Autumn in the Land of Morning Calm

EVERY person I met in Korea during the two years I lived in that resilient country had the same favorite season - autumn. My Korean friends sang robust songs of summer, spring, and even winter, but the romantic refrains were all reserved for autumn. By tradition, they explained, it was a time of high skies and fat horses, a time of glistening red persimmons and roasted chestnuts. Autumn also was a time of adventure and discovery, a time when Koreans of every age and climbing ability took to the mountains to enjoy the many three-day holiday weekends. For most hikers, designer attire was de rigueur, with plenty of high-laced boots, quilted vests, and jaunty Tyrolean caps visible on the well-populated trails. Packing the right provisions was almost as important as looking like a Hollywood extra, and a picnic by a precipice usually meant huge quantities of grilled ``fire beef,'' exquisite rolls of seaweed and rice, and enough vegetable dishes to satisfy Hannibal's elephants. Destination was also part of the protocol, and everyone and his brother, sister, in-laws, etc., headed for the east coast, which had the highest mountain ranges.

I spent my first autumn in Korea learning the fine points of hiking etiquette, and by the time the second fall approached, I felt that I was ready for a big climb. My good friend Mrs. Lee, the doctor at the college where I taught, was the first to invite me for a weekend excursion. We agreed to meet at her house early on a Saturday morning, but other than that she was a bit vague about the plans. What could I bring? I wanted to know. Nothing, she replied, grinning, just be on time.

On the way to the bus station that crisp October morning, I tried to figure out where Mrs. Lee had stashed our picnic lunch. She carried only a light backpack, and unlike all the other seasonal fashion plates, she was wearing faded gardening overalls. What's more, we were headed in the wrong direction.

So began my first lesson in mountain climbing, Mrs. Lee-style. For starters, we went south, not east. Our bus was filled with singing farmers and chickens, and each mile took us farther from the densely packed trails I'd been expecting. We bought a lunch of hard-boiled eggs and apples from the women seated behind us, and when we finally got off the bus late in the afternoon there were flurries of ``see you agains.''

No inns were visible along the dusty country road that stretched before us, but Mrs. Lee assured me that it was only an hour's walk - possibly two - to the hotel where we would spend the night. I fell into step behind her, not daring to inquire about the prospects for supper. The foothills looked gentle and welcoming in the twilight, and as we started up an overgrown path, my concerns began to drop, one by one.

An hour later, I was still enjoying the climb and the view. We could see pinpoints of light in the farming village below, and it was easy to visualize the storytelling that would soon begin around the evening fires.

We scrambled over a few more boulders, and rather abruptly found ourselves standing in the front courtyard of a small Buddhist temple. Mrs. Lee sought out the chief monk and they conferred together in whispers for several minutes. I couldn't hear what they were saying - only that it involved much smiling and bowing. Soon we were ushered into a tidy, linoleum-floored room.

``This,'' said Mrs. Lee with great drama and obvious delight, ``is our hotel tonight.''

``But women aren't allowed in temples,'' I stammered. ``Not to visit, and certainly not to spend the night! And especially not if one of them is a foreigner.''

``No,'' she said with finality. ``It's because of you we stay. I told the monk you need to see the real Korea.''

I was still trying to come up with a response when several gray-robed neophytes, shaven-headed boys in their early teens, appeared at the door with mattresses and comforters. They were followed by an older monk carrying a lacquered tray piled high with steaming bowls of rice, soup, and vegetables.

Whether it was the hour or the unprecedented hospitality, I'm not sure. It certainly was a meal - and an evening - I'll never forget. I knew that Buddhist monks were vegetarians, but I was astonished at the dishes they had concocted from roots, berries, nuts, and leaves. In fact, the leaves were the tastiest of all - dipped in batter, then sugar, and deep-fried. By the time we got to dessert, our hosts had gone to bed and dowsed the lanterns, so we had to finish our bowl of roasted chestnuts by flashlight before turning in ourselves.

It seemed that we'd only just gotten to sleep when the gong sounded for morning devotions. We joined the monks in the front courtyard and listened to them welcome the new day as the sun rose. Their contrapuntal chanting and the echoing resonance of the big brass gong combined in haunting eloquence, and I began to understand why Koreans for centuries have called their country the Land of Morning Calm.

We finally said our good-byes and were off (after Mrs. Lee had quietly slipped a donation into an empty collection bowl). For the next two days, we hiked through mountain passes aflame with red-and-orange maples. We bartered for lunches of wild honey and corn, and stopped each night at a different temple - to the surprise of several generations of monks. Thankfully, we didn't scale any dizzying peaks. Best of all, we didn't see any other climbers.

Several weeks later, when Mrs. Lee asked if I'd like to take a boat trip with her to a small island off the west coast, I was packed and ready to go in five minutes. I didn't even think about taking my designer rucksack.

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