Sunrise on top of Jirisan’s Cheonwangbong Peak can be one of the most vibrantly stunning sites in Korea if you catch it on a clear day. There’s nothing like watching the waves of clouds roll over the mountaintops.
One rainless morning last September, about 100 hikers had the same idea as my boyfriend, Inwoo, and me: reach the summit before the sun completely rose. We began trekking at 4:30 a.m. Despite the clicking of cameras and heavy breathing, it was easy to bask in the serenity. The sense of camaraderie was strong. But somehow, we still felt so alone out there.
There is just something about those mountains.
The mountains in question are located in Jirisan National Park, Korea’s oldest and biggest national park, and remain amongst the country’s most sacred. Spread across three provinces in south-central Korea, close to the towns of Jinju to the east and Gurye to the west, Jirisan is called “the mountain of the odd and wise people,” according to the Korea National Park Service (KNPS) website.
Korean legend also has it that when a “stupid person stays in Jirisan, that person becomes a wise person,” according to the website of Sancheong County, located at the base of Jirisan.
Inwoo and I were casual about planning our three-day hike across the ridge (called Jong-Joo in Hangul) over Chuseok’s long weekend. Case in point: Without time to break in new hiking boots, Inwoo opted for the lightweight sneakers he already had at home. Besides that “minor” detail, we figured we’d packed enough clothes, supplies and energy for the trip. In hindsight, we should’ve thought twice about that. Jirisan, while doable for the average hiker, is nothing like Namsan or some of Seoul’s other well-manicured mountains. Jirisan’s ridge is more raw.
But let me emphasize: Doable. Fun. Awesome. Just be prepared.
Still, for those who don’t have time to spend three days hiking (or even four including transportation/travel time), hiking trails of many lengths weave up the mountains, making it a popular destination for day trekkers and mountain men (and women) alike. According to the KNPS, more than 2.5 million people visited the park and its 51 hiking trails in 2011 alone.
Compared to Seoul’s popular mountains, which are often heavily packed with happy hikers, the ridge trek we chose seemed like a crowd-free gem, a place where it’s just you and the mountain. Though we probably passed more than 15 people each day on trail—especially near the peak—it certainly didn’t feel like it. Several of those hikers became familiar faces we passed each day, including one we secretly called our “Red Riding Hood,” a friendly, scarlet-clothed trekker we often saw as we made our way along the mountains.
The night before we started, we arrived in Gurye, a quiet countryside town close to Jirisan’s west entrance. We loaded up on basic necessities: apples, peanut butter, water and toilet paper. We’d brought some energy bars and bits of other food. We decided that this, coupled with our purchases, was sufficient for a three-day hike. Our bus left Gurye Bus Terminal around 8 a.m. (get there early as the buses aren’t very frequent), and we were soon dropped off on a road paralleling a small, deserted amusement park. It was an unexpected and lovely way to begin. Turns out the western starting point, Hwaeomsa Temple, was close by.
The rigor of the steep, 7-kilometer hike up to pit stop one, Nogodan Shelter, was relieved somewhat by the abundance of songpyeon given to us by local hikers we bumped into. It was Chuseok, after all.
Once at Nogodan, the trail flattened, but still: lots of up. Overestimating our ability (maybe we, the non-hiking Southern Californian without hiking shoes and the Coloradan who’d never done a three-day hike, shouldn’t have taken so many breaks), we were still more than three kilometers from the shelter where we’d made our reservation to stay 15 days earlier. With eight shelters spanning the tops of Jirisan’s peaks listed on the national park’s website, we luckily found our way to one, even if it wasn’t what we planned.
We were grateful to arrive at the quaint Yeonhacheon Shelter just past dark with a drizzle quickly turning into a light shower. Thankfully, even without a reservation, we were able to each snag a spot on the wooden bunk beds. To sleep, we’d need to separate by gender and assemble next to each other like sardines. Sounds unpleasant, but after a long day, it, our chateau of a mat and blanket (all for less than 10,000 won) was comfortable and awesome. After arriving, Inwoo stuffed his bag with candy bars (the cheap Family Mart prices weren’t marked up despite our distance from civilization), but we ignored buying the cooked rice, ramen or Spam. Instead, we chowed down on our proud and decent dinner of peanut butter and apples. It must have appeared dismal to others in the shelter cooking area—we were soon adopted for the night by older Korean men carrying spreads of side dishes and cooking supplies.
If ever offered a bowl of kimchi jjiggae in return for just washing the dishes, do it. It will never taste better.
