Mountain's Gems Include Caves, Dragon's Prints and YewsThe Taebaek area of Kangwon province is often called "The land of mountains" as the views of the mountainous terrain from the top of Mount Taebaek itself are so magnificent. Mount Taebaek is a part of the Paekdu-daegan, the mountainous spine of the Korean Peninsula that begins at Mount Paekdu in the north and runs south to Mount Chiri. Mount Taebaek thus attracts many climbers and tourists to its top, called Janggunbong.
On the way to the top are tall royal azalea flowers that look like floating pink clouds. On the ridge that runs to Cheonjedan, a stone altar located at the peak, royal azalea blossoms dressed in purple dance with the wind and please the eyes of passersby. There is also a magnificent view of the area from the altar, where Tangun, the ancient founder of Korea, was once worshiped.
Now, while the azaleas are in full bloom, is a good time to visit this beautiful region. To celebrate nature's seasonal blessings, the city of Taebaek holds an annual Azalea Festival, this year between Saturday and Tuesday at Danggol square, at the base of the mountain, and at Gumunso, the mountain's natural stone peak. Festival events include a hiking contest, a fossil hunting contest, a campfire, an organized trip to Gumunso, an exhibition of different kinds of rock, and more.
During the festival, a free shuttle bus service between Danggol square at the foot of the mountain and Gumunso, its peak, will be available between noon and 6 p.m.
Of the many trekking courses on Mount Taebaek, the Danggol, Baekdan-sa and Yuil-sa routes are the most popular. Yuil-sa and Baekdan-sa are Buddhist temples located on the mountain, and thus the courses that pass by them are particularly well-loved.
The course that heads via Yuil-sa is the shortest way to get to the top of the mountain as there is a paved road through a forest to the temple and limited parking space. Many climbers thus take the Yuil-sa course to get to the summit.
It takes about two hours to walk from the Yuil-sa ticket office, which is located in the skirts of the mountain, well below the temple itself, to Janggunbong, the peak. Walking ahead from the ticket office, you pass a dangjip, a shrine. Continue up the mountain path for about 20 minutes and you will meet an intersection. On the right side of the intersection is the old path to Yuil-sa, a beautiful secluded route to the temple.
Those intent on reaching the top quickly can keep going straight. This path takes you directly to the mountain ridge but skirts around the temple itself. One attraction of this route to the top is the many groves of old yew trees along the way.
Once you have reached the peak and have then hit Cheonjedan, the historic stone altar, you will have to decide which out of two routes you wish to take down to Danggol, the base at the foot of the mountain. One of the trails goes via peaks Manggyeongdae and Banjae, and the other goes round to Munsubong, a peak a little farther on. The Munsubong course will take an hour longer. Keep in mind that the course through Manggyeongdae is a little steeper than the other one. All in all, both routes will take four or five hours.
Mount Taebaek boasts its own distinctive attractions, collectively termed Taebaek-palseung or the "eight beauties of Taebaek."
These include Cheonjedan, the stone alter; Munsubong, the furthest peak; the yew tree groves (jumok-gunrak in Korean); the view of the sunrise; and Gumunso, the stone peak.
The term also includes Hwangji and Geomryongso, two ponds that are the sources of the Naktong and Han rivers respectively. Geomryongso is famous for some marks around its edge that are said to resemble the footprints of a dragon.
The eighth wonder of Taebaek is Yongyeon-donggul, a lime cave thought to have been formed 10-30 million years ago.
Also of interest in the area is Chujeon-yeok, at an altitude of 855 meters the highest train station in Korea, and the 1,340-meter-high Manhangjae, the highest paved road in the country.
There is also a coal museum at Danggol square, the biggest of its kind in Asia.
For more information about the Azalea Festival, visit the Web site at www.taebaek.kangwon.kr (English version available) or call the Tourist Cultural Division of the city at 033-550-2828 (English service available).
by Kim Sae-joon