Sunday, September 18, 2011

Hiking the Baekdudaegan: Jirisan

I returned to Jirisan this week to hike the last, southernmost portion of the Baekdudaegan. Having covered the portion around Taebaeksan in June, clearly I'm not going in any kind of order, but that's a privilege I afford myself because: 1) I'm awful at hiking 2) I don't belong in any sort of nature except for the kind with the widest, most well-worn trail 3) I'm doing this alone.

There's an excellent English-language book about the Baekdudaegan by Andrew Douch and Roger Shepherd that details portions of the trail, such as how to get there, where to stay, and what makes that area special. It's an interesting enough book that it's worth a read if you have a strong interest in Korea and/or traveling in Korea, even if you've never set foot on a mountain here and never plan to do so.

For my part, I used the same, slightly less user-friendly website as last time to guide me. As unwieldy as a page it might be, it's very useful and covers the entire trail in excellent detail, complete with pictures, elevation charts and personal experiences.

I left Seoul on Sunday armed with not one, but two books (a Platonic dialogue and a collection of the works of Franz Kafka) in my backpack, but no map of Jirisan. Instead, I had this elevation guide of my planned route to guide me. This is, of course, a picture of a GPS readout from the site I mentioned earlier that I had on my cell phone.

Unlike the section of the trail just south of Taebaeksan, which is sparingly marked and even more sparingly used, the section on Jirisan is part of the well-traveled Jirisan ridge that runs east-west for 25 km. Add in few kilometres on either side to get up and down, and you've got a distance of about 32-34 km depending on who you believe. As I found out on this trip, you'll cover 2 km per hour when hiking including breaks (a hike on Bukhansan or Dobongsan in Seoul is 8 km both ways, which is why it takes you about 4 hours), which means that I was looking at about 16 hours of walking, maybe 12 if I packed light and tried to run a lot of it.

I got lucky, however, in that I was traveling on Chuseok and one of the less-popular shelters (Byeoksoryeong) on Jirisan was available on the all-important second day of Chuseok. This meant I could sleep on the mountain and hike leisurely with liberal breaks to read Plato in the sunshine.

The west end of the trail is the Nogodan altar, best accessed from Gurye in Jeollanam-do, while the east end is Jungsan-ri in Gyeongsangnam-do, not far from Jinju. I started in Gurye, traveling at night to avoid the Chuseok traffic, and arriving Sunday night. I slept in Monday and didn't leave Gurye until 10 am, which meant I got to Seongsamjae, a pavilion of sorts complete with its own cafe, at 11 am.

I've always felt that I could live in rural Korea if not for its jarring lack of good coffee, and I wasn't thrilled at having to settle for canned coffee down in Gurye. As an aside, the bus ride to Nogodan from Gurye is an hour through beautiful scenery and awe-inspiring mountain roads, well worth it if you're ever there. It wasn't easy for me to walk past this cafe in the sky, about the only time that an overpriced Americano at Angel-in-us might ever be worth it.

It's 5.6 km from this cafe by the bus stop to the Nogodan altar proper. You'll be surrounded by children, couples in casual wear and so on, though it's an easy but steep hike. From here, you'll get on the ridge going towards Cheonwangbong, the peak of Jirisan, with a sign informing you that you're 25 km away. There are signs probably every kilometre from here on out.

It had rained in the days before I got there, but mercifully not while I was there. There were plenty of clouds and, starting at about 2 pm, an ominous fog that made me wish I had picked an easier way to spend my vacation. I took lots of breaks but didn't eat much, reaching the Byeoksoryeong shelter after 18 km and 7 hours of walking.

Jirisan has recently reintroduced black bears into its vast wilderness. They go to pains to counter the impression given in the media that the bears are cute.

The walk from Nogodan to Byeoksoryeong is more or less flat, but the last few kilometres before Byeoksoryeong were quite challenging and made harder still by how tired my legs were.

As this sign shows, Byeoksoryeong is about the halfway point on the ridge. Many people left the shelter at around midnight to walk to the top before sunrise.

If you've never stayed in a shelter on a mountain, it's actually quite nice. They sell food and other supplies. The shelter itself is very clean considering the fact that it's on a mountain and full of mud-caked hikers. There's wifi if you have an account with Olleh and if you don't, there are still cell phone chargers.

I slept at 9 pm and I was one of the last people to wake up at 6:30. Pretty much everyone else was gone, never mind awake. I left at 7:30 with 11 km until the top and 17 until the bottom, figuring I could be done with the whole thing by 1 or 2.

It was a beautiful day and I really had no need to rush, so I kept taking long, leisurely breaks.

I made it to the top, finally, at around 2 pm. By this point the beauty of the day was long gone, and it was cloudy.

True, there wasn't much to see from the top, but while there are some amazing views from the top, Jirisan is also special for just how vast of an area it is. It certainly wasn't easy for me to make it to the top after 29 km of walking over about 14 hours.

I relied on three of each of these, along with some high-calorie packages of instant noodles, during the hike. It was good to have some vegetables after the fact, though I'm proud to say that I didn't have to buy any food or water on the top as I have in the past.

The way down was cloudy, dull, boring and uneventful except for the point at which I almost fell down a set of stairs and wrenched my left shoulder very badly, cursing at the top of my lungs in front of a very nice elderly couple that couldn't understand what my hurry was.

At the bottom, I knew I'd done something right by how weird it felt to be walking on pavement. I walked another 2 km to a bus stop at Jungsanri that takes you to Jinju, where I took a late-night bus back to Seoul, free from any traffic jams and making the trip in just over 3 hours.

In addition to the wrenched shoulder, I also walked away with a bleeding toe and a bloody heel from where my abrasive $30 hiking shoes had rubbed it the wrong way for about 48 hours. I did manage to run about 20 minutes (about 2k thanks to the terrain and a 20-lb backpack) both days, but even if I hadn't, my legs would have hurt just as much. The fatigue and soreness I had were similar, though not identical, to running a marathon. Completing the last climb of about 250 m (equal to an 80-floor building) was like running the last 5-7 km of a marathon.


Andrew Douch said...

Good on you, Adeel!
It's a great time of year tyo be out enjoying the Baekdu-daegan. Which section are you thinking of tackling next?

Adeel said...

Wow, thanks for the comment Andrew.

I'm thinking of trying Odaesan by Seoraksan for the next section. Is there a section you recommend outside Seoraksan, Jirisan and Taebaeksan?