Conquering the Koguryo

Ji’an, Jilin Province, China

I know what Murong Huang’s soldiers felt when they sacked the Wandu Mountain City in 342 A.D. I’ve felt the pain of the mountain roads and the savored the taste of victory. Or at least, I savored the taste of free entry.

Wandu: The once capital of the Korean Koguryo Kingdom, born in 37 B.C. and surviving for some seven centuries of war before an allied force of China’s Tang Dynasty and the rival Korean kingdom Silla defeated it it at Pyongyang (yes, that one) in 667 C.E. The Koguryo capital Wandu was founded in 3 A.D. along the river banks and mountain slopes that surround the contemporary Chinese city Ji’an on the North Korean border. By the fourth century, the Koguryo kingdom dominated much of the Korean peninsula and northeastern China and was well-known for its skills in both arts – gilded jewelry and sculptures, and especially its dancing culture – and warfare. But it was that century when the Chinese commander Murong Huang attacked the city through the mountains from both the north and the south, captured it, and burned it to the ground. The fleeing Koguryo left their ruined city to the wild.

When I set off from Ji’an – perhaps the most beautiful city in China with its streams, parks, clean streets, polite populace, and river views of North Korea – for the few-kilometer walk up to the Wandu site, I didn’t intend to follow in Murong Huang’s footsteps. The path I’d mapped took me out of the mountain-hemmed city along the river and through a picturesque village that gave way to idyllic countryside, farmhouses and cornfields in which birds flitted and chirped and buzzing of insects in the thick vegetation accompanied my steps.

 

The path soon turned up a small valley carved by a creek. The creek, home to countless frogs both dull and bright, gurgled over rocks as it slipped out of the near-vertical, tree shrouded mountains above. At first, the path cut clearly through the bushes, an easy hike up the gully. I giggled as I walk, glorying in the sunlight and the water and the trees. Soon, though, the going got steeper and the way got murkier. In the trees above the narrow valley, I heard the ominous clanging of bells.

My steps, and my breath, quickened. Cows. I hate cows. I fear cows.

I climbed over a ramshackle wooden fence just as the path disappeared. My giggling stopped and smile drooped. I began to worry that I’d gone the wrong way.  But the bells still followed.

And then, there ahead around a bend, four bovine monsters lay in the grass. Beyond them, too, stood a bull, his nose ring tied to a horn by a series of menacing. makeshift rusty metal links. He eyed me and stomped the ground. But the bells behind me still hadn’t stopped. As I stood, petrified, the clanking grew closer, and at last, another handful of cows trundled out of the trees and blocked my escape.

There was but one possible path forward. Walking in the middle of the stream, I could wind past the cows, keeping a few spans between us. I started forward speaking softly and slowly waving my hands. The laying cows watched me and chewed the grass, swatting at swarms of midges and mosquitoes with their ears  and tossing their heads. I should’ve paid more attention to the swarms – a prophecy of things to come – but I had eyes for only the bull. He’d lowered his head and turned to follow me as I edged around. He snorted and stomped. When I pulled parallel with him, he came for me.

I took off up the creek, stumbling over rocks, not daring to look back. I tripped, picked myself up, and kept running. Locusts and frogs bounded out of my path, plunking off of my bare legs and hips. Suddenly something squirmed under my foot. I glanced down to see a snake writing half under my shoe and half under the rocks, seemingly stuck between trying to flee and trying to lash out at its tormentor. I skipped to the side, kept running up the ever-steepening hill and reminded myself to pay more attention to the path under my feet; I had no idea what kinds of animals lived in this forest.

Soon, I could only hear the blood pounding in my ears and my ragged breath. I’d left the bull, and those horrible bells, behind. The bull and the bells, but not the bugs. I staggered to a halt to catch my breath, and as my bodily sounds faded, the buzzing closed in. Hundreds of insects swarmed my head and naked shoulders.  No time to breathe, I started running again. The swarm pursued.

Before long, the valley came to an end. The only choice was up … on all fours. I slipped and slid on broken covered by a skin of dead leaves. Whenever I tried to tack horizontal, I found myself trapped by thorned and stinging plants which shredded my calves and forearms. When the Koguryo climbed this hills, they used spiked boots to keep their balance. I did not have those. For every meter I crawled up the slope, grabbing rotten tree limbs for balance, I slide half as far back down. Bulbous gray spiders skittered in every direction and bouncing grasshoppers crackled in rage or terror. The swarm didn’t relent.

A lovely walk in the woods had turned into my personal Apocalypse Now.

Finally, a rocky outcropping rose out of the mountain top in front of me. Like some kind of harried, gasping seal, I dragged my slippery body over the top and lay heaving for a moment on the stone path on the top. Then the swarm found me, again, and I took off along the path, skating on the phlemy, mossy, stones and galloping up and down stairs. Through gaps in the trees I could see Ji’an down the valley, and there, up the river, the sand-colored burial mounds I’d been trying to reach.

I slipped, galloped, and stumbled all while swatting at my head, just trying to outrun the bugs for another half hour or so – up and down and up and down and then down, down, down, until suddenly the trees opened up, and there I was, surrounded by crumbled city gates in an open field. A pink-shirted tour group turned away from an ancient watchtower to point at me and shout.

I walked among the Wandu Mountain City ruins for the next couple of hours, marveling at the engineering of the mountain fastness. As I looked at a map of the former Koguryo capital, it at last dawned on me: like Murong Huang more than a millennium before, I’d assaulted the ancient city walls from behind, then run along them and at last breached the city.

 

Murong Huang had sacked a city. I’d snuck into a UNESCO World Heritage Site without a ticket. Feats, one and both.

Later in Ji’an a grilled corn hawker would tell me I was the second white foreigner he’d seen in two years. The security guards at the Wandu ticket check gaped at me as I walked out the exit, covered in leaves, mud, and blood.

I like to think the Wandu guards 1600 years ago had similar looks on their faces.

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