Homemade kimchee jjigae in hand, Jen, John Stephen and I discuss plans for New Years. Being the new kid on the block, I’m pretty much down to do anything. There has been talk of a boozy club night in Hongdae, a neighborhood of Seoul known for its club and bar scene, and I smile and nod without much enthusiasm. Something about going out to spend a bunch of money for an evening I likely won’t remember much of the next day seems a little depressing when I’ve only just arrived here. Really, I could have just stayed in the States for that.
So when Jen mentions something about a bell ceremony at midnight, I jump at the idea. She has been doing research into what the Koreans do for New Years, and is also feeling as strapped for cash as I am. We make plans to meet up around 8pm, get some dinner, stuff some soju in our purses and head to the Jongno district for the ceremony. In the morning, she informs me, Koreans traditionally hike to the summit of a mountain to watch the first sunrise of the new year. You mean to tell me that I will literally ring in this year with a bell ceremony and a mountain summit sunrise?! Yes, please. Count the new girl in.
The idea, no surprise, catches on fast with our coworkers. Soon a group of eight is looking forward to the late night events, the attempt to stay up all night, to catching the first subway on New Year’s Day. I’m actually giddy with the prospect. We meet at a Hof (beer bar) around eight in the evening, pre-funk with some cheap beer and soju, eat a plate of garlic chicken goodness (which I’m pretty sure was actually pork) and head to the subway.
The Bosingak Watch-Night bell ceremony takes place every year in Jongno on New Year’s Eve. Since 1953, prominent figures and celebrities have attended the ceremony, and there was rumor that the new conservative female president of Korea would be there to take part in the ceremony. She wasn’t. The mayor of Seoul was, however, as was the Superintendent of Education.
(photo courtesy of visitseoul.com)
In the subway, the car begins to fill. First a few get on, then streams of people are flowing in and all around us, taking up every available inch of space. All sense of personal bubbles fly out the door, along with valuable oxygen and any hope of escape. If you want to get off next, you better start elbowing. Tonight, however, everyone is going to the same place. When we finally reach the Jongno station, the dam breaks and the train must look like a punctured vein from above, people like cells flowing out at all angles, trying to revive their arms and legs, take deep breaths, stretch their necks. After a brief moment, we are back in the flow, traveling to the next destination, just a cluster of American, English and Canadian faces like huge white cells among all the Korean blood. We hold hands so as not to lose each other. Without a phone or internet, being lost in this throng would be tragic. Cut to: still image of me standing a head taller than everyone around, facing the camera as Koreans stream past and around me. I call it: American Island.
We make it to street level, together and in one eight-piece unit. What we find there is a whole new adventure. If we thought the subway was packed, the tens of thousands of people in the street soon put it in perspective. There are bodies absolutely everywhere, and surprisingly I see more English faces than I have in my entire time in Korea so far. It’s amazing to feel this sense of camaraderie, and difficult not to just smile at everyone I see. There is certainly a sense of freedom being in such a large crowd. You become just one of the mass. The soju helps.
We push forward to try to see something, anything, but there are too many people. It’s minutes to midnight, and Rob points out that we are the among the first in the world to celebrate the new year. Our families back home won’t celebrate for hours. I close my eyes in the crowd, imagine the world turning, internalize the physicality of the time zones. My ‘present’ is both accurate and bizarre when compared to those of my friends and family back home. They will celebrate the new year tomorrow, once I have already spent an entire day of 2013. I feel like a trailblazer. A woman of the future.
Suddenly, I hear shouting… and what can only be counting, even though I don’t understand the numbers. The excitement makes it plain: this is the moment! The countdown! 3,2,1….. Happy New Year! It hits me: I am in Korea. This year, this entire year, will be spent in a new country, with new people, new food, a new job… and by the end of the year it won’t be new anymore, and a new year will begin again. Time. Yet another new path, a new chapter of my life beginning.
Soon after the countdown, I hear the sound of an enormous bell ring. Once, twice.. I begin to count but soon lose track amongst the noise and activity. It is an amazing feeling, being surrounded by people, staring up into a sky lit by fireworks and bright lights on tall buildings—and to my right over the top of some trees I can see the Bosingak Belfry, its traditional architecture in stark contrast with the modernism all around. An urban blend of new and old, traditional and innovative. In harmony. The history is audible.
