I am in Korea to investigate ancient pottery sites where single-stone porcelain has been made and/or mined and made. These days it is most common that the stone is mined some way out-of-town and then transported to the crushing/processing plants closer to the pottery making areas. Many of the oldest sites are now sterilised by the expansion of the residential areas that grew up around the quarry/mines to support them while they were being developed and then expanded into them.
I am up in the North East mountains of Korea with two potter/colleagues and we are looking for an old mine site for porcelain stone and glaze stone. This mine is well-known, but as a name only. Of all the potters that I spoke to in Yeo Ju, the specialist, pottery making town, located a couple of hours East of Seoul. No one there had ever been to this mine, or even knew of anyone who had. It existed to them as a mythical kind of place, a long way away and high up in the mountains. It’s synonymous with Rampant BB in Australia. Every potter had a bag of it, but no-one had ever been there to check it out.
No-one actually had an address or directions of how to find it either. When I set off on this sojourn with Miss Kang, my driver. We were only going for a couple of days. Well she was anyway. I was going to stay on at the porcelain centre and enjoy their hospitality and work for a while, but all that collapsed like a quantum wave-form calculation when I got there and looked for a result. It seems that I can know the location of the centre, but not the duration of my stay, or I can know the precise length of a stay, without any guarantee of a location. Ah! The duality of light has nothing on this! Damn Schroedinger! Like any sub-atomic particle. I was only ever there in theory! So much for the ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ of short term, impromptu travel.
As our road trip has developed – organically into this week-long, Kerouac-esque, Dharma bum style, endless travail from one pottery site to another. We have adapted as we have had too. I am perfectly OK with this, as I packed my small, red, back-pack with 5 days worth of undies, 4 T shirts, 2 pairs of shorts, one for clay and another for clean etc. But as for these other beat-potters travelling with me, as we enter day 4. It is Miss Kang who proves to be the most resourceful and creative, impromptu traveller. Managing to cope so well with this extended expedition with so little notice.
We make our way along some pretty rough country roads heading ever higher. We eventually end up on a track that rises sharply and winds around the side of the mountain. It ends up being just 2 tyre tracks composed of a melange of concrete, bitumen, gravel and then patches of the same, randomly and very haphazardly applied to keep it navigable. It is definitely only a one way track. I certainly hope that we don’t meet anything like a fully laden 10 tonne truck coming down!
Miss Kang navigates the pot holes and ditches skilfully, always keeping up the revs and our speed to give us the momentum to get to the top. Suddenly we broach a small rise and pop out into a quarry. A very wet and slippery quarry. As it has been raining all night and is still sprinkling with a light shower even now. The air is bracing and crisp. It smells of earth and clay and moisture, with just a hint of diesel exhaust. Our breath condenses as steam as we talk.
There are a couple of other cars up here. A processing plant straight ahead. Piles of bulker bags stacked 3 high on one side, full of product, ready for delivery. A tip-truck on the other. Over to one side there is what we would call in Australia a ‘donger’. A shipping container, that has been converted into an office. We walk over to the ‘office’ as a small thin older man comes out. He has a weathered, but kind, enquiring face.
Miss Kang introduces us. She has already spoken to him on the phone and he is expecting us. Inside we are gestured to sit down on the bare floor, which is always a challenge for me. I don’t sit well cross-legged. I’m given a special seat against the wall, so I can lean back and spread my legs out under the low table. A well-worn lady dressed in work clothes comes in and attends to a sauce pan, wok and a pressure cooker that are busy chattering, hissing and steaming away on the stove in the corner. We are all presented with a mug of hot, sweet, thick, milky coffee. It just couldn’t be a better gift to welcome us in. Thankfully, the office-donger-container has a heated floor, which is very cosy.
A brisk conversation ensues, all of which is opaque to me. As it is in rather fast Korean. But I can tell that the tone is cherrie and light-hearted, with occasional laughter. Apparently this guy has a very dry sense of humour. Eventually, I get a quick version of events from Miss Kang and am asked the question, “What do you want?”.
