CHAPTER III. The road to Seoul - The Mapu - Ponies - Oxen - Coolies - Currency - Mode of carrying weights - The Han River - Nearly locked out.

I left Chemulpo on January 2nd, but instead of making use of the minuscule ponies, I went on foot, sending my baggage on in advance on a pack-saddle on one of them. I was still suffering considerably from an accident I had sustained to my foot among the hairy folk of the Hokkaido, and I thought that the long walk would probably be beneficial to me, and would take away some of the stiffness which still remained in my ankle. At a short distance from the port I came to a steep incline of a few hundred yards, and crossing the hill-range which formed the background to Chemulpo as one looks at it from the sea, I soon descended on the other side, from which point the road was nearly level all the way to the capital. The road is not a bad one for Corea, but is, of course, only fit for riding upon; and would be found almost of impossible access to vehicles of any size. The Japanese had begun running jinrickshas, little carriages drawn by a man, between the capital and the settlements; but two, and even three men were necessary to convey carriage and passenger to his destination, and the amount of bumping and shaking on the uneven road was quite appalling.

These little carriages, as every one knows, generally convey only a single person, and are drawn by two men, who run in a tandem, while the third pushes the ricksha from the back, and is always ready at any emergency to prevent the vehicle from turning turtle. This mode of locomotion, however, was not likely to become popular among the Coreans, who, if carried at all, prefer to be carried either in a sedan-chair, an easy and comfortable way of going about, or else, should they be in a hurry and not wish to travel in grand style, on pony or donkey's back. Europeans, as a rule, like the latter mode of travelling best, as the Corean sedan-chairs are somewhat too short for the long-legged foreigner, and a journey of six or seven hours in a huddled-up position is occasionally apt to give one the cramp, especially as Western bones and limbs do not in general possess the pliability which characterises those composing the skeleton of our Eastern brothers.

The scenery along the road cannot be called beautiful, the country one goes through being barren and desolate, with the exception of a certain plantation of mulberry trees, a wretched speculation into which the infantile government of Cho-sen was driven by some foreigners, the object of which was to enrich Corea by the products of silk-worms, but which, of course, turned out a complete failure, and cost the Government much money and no end of worry instead. Here and there a small patch might be seen cultivated as kitchen garden near a hut, but with that exception the ground was hardly cultivated at all; this monotony of landscape, however, was somewhat relieved by the distant hills covered with maples, chestnuts and firs, now unfortunately for the most part deprived of their leaves and covered with snow, it being the coldest time of the year in Corea.

The mile-posts on the high roads of Cho-sen are rather quaint, and should you happen to see one for the first time at night the inevitable result must be nightmare the moment you fall asleep. They consist of a wooden post about eight feet in length, on the upper end of which a long ghastly face is rudely carved out of the wood and painted white and red; the eyes are black and staring, and the mouth, the chief feature of the mask, is of enormous size, opened, showing two fine rows of pointed teeth, which might hold their own with those of the sharks of the Torres Strait, of world-wide reputation. A triangular wedge of wood on each side of the head represents the ears. The directions, number of miles, &c, are written directly under the head, and the writing being in Chinese characters, runs from up to down and from right to left.

It was pretty along the road to see the numerous little ponies, infinitely smaller than any Shetlands, carrying big fellows, towering with their padded clothes above enormous saddles, and supported on either side by a servant, while another man, the Mapu, led the steed by hand. The ponies are so very small that even the Coreans, who are by no means tall people, their average height being about 5 ft. 4 in., cannot ride them unless a high saddle is provided, for without these the rather troublesome process of dragging one's feet on the ground would have to be endured.

This high saddle, which elevates you some twenty inches above the pony's back, naturally involves a certain amount of instability to the person who is mounted, the balancing abilities one has to bring out on such occasions being of no ordinary degree. The Corean gentleman, who is dignified to an extreme degree, and would not for the world run the risk of being seen rolling in the mud or struggling between the pony's little legs, wisely provides for the emergency by ordering two of his servants to walk by his side and hold him by the arms and the waist, as long as the journey lasts, while the Mapu, one of the stock features of Corean everyday life, looks well after the pony and leads him by the head as one might a big Newfoundland dog. The Mapu in Corea occupies about the same position as Figaro in the "Barber of Seville." While leading your pony he takes the keenest interest in your affairs, and thinks it his business to talk to you on every possible subject that his brain chooses to suggest, abusing all and everybody that he thinks you dislike and praising up what he fancies you cherish, that he may perhaps have a few extra cash at the end of the journey, which he will immediately go and lose in gambling. He speaks of politics as if he were the axis of the political world, and will criticise the magistracy, the noble, and the king if he is under the impression that you are only a merchant, while evil words enough would be at his command to represent the meanness and bad manners of the commercial classes, if his pony is honoured by being sat upon by a nobleman! Such is the world even in Cho-sen. The Mapu will sing to you, and crack jokes, and again will swear at you and your servants, and at nearly every Mapu that goes by. The greater the gentleman his beast is carrying, the more quarrelsome is he with everybody. The road, wide though it be, seems to belong solely to him. He is in constant trouble with citizens and the police, and it is generally on account of his insignificance, poverty, and ignorance that so many of his evil doings and wrongs are forgiven. None the less it must be said for them that they take fairly good care of their minuscule quadrupeds. They feed them, usually three times a day, with boiled chopped straw and beans, and grass in summer-time, and with this diet you see the little brutes, which are only about 10 hands high, and even less sometimes, go twenty-five or thirty miles a day quite easily, with a weight of a couple of hundred pounds on their backs, quickly toddling along without stopping, unless it be to administer a sound kick to some bystander or to bite the legs of the rider. These ponies have a funny little way of getting from under you, if you ride them with an English saddle. They bend their legs till they see you firmly planted on the ground, and then quickly withdraw backwards leaving you, with your legs wide apart and standing like a fool, to meditate on equine wickedness in the Realm of the Morning Calm. They are indeed the trickiest little devils for their size I have ever seen; and for viciousness and love of fighting, I can recommend you to no steed more capable of showing these qualities. The average price of an animal as above described varies from the large sum of five shillings to as much as thirty shillings (at the rate of two shillings per Mexican dollar), the price of course varying, as with us, according to the breed, age, training, condition, &c., of the animal.

