Paektu-san: Weather shamans and hailstorms.

Paektu-san, Samjiyon, Ryanggang-do, June 2012. 

After our humorous failure to see the sunrise over Paektusan, we returned to the Paegae-bong hotel. We wanted to know more about the weather. Out here, there is no app or radio broadcast to give us weather updates. Only North Korea’s single television station broadcasted weather reports. Its broadcasts reminded me of watching television in New Zealand in the 70’s. Back then we had only one or two channels. Being an isolated island nation with a heavy influence on agriculture, mountain and marine activities, and of course weekend sport, listening or watching weather forecasts were a ritual for most New Zealanders. With a heavy reliance on agriculture and having to walk or bike everywhere, the North Koreans too, had a strong reliance on weather forecasts and if they could get near a television they would watch with intrepidation. From there the latest weather update was spread word of mouth throughout the towns, villages, and mountains, all across Korea. The people were there greatest intelligence network, their Internet, their radio, their national broadcaster, there was no need for electronic surveillance, or CCTV here. Most people, if not all of them, have an instinct in North Korea that is now long forgotten in other nations. With their close relationship with food cultivation and nature, they can predict the weather without a broadcaster or satellite. With a life of experience, then the older that person is, the more reliable the prediction. We had been hounding the hotel staff daily for weather forecasts. Particularly, the girls in the kitchen whom had kept us informed as best they could, but they too had decided it was time to get the local expert to tell us. Probably, the oldest staff member at the hotel, an old man in maybe his 80s or 90s, told us that the weather cycle in this region this time of the year, lasted about five days. He predicted that in about two days time, the mountain peak would open and we could get good views then. We should drive there in the morning and by late morning the cloud would lift from the peak. Two days later we drove back to Paektusan.

As one elevates the plateau, the forests get shorter and shorter until they disappear all together. We had been in this area for five days and had not seen a blade of Paektusan yet. The Paektu plateau was spectacular, and we were not tired of seeing it daily. It reminded me of the volcanic plateau in the central north island of New Zealand, but the colors and vegetation was different. It was late June and although in the south, summer would be well under way, here it was more like a cold spring day. The rolling volcanic hills that our unsealed road weaved through were covered in a pink-brown pebbly finish, and the snow grasses were a wonderful old yellow. In the flat, the land literally formed small waves that rippled across the horizon like oncoming earth tremors. This was a result of the heavy snows and winds that shape the land during the ten-month period where Paektu-san is shrouded in winter. In the ravines, three meter rivers of hard snow slowly thawed like miniature glaciers, there only hope of survival the early chills that would be arriving here in the first days of September. As my mind tranced on the scape, Mr. Bang Ryong let out a yelp and pointed towards a large land mass. We had rounded a hill and then suddenly in front of us a big mountain appeared. “It’s Paektu-san,” he shouted! We stopped the car and got out. We could only see the bottom pieces of a mountain, the rest of it covered in cloud. We got back in and continued onwards. A short time later we rounded another hill and the base of another cloud-covered mountain loomed ahead of us. It covered most of the horizon. This was bigger. The cloud suddenly lifted higher, the vehicle slowed to a crawl and I noticed that everyone’s eyes were fixed on this mirage in front of us, as if a miracle were about to happen. The base of the mountain got wider and wider as the cloud opened, filling our gaze. Strips of snow filled its valleys against its wet black sides. It looked like a giant white tiger. No one said a word. We stopped the vehicle to get out and take a clear look. This was Paektu-san, no doubting it. My mind raced back in time, when I had read about the first European visitors to this area, only some 120 years ago, and what their reactions had been like upon seeing Paektu-san for the first time. One of them, Hamilton Goold-Adams (d.1920) was in this region in 1891. He addressed the local Koreans as ‘coolies’ attired in deerskin breeches and conical felt hats, and the Chinese as cut-throating bandits. He wrote of man-eating tigers, vast forests, mountain spirit rituals, hexed locals, sacred forbidden zones, and the general fear and reverence the people of that time had for Paektu-san and its resident mountain spirit.


