South Korea: A British Lady on the Baekdu Daegan

Sarah Brown is a female Brit who held an obsession with the Himalayas, but still she had never attempted a through-hike anywhere. One day, she read a travel article written by journalist Daniel Adamson for the Guardian Newspaper. Daniel had approached me about the 백두대간 in 2013 and then came to Korea to explore a section of it, having a memorable time. That article had an effect on Sarah, because next thing she did was buy the Baekdu Daegan Trail Guidebook, quit her job in the civil service, and then planned how to ‘start walking’ the world.

I asked her if she found the guidebook useful?

“I cut up the book in order to save weight, it’s the first time I have ever cut up a book,” she answered.

‘What?’ I wasn’t sure to be offended or not, ‘She cut the guidebook up?

With no language skills, no job, and no cellphone, how on earth would she cope in Korea? Not only that, but the 백두대간  was to be Sarah’s introduction to through-hiking, she was a complete novice, and to top it all off, she was a woman doing it alone! I thought this was all very bold and adventurous. How would the Koreans react? I had to trust that the people of the 백두대간 would take good care of her. I felt there was a sense of obligation by the Korean people to assist foreigners roaming in the mountains with big bags on their backs. Upon inquiring, the Koreans were often struck with awe and disbelief that a foreigner would make the effort to come to Korea to trek its mountains, especially the 백두대간, and so in return through hospitality, they would help ensure that their stay was at least memorable.

So, in April 2015, she caught a flight to Korea. On the flight over, she again studied the guidebook and learnt ‘10 essential Korean words’. Her plan was to walk for at least three weeks along a section of the Baekdu Daegan from백복령 동해시 간원도southwards to 천왕봉 in 지리산. Due to national park winter closures, Sarah would avoid 소백산 and 월악산 and try to be in 덕유산 and 지리산 when they reopen in May.

“Glad I brought the four season sleeping bag.” Sarah emailed me in late April from a smoky and noisy PC방 in김천시. ‘Poor girl, she didn’t have a phone,’ I remembered. The idea of someone using a PC방 in 2015 to communicate with the outside world was sadly humorous.

She typed, “I’d be very grateful if you would let me know if you can confirm that the 해인산장 still exists and is open at the moment? I am struggling with my lack of a phone and 10 words of Korean.” As I read her words, I could almost hear her reciting them aloud above the racket of Gamers playing League of Legends, StarCraft, and Diablo. “I am considering a long day from 괘방령 to 해인산장 but before I commit, it would be good to know if Mr. Kim Yong Won still runs the shelter,” her voice rising above the din.

Sarah was inquiring about the해인 산장  under 삼도봉 1176m in 부항면, 김천시, it was featured in the guidebook. That she wanted to walk from괘방령 to 해인산장 to get there was an, “ambitious 26km walk. Not an easy feat with a big bag in the Korean mountains,” I typed loudly back at her through the email.

“I want to take a break from tenting, smoked eggs and tuna, and sleep in a Korean accommodation in the mountains with real Korean food and people.” She yells back through the keyboard. “It must be part of my experience!”

“Okay then!” I yell back.

On her way to 삼도봉

Before I called the number, I fondly remembered my encounter at 해인산장 back in 2007. Andrew and I were out of water, and made the descent to the spring under the peak. There we saw the sign to해인산장and decided to go there. On our arrival we were met by a very old lady, who we later found out to be the grandmother of the owner 김용원, an ex-mountaineer. She was sitting in the lounge taking long slow tugs on what were extra-long-cigarettes. Andrew being a smoker and upon seeing an undistinctive Korean marked packet, excitedly thought they might be North Korean and politely asked for one. She said nothing and tossed him the packet gruffly across the floor. We liked her style.

I called 김용원and was surprised to find out that he remembered us. I managed to explain to him that there was a solo female foreigner hiking the 백두대간  and that she was coming to stay at his 산장 on April 30th.  He told me not to worry about anything.

I emailed Sarah back and told her it was all arranged.

The following are excerpts from her stay there.

“The day had started from 괘방령 very misty, it had rained heavily practically all day the day before, but it cleared up in the afternoon. I got on to the ridge in good time and did fantastically well completing the first section to the cow monument (우두령) by 10am. I didn’t get the 360 degree views but the weather cleared up in the afternoon.”

“From 삼도봉, I recall it’s a long walk down to 해인산장?” I asked her.

“Oh my word when I think of it even now my feet throb.” She moaned.

“I pressed on, summited 삼도봉 relatively straightforwardly, well after the fixed rope incident it couldn’t get any harder right? I found the turning for the mountain shelter, took it and came across the spring not long afterwards – bliss! After a long, very hard on the feet, slog down a mountain road I arrived at the sanjang.”

“What fixed rope incident are you talking about?” I asked.

