by a bizarrely-timed visit to a contentious war memorial, hot on the heels of a new publication of a Japanese history text book which is bitterly resented for its 'rewriting' of the occupation of Korea [both re-runs of very damaging disputes from last year] as the World-Cup co-hosts continue to be the least likely bed-fellows since Sven and Ulrike.

Rehearsals are hotting up. Perhaps I'll tell you more about that next week. I'm off to teach some children 'Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head'...to try and save them from the knife.



Letter Seven