I ask her to tell him that I’d like to see the best grade of porcelain stone that he has. He says that he has sold out of his best material. His wife, (I’m assuming that it is his wife) But couldn’t be more wrong on this occasion. The lady doing the washing out the back and cooking lunch in here, making our coffee and generally being all things to all people is, as it turns out. The Vice-President of the company (or is this just another one of his jokes?) and the best geologist on site, it is she who directs the mining and knows all the twists and turns of the best seams.
I ask how many people work here? And am told that there is one guy who drives all the diggers and machinery, another who drives the tip truck for deliveries. Then there is the engineer who keeps the crushing and screen plant operating. And then, he says. There is me. I am sometimes allowed to press the button!
It turns out that he is a retired professor from the university. He has taken on this job to keep occupied in his retirement. Miss Kang and Jaeyong explain my quest to him and he smiles attentively. So completely different from our experience earlier in the week. He smiles a lot and nods. I feel that this is all going to end well.
While we have been talking, the NOT Mrs miner, but rather, Vice-President lady has been out and comes in with 2 bags of samples of their very best white material. She knows where there is a little stash kept aside. I’m very grateful. The conversation turns to the topic of who is allowed to own this precious stuff and is there really a ban on it leaving the country. He nods. My memory of the translation of what transpired goes as follows;
There is a ban on selling porcelain stone for export. It isn’t supposed to leave the country. There is some sensitivity about Korean resources being plundered in the past. As Mr Manager understands it. It is a commercial thing. The sort of thing that involves tonnes of stone. He sees no problem with a small sample like this being given to an academic for artistic/research purposes. Shouldn’t be any problem. He smiles a big broad smile…..
But it’s perhaps best if you don’t mention my name. He adds! so, I don’t.
Anyway, I already have a legitimate sample from the clay manufacturing plant.
Mr Manager and Mrs Vice-President are a lovely couple. I feel really welcomed and secure in their under-floor heated donger office. This is honest, generous council. I appreciate it.
I really appreciate it!
We all go outside into the cold and drizzle. I’d really like to go down to the quarry face for a look, but it is a quarter-mile away, and down a precipitous, wet, seeping, slope. We climb up onto the stack of bulker bags to get a look down onto the working face. It is only just visible through the trees. I’d rather not walk down there in this weather. I pass.
There is still one more place to go up North here. Way up North! Right on the DMZ. We have made enquiries. At least my amazing Miss Kang has. She has it all sorted on my behalf. I was told last week at a potters meeting back in Yeo Ju, that the place up North is quite isolated. It is the place where all the Royal Patronage Porcelain was made from the 1400’s onwards. Quite unlike the southern site that only made peasant/farmer domestic wares.
I was told that the regime there is even more strict than that down South. I’m told that nothing can leave the premises. Let alone the country. If we are allowed in to look, and If we learn any of their secrets, then they will probably have to kill us!
Nobody in the meeting has actually been there. Certainly nobody has ever returned, it has a huge and scary reputation. I can’t say that I wasn’t told this time! I’m in the NO!
We have experienced the Southern Humiliations, we have survived the fire-swamp and I don’t believe in Rodents of Unusual Size. What’s keeping us? We can drive up there to the North from here in a few hours. We can call in, have a look, They can say NO! And then we can leave. They can only say No! So many times, I’m getting used to it. We will still have time to drive back home again to Yeo Ju by midnight.
We have enough fuel. Lets give it a try!
We say our good-byes and so many thank-yous. They wave and we leave, with our ultra-white sample of single-stone contraband. Mr. Jaeyong has other business to attend to locally, so won’t be coming with us. He really wants to, but will follow if he can, only after he can complete his pressing business.
Into the unkNOwn!
Best wishes from Steve in Korea