THE VIEW FROM NAMSAN MOUNTAIN | TRAVEL MEMOIR PODCAST | SEOUL | New Book 2023
Letters to Kody is an upcoming podcast and a book of non-fiction travel memoir, to be published in early 2023.
My name is D. J. Swales, an author of fiction. This time I wish to tell you a true story . . .
In 2016, a car tragically collided with a fire truck in Kentucky. While on his way to a job at Walmart, a young man lost his life. His name was Kody. He dreamt of seeing the world.
These travel memoirs are dedicated to Kody’s lust for travel. They are an invitation from the open road, from my nomadic life following in the footsteps of my grandfather, an old Irish sea dog who was knocked down the hold of a ship in Hamburg.
Together, I hope we can carry Kody's spirit to the places he longed to see.
I have dwelled in Seoul for a year, spellbound by a country often impenetrable to outsiders, and where the traumas of North Korea feel like a phantom over one’s shoulder. When the toxic dust sent east from Mongolian deserts and polluted Chinese cities finally dissolves, Seoul’s nightscape is startlingly revealed as one of the world’s great Gothic fantasies. Just a couple of hours from Russia’s Far East, like a dark tale from Anne Rice, countless neon-red crucifixes cloak the shrouded hills, all doubled in number by the broad waters of the oil-black Han River, which steals their reflection as a gift for the Yellow Sea, along with the whispered secrets of lovers along its banks. Seoul has more than its fair share of broken hearts. A lost romantic or a writer of Gothic horror might label the infinite glowing crosses as “beacons for restless spirits”, or “totems of the doomed loves of all ages”. South Korea currently has the planet's highest divorce rates, birthed by the best Internet broadband in the world. Clandestine affairs blossom in real-time, in every glassy office, stairwell, and dimly lit apartment.
Having lived in Singapore, Seoul’s seasonal apocalyptic smog is somewhat familiar, though its origin and the populace’s umbrella-clutching fear of its acid rain is not. In the tropical city-state of Singapore, poisonous haze particles pour into every lung from faraway forest fires in Sumatra, from man-made infernos nurtured to clear virgin rainforest for the curse of palm oil, and to profit corrupt politicians. Indonesia’s smoke billows across the sea, choking Singapore’s streets. When seams of underground Sumatran peat ignite like the furnaces of Hades, smoke escapes from under the earth’s skin, from cancerous incandescent tumours beyond all reach. Memories of the haze’s delicate burnt taste remind me of those people who claim to care for the forests (and the plight of orang-utans) yet paint their faces with green-washed palm oil products, or stack them in their grocery cupboards. Kody, I swear that sometimes I could see the Singapore haze in my living room, like a translucent wall of shifting ghosts. Perhaps the smoke highlighted forms that were always there, watching.
Last night, several hours after I pushed myself up from my Seoul office desk, the Twin Towers collapsed and the world changed. As usual. I’d walked out of the office, past the old lady selling spicy topokki rice dumplings, fish cakes, specially seasoned salt, and thin slivers of liver. She arrived at an agreed time, exchanging places with the people who sold my breakfast of seaweed-wrapped kimbap and omelette sandwiches. The light was beginning to fade as I hailed a cab for the Grand Hyatt Hotel.The hotel sits on the wooded slopes of Namsan which, along with Bukhansan and its Yosemite-like faces, is one of several mountains that rise in and around Seoul - places where Siberian tigers, Amur leopards, bears, and lynx prowled freely until not long ago. Crowned by the spire of Seoul Tower, Namsan once hosted a grand Shinto shrine (during the era of Japanese colonization), and is sliced through by car tunnels. In one tunnel, I prayed I’d emerge alive during hours of carbon monoxide suffocation on a Lunar New Year traffic gridlock. As tidal waves of people fled Seoul for the provinces, movements mirrored in nearby China and Japan, I hunkered down in the city.