If ever offered a bowl of kimchi jjiggae in return for just washing the dishes, do it. It will never taste better. And note to self: bring a burner and pot next time.
Dead to the world an hour or so after arriving at shelter the night before, the early morning rise was easy, and we set off after another kimchi jjiggae feast. This day’s 13-kilometer journey turned out to be the most relaxing stretch of the entire hike. The only problem? A crampon (the metal grips you can strap onto shoes for extra traction) broke—not much of a loss due to their painful nature. Still, we journeyed on.
From Yeonhacheon to our destination, the path followed the ridgeline, sloping over smaller mountains, with sturdy steps and ropes for the rocky stretches. The mist and abundant greenery everywhere felt like a rain forest. We loaded up on food and supplies at shelters we passed. We reached our goal, Jangteomok Shelter, well before dark, and stood in line to get a numbered ticket, much like at the post office, to snag a spot on the endlessly-long wooden beds. All those without reservations (or those who didn’t make it to their intended destination) waited in an out-the-door-and-down-the-stairs line. As with the night before, success was ours and we settled once again onto the wooden beds for the night.
That evening, after seeing our peanut-butter concoctions, a new set of generous Koreans, this time a father-son duo, took us in and fed us a solid meal of kimchi jjiggae and rice for the small price of dish washing. Were we embarrassed? Absolutely not. Heck, we were grateful for something hot and filling, and thankful for their generosity.
Waking in blackness with maybe 75 fellow hikers (many of whom started from the east and planned to descend the same way after seeing the peak) was easy. Getting up before the break of dawn to sleepily journey to Jirisan’s most famous peak took some effort. After leaving the shelter around 4:30 a.m., we meandered our way upward with the line of ants, headlamps glowing, for about an hour or more. The pack briskly climbed the last stretch of trail to reach the 1,915-meter high Cheonwangbong Peak before the sun rose.
We all simply stared. It was worth everything.
After a quick 30 minutes passed, we had to go down. Thing is, hiking downhill is often times harder and more painful than heading up.
Oh, the knees.
We all simply stared. It was worth everything.
We’d planned to continue the whole way to Daewonsa Temple in the east, but were worried we’d get down too late to catch a bus to Seoul by nightfall. Thus, we spent a few hours snailing down the shorter route. Slowed by sleepiness and the rock-strewn path, we left the mountains behind at a leisurely pace. On the way, a man buzzing up the mountain glanced at my boyfriend’s less-than-stellar shoes and asked, “Did you think Jirisan was a joke?”
As Inwoo and I gained ground near the bottom of the mountain, the people became many and the quiet disappeared. We joked that things were just different up “on the mountain.” Having reached the bottom before 11 a.m., and after well-deserved drinks and snacks, we chose to taxi over taking the bus, getting to Jinju with plenty of time for the bus to Seoul. I thought back to the man’s question and grinned. I wish we could have answered: “No, sir. Jirisan is not a joke. Just next time, we’ll bring a portable burner and some proper hiking shoes. We did come down the mountain a little wiser, after all.”
IF YOU GO
When: According to the Korea National Park Service website, peak seasons are April–May, July–August and October–November. Off-peak is January–March, June, September and December.
How: If you’re starting west and heading east, the easiest route is to take a bus from Nambu Bus Terminal in Seoul to Gurye.. A one-way ticket costs 19,100 won. From Gurye Bus Terminal, catch a bus to Seongsamjae parking lot or taxi your way out there.
More information here.
Where to stay: To make a shelter reservation, visit this site. Make sure you visit the website 15 days in advance. Reservations open at 10 a.m., 15 days before the night of your stay. For high-peak times, it’s important to do this early. While some shelter owners will let hikers stay even without a reservation (they let us), others may not and it might already be full.
It’s possible to rent a blanket at the shelter for 2,000 won, so it’s not necessary to bring a sleeping bag. The shelters are heated (except during parts of the summer), but check the websites and weather before you head out. More information about shelters here.
Food: Basic ramen, rice, candy bars, canned coffee, sports drinks and water are available for sale at the shelters, but bringing your own food is highly recommended. While peanut butter, apples and other snacks will do, substantial meals brought by our mountain friends made a difference.
What to bring: Pack according to the season, and bring extra clothes and rain gear. A headlamp and toilet paper are also useful. Bring a trash bag because there won’t be many—if any—while hiking. The KNPS also recommends the following: Portable pots and pans, a portable gas stove, rice, kimchi, and meat.
Photographer John Dourneen is a hiker, traveller and ESL teacher currently residing in China.