백두대간: Hiking The Tiger’s Back


April 17th, 2011 

Its long whiskers reach Baekdu Mountain (백두) in Manchuria. Its tail hangs down to the tip of the South Korean peninsula. Today I start walking the Baekdu-daegan (), a trail known to hikers as the tiger’s back.To reach the demilitarized zone that ribbons the north, I’m set on doing only what I physically can. The hike is over 700 kilometres, and it climbs and falls hundreds of meters within a day, averaging out at the brisk height of 1000 meters.

What baffles me now, not in any writings were the words ‘April’ and ‘blizzards’ ever paired. The beauty, the still calmness of a snowy bamboo forest makes me uneasy as I struggle to the mainland’s tallest peak, Cheonhwang-bong (천왕봉), around 1,915 meters above sea level.

Rain turns to drizzle, snowfall, whitewall. My heat sources include: a non-thermal, second-hand sleeping bag (never used), a balaclava, a propane stove bought at the foot of the mountain, and a tarpaulin.

            The temperature falls; I try to spark my stove in a clearing, but the flint is too damp. I drag myself up the pebbled vertebra of stones flanking a mountain stream. Hours on, the trail plateaus, and in the distant treetops, I spot a chimney. As I only studied the Korean language of Hangul () for one year, the chimney affirms much guesswork, concluding a few fragmented conversations with passengers on the bus that had brought me to the trailhead.

            The trail withholds. It dangles a carrot. It’s like a bitter old man who won’t give a dog a bone. It won’t ease a cheap craving. It teaches with tough love. So when you’ve forgotten why you’re walking, and when you’ve given up for a moment, and areexisting as any animal in the forest, something may appear a few hundred meters ahead of you. At that point, you’ll be shocked to see what you’d have been expected to see since dawn. It’s still hundreds of meters on, yet you doubt it could be the object, the stream of drinkable water, the shelter, the highway, the end.

            Hikers fire up their stoves beneath the shelter, cooking and eating, they split into groups. With his wife and daughter, a hiker in a black winter hat hands me a shot of soju (소주). This green-bottle staple of social binging has Churchgoers stepping over men in suits and ties, snuggling curbs in the capital city. All too familiar, I place my left hand on my right arm as I receive, then turn my head away from the family, customarily both concealing and acknowledging a taboo as I tip the glass back.

            The shelter’s generator chugs to a halt at around 8 p.m. In a warm, wooden, pentagonal room near the peak of Cheonhwang-bong, I realize my new sleeping bag barely reaches my chest, and the zipper is shot. Wind cutting across the ridge, the blizzard continues, and I have so much adrenaline it’s hard to sleep.


May 1st, 2011           

The Baekdu-daegan is also called the dog’s back, because it furls and rolls, endlessly. Today, its heckles were up.

I took a fall, damaging my shoulder. I was almost sick as I struggled to Bae-Jae (배재), translated: the pass of bones.

Starving refugees of the Korean War hiding out at this eerie mountain pass were said to have bones protruding through their skin. The convenient store listed is aptly abandoned, its empty shelves gray with dust.

The desolate interstate feels hollow and eerie. Finally, a taxi approaches, and I pick myself up from a stone-wall.

“Is there a bathhouse near?” I ask, in Hangul.

Geochang (거창읍).

A magnificent little city, in spring.


May 2nd, 2011

With one leg half the length of the other, a man with a blazing and honest stare washes my laundry as I walk the streets of a city I hadn’t known exists. Standing beneath a smokestack on the rooftop of the bathhouse where I’d slept, the city of Geochang is great, endless, organic sprawl, lined with necklaces of lanterns. Old Korean men on antique bikes with back-peddle-brakes circle a roundabout, some of them in bowler caps and suit jackets. Motorcycles propel into traffic without helmets or license plates, shifting gears in flip-flops. Free to choose recklessness or safety, these streets remind me of Indonesia. The refreshing abandon of these two places could all stem from their mutual affirmation in karma, certainty in reincarnation.


May 3rd, 2011

A morning taxi ride returns me to the gloomy pass of bones. A wooden staircase leads to the first plateau. For one day, I know only arduous plough-of-foot leading to an artist’s hermitage, also abandoned. Many days on the trail are unpunctuated, laborious, and end at yet another windy highway-pass-nowhere.