We drove on, that first image of the base of Paektu-san permanently ingrained in the minds of Hwang Sung Chol and myself. That was our first time. We got to the checkpoint area at the foot of Paektusan, where in that harrowing storm, we had passed some days earlier. We were permitted to drive to the summit, as my task was to photograph, not hike. I needed all the time I could get to harness the light of the day. I hoped the old man was right and the cloud would lift soon.

By the time we arrived at the summit, most of the cloud had lifted, but it would billow unpredictably in and out, however we could see ahead of us. We breached the vehicle and I tried to control my anticipation. With my camera pack, I walked on the volcanic rubble up a gentle grade towards a small crowd of North Koreans standing at the edge of the crater. Most were dressed in military code. The sun was now shining and filling a void beneath them, that I couldn’t yet see. Great rims of mountain were to my left and right, a distant wall of mountain stood on the far horizon in front of me, and as I got to the lip, a huge crater opened up below me, and there was Chonji lake, translated it aptly means Heaven lake.

I grabbed my tripod and camera and stepped over a chain and onto the precipice, some of the onlookers warned me I might fall, my team members assured them I wouldn’t and I started taking it all in. Chonji lake is a caldera, the result of a mid 9th century eruption, where the mountain collapses inwards after the eruption, and over time, its fills with rainwater. Located about 200 meters down and protected by sharp walls of mountain, Chonji lake radiates a deep blue like a translucent sapphire embedded in the crown of Korea. Its meaning Heaven lake, completely matched. The air was the clearest I had seen anywhere in Korea, and white clouds bulging with gray rain, danced everywhere, being pushed and pulled by the swirling winds. The suns light blinked in and out of the natural mayhem, switching the mountains colors on and off. On the stunning blue surface of Chonji lake, the purple shadows of the overhead clouds, moved across the water, like the submerged hulks of hidden dragons. It was the most beautiful scene I had even seen in my life, perhaps heightened by the fact that I knew what it meant to the Korean people and me to be here. It was the mega-center of all Korea’s identity, natural energies, water, and spiritual meaning. It was their heaven, where they as a people originate from and return too. The place had its own natural energy, everyone here was electric, gleaming, some hollering with excitement.

I dragged Hwang Sung Chol on the short walk to Paektu-san’s highest point, Janggun-bong. The weather stayed exciting and wild. I thought of the old man back in the hotel, our weatherman. He was a natural shaman, a man in touch with nature, his surroundings, his senses, and the universe. He didn’t need the garb, the colors, the swooshing knives, the noisy cymbals, bells, contortions, and screams. He was above all that nonsense.

On route to the peak, I decided to set up a bivouac that I could use as a shelter in the event of rain. Using a large rock and nearby bollards that marked the craters edge I pitched the bivouac. Then the rain came. The locals weren’t stupid, and by now they had retreated to the nearby concrete shelter, leaving the summit area deathly empty. We sat under the bivouac listening to the mountain. We heard distant ice breaking off the mountain and crashing heavily into the lake. They must have been huge! The rain continued to pelt our bivouac but we were dry if not a little cold. It then turned to hail. Its intensity grew like machine gun fire as it threatened to rip the bivouac into pieces. We began laughing, louder and louder, matching the hail. Then it stopped, and the light rain returned. The terrain was black from the wet, clouds spun out of control, and then suddenly everything became still. Only the moment could be heard. It was like the mountain was holding its breath. And then I heard what sounded like small insects stuck in my ears – flies, mosquito’s or something like that. I pulled the hood of my jacket down, had a probe in my ears, found nothing, and could still hear the disturbing noise. I looked at Hwang, to see if he was experiencing the same thing? I took a deep breath to open my senses. I could hear more crackling, and looked to see it was coming from my tripod standing out on the mountains edge. I focused some more, and then realized that I could hear crackling everywhere. I looked at Hwang again, and he looked at me. His hair was almost standing on its ends, and as if to know what I was looking at, he ran his fingers through his hair, and freaked out a little, when he realized it was standing straight up. He was the Sid Viscous of Paektu. I cracked up laughing heavily at him. He stared at my shorter hair, and saw that it was frizzled as well, and he too began laughing loudly. We realized that the air was full of static electricity. This was Heaven after all. Despite the humor, we weren’t sure if we were safe or not, and I knew that I wasn’t going to go anywhere near my sizzling tripod or camera’s. I was also worried about inevitable lightening, and on that note, the static silence was then shattered by a deafening clap of thunder that shook the whole mountain, and harried through the terrain like a gang of passing hooligans. Next was the lightening. It bolted around the mountain, cracking and snapping, like a mad stallion, throttling everyone and everything that dared get in its way. The clouds turned black like night and released torrents of rain. Hwang and I were sitting in the middle of an electrical storm on the top of Paektusan. It was exhilarating, brilliant, out of this world! Recognizing our luck, we, a couple of crazy hermits, cackled as we peered out from our nylon cave, on the holy mountain. This is the creator of all Korea’s natural energies, and here we were at the alchemy of it all, the wizards of the mountain