These ponies are much used all over the kingdom, for good roads for wheel traffic hardly exist in the country, and wide horse-tracks form practically the whole means of communication between the capital and the most important ports and cities in the different provinces of Corea. They are used both for riding purposes and as pack-ponies, "for light articles only," like the racks in our railway carriages, but when heavy loads are to be conveyed from one place to another, especially over long distances, the frail pony is discarded and replaced by the sturdy ox. These horned carriers are pretty much of a size, and fashioned, so far as I could see, after the style of our oxen, except that they are apparently leaner by nature, and almost always black or very dark grey in colour; their horns, however, are rather short. They carry huge weights on a wooden angular saddle which is planted on their backs, and a Mapu invariably accompanies each animal when loaded; indeed, in the case of the ponies the man even carries on his own back the food both for himself and for his beast, the latter generally having the precedence in eating his share. The sleeping accommodation also is, as a rule, amicably divided between quadruped and biped, and, taken all round, it cannot be said that either is any the worse for their brotherly relations. I firmly believe that the Mapus are infinitely better-natured towards their animals than towards their wives or their children, who, as you will find by-and-by, are often cruelly ill-treated.

But let us now continue our journey towards Seoul. Here several coolies are to be seen approaching us, carrying heavy loads on their backs. A man of a higher position follows them. And, strange circumstance! they are carrying money. Yes; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight - yes, actually eight men, bent under heavy loads of coins. Your first idea, I suppose, will be that these men are carrying a whole fortune - but, oh dear! no. You must know that the currency in Corea is entirely brass, and these brass coins, which go by the name of cash are round coins about the size of a halfpenny, with a square hole in the centre, by which they are strung together, generally a hundred at a time. There are usually as many as two thousand to two thousand eight hundred cash to a Mexican dollar, the equivalent of which is at present about two shillings; you can, therefore, easily imagine what the weight of one's purse is if it contains even so small a sum as a pennyworth in Corean currency. Should you, however, be under an obligation to pay a sum of, say, L10 or L20, the hire of two oxen or six or eight coolies becomes an absolute necessity, for a sum which takes no room in one's letter-case if in Bank of England notes, occupies a roomful of hard and heavy metal in the country of the Morning Calm. Great trouble has been and is continually experienced in the kingdom owing to the lack of gold and silver coins; but to the Corean mind to make coins out of gold and to let them go out of the country amounts to the same thing as willingly trying to impoverish the fatherland of the treasures it possesses; wherefore, although rich gold-mines are to be found in Cho-sen, coins of the precious metal are not struck for the above-mentioned reason.

So much for Corean political economy. The coins used are of different sizes and value. They range, if I remember right, from two cash to five, and an examination of a handful of them will reveal the fact that they have been struck off at different epochs. There is the so-called current treasure coin of Cho-sen, one of the more modern kinds, as well as the older coin of Korai, the Ko-ka; while another coin, which seems to have been struck off in the Eastern provinces, is probably as old as any of these, and is still occasionally found in use. The coins, as I have said, are strung together by the hundred on a straw rope; a knot is tied when this number is reached, when another hundred is passed through, and so on, until several thousands are sometimes strung to one string. As curious as this precious load itself was the way in which it was carried. It is, in fact, the national way which all Corean coolies have adopted for conveying heavy weights, and it seems to answer well, for I have often seen men of no very abnormal physique carry a burden that would make nine out of ten ordinary men collapse under its heavy mass. The principle is much the same as that used by the porters in Switzerland, and also in some parts of Holland, if I am not mistaken. A triangular wooden frame rests on the man's back by means of two straps or ropes passed over the shoulders and round the arms. From this frame project two sticks, about 35 inches in length, on which the weight rests, and by bending the body at a lower or higher angle, according to the height or pressure of the load, a perfect balance is obtained, and the effort of the carrier considerably diminished. For heavy loads like wood, for instance, the process of loading is curious. The frame is set upon the ground, and made to remain in position by being inclined at an angle of about 45 deg. against a stick forked at the upper end, with which every coolie is provided. When in this position, the cargo is put on and tied with a rope if necessary; then, the stick being carefully removed, squatting down gently so as not to disturb the position of the load, the coolie quickly passes his arms through the straps and thus slings the thing on to the back, the stick being now used as a help to the man to rise by instalments from his difficult position without collapsing or coming to grief. Once standing, he is all right, and it is wonderful what an amount of endurance and muscular strength the beggars have, for they will carry these enormous loads for miles and miles without showing the slightest sign of fatigue. They toddle along quickly, taking remarkably short steps, and resting every now and then on their forked stick, upon the upper end of which they lay their hands, forcing it against the chest and the ground, and so making it a sort of point d'appui.

