As I wrote in our last update (find it here) we returned to the magnificent Baekdu Daegan, literally meaning “White-head Great Ridge” with 4 days of hiking in Jirisan National Park and 7 days north of the park, including traversing Deogyu-san National Park.
The Baekdu Daegan Mountain Range
While the Baekdu Daegan is not a particularly high mountain range – most certainly not compared to the Himalayas and the Andes – it is characterized by steep trails leading across most of Korea’s highest peaks and many sacred mountains.
Only once did we follow a waterway, when hiking up to Korea’s highest peak on the mainland, in Jirisan Park (Cheonwangbong). Fortunately, we did come across a number of water sources where we could fill our Platypus water bags, which quickly ran dry in daily increasing temperatures. In fact the sources of Korea’s main rivers are all along the Baekdu Daegan.
Here’s an interesting observation. The Koreans are dressed to a tee from sturdy hiking boots to fancy outdoor clothing including gloves and hats, and are equipped with proper walking sticks, backpacks that carry smaller, insulated bags to keep food fresh (oh, the bliss when we passed a group of picnicking hikers who offered us a chunk of ice-cold water melon!). The odd one here is carrying water. No Camelbak or Platypus, but those cheap water bottles from the supermarket (and thus creating and carrying lots of waste).
It’s not that they only drink bottled water; we see them fill up at water sources. We haven’t unraveled this mystery in their gear yet. The Koreans we show our Platypus are immediately interested though, so there is hope.
Korea’s Beautiful People
I had read the magic phrase, “Baegdu Daegan provides”, in blog posts and our guidebook (Baekdu Daegan Trail: Hiking Korea’s Mountain Spine, find the beautiful, colorful and inspiring book here, a new one will be published in the autumn of 2017) and we found this to be true. Not only when in need of water did we come across a water source, the hospitality of Koreans living on or near the trail continuously amazed us:
Jun Young and Baek, who live on the Gwaebang-ryeong (ryeong = pass), allowed us to leave our Land Cruiser on their terrain for the duration of our hike. On our return welcomed us with meals and offered us to use their shower and washing machine.
Bang Sam Sun, in Yeowon-jae, gave us cucumbers and capsicums, which provided a welcome fresh bite to our otherwise boring Ramen noodle soups.
When the owner of a small restaurant near Saemogi-jae noticed I had one good walking stick but also walked with a branch stick (found in the forest on a particularly slippery stretch). She took the latter, threw it away, and give me a proper one. It was most likely left behind by another hiker but still good and very helpful for the days ahead.
The owner of a restaurant just near the entrance of Deogyu-san National Park let us use his shower and gave us kimchi and cucumber salad to go with our evening meal of noodles that we cooked in the jeongja next to the parking lot.
On one of our last days, when I was utterly exhausted, Sun Eh Kang and her son Dong Jin Paik took us in. They fed us great meals in their restaurant, allowed us to camp on their premises and – oh bliss after a week on the trail in 30+ degrees Celsius – a shower!
Another interesting observation is on showers – another enigma, really. Some Koreans don’t have an actual shower but will ladle water out of a bucket to rinse with. This is common in other Asian countries as well.
But here, some bathrooms do have a shower head most don’t have a holder on the wall (even though the bathroom may be big enough). As a result you have to hold the shower head above your head. On one occassion there was a holder but if I turned on the shower it would spray water on the mirror, the sink, the toilet and shelf with toiletries; there was no space for me to actually stand underneath it. Any Korean who can shed a light on this way of showering?
We met few other hikers, but when we did we exchanged a couple of words or shared a cup of coffee. All moments of interaction – no matter how short, often due to not sharing the language – contributed to a deeper understanding of the Korean culture and appreciating this country more and more.
In places people allowed us to set up our tent under jeongjas – a traditionally styled pavilion (some with open sides, some with floor-to-ceiling window panes) where often the village elderly meet to chat and gossip. We greatly appreciated this gesture as our tent is no longer waterproof and we were hiking in the rainy season (great timing, as usual…).
We were lucky: on the one day of continuous rain we had waken up in a jeongja. Instead of getting soaked we sat warm and dry while reading each other parts of the inspiring story of Glen Heggstad’s world trip on his motorcycle, chronicled in One More Day Everywhere (find it here).
Obstacles are what we see when we lose sight of our goals.
Magic of Baegdu Daegan
Apart from people, views and nature continuously brought smiles on our faces.
We had a ‘raspberry day’ where we stumbled on bush after bush full with sweet, little raspberries. They helped us climb the tough and steep trail to Gonam-san.
One a couple of days our attention was constantly drawn to an incredible variety of mushrooms in all sizes and colors. It was stunning! When hiking you are – at one point in time – bound to dream about food, and, as a result, we spotted mushrooms reminiscent of a type of crusty Dutch bread (tijgerbol), or of Coen’s perfect crème brulée, or in the shape and color of French galettes (type of pancake).
Oh, and did I mention the mind-blowing views?
Hard Work on the Trail
Clearly we had more than enough distractions from the actual walking, from putting of one foot in front of the other. We stopped often, and Coen took many photos. We thoroughly loved being here, far from the digital and ‘civilized’ world, hidden in forest, enveloped by silence, the twittering of birds and humming of bees and dragonflies (blissfully few mosquitoes).
Yet there was no denying. The hiking was tough. We constantly needed to focus on where to put our feet and walking sticks, concentrating on how to best balance our bodies to scramble across boulders or get down slippery trails. Either the trails were steep and/or we had to hack our way through thick, entangled overgrowth – the latter drove me utterly nuts!
We had to work hard for each kilometer. While we were lucky to have very little rain while actually hiking, we walked long stretches in clouds that soaked us nonetheless. The humidity increased daily and temperatures rose as we’re about to reach Korea’s hottest time of the year. Yesterday it was 35 degrees Celsius at an altitude of 350 meters.
The weather and especially the stretches through entangled overgrowth (“While not rainforest, during the rainy season Korea’s vegetation grows just as fast,” one hiker commented) eventually wore us down. So, wise as we are, ha, we have decided to take a break from the Baekdu Daegan. We will return in a couple of weeks when temperatures and humidity will be on their return.