Where Are We – South Korea 9 (Hiking the Baekdu-daegan)

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As our followers on Facebook (find the page here) already know, we just finished hiking the 735-km Baekdu-Daegan mountain ridge in South Korea. We divided the 47-day hike up in 4 stages and you can read about our first 2 stages in Where Are We Korea 7 (find it here).

Here’s an impression of stage 3: 17 days of hiking through the central area of South Korea

View from Haneul-jae (3rd gate).

Challenges

#1: How will the new tent deal with the bad weather?

We hiked stage 1 and 2 in July, during South Korea’s rainy season, and slept in a battered tent that was no longer waterproof. The weather gods took pity on us and kept the rains away. We stayed dry.

Before starting stage 3, we bought a new tent, and so the weather gods reasoned (we assume) it should be properly tested. So they showered the tent, and us, with a serious rain storm on night 1, which was followed by many more rainy nights. Fortunately, the tent proved a good buy in this respect.


We survived the first night and started the hike with confidence. True to Baedu-Daegan’s spirit, we set off with a big bunch of grapes given to us that morning by an artist who lives on Deoksan-jae (Deoksan pass). The grape harvest was in full swing and we got many bunches of grapes during this stage from different people – a variation to the cucumbers that were gift #1 during the previous, mid-summer stage.

#2: Can Karin-Marijke complete the Baekdu-daegan with her injuries?

My heel had started to hurt during stage 2 and had not properly healed during our time off. The injury now quickly grew worse: a case of Achilles tendonitis (or so the Internet told me) combined with a big, sore lump on the back the right heel, later followed by the same symptoms on the left foot. Overcompensation subsequently led to a strained knee ligament.

With two taped heels + a brace for my knee, how in the world was I going to hike another 500 kilometers?

The injuries slowed us down considerably and hiking in constant pain often took away the pleasure for me. But once the Baekdu-daegan has spelled its magic on you, it’s hard to let go and so I battled on.

Hours of hiking through lush forest, spotting (and photographing) hundreds of delicate mushrooms and colorful flowers, the vast and mind-blowing views when the weather did clear, the quietude of being just us in the midst of nature’s majesty, the reward of reaching yet another bong (peak) – with or without ropes – amply compensated the challenges we were facing.

Meeting People on the Baekdu-daegan

In addition we met some fabulous people. Among them were Korean hikers and hiking groups such as a group from Andong that was hiking the Baekdu-daegan over a period of three years (one day a month).

At Udu-ryeong we meet Steffany and a hiking group from Adong.
Mr Lee Kyeong Hee invites us to his home on one of South Korea’s most important holidays: Chuseok.
Due to Chuseok the Bongam temple is closed, as is the trail around it, which we need to take. After much talking we find two monks who are willing to ‘smuggle’ us around the temple and guide us back on the BDDG trail.
Lunch with Mr. Baek, Jun Young and Imjae-ha.

We were once more guests of Mr. Baek and his wife Jun Young. They were a tremendous help, driving us to Gimcheon, the acupuncturist to treat my heel and E-mart to buy new shoes. At their place we befriended Imjae-ha and, later on, he would visit us on the trail a couple of evenings. He always came with a truckload of food which – unsurprisingly – is one of the ways to be very much welcomed by perpetually hungry hikers!

Thank you again Imjae-ha, Mr. Baek and Jun Young, for making the Baekdu-daegan so memorable for us!

During one of the first days on this stage we met Stefanie, from Germany. She was hiking the Baekdu-daegan by herself but had thus far stayed in minbaks (guesthouses) as she didn’t want to camp by herself. Happy to have found camping company, we increasingly spent more time together.

Initially we went our own ways, meeting in the evenings as we tended to hike similar distances. As our contact grew and we shared some good laughs together, we ended up hiking together, sharing pain, fun, challenges, food, and on our last, freezing, night on top of a mountain, a good bottle of makgeolli and soju.

As we were going to take a multiple-day break (getting organized in other ways, such as finding a new parking place for the Land Cruiser) while she had a deadline to finish the Baekdu-daegan, our ways parted after a week or two.

Stefanie, thanks for sharing the trail with us, your patience and support, and great laughs. See you in Japan!

Food on the Trail

As I mentioned before, during such a strenuous hike, food is important. Since weight is just as important, it is all about finding a balance between what you want to eat and what you can / want to carry. We carried oatmeal for breakfast and lentils and noodles (memil) for lunch and dinner.

That is as monotonous as a diet can get, I guess, so the days we passed restaurants we gorged ourselves on Korean food. We just absolutely love it. What’s so great about it? For us, vegetarians, it’s very easy to get meat-free yet still very nutritious and tasty meals. And for me, who has still not grown accustomed to spicy food, the Korean cuisine offers more than enough dishes/side dishes that are not mouth-numbing.

The Magic of the Baekdu-daegan

What to say about the landscape? More forest, more views, more chop chop sangrime, as the Koreans call the layers of mountain ridges that fade into the distance – a captivating sight that never tires. Like I said, we had very few major views these days due to clouds and fog, but when we did, they had us spellbound.

On the trail from Sammagol-jae to Uduryeong.
On the trail from Sammagol-jae to Uduryeong.

Apart from the wilds, we crossed highways, a town or farming country, which all added to the experience and gave us a feeling for a country we truly knew nothing about before we descended from that plane in Seoul some 6 months ago.

The trail is a walk of discovery into Korea’s history with remnants of fortresses and war memorials, its spiritual and religious world with Buddhist temples and sansin gaks – mountain shrines. Hiking this 700+ kilometers is a unique way of getting right into the heart of everything that is Korean, and that’s what makes this hike so special and attractive.

At Samdo-bong.
A sansin-gak; a shrine for the Mountain Spirit.
Third Gate at Jo-ryeong.

A lot of the beauty is found in the small things on the trail: the flowers, the beautiful Korean pine trees, the mushrooms, insects such walking sticks, bigger animals like deer or boars, as well as – on the scary side – eye-catching but sometimes poisonous snakes.

Hiking the Baekdu-daegan

Like the previous stages, it was at times tough-going, to put it mildly. For Coen as well, in good shape but who, due to my injuries, carried a far more than a fair share of the load (some 15 kilos), so I could struggle along with no more than 8 kilos.

At the summit of Cheongwung-bong
In Songni-san National Park.
Climbing to Motje bong.

But we got there, slowly but steadily, enjoying many inspiring and special moments along the way. After 17 days we finished this stage of the hike, returned to the Land Cruiser for a couple of days and prepared ourselves for the final stage: another 17 days and 300 kilometers of hiking. More about that in the next Where Are We update. Stay tuned!

For more on South Korea, check out these articles:

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Thank you for your support — Karin-Marijke & Coen

5 thoughts on “Where Are We – South Korea 9 (Hiking the Baekdu-daegan)

  1. “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity”
    ― John Muir, Our National Parks

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