They don’t call it the “Great White Mountain” for nothing.
One of my goals for this year was to take in the first sunrise of the New Year from atop Mt. Taebaeksan (1,567m), one of Korea’s most sacred peaks. When the weather is right, the summit offers breathtaking views of rising sun, silhouetting the peak’s ancient yew trees and illuminating the glistening ridges of the Taebaeksan Range. Every New Year’s Day, thousands of hikers from around the country make the pre-dawn climb to the peak, braving the dark, the driving winds and the bitter cold just to take in this inspiring scene.
Unfortunately for them, this year they were joined by me, God’s very own cooler for photographically cooperative weather. Oh, there was plenty of cold, wind and snow, to be sure, but plenty of clouds and fog, too, with visibility at the peak close to zero. What the adverse weather conditions did produce, however, was a surreal white landscape of gnarled, ice-encrusted trees, falling snow and thick mist. Sort of like the film adaptation of “Silent Hill,” just colder, and with more North Face apparel.
While Mt. Taebaeksan is one of Korea’s highest peaks, it’s not especially difficult to climb. It’s a four kilometer hike from the Yuilsa Temple entrance of Taebaeksan Provincial Park to the stone altars at the peak, but the path is mostly mild with flights of wooden steps to help with the steeper parts. In winter, the biggest difficulty—especially in the pre-dawn hike to catch the sunrise from the peak—is the weather. This part of Gangwon-do gets the heaviest snowfall in Korea, and the wind and cold temperatures can make life on the mountain very, very unpleasant. You need to go prepared—heavy jacket, hat, gloves, thick socks, hiking boots, something to keep the snow and wind off your face… anything you have, wear it. If there’s snow on the ground, and there probably is, you’ll need crampons. A thermos with your favorite hot beverage is a good idea, too.
If you’re reasonably fit, you can reach the summit of Mt. Taebaeksan in about two—three hours. I, on the other hand, require a bit more time. Armed with a flashlight and an iPhone filled with unlistened to episodes of the Adam Carolla Show, I started Sunday’s hike at 2am, both to provide me with time for a nice, leisurely walk and to beat the crowds who would start off at around 4am. For much of the hike up, I was pretty much alone, but not so alone as to get that creepy “I’m alone on a big, windy mountain at night” vibe.
Along the way, I spotted some animal tracks in the snow; later, I came across a sign (see image on the right, taken with my iPhone) warning hikers that wild animals—most notably boar—were being spotted near the hiking paths. Should you find yourself face-to-face with a wild boar, you should calmly watch what it does; don’t scream, run or otherwise appear frightened; and if the boar does attack, take cover quickly behind nearby trees or rocks. Or so said the sign.
Mind you, wild boars are no joke—sure, they might taste good, but while alive, they can be nasty little buggers:
If surprised or cornered, a boar (particularly a sow with her piglets) can and will defend itself and its young with intense vigor. The male lowers its head, charges, and then slashes upward with his tusks. The female, whose tusks are not visible, charges with her head up, mouth wide, and bites. Such attacks are not often fatal to humans, but may result in severe trauma, dismemberment, or blood loss.
This hiker had gone up two days before me—she not only got good weather, but she also spotted some boars.
There’s was about half a foot of snow on the ground for the entire hike up. It was cold, and the wind quite strong, but this is not much of an issue while you’re moving. Stop moving, though, and it’s a different story. I got to the top too soon, and ended up having to wait about an hour and a half for the sunrise in some tree cover just below the peak—the winds were so bad at the summit you couldn’t stay there very long. The wait was so unpleasant that I nearly decided to give up and head back down. Amazingly, though, in the snow, wind and freezing cold, there was a Buddhist monk chanting away as passing hikers dropped money into his donation box.
You can’t see much, but here’s what it sounded like.
Unfortunately, come sunrise, the cloud cover, mist and snow was so thick you couldn’t see anything beyond your own ridge, let alone the rising sun. Still, the hike up was in no means a waste, rewarded as we were by a mysterious, Tim Burton-esque landscape of snow, twisted yew trees, rugged alpine vegitation and scattered light in the foggy mist.
The yew is a very long-lived tree: one such tree in a churchyard in Scotland is believed to be between 2,000 and 5,000 years old. Of the Taebaeksan yew trees, they say they “stand for 1,000 years alive and another 1,000 years dead.” Located near the summit, the roughly 3,900 yews are, on average, 200 years old, ranging from 30 to 920 years in age. Koreans have traditionally considered the trees sacred—writes Prof. David Mason:
They are related to the Yew trees common to northern Europe, held sacred by the Celts and other pagan peoples. Just like Koreans, they regarded them as symbols of immortality, markers of sacred spots and powerful charms against bad fortune and malign spirits. It is considered quite unlucky to damage one. Yew have remained symbolic to Christians as symbols of immortality and ressurrection, and are highly respected by Buddhists. Korean Shamans consider them to be enlightened ancestral beings.
Mt. Taebaeksan is especially well-known for its so-called “snow flowers,” when ice and snow encrust the branches of the trees at higher elevation. Add a bit of wind into the mix, and the results are extraordinary. When the skies are clear, the contrast between the white “snow flowers” and the deep cobalt of the winter sky can be dramatic.