Every time I reach a peak, this little bird sings, “Woopty doo, woopty doo, woopty doo.”

The night was long, dressed in all of my clothes, sleeping bag, balaclava, and a tarpaulin, shivering. Spurting, red flares of ROK fighter jets trailed across a broad navy-blue sky, the surroundings lit only by a mysteriously high-wattage lantern in the hills, illuminating entire ridges, crags, valleys, mountains.


May 4th, 2011

Will and Kate are married, my Great Uncle Hugh has died, and my niece is two years old.

Someone walked on my sleeping matt in the morning and said something to me. With the sun up, it was warm enough for me to sleep, and so I ignored this person.

I wrote them into a dream.


May 8th, 2011

Parents day in Korea, I relieve my hosts of their son, and head to Gimcheon City (김천시) with the thirteen-year-old. As his home is a shelter for trail hikers like me, his name is Baekdu of the Baekdu-daegan Guest House.

Gimcheon City: sprawling out door markets, sociable people – Buddhist majority makes all the difference.

            We head uphill through weaving, narrow cement alleys to the city’s largest temple. Baekdu teaches me how to bow, and then he starts to chant. I meditate, trying to notice more than my foot odour. Incense swirls in the cavernous, hardwood temple – traffic passes, outside.


May 10th, 2011

It’s the big Buddha’s 2,555th birthday bash in Korea’s largest temple, Jikji Sa (직지사). Mahayana Buddhism seems strange, to me. The boy and I bow to every ornate sculpture along a trail for half a kilometre. Could warlords and academic monks form a balanced mandala?

Our long approach to the temple passes many all-vegetarian vendors, though the name of a single, smoky side street translates to ‘meat-street’, for those who’ve lost their way.

In the crowded courtyard, the monk leads us in prayer. All I know is to bow when he strikes the gourd, faster, faster, faster.

Tok tok tok tok tok toktoktktktktk…

Students completing mandatory military service return home for this ceremony, heading to the temples with family. The carved and fit youth are still sporting their green camouflage, black boots, hats, and aviators. This incongruity is outdone by the serene and modest demeanour of their sincere prayers.

            Generous, communal bowls of vegetarian bibimbap (비빔밥 ) are offered in a large, wooden hall. Today, the hall is open to the public. I wish it were quiet, as intended.

            Afterwards, to keep up my routine, I speed-walk around the nearby city once more, for the rest of the day.

            Gimcheon City: humble, grungy, with light-hearted people in cold mountain air.

            I sleep shoulder-to-shoulder with the boy on a heated floor. I give him a hat and a shirt from Canada.

I will miss this place.


May 21st, 2011

I find calmness at a creek where I fill my bottles and spot a deer. I admire the machinery of her torso and legs. Tangible peace. From there, I find my way to another mountain shelter, anxious to check my e-mail.

            Co-author of the brilliant and only Baekdu-daegan Trail Guidebook, written by Andrew Douch with David A. Mason, Robert Shepherd writes encouragingly, I should feel akin to the ancient poets, philosophers, vagabonds, and yangban aristocrats that famously walked this path. If I can complete the BDDG, he calls it, I will be as fit as my hunter and gatherer forefathers, and, “…hopefully you’ll be wearing more clothes.”

Ahead of me by tens of kilometres is an Australian doctor of sixty-six, Roger adds.

I’ve got some catching up to do.


May 22nd, 2011

Last night I slept comfortably in deep forest. The full, bucket mouth of moonlight spilled out, nearly meeting the horizon. Surfacing in the night, I thought it was morning.

Ripping through the stillness, an animal screeched, snorted, and pounded the ground. At worst, it sounded like two large stones grinding in friction at a construction site. This is the territorial call of Korea’s barking deer, the roe. Haggardly, I come to the edge of the clearing, and with a log, slam the ground and shout. Tens of minutes pass; the roe barks again, defining the dark cove of forest with its loud sneeze, having already run tens of meters away.


May 26th, 2011

Over a month on the trail, exploring sheltered, mountain towns and cities, I have become aware:

Not eating at all would be better for a hiker than eating a large meal. As funny as the words banana, pickle, and peanut butter are, food is no banality.

