I am a long way from home, standing at the summit of Cheonwangbong (1915m), the highest mountain on the mainland of South Korea. Home is Oslo, the capital of Norway, and I have travelled far to get to the starting point of the Baekdudaegan. The mythical ridge that forms the watershed and the spiritual backbone of Korea and home to the long-distance trail of the same name. With no skills in the Korean language, I have a daunting task ahead of me.
For the next seven weeks, I will walk about 735 kilometres across South Korea to the pass of Jinburyeong. From there I can go no further, but the mountain ridge however, does not care for human borders. The White Head Great Ridge runs unbroken through the Korean Peninsula, all the way up to the sacred mountain of Baekdusan (2744m), situated at the border between North Korea and China. The Baekdudaegan is a spiritual heritage for the Koreans; so spiritual that according to legend, the Japanese drove spikes into the ridge to destroy its spirit under their invasions of Korea.
Clouds surrounds the Heavenly King Peak. Guided by the ropes and fences of Jirisan National Park, I take the first steps on a journey that will lead me to the heart of the Korean people. I spend the first night on the trail at the Seseok shelter. I pay 8.000 won and in return, I receive a small space on a hard wooden platform. The night is hot and the dormitory is vibrant with snoring, sleepless in Jirisan. The clouds however, does not sleep through the night, they move on, leaving behind a ridge of emerald beauty the morning after. My adventure is off to a beautiful start.
The first days on the trail, is a hard lesson in Korean topography. The mountains here are not extremely high, but they are always undulating and are at times exceedingly steep. It is as the lifeforce, called gi, from Baekdusan flows like waves through Korea, and the trail negotiates them head on. One week of walking and I am already wondering if I am going to make it to the finish line, stumbling tired up to the summit of Baegunsan. The morning after, I crawl out of my tent to a beautiful sunrise. With thin layer of clouds floating like ethereal rivers through the valleys below, and in the horizon the mighty peak of Cheonwangbong. That is the spirit of Baekdudaegan and the price of beauty, for the Baekdudaegan will reward you for your hardship.
Nights on the trail is mostly spent in my tent or at what the Koreans call minbak, which most closely translates as homestay, but my most haunting nights are spent in a jeongja. These are pavilions, often very ornamented, which you are allowed to sleep in once other visitors has left. After walking for two days through the beauty of Deogyusan National Park, I arrive at Bbaejae, where I sleep in the breath of clean air under the protective roof of the jeongja there. Only to be awakened up at two o’clock in the middle of the night by a bus loading off a huge group of hikers, the Bone Pass is soon teeming with headlights and voices in the dark.
Such is often the way Koreans hike in the mountains, I meet them in both small and large groups, hiking or sitting down eating large quantities of food. Each time trying to get the formal greeting of ‘annyŏng haseyo’ pronounced correct. The meeting with the Koreans on the trail also gives me huge reasons to practice saying thanks correctly, ‘kamsahamnida’. For the hospitability I meet on the trail is a source of constant wonder. Often I am invited to sit down with them, where they eagerly share their food and drink with me, even though we do not speak each other’s languages. Other times I receive small gifts like apples and grapes, to the occasional chocolate bar pushed shyly into my hand.
At Keunjae, I arrive to the sound of children laughing; there is a kindergarden from Gimcheon there visiting the educational centre about nature and Korean culture for children at the pass. I meet Mr. Cho Byeongsam, one of the teachers at the kindergarden. We talk about me doing the Baekdudaegan and the temple of Jikjisa. Just two days earlier, I stood atop Mt. Hwangaksan looking down upon the temple grounds, with an urge to climb down to it. Then the amazing thing happens, Mr. Cho is inviting me to Gimcheon with the kindergarden, from where he and his wife, Baek Seung Hee, are driving me to the beautiful temple. What a fantastic twist of fate. Afterwards we eat dinner at a local restaurant nearby the temple, before they drive me back to a motel near Keunjae. Such a tale brought me joy on the walk, and it did not take long before I was looking forward to the next encounter with the Korean people. Just as much as I was looking forward to the next magic moment on the Baekdudaegan.
I walk through the mesmerizing Songnisan National Park, going through fields of boulders where I have either to push or drag my backpack behind me. The descent from Daeyasan may be the most notorious single section of the Baekdudaegan, where you climb down from the summit on what is called the ‘100-meter rope’. It is a fun ride, but caution should be taken.
Outside the confines of the national parks, I follow the fluttering ribbons for guidance of where the trail goes. It is an interesting aspect of hiking here in Korea that it is the hikers themselves that are marking where the trail goes. Each ribbon carries a personal mark of the hiker, and you find them in almost all the colours of the rainbow. As I progress on the trail, I start to recognize the different ribbons, and wonders who the hiker beyond each ribbon is. Though I have to be careful following the correct ribbons, I look closely for the 백두대간 Hangeul characters denoting the Baekdudaegan. At some ancient fortress walls below Huiyangsan, I follow the wrong ribbons downwards for a long time before I become aware of my mistake, resulting in a strenuous return to the ridge.
It takes three weeks before I get a taste of bad weather, but when it comes, it comes with a vengeance. I walk the exposed and funky ridge of Mungyeong Saejae between Ihwaryeong and Joryeong in a typhoon. Rain lashes down on me ceaselessly, as I negotiates the trail using ropes up and down huge boulders. I get soaking wet, including my boots, as the water runs down the ropes and onto my arms, and so forth made its way under my raingear. The day after was designated my first rest day.
The Baekdudaegan is a hard walk and I feel constantly tired, but for all its tribulations, it is a rewarding rollercoaster ride. Walking through the azalea gardens of Sobaeksan National Park, which will bloom pink in the spring. Visiting the mighty temple of Buseoksa. Sitting on top of Seokbyeongsan, watching a verdant wonderland in the setting sun. Waking up early to catch the rise of the morning sun from the summit of Noinbong.
A thunderclap salutes my entry into Seoraksan National Park with its jagged peaks and towering cliffs on the 43rd day of walking. It is raining and low clouds, with no visibility. It is a haunting walk of mysterious beauty in the beginning; through the clouds, I can see the torn landscape. Another hiker rescues the raincoat of my backpack and we keep company to the shelter of Jungcheong and the summit of Dacheonbong. Arriving at the peak, the weather has lifted and the immense beauty of Seoraksan is unveiled. I stand looking at the famous rock of Ulsanbawi, the dinosaur spine of Gongryong Neungseon, Sokcho and the East Sea. Magic. In the evening, I sit between the spines of the dinosaur and watch the lights from the squid boats out on the sea.
Then I stumble tired down past the ghost resort below Masanbong. My sore and weary feet aches as the last few steps are taken; I can see the stele at Jinburyeong, the finishing line. I stumble out of the forest, past the last of the fluttering ribbons.
Turning around, I can look back at 45 beautiful, but hard days on the Baekdudaegan in South Korea. Looking back at great moments in the mountains and nature, but most of all, looking back at the meeting with the Korean people. In the end, I feel that the spiritual backbone is not the ridge itself, but the people that inhabits the land on and around it.
You can read the whole story at: http://tarjeinskrede.blogspot.no/p/baekdudaegan.html.
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Tarjei Næss Skrede, born in 1976, works as an IT Consultant at Bouvet in Oslo, Norway. He has for a long time been interested in outdoors activities and in recent years, he has grown a big interest in long distance trails. In 2013, he crossed the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean on the GR10, after which he set sight on a far more exotic trail, the Baekdudaegan of South Korea.
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