A few weeks ago I went on a mini-expedition down the sorry Daecheongcheon, the local river. It was a disheartening experience, the river a sad trickle of its former self, its garbage-strewn banks and bottom safely contained in protective concrete and choked with thriving reeds and weeds.
But I took a diversion that day where a road crossed the river, and found myself in a grittier, grimier, more “lived in” part of Jangyu called Mugye, and in its filthy, trash-cluttered backstreets found this relic of a far older and apparently much nobler Korea, the Mugye Dolmen. Here it is, Gyeonsangnamdo Cultural Treasure #151:
This type of prehistoric tomb, a plaque informed me, was common to the area and also parts of China and Kyushu, Japan. Although this one, largest in Gimhae, remains unexcavated, others nearby have contained bronze arrowheads, jade, stone knives and red pottery. I was saddened by the wretched surrounds, the ugly tangle of electrical wires overhead, and trudged back to the riverbed, which cheered me immensely…
On Sunday, walking down the river again, I noticed some activity on the far bank, where a hollow Christmas tree-like structure was being erected on some scrappy fields that seemed earmarked for more white towers:
At work, mystery solved. Boxes of glutinous rice cakes were delivered to the teachers’ room (more came today; I hope never to see another bloody rice cake), a seasonal custom celebrating the first full moon of the lunar new year, a time known here as Daeboreum, which translates as “Great Full Moon”.
Mrs Kim, the vice-principal, told me about the five-grain porridge, ogokbap, eaten for breakfast — and about the ritual bonfire. My Christmas tree, it turned out, was doomed to die a fiery death that very night, at 6:00 sharp, in that vacant lot in Mugye. When school finished I headed, camera in freezing hand, for the river, which this time sported a shiny blue discarded icebox:
The festival had been going since lunchtime. The smiling mayor was personally greeting visitors; thinking he was reaching for my camera, I drew it back, but he took both my hands, shook them warmly, and said in English, laughing at the thrill of it, “Happy New Year!” There were several hundred people there, and I was the only Caucasian.
On the bank, families were flying plastic kites over the river…
.., and makgeolli (milky rice wine) bottles littered the rubble-covered ground — former rice paddies, now a marginal zone of rocks, trash, weeds and gaping drain holes in the standard decaying curbs you find all over urban and rural Korea.
I’m beginning to see where a lot of this litter originates:
There were speeches, and dignitaries kneeled in rows to pray before the bonfire pile. As in Japan, it seems to be the elderly women of the town who are in charge of the folk dancing:
But there were some younger beauties in attendance as well — these ones standing guard over the base of the daljip, the pile of boughs and rice straw. Note the fuel cannisters:
Last-minute wishes for good fortune are attached:
A vendor sold these snacks that you can buy on just about any street corner at the moment:
A few cops lingered at the back (I hoped they had fire training) and an array of banners and torches was ready to go:
Ordinarily a spot of dalmaji — full moon-viewing — would be in order. But the moon was rugged up under a drab, grey sky. Nobody seemed too disappointed. Soon this fellow busted out a trumpet-like instrument and began producing a shrill, exciting, almost demented sound, like something from an acid-peddlars’ bazaar:
The ladies joined in, dancing, beating on drums, first on these mangy blankets, and then round and round the daljip:
Out came the banners, to be leaned against the pile:
I didn’t fancy their chances:
It got dark. I never spoke to anyone all night. Nobody seemed to mind my presence, but nobody approached to attempt any English either, even after all that emboldening rice wine. We massed behind a rope circle, which attendants kept widening, pushing us back. Excitement rippled through the crowd, and the kid next to me started yelping with joy.
Out came the men with burning torches…
..to set the bonfire a-blazing…
..and the music started up again, while the women circled, beating on drums, and people whooped and ahhh-ed as the flames leapt higher:
There was an almost triumphant chorus of cries as the top of the pile caved in. In old days, apparently, much burning took place at this time to rid the fields of pests and their eggs before spring planting.
But nowadays the ceremony comes with high-teck accoutrements. Orchestral music like something from a science fiction film boomed out of speakers, and a really bloody sensational fireworks display began behind us:
When the show was over we returned our attention to the fire, faces hot even several metres from the flames:
Men began hurling trash onto the conflagration: paper, plastic bottles, even glass. This was just about the weirdest part of the night:
But not quite. As I wandered, half-dazed with the delightfully primitive thrill of it all, I managed to step right into one of those gaping fucking drains I mentioned earlier. Suddenly I was weightless, then in considerable pain, stuck almost waist-deep in a concrete hole. Nobody came to help. My first thought was my camera — but it was fine. I dragged myself out and could barely stand; my jeans were ripped on my badly scraped left thigh, and a lump the size of an egg throbbed on my right shin.
“You…fucking…people!” I cursed.
Then I staggered off into the darkness and back down onto the river bank, and limped homeward, while a kid fired dozens of skyrockets from some handheld device on the far side. They exploded monotonously, fizzled out halfway across, and dropped down, exhausted, into the murky stream.
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote