Escape to Jirisan National Park for stunning mountains vistas, waterfalls and temples.
My guide is bursting with energy as we make our way up Mount Jirisan. In her 10 years as a tour guide in South Korea, this is one of the few places that she has never had the chance to visit. And for her, a hike up the mountain is an experience all her friends will be envious of.
“I’ll catch up,” I tell her as I stop to inhale a lungful of air. My heart is beating wildly and I’m not completely convinced that I have the stamina to trek all the way to the top. We’re only a third of the way up the Nogodan trail and the route is gradually becoming steeper.
Then the concrete walkway ends and I’m forced to concentrate on placing each foot steadily on large uneven slabs of rock. The steady uphill walk is slowly chipping away at my resolve.
School children bounce along happily past as I stop to catch my breath again. A group of elderly ladies, brandishing serious walking staffs, march past at a cracking pace. Young lovers stroll along hand in hand, the woman in a pair of high heeled shoes unsuitable for hiking. Their enthusiasm invigorates me and I put on another spurt.
As South Korea is a mountainous country, it is not surprising that mountain hiking is one of the nation’s favourite pastimes. South Koreans are attracted to mountain hiking like fish to water. And Mount Jirisan National Park is revered.
Jirisan National Park
Although it was the first national park in South Korea, the area hardly registers as an international tourist destination. The park straddles three southern provinces: Jeollabuk-do, Jeollanam-do and Gyeongsangnam-do. And is the largest mountain park in South Korea, occupying an area of 440,485 square kilometres. Its highest peak, Chonwangbang, is 1,915 m above sea level and is often referred to as the pillar of heaven.
You can book a room in one of the many farms, local inns or temples for a genuine South Korean countryside experience.
For hikers, the Nogodan trail is one of the most popular. Around two thirds of the way up, there’s a viewing station and a drinks kiosk. I stop to wash my face and refill my water bottle with water from the clear mountain stream next to the kiosk.
A group of students are snapping photographs of each other with their camera phones, proof that they made it this far up the mountain.
I’m focused on catching up with my guide so I continue upwards. The final section of the ascent is the most difficult and the climb seems endless. The rocky steps are uneven and difficult to clamber over.
When I finally reach the top, I throw myself on a flat rocky ledge feeling elated. The atmosphere is charged with excitement. A team of hikers is ripping into packs of food in preparation for the next leg of their journey down the other side of the mountain and a few hours of hiking through the valley.
I sit and stare at the pristine 360-degree views of the surrounding area. For me, climbing this trail provides the chance to experience nature in South Korea and to appreciate the fighting spirit of the people of this country.
Nestled deep in the valley, I can just make out the Hwaemsa temple enshrouded by a mysterious mist. From here, the temple is a five-hour hike on foot. Although the monks of the Cho-ge sect often hike the mountain paths before dawn, it’s a little too far for me to tackle today. Later, I follow my guide back down the way we came up and we drive through the valley to visit the temple.
All around Korea, the Cho-ge Zen Buddhist sect has thrown open their temple doors letting visitors from all over the world in to stay, experience or just observe their daily routines.
The temple is a peaceful hideaway in the forest and the monks are welcoming. Accommodation is provided in separate halls for men and women. We’re shown to the women’s hall where we’re given thin bedrolls and a pillow each. The bathroom facilities are communal.
In the morning, I’m awakened by the sound of the gong which signals the morning devotion. It’s three am and the sky is as black as ink. I follow the sound of chanting into the prayer hall and watch the monks praying. After devotions, I join them for a simple vegetarian breakfast.
Our next stop is Samseonggung, a hobbit-like rock monastery in the mountains built as a shrine to honour Korea’s three mythological founders: hwanin (the tiger), hwanung (the bear) and tangun (the first ancestor).
Hikers and monks are not the only people who are enticed by the energy of Mount Jirisan. Also tucked away in the mountains is the Chonghakdong (blue crane) village. It’s like stepping into a historic time portal where villagers go about their daily chores dressed in the plain white or grey hanbok (Korean national dress) of long-gone era. Boys and girls in the village wear their hair in long pigtails. Married men knot their hair and women fashion their hair into a chignon just like you see in traditional Korean folk paintings.
We knock on the door of a village elder, Kim Deuk Jun. Dressed in his traditional white hanbok, the spritely 78-year-old is delighted to see us. He brings out complex charts of the earth and begins to talk enigmatically about the villagers’ commonly ascribed philosophy. “We try to live our lives on a higher plain where materialism is no longer important,” says Kim.
The charts he shows us were passed on to him through several generations of family members. They look like a university professor might have prepared them and reveal a philosophy based on astrological calculations that predict world changes. “The good news is the wheel is about to turn and will soon bring prosperity to many countries in Asia Pacific,” says Kim.
I’m glad of that. A dose of good fortune is just what we need.