Just a word as to the coolie's moral qualities. He much resembles in this the Neapolitan lazzarone - in fact, I do not know of any other individual in Eastern Asia that is such a worthy rival of the Italian macaroni-eater. The coolie will work hard when hungry, and he will do his work well, but the moment he is paid off the chances are that, like his confrere on the Gulf of Naples, he will at once go and drink a good part of what he has received; then, in a state of intoxication, he will gamble the next half; and after that he will go to sleep for twenty-four hours on a stretch, and remain the next twelve squatting on the ground, basking in the sun by the side of his carrying-machine, pondering, still half asleep, on his foolishness, and seeking for fresh orders from passers-by who may require the services of a human beast of burden. Then you may see them in a row near the road-side drinking huts, either smoking their pipes, which are nearly three feet in length, or if not in the act of smoking, with the pipe stuck down their neck into the coat and down into the trousers, in immediate contact with the skin.

Going along at a good pace I reached the half-way house, a characteristically Corean building, formerly used as an inn, and now being rented by a Japanese. Having entertained myself to tea and a few items of solid food, I proceeded on my pedestrian journey towards the capital. And now, as I gradually approached the river Han, more attention seemed to be given to the cultivation of the country. The staple product of cereals here is mainly buckwheat, beans and millet, a few rice-fields also being found nearer the water-side. Finally, having arrived at the river-side, after shouting for half an hour to the ferry boatman to come and pick me up, I in due course landed on the other side. The river Han makes a most wonderful detour between its estuary and this point. As the river was left behind, more habitations in the shape of miserable and filthy mud-huts, with thatched roofs, became visible; shops of eatables and native low drinking places following one another in continuation; and crowds of ponies, people, and oxen showed that the capital was now being fast neared; and sure enough, after winding along the dirty, narrow road, lined by the still dirtier mud huts for nearly the whole of the distance between Mafu, the place where the Han river was ferried, and here, a distance of about three miles, I found myself at last in front of the West Gate of the walled city of Seoul.

I could hear quite plainly in the distance, from the centre of the town, the slow sound of a bell; and men, women and children, on foot or riding, were scrambling through the gate in both directions. As I stopped for a moment to gaze upon the excited crowd, it suddenly flashed across my mind that I had been told at Chemulpo, that to the mournful sound of what is called the "Big bell" the heavy wooden gates lined with iron bars were closed, and that no one was thereafter allowed to enter or go out of the town. The sun was just casting his last glorious rays on the horizon, and the excitement grew greater as the strokes of the bell became fainter and fainter, and with the mad crowd of men and beasts mixed together upon it, the road might be compared with the tide entering the mouth of a running river. I threw myself into the thick of the in-going flow, and with my feet trampled upon by passing ponies; now knocking against a human being, now face to face with a bull, I finally managed to get inside. Well do I remember the hoarse voices of the gate-keepers, as they shouted out that time was up, and hurried the weary travellers within the precincts of the royal city; well also do I recollect, as I stood watching their doings from the inside, how they pushed back and ill-treated, with words and kicks, the last people who passed through, and then, out of patience, revolved the heavy gates on their huge and rusty hinges, finally closing the city until sunrise next day. Shouts of people, just too late, on the other side, begging to be let in, remained unacknowledged, and the enormous padlocks and bolts having been thoroughly fastened, Seoul was severed from the outer world till the following morning. Adjoining the gate stood the gatekeeper's house, and in front of the door of this, a rack with a few rusty and obsolete spears standing in a row, was left to take care of the town and its inhabitants, while the guardians, having finished the work of the day, retreated to the warm room inside to resume the game or gambling which the setting sun had interrupted, and which had occupied their day. With the setting of the sun every noise ceased. Every good citizen retired to his home, and I, too, therefore, deemed it advisable to follow suit.

There are no hotels in Seoul, with the exception of the very dirty Corean inns; but I was fortunate enough to meet at Chemulpo a Russian gentleman who, with his family, lived in Seoul, where he was employed as architect to His Majesty the King of Corea, and he most politely invited me to stay at his house for a few days; and it is to his kind hospitality, therefore, that I owe the fact that my first few nights at Seoul were spent comfortably and my days were well employed, my peregrinations round the town being also conducted under his guidance.