By Mark Crimmins
He settled into his seat on the express train and enjoyed the smooth ride down the Korean Peninsula. In Seoul he had visited the Gyeongbokgung Palace. Stared up in awe at the Nandaemun gate. Eaten noodles at a stand in the Gwangjang Market. Climbed the terraces of Namsam Park. Gazed out from the foot of the tower at the summit. The view was resplendent. A brace of mountains carpeted with the vast cityscape. Equally amazing, on his way down, was to stand at the foot of Sejong the Great's statue and realize that this king had singlehandedly promulgated the Hangul writing system. How many rulers anywhere could make such a claim? It all came back to Kyle Blake as he hurtled towards Gyeongju.
Or so he thought. It wasn't long before he started to get an uncomfortable feeling. What was it? Somewhere back there in his experience a voice was nagging. Telling him what? There was just one small problem, it was saying, with making a pilgrimage from Seoul to visit the Buddha of the Seokguram Grotto. Finally it came to him. It was Tim Hwang back at the company in San Jose. Telling him that to a non-Korean ear the cities of Gyeongju and Gwangju sounded almost identical. If you weren't careful you would go into Seoul Station, think you were buying your ticket to Gyeongju, get on the train, and find yourself heading down the wrong side of the country towards Gwangju. Pulling out a map and looking at it, Blake realized this was exactly what he had done. He could see Tim laughing at his mistake when he told him about it after the trip.
But for now he spoke with the train attendant and explained his situation. The uniformed worker penned him a note in Hangul for the ticket agent in Seoul. Told Blake to get off at the next station, Cheonan, cross the tracks, and catch the next train back to Seoul. There the ticket office would reissue him a ticket and direct him to the Jungang Line for the train to Gyeongju. He had set out early so the three-hour delay was not a big problem. Back to Seoul he went. Laughed with the nodding ticket agent as he read the note. "So many times!" the ticket agent said, shaking his head. "Many many times!" Soon Blake was settled in his seat on the Saemaul-Ho express for Busan. When he first saw the locomotive hissing in its berth at the platform he was amazed by the sight of it. It was a helluva fine train. Sleek. Elegant. Powerful. A technological emissary from a future age. Nowhere in this life had Kyle Blake seen a train anywhere near as splendid as the Saemaul-Ho.
And it was inside this superb machine that a small miracle started to manifest itself. About an hour into his journey, as the train slowed for its arrival at Jecheon Station, the intercom chimed, followed by an announcement. Oddly enough it was in English. Attention all passengers. This is an urgent announcement. Would international passenger Kyle Blake please report to the platform when the train pulls into the next station? It made him nervous. What could it be about? This was his first visit to Korea. He had committed no crime. How did the Korail staff even know he was on this train? How could they know his name? It had not been required to purchase his ticket. What, concerning him, could conceivably be so important that it would justify an announcement on a transport system this advanced?
Mystified and apprehensive, he climbed down the stairs onto the platform at Jecheon. Looked left. Nobody. Looked right. A delegation of smartly uniformed station staff was walking towards him. A young woman in a red uniform holding a little tray. Two men in blue uniforms wearing white gloves. One of the men held a small flag with his name written on its paper banner. Kyle Blake. He shook his head in astonishment. Rubbed his chin. Scratched his right ear. The woman smiled beneath her smart cap as they drew up in front of him. "Mr. Blake?" "What's this about?" he asked. The woman reached into an envelope on the tray and pulled out a leather wallet. "This is your wallet," she said. Without looking too closely at it, Blake quickly corrected her. "That can't be my wallet," he said. "I've never been here before." But she opened the wallet and, incredibly, drew forth Blake's California Driver's License. Dumbfounded, he looked at his own smiling face looking back at him from the tiny picture. He reached for his wallet in the back pocket of his jeans. It wasn't there. The men in white gloves smiled benignly. It was like an amazing magic trick. "Okay," Blake said. "That is my wallet. But I just don't see how it can be here. This can't be happening!" He looked at the station sign to remind himself of the name. "I've never been to Jecheon before. This is my first time in Korea. My first time in Asia. My wallet simply cannot be here. It's not possible. How did you do this?" The woman laughed nervously and explained that he had left it on the Gwangju train. "Okay," Blake said slowly. "It must've fallen out of my pocket on the other train. But how did it get here?"
