Along the Trail of Korea's Mountain Spirits

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THE titanium spork was a Christmas gift from my brother Gregory, a choice that seemed random at the time. I had no use for ultra-lightweight dual-use cutlery. But nine months later, almost 7,000 miles from my home in New York City and nearly catatonic with exhaustion, I was thankful for its lack of heft. Gregory; my husband, Joe; and I had been hiking for 12 hours while hoisting a 30-pound backpack over steep and slippery rock in a thick mist. After nightfall, headlamps fading, we spotted dots of light below us in the dark, and heard the eerie whoosh of a wind generator. We stumbled down to the Satgat-jae shelter, a basic cabin for hikers perched at over 4,200 feet in South Korea's Deogyusan National Park. I unpacked my spork.

It was Gregory, now living in South Korea and flush with the zeal of the newly expatriated, who had suggested we hike a portion of the Baekdu-Daegan trail. The Baekdu-Daegan is a mountain system running the entire length of the two Koreas, some 870 miles. On maps, it appears as the topographical backbone of the Korean Peninsula, but I soon realized it was also a psycho-spiritual one. The notion first occurred to me when Gregory told us that his city-dwelling Korean girlfriend said he would understand her better if he hiked the Baekdu-Daegan. And when Joe and I checked out of our ultramodern hotel in central Seoul, the receptionist clapped when I told her what we were about to do.

South Korea may be among the most wired and densely populated countries in the world, but its first religion many centuries ago -- before the arrival of Christianity, Confucianism and Buddhism -- was based on the worship of mountain spirits. The Korean version of feng shui, known as pungsu-jiri, holds that the nation's energy flows south along the Baekdu-Daegan ridge and outward along its branches. By the time of our trip, I had developed a theory that the mountains are to Koreans as the Wild West is to Americans: even if a New Yorker, say, has never set foot on a ranch, he likes to think he's got a little bit of cowboy in his soul. It's part of the collective unconscious.

Since the '80s, as both freedom and wealth have spread in South Korea, so has the popularity of mountaineering. As it has, the South Korean portion of the Baekdu-Daegan has become hikable along nearly all of its 457-mile ridge, with trails built and maintained by the Korea Forest Service, part of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Weekend warriors tackle it in chunks, and a hardy few attempt the entire length as an epic two-month trek.

In the spring, Gregory had mailed me the only English-language guidebook to the trail. The spork had been a subtle lure, but I took the guidebook as an all-out invitation and began making plans for a September trip. My brother had lived in South Korea for much of his 20s, but, always too busy or broke from my own globe-trotting, I had never visited. Now he was moving back there at the age of 37, in love with Korea, the Korean language and a Korean woman. I wanted to better understand his decision, which seemed to be either a bold gamble on personal happiness or a crazy one. And I wanted to know the place that might be his permanent home.

Gregory is younger than I am, but he became our leader, particularly after we left the capital and entered the countryside, where we saw no other foreigners and heard virtually no English, and so were dependent on his Korean skills.

The section of trail we had chosen began in a southern farming region and took us north into 90-square-mile Deogyusan National Park. Clouds clung to the hills, a reminder of the unseasonably late typhoon that had passed over the peninsula the day before. As we ascended, we were almost immediately passed by a hiking club -- 15 lithe men and women in the black hiking pants favored there, made from panels of high-tech-looking fabric. Their leader broke his stride just long enough to tie a ribbon to a tree marking their passage; some branches we passed were festooned with these brightly colored strips.

In height, South Korea's mountains are more akin to the Appalachians than the Rockies -- the highest mainland peak is 6,283-foot Jirisan. They can, however, be jagged in the extreme. We planned to cover just seven miles on the first day, but the steep and constant ups and downs soon had us aching. We often had to climb using our hands, and in many places we used the chains and ropes that the forest service had helpfully attached to the rocks.

As we limped into our second morning, we decided to rethink our itinerary. Instead of sticking religiously to the trail for six days, we would weave our way on and off, stopping at villages and temples along the way. Things immediately improved. For one thing, the sun had come out. For another, we were going downhill. Soon we were following a stream, broken up by waterfalls and pools through a deciduous forest of maple, hazel and birch. We stopped to talk to a pair of Korean hikers on their way up. I would hear Gregory explain our presence so many times over the course of this trip that I began to pick up the words for sister and brother-in-law. "People look at you differently when you're traveling with family," he said to me after another encounter with fellow hikers. "You're not a suspicious bachelor."

Two nights later we found our way to another park shelter, this one just below 5,282-foot Hyangjeok-bong. At sunset we climbed to the peak and had the 360-degree view to ourselves. To both east and west, mountain ranges in shades of gray, blue and black, each one silhouetted against the next, stretched away like waves on an ocean.

After sunset, at a picnic table outside our shelter, we encountered the two best-equipped hikers I have ever met. Kwang Sub Shin and Jin Koo Suk, who both work for a bank in Seoul, hike sections of the Baekdu-Daegan on weekends. Each had a headlamp strapped to his forehead. Music played from a phone, which was attached to a solar battery. Bottles of ice-cold rice wine were scattered around the table. Mr. Suk cut pieces of sweet potato and added them to a bubbling pot of fish broth. From atop a second camp stove he served hot barbecued duck. They put to shame the instant rice and curry we'd been subsisting on.

Fortunately we had two items to add to the feast. Both had been controversial when we set out (the less heft the better): canned peaches and boxes of soju, the national tipple. The temperature dropped with nightfall, but the steam and aromas from the table kept us warm. With Gregory translating, I asked our new friends if they thought my cowboy metaphor made sense. Did Koreans all have a little bit of mountaineer in their souls? Mr. Shin looked up from under his headlamp and replied with a simple but emphatic "yes."

The spring outside our shelter had a sign on it, which Gregory told me said the water was drinkable. The next morning, though, seeing me filling my bottle, Mr. Suk dashed toward me in alarm. "Ah," Gregory said. "It says do not drink this water."

"Sorry," he said, and then, in the tone he uses when waxing philosophical, "the window is only half open."

IF Gregory's window onto Korea was only half open, then mine was barely cracked. It occurred to me that this sense of traveling through a half-understood world was something we had both sought many times over. Moving to a different culture meant the world suddenly became more mysterious. It could make you feel like a perpetual outsider. But it also made you feel as if you were always learning.

After hiking another stretch of the Baekdu-Daegan, we descended steeply out of the national park and took a bus through fields of garlic, peppers, zucchini and ginseng. We had one more stop to make before ending our pilgrimage, at Haeinsa, a Buddhist temple draped over the folds of Mount Gaya. On the sunny Sunday afternoon when we arrived, swarms of day-tripping urbanites were taking the half-mile stroll from parking lot to temple in full regalia -- stretchy tops, hiking boots and black super-pants -- as if their gear were a type of modern religious raiment.

Certain temples, Haeinsa included, allow guests to stay overnight, but you have to follow their rules. Gregory and Joe were sent to share a spartan room, while I got my own. We ate silently in the monks' dining hall. Just before sundown we gathered in the central courtyard, where, standing under a pavilion's carved and painted eaves, a young monk in gray and maroon robes beat on a drum taller than he was, the deep sound echoing off the mountains. When it was dark, we ascended to the main worship hall, from which golden Buddhas shone like suns. We took off our shoes and sat next to an enormous window open to the night. Chanting rose and fell around us.

I couldn't understand the words. But I did understand a little more why Gregory wanted to be there. He'd learned enough to know that he could spend a long time learning more.

travel

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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