K O R E A
BECOMING ONE WITH THE LANDSCAPE Hiker Roger Shepherd talks about Korea’s mountains Written by Roger Shepherd Illustrated by Kim Yoon-Myong
s the owner of a hiking company in South Korea, I am often asked by my clients and even Koreans: why Korean mountains? The entire Korean Peninsula is about 75% mountainous; that figure hasn’t nor can it change. This ever-present backdrop of mountains is what the Korean people were raised under, influencing them daily. Their oldest known history is founded from mountains. Back when civilizations were first being formed, the Egyptians were making their pyramids; the Koreans only needed their mountains. The founding King, Dangun, was born in 2333 BCE and was said to have achieved the immortal status of Mountain Spirit on the sacred peak of Mt. Guwolsan in what is now present-day North Korea. Korea’s highest and holiest peak, Mt. Baekdusan (2750 m), is located at the very top of Korea. Baekdusan is a high desolate volcanic landscape blanketed in snow, where shrilling Siberian winds prevent human habitation. However, its caldera is a crystal blue lake and represents to the people of Korea their birthplace. For Koreans, the mountains contain not only Koreans’ spirits but the spirits of the mountains—they are fused together, their DNA inseparable.
Fortresses—of which there were once thousands in Korea—were erected on mountain ledges and ridges. Shamanic shrines and, later, Buddhist hermitages were built high in the mountains to attain greater kinship with the mountain spirits. The most precious herbs and spices came from the mountains. Mountains influenced everything: religion, art, literature, foods, and water. They even dictated the angles and locations of villages and palaces based on the geomantic will and identity of the neighboring mountain system. Not much was void.
Mountains and Humans On the peninsula, the mountains stretch endlessly over the horizon, like a sea in a heavy gale. The white ridges are twisted, with gnarled forests of native hardwood pines growing eerily from cliff faces and smooth boulders the size of palaces. Deep mountain valleys pass as fairylands of rock-strewn streams gushing water greener and clearer than any emerald on Earth. Rivers are guided by bladed mountain ranges and escorted out to the seas. Villages form alongside coastlines, riverways, and mountain edges.
This terrain can even be diagrammed, making it more unique to Korea. The Baekdu Daegan (White Head Great Ridge) forms the backbone of the peninsula. This continuous ridge transmits natural energies throughout the peninsula. It also forms the watershed, providing life. From there, its subsidiary ridges
and lesser ridges splay throughout the peninsula, transmitting and guiding these natural energies and waterways farther. On an old carved wooden template used to make Korea’s oldest maps, this detail looks exactly like the human chart of our arterial, venous, and central nervous systems. In a sense, to damage this energy is to damage life. Mountains and humans are biologically the same to the Koreans. It was only by chance some six years ago that my exploration of these stunningly beautiful mountain ridges began. It was their endless maze that led me to the side of Korea that not many Westerners knew about. It was the mountains that showed me where these historical places once were and where many still remain today. It was the study of its peaks that revealed to me Korea’s cultures and histories. The more time I spent in the mountains, the greater effect these energies had on me. I too became part of Korea’s landscape.