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.

Toward Heaven

Changbai Mountain, Jilin Province, China

I didn’t notice all the upturned heads until I settled into my seat. As the bus doors closed, I glanced up and saw the eyes of everyone around me flicking nervously toward Heaven. Like any good primate, mine did too.

Yellow jackets. Dozens of them smacked against the ceiling above. And the windows around. My eyes flicked back down to the faces of the people whose eyes were flicking. Their eyes flicked up and around and mine followed. No one said anything. My world quickly shrank to silent flicking eyes and the little electric pop of wings and carapaces bouncing against the walls. Everyone so often, someone would slap at their hair in a cautious panic.

At last, the engine fired to life, and I was glad I at least couldn’t hear the bugs anymore, even if I still see all the crawling, jerking eyes.

But the bus growled onto the road, and slowly the insects disappeared, maybe into the air conditioner. Nobody seemed to care at all where they had gone.

It takes two bus trips to get to the western slope of Changbai Mountain in China’s Jilin Province, the volcanic peak jutting up out of the dense forests that surround Songjianghe Village – or these days, Songjianghe construction site: “Where everything is half finished and the restaurants never open!” The first bus, the one with the wasps, chugs past the half built resorts of the future as it pulls out of a faux Alpish ski village that developers must hope will one day transform into a real one. It rolls past toll booths, peeling police stations, and dilapidated villages, as it follows the muddy Songjiang River, swollen with the summer rains and the last of the snow melt from Heaven Lake in the crater at the top of Changbai. The water feeds the lush grasses and fir trees that give way to painted meadows just after the transfer to the second bus. This second one is the more harrowing of the two, even without the bugs, as camel caravans of the green-sided beasts sprint their way above the trees and charge past each other on the curves of the twisted road that leads them to the top.

From there, its 1,400 steps dodging selfie takers and breathless Korean tour groups to get the rim of China’s largest, deepest, and highest crater lake – a multi-hued blue broth in a bowl of lichen and stone outcroppings at 2,744 meters in elevation. I ran those steps, and it was good that I did. I got about five minutes of mostly unobstructed view of the basin, half of which belongs to North Korea, before the wind smothered the view in clouds.

Heaven Lake

Heaven Lake

 

 

 

I’d be warned about the finicky nature of both the weather on Changbai, which means eternal white, as well Heaven Lake’s very own prehistoric lake monster.

I saw the weather but not the lake monster. I’ll blame the weather for that one.

Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam, We’ve All…

Hanoi, Vietnam – February 16, 2018

It is Larry’s second trip to Vietnam, if you don’t count the first one.

Larry did not spend his recent 70th birthday here. He did spend his 18th, 19th, and 20th birthdays here, on that first trip, the one he doesn’t count.

It is my first trip to Vietnam, and it is New Year’s Day, the beginning of Tet, a holiday known to Americans mostly because of the eponymous battle fought in this country exactly 50 years ago. The Viet Cong sacked Saigon, then, including the American Embassy, Hue, and other major cities in an attack that stunned both the American and South Vietnamese. In response, the B-52s of the U.S. Air Force bombed the cities into shards.

“It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it,” U.S. Major Peter Arnett said.

Tens of thousands of combatants on both sides died in the fighting. Tens of thousands of civilians died in the bombing. Hundreds of thousands lost everything.

That was Larry’s first trip.

This Tet is not like that Tet. It is quiet in the streets this morning, the, perhaps, one day of the year when Vietnamese get up late, having celebrated late into the night after fireworks marked the beginning of the new year. Houses were cleaned, debts were settled, rice wine was swallowed. Even the police partied. Shortly after midnight a patrol  had pulled up in front of my hostel, shouted some things at the foreigners smoking out front, shot a tube of confetti, threw the spent tube out the back of the truck, and drove off, leaving the cannon and the rainbow river of sparkling paper lying in the lane.

 

 

So this morning is quiet. The coffee shops and pho stands mostly keep their shutters down and only a few motorbikes hum through the alleys. At Hoan Kiem lake, just south of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, people stroll across the aching stretch of red wood that links the shore to the temple island. I stand up from trying to snatch their likenesses from the morning mist.

The Bridge at Hoan Kiem Lake

The Bridge at Hoan Kiem Lake

“Did you get a good one?” someone behind me asks in American. And there Larry is, gray ponytail fluttering, smile tucked behind the points of his mustache. He is leaning on a shiny wooden cane.

We talk first, of course, about the weather, which in Hanoi is much warmer than it is his home in Juneau, Alaska, which itself is much warmer than it used to be. The snowblower he and his friend bought this year, well, they’ve only used it once. These days, the rain gets to the snow before he can. Larry’s wife, 16 years his junior, thinks that’s funny. She’s a workaholic executive in Juneau, and Larry knows the time difference by heart so he can text her every morning from Hanoi to chide her that it’s time to get out of the office.

Larry’s wife wanted to go to Africa this year, but Larry said he’s too old now to run away from rhinos.

“Where do you want to go?” she’d asked.

“I think I want to find the perfect bowl of pho,” he said.

And so he’s back in Vietnam, this time by himself, rather than with his wife and rather than with an army of other American boys.