Yesterday I noticed how the pink hibiscus, South Korea’s national flower, is blooming outside the hotel’s curved driveway and in nearby ornamental gardens. I wonder if it makes good tea, like the bags of dried blossoms I’d buy in Cairo. The Grand Hyatt’s fitness club membership costs twice my annual salary, but in some strange administrative twist or likely error, I have been lent a spare debenture. The hotel’s outdoor pool, interior gym, and jjimjiibang bathhouse and spa are currently the biggest luxuries of my life in Korea, especially before my apartment went up in flames, after which life itself seemed like a luxury.
After showering the day away, I took a hot bath before my swim, knowing that the swimming pool chill would feel electric. Apparently, regular cold water swims cause a beneficial “emergency” in the body, compelling it to dispose of damaged cells and grow newer healthy ones. Supposedly, the same is to be said for regular fasting.
No doubt, I was a bizarre sight in the opulent surroundings, a foreign twenty-six-year-old trainee executive lounging naked among the kings and princes of the Chaebol families that often ran the industrial conglomerates of Korea (companies like Hyundai, LG, SK Group, and Samsung) like their own private kingdoms. While male members of the nation’s power broking families emerged like Lazarus from scalding pools that could have boiled eggs (before dunking themselves in icy water), I pondered on my nine convoluted lives that had brought me, a boy from the Catholic ghetto of Belfast’s Falls Road, to float among the business titans of Korea. The parallel world of the new corporate version of me was still unfolding, months after a gem theft at Heathrow Airport had snuffed out my prior existence, and almost all of my hope. I felt seeds of germination, while wondering what my next life would be.
After the hypnosis of swimming laps, I drip-dried and gazed down the mountain, drinking in the city, whose lights twinkled in the waning streaks of sunset. I felt pangs of nostalgia, puzzlingly, in a place I’d never lived before, as if the sight had to be consciously imprinted within me. Perhaps for this letter, to you Kody. The raucous cicadas of summer had faded, aside from a few lonely stragglers, like the solitary glowworm I once found on the Old Hills outside Worcester, shining her futile cry for love in the long grass of a Neolithic burial ground. Also gone was the layer of huge dragonflies that preyed on the cicadas, their kind darting here and there across the entire sweltering city, twenty feet above ground. In the eerie stillness, I sensed a change, something unstoppable. More than a mere seasonal reminder of our mortality, what I felt was visceral, and vibrated in the air like the dragonflies’ wings. “Is it a storm,” I asked myself, though dark clouds were absent. Perhaps, an earthquake, though I knew Seoul was not plagued by the shaking earth of Japanese and Chinese cities.
Almost dry. I counted the many bridges along the Han River, which always made me question why London had so few. South Korea is still technically still at war with the North, so the country’s constant war footing is no empty drill. Bridges are wired with explosives, office towers are discretely crowned with anti-aircraft guns. The average cab driver could be a black belt in taekwondo, and can clean and load a rifle.
I started my bridge count at the one connecting my home ward of Oksu-dong to Gangnam (where I’d watched a Chinook helicopter crash just before the world cup). Then came the bridge where I’d received a telephone call from mum, in Worcester, before my house fire. As I stared down at the dark water, she told me that her cancer had returned and that my sister would be nursing her.
I saw the bridge that had replaced another, after a fatal collapse. Tragic fateful stories of those who’d run to catch the bridge’s last departing bus lived on as urban legends among my Korean work colleagues. The country’s breakneck industrialisation, from the cinders of war, had cursed it with a string of infrastructure disasters. In Seoul, it seemed like everyone had lost family members to such circumstances, including me, due to my grandfather being knocked down the hold of a ship in Hamburg. And there was that American lady in Singapore, who I met at a charity committee. In Jakarta airport she had caused a huge fuss to board a delayed flight, only for the pilot to plunge it into a swamp. My nine lives leading to the Grand Hyatt in Seoul had included several aviation near misses, including an exploding engine on an overloaded night flight, during a blizzard over Lake Tahoe.
