Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Hiking the Baekdudaegan: Taebaeksan

The Baekdudaegan (백두대간) is the mountain range that runs north-south from Baekdusan on the North Korean-Chinese border to Jirisan in southern South Korea. In South Korea, this forms a 735-kilometre trail that follows a winding, indrect route from Jirisan to Seoraksan. Given how many other mountains come off of the Baekdudaegan, this really makes Korea what it is.

This weekend I hiked the portion running south and west from Taebaeksan. Most people seem to do it backwards from what I could read, going south to north instead of north to south like I did, but for me it was more practical to start in Taebaek and go south.

Taebaeksan is located in the city of Taebaek. It's different from other cities in Gangwon-do like Sokcho, Gangneung or Donghae in that it is not by the sea, it's located wholly in the mountains. Taebaek is interesting in that while it initially developed because of the coal deposits in the area, it has since redeveloped as a popular location for winter tourism. I've wanted to come to Taebaek for a long time because of the snow festivals here in the winter, and also because there's a train that goes from Cheongnyangni station near my house.

The route I planned originally was from Taebaeksan (1567 m) to the pass at Doraegijae, a 24 km hike which would have taken about 12 hours according to books, but I thought I could have done in 8 or 9 hours. The only problem, however, was that I woke up late on Sunday morning and didn't get to Taebaeksan until 11 am. The problem facing me then was that the hike at Taebaeksan was too easy and I didn't want to do a hike that finished back where I started. I thought that if I ran as much of it as I could, I could have made up the time well, so off I went.

Taebaeksan, I was surprised to find out, was astonishingly easy. The route up from Yuilsa is excruciating for how short (4 km) and steep (600m elevation gain) it is, but the first half of it was on wide roads of concrete or gravel. It would have been no problem to drive up to the Yuilsa temple. From Yuilsa, the path is a slightly more challenging set of stone steps, but the 4 km walk took about an hour including a brief stop for a melon-flavoured popsicle.

Taebaeksan is a very beautiful mountain. To the north, there are views of Taebaek city nestled at the foot of several mountains. To the south, there are views of the Baekdudaegan and an air force facility I mistook for a ski hill. The number of children, casually-dressed adults and older people having picnics at the wide summit are a testament to the beauty of the mountain and the ease of the hike.

From Taebaeksan, what followed was almost comical. The route north descends into a very narrow path lined with azaleas in full bloom, the azalea festival having been the previous week, I believe. I was walking behind a group of middle-aged hikers with one person blaring trot music and then, all of a sudden, the turnoff for Baekdudaegan veered into some narrow bushes.

If you're hiking the Baekdudaegan, there is almost no English signage although there is no shortage of information available in Korean. I didn't realize that most of the signs were in Korean until I was looking at my pictures after the fact. This led me to walk down a very steep path leading to quite literally nowhere.

A man walking up the path asked where I was going. When I told him, he told me that this wasn't the trail and that I should've simply followed the ridge I left behind (it was confusingly marked for a mountain in the wrong direction). When I told him where I was going, he reiterated that it was 20 km. He had kind of a strong personality, so I didn't mention that I was going to run a lot of it and didn't mention that I figured there were places to stop between Taebaeksan and Doraegijae.

He wasn't that convinced and taught me how to hitchhike ("the bowing is the most important part"). Before he let me go, he urged me to hurry and took a picture of me. I couldn't tell if it was for the sheer novelty of seeing me on the trail by myself, or for safety reasons. As I jogged away, I composed the tweet he might send to a journalist.

"주하기자님 RT 부탁드려요. 어제 오후 1시 백두대간 태백산 근처에 외국인 등산객이 실종되었어요. 도래지개로 갔는데 시간이 좀 늦어서 제가 이 사진을 찍었어요. 이 외국인은 대머리 30대중반의 남성인데요. 노랑색 셔츠 그리고 빨간색 모자 쓰고 봤어요. 밤에 날씨가 추워서 빨리 찾으면 좋겠습니다."

"Please retweet this. I saw a foreigner hiking on the Baekdudaegan near Taebaeksan. i worried about him, so I took this picture. He's a balding male in his mid-30s wearing a yellow shirt and a red hat. It can get cold up there at night, so it's best if we find him quickly."

The others I saw on the trail were just as worried, though to be fair I counted the number of people I saw on the 16 km stretch of trail: eight, none in the last 10 km.

While I made reasonably good time without taking any breaks or even eating (I don't know why), eventually the ups and downs wore me down and I thought it was safer to get off the trail a village before Doraegijae. In retrospect, while there was a 60% chance I could've made it there, someone like me who rarely gets out of the city shouldn't be walking alone on mountains at dusk.

For a long time I've been searching for the consummate middle-of-nowhere experience in Korea. A pass before Doraegijae is Gomneomijae, or Bear Crossing Ridge. A steep 3 km descent from there on pointy rocks that cut up my feet led to a building on an empty road. I walked farther but this was the only pension (I guess like a Korean-style cottage?) or building within about a mile. The suite that normally goes for $150 or $200 to a group went to me for $50.

The man wore a wifebeater and knee-high gumboots. I could barely understand his dialect, but he asked if I had brought my own food over the mountains. I had, which was good because the only food they had was the food at their house (the food they advertised required longer notice). Clearly, they didn't get too many guests.

This was the quietest, dullest night I've spent in Korea. There was simply nothing except for the cottage, the small farm it was on and the mountains. I got the TV to work but I went to bed at around 8:30. I woke up in the morning to take a 20-minute cab ride, during which I didn't see another car, just to get to a small town I'd never heard of.

I'll try and edit this post later to add pictures.

No comments: