The name Baekdu Daegan draws many wild impressions for me. I choose not to study it scientifically or academically, as many folk do. I find that boring, and for those that know nothing of the Baekdu Daegan, then I’m sure they too would find it boring should they were to one day be introduced to it that way. The Korean mountains are a stunning landscape in my opinion, and they are also captivated with a long history of folkism, mythology, religion, art, literature, war, and adventure. Therefore I choose to study it artistically. The Baekdu Daegan is many things. A giant staple bonds Baekdu-san and Jiri-san together. It forms a peninsula with a mysticism of unique mountain culture. Looking at Korea on a map you see a landscape dotted with mountain names that like calligraphy on a rock, carve poetic identity for the people of Korea. Part of my work in North Korea is to search for the various cultural influences mountains have had on the Korean people. The Baekdu Daegan is my main subject for this, and because the two Koreas are so politically different, often my search leads me to a time in their history of when they were One.
We had been staying in a small town called Huechang 희창 about sixty kilometers east of Pyongyang in the province of Pyhongannam-do. Today we were scheduled to drive a long one hundred kilometers north to a mountain called Baek-san 1449m, which sits on the Baekdu Daegan west of the Geumya-river in the province of Hamgyeongnam-do. As usual the mountain names had been plucked off the Sinsangyeong-pyo map by me back in Seoul, and my hosts were doing the best they could to get me to the selected peaks. Driving through the North Korean countryside early in the morning had become a routine for us, and the scenery had always been enchanting. Unsealed dusty roads snuck alongside fresh clear mountain streams on which small farming villages and communities resided. The mid to late October weather had been brilliantly fine most days, but the dryness of the Autumn sun had sizzled the land into a carpet of beaten gold, like the hide of a mangy village dog.
We rolled through the small towns, stopping at occasional checkpoints where we would produce our documents to soldiers. Each checkpoint we got through got us closer and closer to the mountains. Without highly detailed maps, it often felt like I was wandering in a lost land in another time. It was refreshing and reminded me of how I liked to get lost in the mountains of South Korea, sauntering for weeks from temple to temple and village-to-village, all measure of time and responsibility forgotten in the bliss of mountain maze.
I knew we had crossed the Namgang-jimaek when we passed through the small town of Sinyang 신양 edging our way closer to the Great Ridge, when in the middle of nowhere we stumbled upon the entrance to a mountain called Bukdae-bong 1326m, that branched off the Baekdu Daegan near the Cheongdumu-jimaek 청두무지맥. A large concrete artboard displayed a vivid colour painting of a mountain map with trails leading up it. We stopped to take a look, and decided if it would be a worthy detour.
But first we had to make a check on the other set of maps we carried. Although still not highly detailed the topographical map contained roads, with a good mixture of Chinese and Korean text written on it. I had bought it at the Joongang map shop in Seoul, and remember the occasion when I walked in and asked them if they had any good maps of North Korea. They had wandered out the back and produced a set of two 1: 620,000 scale maps that had been published in 1992. When I told them why I wanted them, the staff had been both excited and weary of my ambitions in North Korea. We lay the Chinese road map on the naked ground and did some calculations. In the silent countryside I heard the sound of a squeaking spoke, and looked to see a young mother cycle past us on the bumpy road, baby strapped to her back. Behind me an old farmer clutching his wooden crook, walked behind his herd of goats as they crossed a river weir. A willow tree hung like a failed ballerina along its bank.