In the locker room, I slipped on my office clothes and tested my Korean by eavesdropping on a gaggle of Chaebol executives in dressing downs, as they ordered beef bulgogi.
Outside, in the mild and mysteriously pulsating evening air, gravity tugged me downhill, past the walls of posh houses that looked like the ones in the movie Parasite. Still sensing a strangeness, I cut across the main drag of Itaewon, the entertainment district that had manifested next to the large Yong-san American army base. Passing Hooker Hill and Homo Hill (which would be blamed for one of Korea’s CoronaVirus surges) I headed further down into the warren of Yongsan-gu’s streets, under tangles of overhead cables and past lines of thin juvenile ginkgo trees.
Halfway home, I bounded up several floors of a narrow concrete staircase, to one of Seoul’s ubiquitous windowless Internet cafes and gaming centres. Known as a PC- bang in Korea, the stale air was scented with dried squid and varieties of instant ramen noodles, customised with melted cheese and a dollop of cabbage kimchi. The only glare of light, ultraviolet, emanated from the cashiers’ desk, where a husband and wife team worked 24-hours a day, endlessly scurrying between four rows of computer terminals with menus and trays of sustenance. I don’t remember the name of that favourite PC-bang, but at least once a week I was one of the faces spectrally illuminated by a computer screen. Around me, an entire subculture of gamers fought with and against each other, or for Korea’s glory online. Some were dropouts from society, training to reappear, invincible in the game they had devoted their lives to. Reports of gamers dying in their seats, having neglected sleep, were not uncommon. In the PC-bangs anything could happen, and did.
I was mentally preparing for my uphill walk to Oksu-dong, when somebody interrupted an online chatroom with news that a jet had flown into one of the World Trade Centre towers. I imagined a Cessna or a light aircraft, probably in fog, and wondered if it was the same tower that I’d scaled with my sister, during an early visit to New York, long before I lived there. The battle sounds of World of Warcraft filled the PC-bang as gamers carried on, uninterrupted. East Asia getting ready for bed, unaware of the horrors unfolding in Manhattan and Washington D.C. (where I’d see the damage to the Pentagon with my own eyes weeks later), and on a plane over Pennsylvania. It was only when I arrived home, in my apartment-cum-art studio, that my phone started to ring and the television was turned on. The first tower soon fell. The change that I’d sensed in the forewarning tranquility of the earlier evening had struck unimaginably, and would claim or impoverish the lives of millions. Immediately, all my U.S. military friends were curfewed and forbidden to leave nearby Yong-san base, and across the Korean peninsula.
Several months later, on Namsan mountain road to the Grand Hyatt Hotel, on the first of May, I would receive news of my grandmother’s passing in Belfast, which also halted an imminent visit from my parents. A few short months later, after I returned from the funeral, my Seoul apartment would burn and I would lose everything. To this day I try to believe a Buddhist taxi driver who told me that losing everything meant I was destined to be rich in many ways. As I often do, I felt that fate was inexorably pulling me back to the poverty of West Belfast and the low intensity civil war of “The Troubles”, from which I’d narrowly escaped as a child. Though irrelevant next to the scale of 9-11, the trauma of my house fire in Seoul stays with me, though two personal miracles connected to my deceased grandmother emerged from the ashes. Kody, they are contents for another letter.
DISCOVER THE ENTHRALLING BOOKS OF AUTHOR D. J. SWALES:
Don't miss the thrilling history and occult horror of the FITZMARBURY WITCHES SERIES
Be terrified by the short story, PARIS: A CURSE COMES TO THE CITY OF THE CATACOMBS
Immerse yourself in the bestselling darkness of MIDNIGHT'S TWIN: DARK POEMS PENNED IN MIDNIGHT HOURS
Be charmed by the feel-good magical realism of PEOPLE OF BLOOMSBURY