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[SEPTEMBER 2016.]

Republic of Korea (3)

It’s very much summer here, I didn’t put on sunscreen, I’m not wearing a hat, I only have one water bottle and countries that use milliliters don’t make water bottles large enough. Coming down off Inwangsan I pass a park where parents are playing with their toddlers, keep on through a thick-pined valley, descend stone stairs and am back among cars and high-rises. In search of tourist amenities I head for the giant fourteenth-century palace and am stopped by three armed police who politely ask where I’m going and seem surprised to find me a U.S. national. I don’t ask what they thought I was. They wave me on, telling me to continue straight, and going past more police and barriers I realize that I’m walking alongside the grounds of the presidential residence. The fourteenth-century palace costs three bucks to enter and is many city blocks across, gardens and grounds and a complex of buildings that reveal themselves one long low wall at a time, with unexpected offset doorways that conduct you in series through more dusty courtyards, more wood porticoes until the slope of one or another mountain appears, so nicely framed among the balancing of roofs and walls that it seems something built deep within the palace itself.

The northernmost building in the complex is smaller than some but well kept. An old attendant sits on the front steps, and everyone who goes inside leaves their shoes on one rack and takes soft blue slippers from another. I do the same, expecting to find some state or church relic within, and step into the still heart of the world.

The still heart of the world is a library with a few thousand books in many languages, old and new, tables and chairs for study, shelves of pottery, clean wood floors and white carpet, designs on the ceilings, carved birds over the doorways and circular windows open to the gardens around. I pass under one of the birds into a small octagonal reading room with desks and chairs facing open windows on all sides, small conifers in pots and a cafe counter where I order the most needful iced coffee of my thirty-eight years. When I sit down the barista brings me, unsolicited, a copy of Special Lecture on Korean Paintings. I read through it, drinking the cold coffee, and every so often a piny breeze flips the pages to a new, unexpected picture. In one case the picture is what Oh Ju-Seok calls unquestionably the best tiger painting in the world.

Republic of Korea (2)

The old Seoul wall rings a central slice of the city that looks modest on the map and anywhere else would count as a large city in itself. Its lower courses tend to be buried under modern streets, but wherever there’s a hill, files of white stone will appear to climb it—rectangular with pointed cornices and small square openings, and winding back and forth like a dragon’s backbone. Threads of park run alongside it, and walking trails that can be hard to locate because pine and cypress groves hide them from the streets below. I enter twisted streets with that sewer-garbage smell of Barcelona (unusual in this generally clean city), pass between a park and hospital, and suddenly I’ve found my entrance and am lifted out of the city into slopes of pale purple wildflowers, with the wall on my left and magpies chattering everywhere, scruffier and with sharper beaks than the Euro-American kind, wings an especially brilliant blue.

The wall runs right over the mountain summits and my path takes me up Inwangsan, where after a point the trees give out and you find yourself scrambling up the glaring peaks of the moon. It might be the early sun that makes this mountain feel so much more strenuous than others I’ve climbed of late; it might be that the grade simply doesn’t let up. By this time there are a good many other hikers, lots of them with Republic of Korea flags stuck in their packs, which gives our procession a sense of endeavor and purpose. We're discovering the moon together.

The summit is a lone sun-blasted boulder. I reach and acknowledge it, and dizzy and thirsty, find the nearest trees in the lee of the wall. In my pack I have a protein bar and the Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry, which includes a magisterial prose poem by Cheong Chiyong about a climb up Paengnokdam. I am not meeting that standard. But I sit on a square rock in the pine grove, and make these notes in mind of some far away.

Republic of Korea (1)

We touched down at Incheon airport just before sunset, the low disc a color I’d never seen, an almost lavender pink (was the window tinted?), the Yellow Sea not yellow but metallic blue except where it gave back the lavender glow, and finely grooved as a phonograph record. All around the river’s mouth small dark islands projected forest and cliff.

Seoul from the air looks like ten or fifteen separate cities dropped into the vacant spots between palisades of green mountain. Once you’re on the ground, the high-rises (which outstrip humble California and clump together in centrally mandated ways that in Europe would indicate the Iron Curtain) block the peaks until one or another rears up in the opening of an avenue or river. At times a palace or museum more deliberately courts the effect. Very soon you learn to distinguish pyramidal Bugaksan, wide rocky Inwangsan, humped Namsan with its tower. I’ve never seen a city more situated in beauty—I can’t say “beautiful city,” since coherence of form is both lacking and superfluous to its purposes. It’s like London; old-new and huge, a place where it obviously all happens at once.

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