Beopgyesa, Sancheong County, Gyeongsangnam-do, Friday 30 March 2012. The ice on the mountain trail the previous day had given me metaphorical cold feet about proceeding upwards beyond Beopgyesa to Jirisan’s summit. During the night, the wind and rain outside our comfortable cabin in the temple compound confirmed the decision that we would head downhill, rather than up, in the morning.
As we go down to the temple kitchen for breakfast, it’s hard to ignore the fact that what the previous evening had been a trickle of a stream beside the steps which ascend though the temple precincts had turned overnight into something more of a torrent.
We enter the kitchen and are treated to rice, soup and vegetable side dishes – much the same as the previous evening – sitting on a floor that is almost too hot. We are then welcomed in to instant coffee in the temple administrative office with the senior monk.
The wind has died down a little, but the rain is still steady. I now have my next battle with my companions about the appropriateness of my hiking gear: my goretex coat is not deemed to be waterproof enough, and instead I am told to wear a flimsy poncho. I take the line of least resistance and stuff my goretex into my backpack. We set off down the trail, taking care to keep our knees bent so as not to jolt them. And yes, I am wearing the orthopaedic elastic around my knees.
The day is grey, cold and wet. In places the trail seems even more slippery than the previous afternoon, but in general it’s not too arduous a walk. And maybe because of the elastic knee braces, or because of the leisurely pace, no-one seems to be having knee problems. We pass rapids where the majority of the stream has frozen, which I had not noticed the day before. The temperature hadn’t dropped; it was just that the previous day my gaze had been glued to the ground as I focused on putting one foot in front of (and above) the other. We continue downwards, and in what seems to be no time at all we’re back at the car hoping for a dry environment.
It’s then that I notice that my stupid poncho is not waterproof, and my shirt and T-shirt underneath is cold and damp right through to the skin. The contents of my backpack are not much drier. I’d have been better off with my goretex.
It’s only about 11am, hardly time for the first drink of the day, but by the time we’ve driven out of the national park and got ourselves nearer to civilisation, we could almost justify an early lunch. Never has dongdongju tasted so good: a few gulps, and you can feel your cheeks beginning to glow with warmth. I was thawing out nicely, and the wild mushroom pajeon and sweet potato pancake which followed helped the two large bowls of creamy rice liquor to disappear quite without noticing.
We drive on for a rest at the overnight accommodation – a typical pension with a utilitarian washroom in which the shower runs off the washbasin taps. A hot shower followed by some dry clothes had never felt so good. My mistake was to go back into the bathroom for a shave, forgetting that I had not turned the shower valve back. Another shower and more dry clothes later, I fall asleep on the ondol floor.
It continues to rain, but we have an appointment with a rabbit stew. My hosts had been nervous about whether a foreigner would be prepared to eat bunnies. But rabbit stews aren’t unheard of in England, so I was quite content to try it out, and was glad I did. One reservation: boy, are these little critters bony. But the meat tasted good, and the broth was super-spicy. It went well with the creamy-tasting dongdongju. And the dongdongju tastes so good that we decide to take away several bottles to see us through the rest of the evening.
One of our company suggests a good place for 이 차, and a small group of us get into a car. We head off across the county line into Hadong-gun, where it is raining no less hard. We arrive at a largish house and are welcomed in.
Despite the rain, there’s smoke from two or three charcoal barbeques out on the terrace under an awning. And in the hallway the large number of shoes indicates that there’s quite a party going on.
It’s a freshmen’s get-together for the Eastern Philosophy department of Jeonju International University – apparently the professor is a friend of one of our group. About thirty students are gathered around tables drinking soju and makgeolli and tucking into freshly-grilled samgyeopsal.
Our group stands to attention at the entrance to the room, and we each introduce ourselves, and each one of us is greeted by enthusiastic applause and cheers. The students then respectfully clear a table for us, and pile some plates with more food.
Everyone is singing and joking in their respective groups. Then someone in my company tells me that the students have made a special request. The foreigner has been asked to sing to them. I joke that I’m not nearly drunk enough to sing. And think nothing more about it.
But they are determined, and evidently have accepted the challenge.
A few minutes later they start chanting: LEO BEU SHYAT. LEO BEU SHYAT. My brain slowly processes the sounds, recognises them as a likely Korean transliteration of an English term, reverse-engineers the original English stripping out the embedded American accent and then starts searching through its subconscious Korean cultural reference library. A Love Shot (러브 샷). Uh-oh. I’ve never done one before, but I’m about to find out what it involves. A student comes up to me and fills my glass, our drinking arms loop round each other and we simultaneously down our drinks in one. She was very pretty. I didn’t mind this at all. Then one of the male students comes up and does the same. It’s fortunate that nothing more amorous is involved than the looping of arms, and although when you do a google image search for 러브 샷 you will find couples on their wedding day drinking champagne in this way, you are equally likely to find images of office workers drunkenly bonding.
Of course, there was no going back, and once again I found myself singing from Marylebone Lane’s Golden Eagle songbook and as an encore led a rousing chorus of Arirang.
After that, my recollection of the evening was hazy. I lost my camera. I found it again. There was more drinking somewhere else (as I discovered when I flicked through my photos the next day). And I somehow woke up in my own bed the following morning. Another crazy and riotous evening of Korean hospitality. I do love these evenings. Except when it comes to the day after.