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2013 Travel Diary #8: Prayers to the Sanshin

Danseong-myeon, Sancheong-gun, Saturday 7 September, 4pm. After last year’s abortive attempt to get to the top of the highest mountain on mainland South Korea, I was determined to give it another go at a time of year when there was guaranteed not to be any ice on the path.

The signpost at the start of the trail to Beopgyesa and Cheonwangbong
The signpost at the start of the trail to Beopgyesa and Cheonwangbong

As an added bonus, what would be ideal is no rain. Not just because it’s not very nice walking in the wet. It’s because the very Korean thing to do is to get up during the night and climb to the summit in the hour before dawn, making sure you are at the peak to see the break of day. Getting up at 3:30am just to climb upwards into rain and low cloud seems to lack point. If you’re going to do that, you could have the extra sleep and get up at a civilised hour.

So throughout the previous week I had been keeping an eye on the weather forecast for the weekend. We knew it was always likely to be raining for the opening day of the Expo. What was less clear was how heavy that rain was going to be, and how soon it would clear. That morning, the smartphone had predicted cloud for the rest of the day, and sunny intervals for Sunday. Things were beginning to look promising.

South Korea’s most enthusiastic hikers must pray for reunification. All of the peninsula’s highest peaks are north of the DMZ. The highest is Baekdusan itself, at the northernmost end of Korea’s mountain backbone, at 2,750m. But there are half a dozen peaks in North Korea that are higher than the best South Korea has to offer – which is Hallasan (1,970m), another extinct volcano, on Jeju Island. On the mainland, Jirisan’s Chonwangbong peak is the highest in South Korea (1,915m), while the next highest mountain is Seoraksan in Gangwon-do.

Cheonji Lake at the summit of Baekdusan
Cheonji Lake at the summit of Baekdusan – KNTO photo via

In order to be within striking distance of Cheonwangbong for sunrise, the best place to stay overnight is a hiking station about 2km (a one hour forty-five minute climb) below the summit. For those who want more comfortable accommodation, about a hundred yards from the hiking station is a temple, Beopgyesa, where you can also stay if you book ahead. Both are about an hour and a half’s walk from the start of the trail, where a bus from Jungsan-ri, the nearest village, drops you. Or, if you can pull a string or two with the Parks department, you can drive up to the trail yourself.

It is 4pm when we leave Min Young-ki’s house, and we need to climb to Beopgyesa before it gets too dark soon after 6pm, so we need to make haste. As last year, Yoon Jin-gu from the county office will be my escort (and puller of strings with the Parks department), but Kyung-sook will not be joining us, claiming her knees are not up to it. Mr Yoon is somehow finding time to escort this troublesome foreigner to the top and make sure nothing untoward happens. He is in charge of the Expo’s press office and is a key figure on the organisation committee. So the first Saturday of the Expo, the first full day of the Expo’s opening, is not a brilliant time to be going for a stroll in the hills. But he is giving his time with good grace. And maybe, just maybe, he might enjoy a few hours away from the pressures of work.

Both Mr Yoon and I are a little bit nervous at spending the next eighteen hours in each other’s company. My Korean is limited to what I have picked up from movies and from about a dozen two-hour classes that I took four years previously. And Mr Yoon’s English is even more limited than my Korean. Last time, we had had Kyung-sook for company and to ease the communication problem, but this time we were on our own. Silence is fine when on the trail, but can be quite awkward over the dinner for two that we knew we would share at the temple.

To ensure that the essentials could be communicated we each download a Korean-English dictionary for our smartphones. As it was to turn out though, we needn’t have worried. Sign language and the occasional spoken word managed to communicate all that was necessary, and we each seemed to sense what the other was trying to say.