The pelvis is your centre of gravity.

Handwriting and sketching improve with exercise. I am now writing journals clearly, and at half the scale.

In a day of hiking around 20 KM, there’s almost always a moment of clarity. During these pauses, you look at the surrounding forest, feeling like you belong. During all other passing moments, there is simply something in the way. This is regrettable.

The main support for your rucksack should be the stomach strap. Any other way will result in agonizing shoulder pain.

            Today I reach the road at 5 pm. Another desolate pass. I follow the book’s instructions, passing a trail of doltap to a rural bus stop, taking a seat next to an older woman with one eye. She breaks the silence to tell me that there isn’t a bus, anymore.

            Looking for supplies and hot food, not expecting to find them, I cut between the dog farms, the cow farms, of a rustic mountain village. Then, a white poodle trails her owner: a woman in a light, black dress. We glance at each other, and I greet her in Korean. A flashy stone swastika hangs around her neck.

            When she hears I’m hiking the trail and looking for supplies, she invites me to a surprisingly modern home, filling my bag with noodles, kimchi, chapagetti, and yakult.

            Outside of her house is a fabric tent, and something is prodding, poking at the walls.


            A husky, male voice curses out in Korean, and a short man storms out to meet us, two ends of a broken golf club in his hands, grinning.

            “Are you hear to give me golf lessons?” he asks.

            “You teach me!” I reply.

            The newly weds walk me through a gallery of their art: renditions of Buddhist scriptures painted with blank ink, painted with real gold.

            Their neighbour strides over in maroon robes, head shaven, prayer beads are hung around his neck, and the four of us take shelter from a sudden rain. Sitting on a golden hand that my hostess had made, warming myself over their pottery kiln, I take out a coconut kalimba thumb piano from Bali. As the rain strikes the tin roof and we draw a blank, my thoughts are with the dogs tied up outside, one of them living on top of a scrap pile of broken pottery in the rain. As soon as it lightens, I head out to pet her.

            The four of us have dinner at the monk’s house, cross-legged on the floor. Buddhist symbols, marked in pen on scraps of paper, are pinned to the walls, and prayer beads hang by the door.                                                                        That night, the potter fires up the kiln, heating the cement floor of his studio. The three walls of my bedroom tonight are shelves decked with shapely, curving pottery, vases, plates, jugs, and sculptures, and my sore back is being heated.

            I wake in the night to the chain-smoking potter cursing out a pregnant cat. Running off, the cat weaves between and behind the works on his shelves.

            “It’s not my cat, it’s my wife’s,” he explains, in Korean. “You bastard!”

            Before he continues filling an order for dishes, his small hands pounding gray clay, the potter presses play on a tape deck, leaving behind a gray fingerprint. This fills his studio with an old recording of the chanting monks of JikjiSa.

            Tok tok tok toktoktoktoktktktkk…

            When the potter’s wife comes in, he chases her around the studio, muttering something about her cat, madly puffing his cigarette and cursing, brilliantly. Not that it would matter, but I wonder if it’s all just a show put on for me.

            Anyway, I don’t want to sleep through such moments.


May 27th, 2011

My hike ends abruptly in Mungyeong (문경): a beat city in a crown of mountains that serves as a pass between Seoul and Busan. A Las Vegas of neon hotels fills half of the city, while the other half is residential, busy with school children, with a warm, Buddhist ambience.

            Leaving the trail for a job offer doesn’t feel right – not at all. I feel torn, reluctant, also slightly relieved. I’ll soon be with native speakers, again. I can go dancing in Seoul, and then be gone.

A large doltap trail marker stands near Mungyeong, marking the halfway point of the Baekdu-daegan. I take out my knife and cut my large guidebook in half. When I come back to finish what I began, my pack will be that much lighter.


One thought on “백두대간: Hiking The Tiger’s Back

  1. Lihatlah, “halaman tentang loe”- kemudian, gantilah yang loe tak tulis

    I was in Daegu a bit back, walked into a restaurant serving muchimhoe (another entrant in the majjisayo category). But the thing is, the grandmother assumed I had no idea how to eat, so she rolled up some of the dish into lettuce and lalu taruh di dalam mulutku. Is that why you like Korea, Dave?

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