As we drove through Pyongyang, the early morning light streaked through our front windscreen. On its upper right corner a circular sticker bearing an AK47 crossed out by a red X, told everyone that this was an unarmed vehicle. As I watched the busy ranks of olive drabbed Koreans briskly walking to work, I mused over that sticker of assurance – hoping that it would be the closest I would get to an AK47 over the next 16 days of mountain travel in this sternly peaceful landscape. I was on my way to Kumgang-san mountain.
Kumgang-san has long been a place that stirred the imaginations of many famous Korean artists, writers, and wanderers. During the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), Kumgang-san was seen as the ideal Buddhist world, which influenced Indian monk Ji Jong Sunim to cultivate his mind there. In the Joseon Dynasty, Kumgang-san received acclaim by numerous Kings, writers, artists, and scholars. One of those writers was Kim Yang Su (1820-1882) who wrote travelogues on Kumgang-san. He strongly believed that Kumgang-san was more beautiful than any mountain in China. He scorned Buddhist depictions of Kumgang-san that tended to animate its peaks with exaggerating mystery. Instead his approach was to view the majesty of Kumgang-san with a simple mind…to see it for what it is! My North Korean colleagues had often told me the same thing about their own country.
The next morning as we rose early, I wondered if my impressions of Kumgang-san would be that simple. The weather Gods had blessed us with a sky as blue as blue can be, the air was cool and clean and it contained a subtle quietness that you can only find with emptiness, and indeed as the four of us began our ascent into Manmulsang, there was not another human being in sight, and it felt like heaven. I had hoped to capture the mid October autumnal colors, but as we climbed higher up the empty trails, we soon realized that the frigid Trans Siberian winds had knocked off the red leaves – only days ago. However, this didn’t take anything away from the mountain God-like mountain-scape. Pinnacles of sharp edged rock pierced the skies above us like fine daggers, their long shadows casting dominance over us. Here by ourselves we were but mice.
It wasn’t until the next day that I got a glimpse of Kumgang-san’s autumnal foliage. As we got to the valley stream of Okryudong 옥류동, the emerald forest opened up. Stuck to the mountainsides, were hundreds of trees glowing in yellows, oranges, and reds. Beneath us, the mountain stream gurgled its way through the car-sized boulders that lay disassembled on the valley floor. I thought of men like Kim Yang Su, Kim Sat Gat, Kim Jeong Ho, Wonhyo Daesa, Ja Jang Yulsa, Seosan Daesa, and many more, and wondered how they might have described such beauty. There were no real words for it. It must have been painful trying to find such words for this place; maybe that’s why they had to stay so long. Above the iridescent forests, the high mountain walls of Saejon-bong 세존봉 held a strange ashen colour to them, like they had been sprinkled with stardust. Maybe it was the perfect light but the mountain scenery looked like it had been graphically designed in Photoshop software. I laughed at such a distasteful 21st century comparison.
Ahead, at the tip of the valley stood the big round peak of Biro-bong 1639m, the highest peak of the Kumgang-san area. It brooded over Okryudong valley like a giant sage. Near its top I could see a tiny structure of some sort, and was told it was a viewing deck, meaning that there were trails up to its summit. I asked our guide how many hiking trails there were in Kumgangsan, she said, too many to be counted; it had been that way for centuries. I imagined what wandering freely around a dramatically complex mountain system like Kumgang-san, would do to the mind of a man?
Later we got to the famous Guryong falls, and I was pleased to meet a group of North Koreans at the pavilion opposite the famous falls. Everyone was in high spirits. Like their counterparts in the South the women of the group were brightly dressed, although in a fashion a few decades older, which I admired. Beckoned into the group’s team photos I enjoyed their company. The Korean mountains gave me that far away feeling that I wasn’t in a divided nation, but a united one.
We climbed to the top above the Sangpaldam 상팔담 pools where a regal view bestowed us. The mesmerizing mountain valleys that formed around the turquoise knots of water created an even greater twisting depth to Kumgangsan. Bronze rays from a lowering October sun illuminated its rocky corridors, opening a secret terrain of towering spurs and cliffs that glided one’s mind beyond one shadowed crest to another. Virgin mountain walls were cloaked in native forest that browned off like old leather, some small thickets still hung onto their parrot red and pine green summer hues like the smoky rosettes on an old Persian rug hanging in a hashish bazaar. It seemed apt that a magic carpet would have been an ideal way to leave this Kumgang-san mountain top.
We walked back down Okryudong valley, passing mounds of smooth rock tagged with Chinese calligraphy from the Yi Dynasty. I recalled how Kim Yang Su despised the actions of such Confucian fools whom had found it necessary to permanently deface nature and rudely scribe their noble names and aloof poetry into nature. I had to agree with him on that. I found it hard to appreciate such snobbish nonsense.
It was only by chance, and simply by asking, that on the next day we rose at 4am, and drove over the Baekdu Daegan at Onjeong-ryeong, through a small tunnel, past a checkpoint, and then down an unsealed road past the village of Danpung-ri, and into inner Kumgang-san. I was the first foreign visitor here since 2008. On what was another perfect day of weather, we arrived at Pyohun-sa temple. We then hit the wooded trial into the secluded and completely empty inner Kumgang-san. It was so pristinely empty it felt eerie. I liked that.
Beodeok-am hermitage was as spectacular as I had expected, but the sun had yet to capture it, so we pushed on towards the real gem that I wanted to see. Myogilsang is at least 1000 years old, and simply a treasure that everyone should make an effort to see. From a bend in the wooded trail a clearing appears in front of you. At the back of the clearing a saffron coloured cliff looms and carved into its face is a fifteen-meter seated Buddha. Supposedly the tallest in North East Asia. It is a work of majestic Art.
Sometimes I never gave much thought to how a local might view his or her own natural history. But when I asked my colleague Hwang Sung Chol what he thought about the impressive relief carving he craned his neck up at the Buddha and he said to me, “I am amazed at what our own people created way back then”. His answer humbled me to know that this journey was as fascinating for him as it was for me. I then said, “It must have been incredible to have roamed the valleys and peaks of Kumgang-san 1000 or 2000 year ago”. Hwang smiled deeply, acknowledging that such a journey would be great. I thought of the Song Dynasty Chinese poet Su Dong Po who said, “If I were to die the day after seeing Kumgang-san, I would have no regrets”. I said to Hwang, “ After we finish the Baekdu Daegan project we should one day return to Kumgangsan and explore it thoroughly for two or three weeks, living like old hermits and woodsman in the mountains, and take photos to make a book on Kumgang-san“. His eyes hadn’t left the marvel of Myogilsang yet, when he replied, “I don’t see why that wouldn’t be possible”. My mind jumbled forward, and I had these visions of exploring North Korea as its friend with no political agenda, with the sole purpose to show the world its historical and natural beauties. Maybe after wandering Kumgang-san like an old hermit, then I too could learn to see it with a simple mind.