Paektu plateauComraderyChonji lakeHwang Sung CholStone hutMountain galsThe jewel of Korea

We still hadn’t summited the peak, but I was happy to get images from where we were now. It was by now mid-afternoon and we started getting hungry, so wondered if it was time to get back to the lads, and see what we could brew up. I quickly pulled down the bivouac and we walked back towards the vehicle. By now, it had moved up the mountain and was parked in a flat area above a stone hut. During the storm, Bang Ryong, Hwang Chol Yong, and Han Myong Soo had befriended the local mountain guides that lived in this stone hut and sought shelter with them. Hwang and I joined them inside. The stone hut was positioned under a lip that protected them from the harrowing trans-Siberian gales that sped over Paektu-san and rallied down the Baekdu Daegan all the way to the South Sea of Korea. It was the same wind that brought freezing snows to the peninsula. The stone hut was made from local rock insulated with mortar and paneled walls. It was heated with a Korean ondul, where flutes run under the buildings floor, heated from an outside log fire. Due to a lack of timber on the mountain, this floor was remarkably heated by electricity provided by a long thin cable that ran from the base of the mountain at the checkpoint. Electricity could run a long way on what seemed hopeless strands of wire hung from old wooden poles all over North Korea’s landscape. Of course, it was never consistent. Inside, the small quarter consisted of a sleeping room for them, a living room with T.V. and a narrow kitchen. It was very cozy inside, and the ondul provided me with an opportunity to dry out some gear. In the kitchen, some of the girls were preparing hot Ramon and other snacks we had given them. The other two girls played cards with the men. I just relaxed and watched. On the small television set, their caps with red stars sat neatly stacked upon one another. As usual tidiness was prevalent in the North. The girls had also changed out of the military dress uniforms that they wear when officiating outside. Some of their work was also to make sure that people behaved on this sacred peak.

Lunch came out served on a small portable round table that we sat on the floor around. With the hot Ramon were scrumptious side dishes of hand carried mountain vegetables, rice, and some delicious homemade Dengjang that Bang Ryong’s wife had prepared for us. But the real treat was drinking the fresh Paektu-san spring water and eating raw sardine sized fresh water fish from Chonji lake.

There was no real time left in this day for me to continue with a photographic journey of Paektu-san. With the reassurance of the mountain girls, the weather was to be good again tomorrow; good on this mountain meant there should be enough visibility in the day to see the panoramas. We had two weather sources, the old man and now the mountain guardians. So we decided to leave the mountain and return the next day to spend some time on Janggun-bong and make a descent into the caldera, the heart of Korea’s pulse. The girls came out to wave goodbye. One of them needed a lift back to Samjiyon, so she squeezed in with us. We would pick her up tomorrow, on route back to the sacred mountain.




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