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Book review: Walking the Baekdu-Daegan trail

Baekdu Daegan TrailRoger Shepherd & Andrew Douch, with David A Mason: Baekdu Daegan Trail
Seoul Selection, 2010, 446pp

Korea is a mountainous country. If you google that phrase you will learn that 70% of South Korea’s land mass is designated as upland or mountains. And everyone knows that a lot of Koreans love hiking in the hills. In my first term of Korean classes, the vocab list for weekend activities included watching a movie, meeting friends in the park, doing some homework and, yes, going hiking.

So, having established the popularity of mountain hiking among the local population, how do visitors get involved?

Of course a quick trek up Bukhansan or any other Seoul’s peaks provides an easy weekend walking opportunity. But for those with a couple of months to spare the ultimate challenge is the Baekdu-Daegan: the mountain backbone of the Korean peninsula which commences at Jirisan in the south, via the Sobaek and Taebaek mountains heading north towards Seoraksan in Kangwondo. Ultimately of course one would then want to continue past Kumgangsan up to Baekdusan on the Chinese border – but that will need to wait until unification.

The Beakdu-Daegan, and the related cultural aspects of Korea’s mountains has been a longstanding study of David Mason, to the extent that his screen name, Sanshinseon, incorporates the Korean for Mountain Spirit. His website is a wealth of information on the temples and other aspects of the journey.

And he has co-authored a book on walking the Baekdu-Daegan trail, leaving the heavy hiking to two energetic Kiwis, Roger Shepherd and Andrew Douch, both of whom are based in Korea.

The book is a useful guide to walking the trail, giving doubters the confidence to tackle individual sections of the trail even if they might not have the time to do the full length of it. It’s also very practical, focusing on where you can sleep for the night and how long each stretch is likely to take. It also includes some detail on some of the attractions on the trail and some sidebars dealing with historical items of interest. As someone who, sadly, will not have the time in the foreseeable future ever to walk the whole length of the trail, I would have liked to have seen more of this historical and cultural information, but that would have made the book an uncomfortable weight in the rucksack of someone walking the whole length.

There are plenty of photographs, and helpfully all of the peaks and many of the other sights on the trail given in hangeul as well as their romanisation – which helps when you are trying to figure out how to pronounce them and find them on a Korean map. Each section of the walk is described in turn, with maps, an indication of effort and time involved, and information one sources of water. Altogether a pleasant browse for armchair hiking, and no doubt very useful for doing the real thing.

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