“Well you have to remember that I was walking the other way, so the descents in your book became my ascents. There were so many of them that I became a pro climber, like a mountain goat, well a slow moving mountain goat. By the end of the walk I got upper body strength I never knew I had but would rather not have discovered it this way.”

Sarah arrived, unsure if she was at the right place, reading Korean was difficult.

“Being early in the season the place was really quiet, the other women arrived in a car they weren’t hikers but they weren’t old either, I have no idea why they were there? Mr. Kim was outside chopping logs. I kind of guessed I had got to the right place because of all the ropes at the entrance.”

The climbing ropes had been mentioned in the guidebook.

It seemed that Mr. Kim’s wife had been tasked to take care of Sarah. However, for the next couple of hours, Sarah wasn’t sure what was going on?

“My whole trip I had a phrase book, or a point-to-it-by-hand-book. I used it daily except of course on the very rare occasions when I was completely alone. So I got quite good at having conversations with the phrase book.”

I think what Sarah meant was that she got good at pointing to translated words in her phrasebook. She wanted to eat dinner, so now it was time to put her pointing-at-it phrase book skills to use.

“I was always happy to eat what was put in front of me, apart from any thing that has had feet at one point in its life, and although octopus don’t have feet, I don’t think I’ll ever find octopus raw or cooked acceptable at breakfast.”

“What? Did they serve you raw octopus?” I asked.

“No, I’m a vegetarian. I saw it served on a couple of other occasions for breakfast in Korea.”

She’s a vegetarian! I wondered how that went then?

“I have no idea if I will get fed, I’m expecting not, we’ve had a long conversation about it and I’ve been shown a bowl of rice.” Sarah began to wonder if her ‘good phrasebook skills’ were getting her anywhere with Ms. Kim. “When I was with Ms. Kim I felt like she really wanted to talk to me and look after me and that she found it as frustrating as I did that we didn’t have a common language. It didn’t help either that sometimes Mr. Kim would shout from the other room, ‘more beer more chiksa!’”

“What do you think was going on with Mr. Kim?” I asked.

“I wasn’t sure if he meant beer for himself, other guests, or us, but then Ms. Kim would dash away, and on her return she would have another bowl of rice for me, however, she seemed more interested in my phrase book than Mr. Kim ‘who thinks the answer to everything is beer!’ I ate a lot of rice.”

“What about those other women you had seen on arrival?”

“The other women staying felt so sorry for me so they gave me two pro-biotic yogurts (야쿠르트). Obviously language was the main problem. They were drinking beer, burping and gorging on the takeout that I guess they got from the village. I don’t eat meat, so appreciated the yoghurts. But I was beginning to think that I might have to dig into my own meagre supplies and eat a chocolate bar.”

So with her bowl of rice, Sarah ate her chocolate bar.

“And soon after that Mr. Kim came and got me and took me into their house to eat. I was very pleased; you have no idea.”

“Can you remember what you ate?”

“A delicious array of, lots of dishes of green things and more rice and some soup as well which I think included tofu. We managed ‘goodness only knows how’ to establish that I don’t eat meat. ‘No meat,’ was part of my small Korean vocabulary.”

Cleaned, fed, and exhausted from the long day, Sarah went to sleep in her ondul-room but as she lay on the warm floor listening to the gushing mountain stream, she was still unsure what the morning routine would be, “I was hoping to get a lift up the horribly long steep road tomorrow but I’m not sure that will be forthcoming.

“The next morning, although not until 7am ‘I had wanted to depart earlier’ I ate my first Korean breakfast with them, and it wasn’t raw octopus, instead it was lots of green stuff, rice and bean sprouts.

“To experience really good Korean food, you have to stay with a family, and then after breakfast Ms. Kim presented me with a made packed lunch of 김밥, I was thoroughly spoilt! And to top it all off, they gave me a lift to the start of the trail! I couldn’t believe it! Everything came to just 36,000 won.  I still have the receipt. Not bad considering the amount of rice I managed to consume.

“It was the first time I had stayed in a mountain shelter, so it was all pretty new to me. There are other newer places that have sprung up on the road on the way to their place but I’d stay at Mr. and Ms. Kim’s’ again just for the experience. Mr. Kim was a real character.”

I received a few more ‘amusing’ emails from Sarah as she made her way south along the Baekdu Daegan. Here are a few highlights;

“The owner of the 치재마을민박 (아영면 남원시) was also a real character,  and I was almost married off in 매요리 (운봉읍 남원시). I literally ran for the hills at first light! Despite the language difficulties I’ve been really well looked after wherever I have stayed the Koreans are unbelievably hospitable.”

And then on May 17, 2015 after her journey was over, I got this;

“I’ve just landed in 진주, slightly shell shocked after 22 days in the hills. I made the summit of 천왕봉 yesterday morning around 6.15am by which time most of the locals were on their way down having seen the sun rise so I had it all to myself for a few moments. It’s been a real adventure, I’m a little disappointed not to have completed more of the trail but I guess that gives me an excuse to come back another time.”


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