The first time Larry came to Hanoi, about a decade ago, he’d gotten the shakes. He never planned to come Vietnam, not ever again after that uncounted first time. His wife had been planning a trip to Thailand with a jaunt into Vietnam and he’d stay in Thailand and wait, but then plans changed. The trip would be all Vietnam, instead.

Ah, what the hell, he’d thought and decided to go along. Then, as the plane descended into Hanoi the shaking started. He almost couldn’t get off the plane.

“I knew they’d hate me, after what we’d done to them,” he said.

The airport in Hanoi reeks of confusion and frustration, knots of foreigners trying to sort out their visas. It was worse 10 years ago, Larry says. He milled around trying to understand the chaos when someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned.

The vomit green uniform, topped with that red star hat, hadn’t changed much since the  the last time Larry was here. The AK-47 slung across the man’s shoulder hadn’t changed much, either. Larry wanted to turn the floor the color of the uniform.

“Passport,” the man with the gun said. Larry knew what was going to happen. He handed it over with a trembling hand.

“American,” the man said. It wasn’t a question. “Come with me.”

This was it, Larry, thought as he followed. This was a big, big mistake. The soldier led Larry to the front of the immigration queue. As he passed, people bowed.

“American,” they said, smiling. It wasn’t a question.

Something was different about Vietnam, Larry realized. It was a realizations he’s come to again and again.

One thing hadn’t changed, though: the smell.

“As soon as I stepped out of the cab into the Old Quarter, bam, I was right back. It smelled the same,” Larry said. “There something about that olfactory memory, it never goes away.”

The smell. Hanoi is a city of things in millions: people, food stalls, motorbikes. A dash of cinnamon and anise, a slab roasting beef and onions, a plate of fresh herbs, a liter of gasoline. Mix it together and let it simmer, like the broth of the city’s most famous dish, and you get the smell.

 

It pervades the Old Quarter, as if the raucous, twisting alleyways were one giant pho stall during the lunchtime rush.

“If I didn’t have a wife, I’d never leave,” Larry says.

He loves that food stall more than anywhere on earth — and seen the earth he has — so much so that in the last few days he’s walked it back and forth until he couldn’t walk anymore. Bad hip, he says nodding sideways. Hence the new cane.

“Do things when you have the chance, that way when you can’t do them any more, you won’t regret it,” he says, then mimes picking up a pail of water with the hand that isn’t resting on the cane. “When people ask me what’s on my bucket list I say ‘My bucket’s already pretty full.’ I’ll tell you another thing: Don’t go to the grave healthy and safe; go screaming up to the edge, tip right in and say ‘That was a hell of a ride.'”

These days Larry doesn’t do much screaming, though, and that’s OK. He’s content to spend his mornings walking the lake, looking for students, who are always happy to practice their English and teach him more about Vietnam. Sometimes he heads into the Old Quarter searching for that perfect bowl of pho, and sometimes strolls the French Quarter to sip on the country’s famed coffee — strong and sweet, often with condensed milk — and gaze up at the jarring Hanoi skyline.

In Hanoi’s dynastic days, the crown levied property taxes based on the width of the storefront. So the vendors and homeowners built “tube houses”, narrow and really long, like gigantic square pipes. In recent decades Hanoi’s tube houses have also shot skyward, some as many as seven or eight stories, and have tacked on facades that look vaguely French, Chinese or both.

The result is a city that looks as if someone handed a toddler a set of Lego’s designed by a cocaine-addled, out-of-work architect with delusions of artistic grandeur and let the child go to town.

 

Larry’s made a lot of friends already on his two trips to Hanoi, even if some of his conversations happen only in pantomime. He’s going out to a village with one friend next week (he hopes someone will speak a bit of English to avoid one really long game of charades), and the hotel staff even asks him to watch the desk while they run errands.

“I’m not just a tourist anymore,” he says. “I came down this morning and they said ‘No one eats alone on New Year’s Day,'” he says. He shared their New Year’s breakfast. In a country whose culture very much still revolves around the Confucian centrality of family, there’s not much higher honor.

Through his chats next to the lake, Larry no longer fears how people will react when they learn he’s American and that once, that uncounted time he came to Vietnam, he came here to kill.

“They say ‘Nobody cares anymore; that was our grandparents.’,” Larry says, then laughs. “But I’m the grandparent!”

 

So they know, Larry says, the grandparents know.

Next week he’s arranged a meeting with a few of those grandparents — Vietnamese veterans of the American War — to talk. I don’t ask Larry what they will talk about. I’m not sure he knows. I do know he wants them to understand the fear he felt during that first trip to Vietnam in 1965 and the fear he felt on what he sees as his first trip 50 years later. I think that he wants, somehow, through shared experience communicated in gestures and translators, to try to atone for something.

“They kicked our asses,” Larry says, and I add the French and the Chinese to his list while he nods. “When I got back, I started reading about Ho Chi Minh. I probably read everything he wrote. We were wrong. Ho Chi Minh is a hero. For a country that is supposed to be about freedom and democracy, when they asked for it, we wouldn’t even let them have it.”

Uncle Ho rests here.

Uncle Ho rests here.

Because Larry is still trying to understand how the people of this country could embrace him the way they have even after what he and his country did to them.

“I was 20 years old when I left this place,” Larry says. “There aren’t too many of us left.  When I walk around here and I see someone my age and they see me, we just know.”