One of the men in white gloves, who didn't speak much English, gestured for Blake to follow him across the platform. He showed the bewildered foreigner a Korail map. Pointed to Seoul. Jabbed a finger at Cheonan. With the same white finger he traced the red express line farther down on the map to a place called Jochiwon. From here he drew his finger across a black rail line connecting Jochiwon with Jecheon. "Freight line," he said. "No passengers." With the same finger he now traced Blake's course back to Seoul and back down the other side of the country. He traced all three lines again, with the freight line last. Together, Blake noticed, the three lines formed an A. Even that seemed mysterious. Part of the trick. They must have found the wallet after he got off the Gwangju train. The attendant who had written the note knew he was going back to Seoul and then directly to Gyeongju. Somebody must have handed the same man his wallet when it was found. Perhaps the man found it himself. Then the Gwangju train stopped in Jochiwon. There the attendant had delivered the wallet to station staff, along with an explanation. Then it must have been determined that the wallet should be delivered to personnel on a freight train headed for Jecheon. The freight train would intercept the wallet's owner as he made his way to Gyeongju. The timing must have been just right. Station officers must have worked out all the schedules. While Blake was traveling north back to Seoul, the wallet he thought he had in his pocket was traveling east along the Chungbuk Freight Line. The freight train's route meant the wallet would arrive in Jecheon before he got there traveling down the Jungang passenger line. The freight personnel must have delivered it to station staff at Jecheon. They in turn must have radioed the beautiful Saemaul-Ho as it barreled south. They knew his name from the contents of the wallet, enabling them to make the announcement. As his train approached, the small delegation was then dispatched to the platform with the wallet and the name banner. By the time he had figured all this out, Blake needed to get back on the train and continue his journey. His pilgrimage. The Buddha of the Seokguram Grotto had certainly been with him.
Blake thanked the delegation profusely. The three workers stood in a line, the men on each side of the woman, bowed in unison, and waved as Blake looked back from the train. He waved back. Laughed. Shook his head in disbelief. Korail was some kind of an outfit! It took a long time for his amazement to subside. He realized that if the wallet had not been returned he would have had to go back to Seoul as soon as he discovered it was lost and seek consular assistance. His pilgrimage would have been over. He never carried his wallet in his back pocket again. Arriving in Gyeongju, he checked into a yogwan in an alleyway of the old town. Visited the massive burial tumuli of the Silla kings. Ate a splendid dinner of Gyeongju Ssambap with its lavish array of banchan. Side dishes. Turned in around nine and slept like a baby on his yo. The Korean futon. Gyeongju was certainly quieter than Seoul.
Early in the morning, he took a bus up Mount Toham to the Bulguksa Temple Complex. The apotheosis of Silla Buddhist architecture. It was astonishingly well preserved. He strolled reverently past the Blue Cloud and White Cloud bridges. Circled the three-story stone pagodas. Stared at the brilliantly painted eaves of the temple halls. Admired the carved dragonheads. The great cedar pillars. The drum to end all drums. It was almost too much to take in. Surely the tiny grotto would not be able to compare with the glories of the temple. For a long time he inspected the great bronze bell with its engravings. As he did so, a priest approached the belfry and, with great ceremony, swung the huge suspended beam into the side of the ageless instrument. Booooonnnnnnnggggggggg! He had never heard a note like it. Deep. Resonant with overtones. Ineffable. A sound not of this world.
He took this as his cue to set out on the last four kilometers of his pilgrimage. He wound his way up the mountain path. It was early on a weekday morning. A group of old couples passed him on their way back from the grotto. Ahead of him now were only two other visitors. A young couple he had seen the night before in the narrow lanes of the old town. He slowed down to create some distance. Outside the grotto entrance he decided to rest for a while. Partly to give the couple some time alone with the Buddha. Partly so he would have the grotto to himself when his turn came. He looked off down the mountainside towards the glittering sea. While he waited he recalled the chain of events that had brought him to this juncture. The company in California deciding to send a representative to a trade fair at the Seoul Olympic Stadium Complex. His name being drawn by lots. The arbitrary selection of chance. Chatting with Tim Hwang about his upcoming visit. On impulse one day asking Tim whether there was one thing above all he absolutely must do during his short trip to Korea. With no hesitation Hwang said he should make a pilgrimage to visit the Buddha of the Seokguram Grotto. Then he added the caveat about the difficulties with place names. The miracle of the wallet had already given the trip an unearthly quality. Off in the distance the temple bell tolled again. Ommmmmmmmm! The vibrations shimmered through the cool mountain air. Ommmmmmmmm! It was like the voice of the earth itself. Ommmmmmmmm! The couple came out of the grotto. They paused by the entrance to snap a few pictures. Then they strolled off in the direction of the temple. It was time for his encounter with the Buddha.QLRS Vol. 14 No. 1 Jan 2015