In late January—early February, the mountain will play host to the annual Mt. Taebaeksan Snow Flower Festival, making it a good time to visit.
Mt. Taebaeksan is, above all, a sacred peak, where—at least according to some—the son of God came down from Heaven and founded the Korean nation.
Shamans hold the peak with particularly reverence. Atop the peak is a complex of three stone altars, collectively known as the Cheonjedan (“Altar for the Rite of Heaven”). The biggest of the altars is the Cheonwangdan (“Altar to the King of Heaven”), where sacred rites are still observed every National Foundation Day (Oct 3):
For the annual sites, nine kinds of offerings are placed on the altar, which is decorated with many colorful flags, including the Korean national flag and a seven-star banner. There are two smaller altars near here that have similar origins. The one to the north is called Janggundan and the one to the south Hadan. Numerous other stone altars and pagodas are found in this area. People often come to pray, and impious acts, such as hunting or breaking branches off the trees, are forbidden.
Nobody knows when the current altars were erected, but there records show that rites have been held atop Mt. Taebaeksan since the Three Kingdoms Era.
In addition to hosting sacred rites, the altars also make a nifty spot in front of which to pose for photographs with your hiking club buddies.
A short walk down from the peak along the path to Manggyeongsa Temple brings you to a small shrine housing a stone stele. This is the Danjongbigak, erected to honor King Danjong, the tragic sixth king of Joseon (r. 1452—1455). Just 12 when he ascended the throne, Danjong was just one year into his reign when his uncle, Grand Prince Suyang, seized control of the government in a coup. In 1455, Suyang forced his young nephew to officially abdicate and ascended to the throne himself as King Sejo. Danjong was sent to live in exile in the remote mountain valleys of Yeongwol, not far from Taebaek. A subsequent plot to restore Danjong was discovered, resulting in the execution of six respected scholar/ministers who had served Sejo’s father, King Sejong the Great. In 1457, Danjong died, too, at the tender age of 16.
The current shrine was built by 1955 by a monk from nearby Manggyeongsa Temple.
The highest well in Korea
About 10 minutes below the peak is the small Buddhist temple of Manggyeongsa, most famous for its water well which, at 1,470 meters above sea level, has the distinction of being the highest water well in Korea. The temple was founded in the seventh century, but like many temples throughout the country, it was burnt down during the Korean War, so very little of historic value remains. It’s location high on the mountain, however, is superb.
For hikers, Manggyeongsa is a nice spot to rest before either hitting the peak or, if you’re coming from the peak, before beginning the four kilometer hike along the Danggol Valley to the foot of the mountain. It has a small shop selling ramen, snacks and beverages, so if you need to refuel, this is the place to do it.
Ah, the breakfast of champions…
Birch trees of the Danggol Valley
A Canadian friend of mine with whom I used to go hiking always complained that heading down a mountain was a terribly depressing experience. On Taebaeksan on Sunday, I sort of got what he meant. It was a four kilometer slog through snow, with not a whole lot in terms of spectacular scenery, but plenty of places to slip and tear a knee. My iPhone had run out of battery juice, too. Bleh.
Still, it wasn’t without its charms. At the middle elevations you hike through a lovely forest of white birch trees (which can be quite impressive in autumn, it would seem, and lends itself to all sorts of photographic effects). I was both mesmerized and, for a moment, reminded of home.
At the entrance of the Danggol Valley is a large tourist village and the Taebaek Coal Museum. I was pretty hungry and tired, so I did not check out the museum.
I’ve always found the town of Taebaek oddly charming, although why this is, I’d be at a loss to explain. It’s an old coal mining town that got hit hard when the government began, ahem, “rationalizing” Korea’s coal industry beginning in the 1990s (in this respect, it’s not unlike my first place of abode in Korea, Mungyeong). The subsequent opening of the only for-Koreans casino in the country in nearby Sabuk aside, nothing in downtown Taebaek seems to have changed much since the 1990s.
Rugged it may be, but it’s also home to a culinary gem, Neowajip (T. 033 553-4669), selected by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism as one of Korea’s 100 most representative restaurants. Granted, this designation was not entirely about the food. Neowajip is so named because it is, well, a neowajip, a shingle-roofed home of the type lived in by the slash-and-burn farmers who once predominated in this mountainous region of Korea. These are increasingly difficult to find: the best examples can be found in the village of Sin-ri in Samcheok.
Unlike ordinary Korean homes, the furnace is placed inside the home itself, a function of the region’s notoriously cold winters. A wooden floor is placed in the middle, with the ondol rooms surrounding it. This particular home is about 120 years old, but was carefully disassembled and moved to its current location in (don’t quote me on this) 1995.
Neowajip specializes in hanjeongsik (19,000—28,000 won), or Korean banquet cuisine (for photos, see here). For solo dinners like me, there’s a mountain vegetable bibimbap (7,000 won) that was very good eating, especially after the long hike.
Getting to Taebaek
There are frequent buses to Taebaek from Seoul’s Dong Seoul Terminal (travel time: 3 hours, 30 minutes). The last bus departs at 11pm—if you’re doing the night hike, this might be the one you’ll want to take. There are local buses to Taebaeksan National Park (be sure which entrance you’re going to—see here for more info), but if you’re going up before dawn from the Yuilsa Entrance, you’ll need to take a cab from downtown Taebaek.
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