Hiking on the Spine of Korea, the Baekdu-Daegan Trail!

by David Mason, 23/08/2010

The world has around two dozen long-distance hiking-trails, including famous tracts like America’s Appalachian Trail and New Zealand’s Milford Track, and there is now a fresh addition to the list right here in South Korea - the Baekdu-daegan Trail. Exploring the Baekdu-daegan becomes a powerful discovery of this nation’s energetic Buddhist, Shamanistic, Confucian, Nationalist and Christian beliefs, which emanate their reverence from the hundreds of temples, shrines, doltap cairns, ancient and modern monuments, stone-carved buddhas, churches and altars that decorate the ridgeline, slopes and valleys.  The friendly Koreans you will meet along the way, including monks, shamans, farmers, herb-gatherers and fellow hikers, are eager to show you their culture and lifestyle and explain the significance of the sites.

The Baekdu-daegan or “White-head Great-ridge” is a 1400-km mountain-system that forms the backbone of the Korean Peninsula.  It starts on the peninsula’s highest feature and fount of mythology, Mt. Baekdu-san, which is a dormant volcano with a gigantic crater-lake that sits on the current border between China and North Korea.  From there the range-line runs south down the east coast of North Korea, becoming called the Taebaek (Grand White) Range, entering South Korea through the barb-wired frontier of the DMZ just north of Seorak-san National Park, and then staying close to the coast all the way down to mystic Taebaek-san on the border between Gangwon and North Gyeongsang Provinces.  It then turns west towards central South Korea, becoming called the Sobaek (Smaller White) Range, and when it reaches the middle of this nation it turns back south until it ends at South Korea’s highest mainland peak, the Cheonwang-bong of Jiri-san National Park.

This ridgeline is genuine in that it never crosses water, and is therefore the origin and disperser of all streams and rivers along the peninsula.   Assisting the Baekdu-daegan with water-management are fourteen subsidiary-ranges known as Jeong-maeks that channel all of Korea’s major rivers into its flanking seas. 

The Baekdu-daegan’s geographical territory therefore includes most of Korea’s highest peaks, many of which have been regarded as holy places since ancient times.  The sacred virtues of the mountains of Korea were historically recorded by early Korean scholars and Buddhists more than a thousand years ago, and the topography of this nation is recognised as a living entity consisting of mountains that provide the water that sustains our lives.

The idea of hiking along the crest-line of the Baekdu-daegan seems to have developed only as recently as the 1980s, as South Korea’s modern hiking-culture flourished.  It has become a very popular activity among the many public and private Sanak-hoi mountain-hiking associations, with strong patriotic overtones.  Most people seem to begin down at Jiri-san and hike northwards, both for keeping the sun generally behind you for better viewing and for the concept of trekking towards Mt. Baekdu, reluctantly stopping at the DMZ, in a gesture of desire for national reunification.  

Within South Korea there is now a trail, well-established and marked in some parts and still rather wild in others, extending for 735 kilometres.  It passes through seven national parks and four provincial parks, although some of its crest-line sections in the national parks have been temporarily closed for nature preservation concerns (alternative pathways can be used).   Some parts of this trail are quite difficult, repeatedly climbing up and down rough rocky peaks, but others feature gentler terrain with long winding ridges that anyone in good shape can enjoy. 

There are many Buddhist temples to be found on the slopes beneath trail, some of which are grand monasteries offering the popular Temple-Stay program.  This creates an opportunity to combine trekking with overnight stays learning about Korea’s Buddhist culture – a new kind of pilgrimage.

The best times of the year to walk on the Baekdu-daegan Trail are April through June and September through November – winters are too cold and snowy, while summers are too hot, humid and rainy for most people to endure.

Most of us don’t have the freedom or energy to do the whole thing at once in a grand two-month trek.  Fortunately, it’s easy to accomplish sections of it on weekends and holidays, and most of the Korean Baekdu-daegan hiking-associations are employing that strategy, their members committing to completing the great trail within about three years.  International residents can just enjoy hiking short parts of it, wherever interests them most.  Trailheads for entering and leaving the range-line are found at the many passes that national and provincial highways run over, easily accessible from the bus terminals or train stations of rural towns.

Guidebooks and maps in Korean are widely available, and the more popular sections of the trail enjoyed increasingly better signage in both Korean and English, often posted by the local governments or the Korea Forest Service.  There is now one detailed guidebook in English, written by my two partners with my assistance, and a website in English devoted to this mountain range and its trail.

For expats living in Korea, hiking in the Baekdu-daegan region offers some of the best opportunities to experience some of the best parts of the nation outside of the big cities, featuring some of its most-interesting cultural sites and nicest people.  It's also a very low-cost and health-promoting way to spend some of your free time.  You can experience amazing views, spiritual shrines, shy wildlife, colorful mountain-spirits, delicious hard earned meals, lofty peaks and waterfall-filled gorges all along the Baekdu-daegan long-distance trail.  And much still remains to be discovered out there.

David Mason is a long-time resident of Korea and the author of a number of books on Korean mountain-spirits and their shrines, Korea's sacred peaks and Mountain-worship traditions. Baekdu-daegan Traqil Guidebook (authors Roger Shepherd and Andrew Douch and contributing editor David A Mason) is available through his website.

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