The lake at the top of the peninsula

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The lake at the top of the peninsula

Standing on the border between China and North Korea, Mount Baekdu is the highest mountain on the Korean Peninsula and, according to mythology, the spiritual birthplace of the Korean people.
The myth has it that a bear and a tiger begged Hwanung, the son of the god of heaven, to make them human. Hwanung told them to go into a cave on Mount Baekdu and spend 100 days without light, living on just a handful of mugwort and 20 cloves of raw garlic.
The tiger failed this test, but the bear endured, and was changed into a woman. Hwanung married the woman, who gave birth to Danguyn, who, according to ancient history, founded the Gojoseon Dynasty in the year 2333 B.C.
Called Changbaisan in Chinese, Mount Baekdu is a dormant volcano; its last eruption is said to have been 250 years ago. Snowfall begins in September and continues through May, giving the mountain its Korean name, which means “white peak.”
Once difficult to climb or even approach, this historic mountain, 2744 meters (9,002 feet) above sea level, is now easily accessible from the city of Yanji, in China’s Jilin province. Stairs recently built into the mountain make it possible to climb it in less than two hours.
Mount Baekdu is famous for Cheonji, a caldera lake ― that is, a lake formed in a volcanic crater ― at the top of the mountain. Cheonji, whose name means “a pond in heaven,” has a circumference of 13 kilometers (8 miles) and is surrounded by 16 peaks. On the north side of the lake is the 70-meter Biryong (“flying dragon”) waterfall.
Though the volcano has been dormant for centuries, the existence of numerous hot springs near the waterfall indicates ongoing volcanic activity below. The mountain area boasts wildlife including tigers, leopards, bears and otter, and 1,400 types of plants, a number of them rare.
Mount Baekdu’s ruggedness and rough weather used to make it a forbidding place to visit. Once, just getting to the mountain involved a seven-hour drive from Yanji over unpaved roads, and reaching the top took several hours in a truck. Years of development have made access much easier. Now, a bus ride from Yanji to the mountain takes just two hours. In another two hours of climbing, tourists can reach Cheonji lake via a long, covered stairway.
These steps, built just two years ago, total 999 (the number nine is considered lucky in China, and has figured into many construction plans). In the peak season, from June to September, an average of 4,000 tourists climb the stairs every day. In winter, some use snowmobiles to get to the top.
Other attractions in the Yanji area include the Yun Dong-ju memorial hall and birthplace, in Longjing. Mr. Yun was a Korean poet who spoke out against Japanese colonialism; he died in prison in 1945, at the age of 26. There is also a 36-hole golf course along the Heilan River that’s about a 30-minute drive from the Yanji airport.

How to get there
Four Korean and Chinese airlines ― Korean Air, Asiana Airlines, China Southern Airlines and Air China ― fly directly to Yanji from Incheon International Airport. There are also connecting flights via Beijing, Dalian, Shenyang and Changchun. The direct flights take two and half hours; the indirect flights require an overnight stay in the connecting city.
Seats for flights to Yanji can be very limited, as the flights are popular among Chinese immigrants in Korea. The good news is that Yanji’s airport is being expanded to accommodate more flights. The expansion project is expected to be completed in June. “In addition to Seoul-Yanji routes, new routes between Yanji and Busan and between Yanji and Osaka will be opened,” Xi Men Shun Ji, vice governor of Yanbian prefecture, said at a recent press conference. Yanbian, the autonomous Korean prefecture in Jilin province, has 2.2 million people, 38 percent of whom are of Korean descent.
“We are pursuing government approval to upgrade the Yanji airport to an international airport,” Mr. Xi Men said. Other international routes connecting Yanji and Hong Kong and Vladivostok are being considered, he added.
The vice governor also said the Yanbian government is building a direct expressway between Yanji and Mount Baekdu.
Visa applications must be made in Korea prior to departure, since the Yanji airport cannot process visas.
Most major travel agencies offer tour packages to Mount Baekdu for between 600,000 won and 900,000 won. Round-trip flights cost more than 500,000 won. Travel packages to the area last usually three to five days, which includes a half-day trip to Mount Baekdu.

by Limb Jae-un
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