It’s still cloudy, but there’s no rain and in fact the sky is brightening. The forecast seems to be accurate. We pick up Mr Yoon from his apartment, drive to Jungsan-ri and up to the start of the trail, and Kyung-sook drives off, leaving us to the tender mercies of the Sanshin. I am well equipped with my new hiking pants, a new backpack complete with hydration bladder (a thin bag of water that slips neatly into a hidden pocket of the pack, allowing you to drink through a hose without taking the pack off), head torch, knee braces, hi-tech hiking towel and other professional-looking paraphernalia. To add to the ensemble, Mr Yoon has kindly brought along a hiking stick to ease my descent. Koreans of all ages seem to be happy using such sticks, or even a pair of them, so I didn’t feel too decrepit making use of one myself.

The entrance to the Cheonwangbong trail.
The entrance to the Cheonwangbong trail. Please say “Thank You” to the Sanshin

Sena’s mother had once told me that in Korea you don’t “climb” a mountain: you “enter” it. The landscape is not something to be conquered, but is almost a living thing to be appreciated and respected. As we pass through the simple archway which marks the start of the trail I almost forget… but then I retrace my steps and pause to say a quick silent prayer to the sanshin. “Thanks for letting me get this far. I hope you don’t mind if I enter your territory. It would be really nice if you’d let me get to the top this time. I promise I’ll be respectful,” and silent, rather feeble, thoughts along those lines.

Mr Yoon kindly lets me set the gentle pace, but soon I am panting with the effort and the heart is racing at rather more than its usual pace. My paltry training regime in the week or so previously – walking up the 6 floors (132 steps) to the in-house coffee shop once a day – was showing its inadequacy. At times I start feeling dizzy. And in the heat I realise the usefulness of that strange object that is the Korean hiking towel – an elongated version of the beer towels you find in British pubs. Often sold as memorabilia at rock concerts, these items are part scarf, part towel. Today I didn’t need the insulation around the neck, but I certainly needed something readily accessible to mop my brow.

Mr Yoon is patient with my slow pace, and we nevertheless make it to the hiking station in an hour and a quarter. The station is humming with activity, with the picnic tables and benches outside the huts crowded with hikers resting from their climb, drinking coffee or slurping noodles. There’s a strong mobile signal, so I check in with Louise back in London before continuing the final hundred yards or so to the temple, not remembering whether it was the done thing to use mobile phones after the hours of darkness in a temple.

As we approach the temple, I am puzzled. Last year, we had paused for a quick photo call under a simple wooden gate which marked the entrance. This year, we are ascending the steps without having passed through that gate. It feels odd.

As we sit down to a simple dinner of rice, vegetable side dishes and a doenjang jjigae, Mr Yoon asks one of the monks what happened to the gate, while I hand over a packet of Earl Grey tea as a gift to the temple.

The story of Beopgyesa's entrance gate
The story of Beopgyesa’s entrance gate

“Param” she said. The wind had blown it down earlier this year. From looking at my photographs from the previous year, admittedly the gate did look rather top-heavy, but nevertheless that must have been some storm.

We are shown to our quarters. The new guest accommodation which was being built last time we visited is now finished. Each room even has its own en-suite washroom: no need to go to the communal washrooms beneath the kitchen any more. And we have the luxury of a room each. It’s 8pm, and I turn in, knowing we’ve got an early start the next day. 4am is our scheduled start time, with sunrise expected at 6:05am.

I drift off to sleep, and am slightly surprised when half an hour later Mr Yoon comes knocking on my door suggesting some soju. Unusually for me, I decline, and drift off back to sleep.

I wake up at midnight, uncomfortably hot from the ondol. The floor is almost too hot to lie on. I consider adding another mattress or two to lie on, or moving my bedding into the bathroom, but finally manage to find a corner of the room which is less hot. I sleep fitfully until 3:30 when my phone alarm wakes me. I ponder how many layers I’m going to need to wear, but venturing outside into the open air I discover that a single T-shirt is more than enough.

I’m packed and ready to go when Mr Yoon comes knocking at 4am.

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