When my alarm goes off at 5:40am I struggle to remember why, dear god why, I agreed to this insane plot. Legs go over, and body follows. By the time I’m standing, I’m awake and excited again. This morning, before it is light, I will climb a mountain.Back at Rob’s apartment, we sit in a circle on his floor eating 7-Eleven snacks and passing a bottle. Our eyes are sore from the hour but our hearts are swollen with the evening’s excitement. A new year! In a circle like this, anything is possible. I agree to come back to Rob’s at six to make some coffee, and I head to bed to catch a few hours of sleep.
Achasan is one of the easier mountains in Seoul to climb. In winter, when the earth is icy, it seems an ideal choice for a climb in the darkness and a co-worker has confirmed that the trail is mostly stairs and will be ascendable. I pull on my boots, silk long underwear, a down jacket, gloves, a JL wool base-layer, my handmade Alec Hat and, still half asleep, head over to Rob’s. It is snowing outside. The world is quiet before dawn.
Rob is also grumbling about waking up, but when he sees my face he pulls it together. Somehow grumbling+grumbling=Let’s Go Climb a Mountain! About half of last night’s group meets us outside and we head to the corner store for supplies. It is 6:15 am.
A few stops from Achasan, the subway begins to fill with fellow hikers. Appearance in Korea is everything, and these early risers have not come to disappoint. Decked out in high tech gear, crampons, hiking poles and packs, these guys mean business! Even with my Goretex boots on I feel ill-prepared. By the time we exit the subway, we are flanked on all sides by summit-hungry Koreans. Whereas the night before I had seen many Western faces scattered in the crowd, today we are alone. I notice a few glances our way but they seem friendly; maybe our early presence is scoring us bonus points. There’s a sense of community as we watch sleepy children having their coats zipped up under their chins, men testing each other’s crampons, packs being zipped up by friends. Everyone is ready.
We have directions to the trailhead, but there are enough people here in the darkness that we just follow. Up a hill, around a corner, through a sleepy neighborhood. Stairs appear on our right between apartment buildings and we start to climb. The trail is busy. Once again we are in a line of people, only now it is to walk up a mountain instead of onto the next subway. It is still snowing, and soon my hair is covered. When I reach up to brush the snow away, I realize it has frozen. My hair is frozen! Yet another new experience. I tuck it up under my hat, and continue uphill.
Near the top, we reach a flat area topped by a magnificent temple. Intricate architecture is further ornamented by colorful paintings, and there are people everywhere. Let me just say this again, we are hiking up a mountain before dawn, and we are hiking in line, only to reach the top and have to fight for room to stand. On top of a mountain. I’m confounded. Some have brought small backpacking stoves with them to make tea, others are slurping up ramen, some, like us, are just standing around taking pictures. It is a powerful moment for us, here on top of a mountain at dawn, surrounded by the people of this land who are so better prepared than we are. Respect flows from me for these people who have maintained such a beautiful custom, and as I stare down at Seoul I realize yet again that this is truly a new beginning for me. It helps to feel a sense of community at this moment. As always I am surrounded by people, and I allow myself for a moment to feel that I am one of them. We continue on to the top and experience the snow fall stop and the sun peek through the clouds. The ground is covered in fine powder and we have a view for miles. Everything feels new. I send silent thoughts to friends and family back home, feeling concurrently the distance and the presence of them in my thoughts. It is beautiful, this feeling. Powerful and charged. Full of the unknown. Part of an international community of people I love, trust and can share this moment and these thoughts with.
The camaraderie continues once we are back down the mountain. Everyone and their mother (this is Korea, so, literally) is out trying to get some hot soup after the long, cold climb. Most restaurants are empty and the few with people inside are completely packed, with lines out the door. We find one with an empty table and manage to slide in before there is a line. Apparently we have chosen the place well. There is a man walking around just giving toasts, raising his glass and yelling. Everyone laughs, raises their mug and shouts back at him. Even without understanding the words, the meaning is clear.
Happy New Year.