Crossing the same weir we drove up the mountain road towards Bukdae-bong, and without stopping zoomed through an open gate past a small wooden office that looked like the entrance. The road ascended up the mountain in long coils for about a kilometer before ending at a small camp manned by a couple of young soldiers. After speaking to them we began our walk up towards the attractions of Bukdae-bong. The trail was maintained, passing through a large forest, now bare of its leaves. A short time later we arrived at a site of historic importance. Protected by more young soldiers, the site preserved the relics of one of Kim IL Sung’s secret camps. During the illegal occupation of the Korean peninsula by the Japanese, factions of guerilla freedom fighters were spread out over the peninsula. Later to become North Korea’s first leader, Kim IL Sung inherited the cause of his father Kim Hyong Jik, who on March 23rd 1917, founded the Korean National Association, which at the time was the biggest anti-Japanese underground revolutionary movement in the country. Operations were conducted mainly in the northern reaches of the peninsula, with planning and preparation done in the highland forests of Baekdu-gowon and Korea Manchuria. The camp that I was looking at was a hideout on which members of the movement would operate from. The archeological site had roofs that hung low above the remains of old partisan camp sites. The roofs were constructed to protect the remnants of old tools, weapons, clothing, and other pieces of memorabilia that were once used by the men and women that fought for the independence of Korea. It was said that Kim IL Sung had visited this camp and motivated partisans to continue with the struggle. When talking to them he would bring new plans and ideas on how to combat the Japanese, including results from other struggles being fought throughout Korea. It was an intriguing part of Korean history and one not well studied in the west. The soldier guide continued to tell us how most of the secret camps were based along the flanks of the Baekdu Daegan. The Great Ridge and its subsidiary ridge system 정맥 were used by the KNA fighters including Kim IL Sung, and other partisan movements to usher their fighting campaigns along. They used this intrinsic mountain network like a street kid uses alleyways. With this system they could sneak extensively as far as Manchuria in China and Jirisan in the South. The mountains of Korea being a home for their people since the ice-age, were like the veins they could feel in their bodies, they knew where every ridge went, and like blood, they gushed along the ridges in an attempt to wrench independence from Japan. This topographical instinct extended all the way down the peninsula, and was still used by partisans beyond the Korean War in 1953.
Shortly into our descent, we ran into a young North Korean female soldier who was puffing up the trail at almost a run. The exercise had left her with crimson flushing cheeks. On seeing us she smiled and lit up the forest. She was a shapely lass and very pretty. On talking with her we had discovered that the gate we had driven through earlier was where she was based, and that she was to be our guide if we had stopped, as normally requested. As we had already been briefed at the secret camp, we continued our walk down the mountain back to the vehicle. Once there the female soldier gave us some more information about the area. As she spoke the sun shone warmly. The olive uniform she was wearing was the same one that the Chinese wore during the Korean War. The red star of communism on her cap shone bright like her cheeks and matched her red notebook. Then she said she wanted to sing a song. Excited we sat down on a log and let her begin. She sang a freedom fighting song. She sang it beautifully and I found myself attracted to her.
We all squeezed into the Toyota and weaved our way back down the mountain road. Our female guide was almost sitting on my lap due to the lack of space, which caused me to say that it was much more comfortable being snuggled up to her than my male colleagues. We were still laughing about that comment when we got to the office gate where we had to stop and let her out. A small posse of soldiers had accumulated there, and the eldest officer approached us. While he was talking to my hosts, I stepped to one side and had a cigarette. It appeared that instead of racing through the gate, as we had done earlier, we should’ve stopped and introduced ourselves. I wasn’t sure if this was serious or not, but there was a slight hint of humuor about our naughtiness, and it seemed that the officer knew this as well. Because we had come down the mountain in such high spirits, this feeling had managed to override any error on our behalf. In the end it all worked out fine. We all shook hands with each other, and I took the moment to ask the female guide if she would marry me. Her full cheeks blushed redder and we went on our merry way.
As we drove through the quiet countryside still in quest of our original mountain, Baek-san, I smiled at the thought of the pretty soldier girl. I asked Hwang if he was okay with me teasing their ladies. He humorously translated the question amongst the men in the car, and they all laughed. Hwang told me that they thought it was cool, and not to worry about it, because it made the girls feel good, “I’ll always treat them with respect for their classical Korean looks above their sexual attractiveness”, I added. Hwang translated this as well, which brought out even more fits of laughter. I began laughing too, and was wondering if we were all thinking the same thing, when Hwang said in a laughing voice, “We know you are the 김샀갔 (Kim Sat Gat – a 19th century wandering poet) of 남저선 (South Korea), it’s okay for you to be that here too”. A compliment I thought to myself.
Traveling mountains is as much about the social experiences and friendships you make as well as the undulating beauty that comes with it. Maybe I was forming new friendships here, simply by traveling mountains and meeting the people of the mountains, be they farmers or soldiers. The neutrality of the landscape kept us all simple. The manner of our work reinforced that to everyone.
I began to think about the future implications of my new findings. For my future book, I would have to tackle the differences the Koreans have on these moments in their history and somehow make something that was true, yet acceptable. I wondered, and I hoped how I could manipulate those differences into some form of commonality that formed respect for everyone. I believed that the acknowledgement of the Baekdu Daegan was capable of that, and like the ridges on which Korea’s fighters of any century fought on, I knew it would one day guide me towards a solution.