Jiri mixes myth and magnificenceLooking at Mount Jiri, there’s no question as to why it is considered one of the three divine mountains on the Korean peninsula.
After passing through roads lined with the cosmos flowers that greet autumn, and rice fields changing from green to yellow, the grandeur of Mount Jiri appears at the end of the massive Baekdu range that forms the backbone of the Korean peninsula, starting from Mount Baekdu in the North.
Mount Jiri’s endlessly unfolding peaks, deep valleys, thick virgin forests and the rambling Seomjin River nurture a variety of wildlife and native fauna, just as a mother would. Squirrels and magpies you encounter on the mountain roads don’t move despite approaching cars, as if saying, “This is my land. You wait until I finish enjoying this meal, or take another road.” There are also fast flying crows which emit high-pitched calls and, if you’re really in luck, you may see a Manchurian black bear.
Mount Jiri National Park, Korea’s first national park, borders five different regions of the provinces of North Jeolla, South Jeolla and South Gyeongsang. Looking at the mountain, there’s no question as to why Mount Jiri is considered one of three divine mountains on the Korean peninsula, along with Mount Halla of Jeju Island and Mount Kumgang in the North.
After parking at the Seongsamjae rest stop, it takes about an hour to hike to the top of Nogodan peak, which is 1,507 meters (4,944 feet) above sea level.
Nogodan means “the grandmother’s altar” and on top of the peak is a stone tower which was once used to worship Seosulseongmo, the mother of Bakhyeokgeose, the founder of the Silla dynasty who was believed to have been hatched from an egg.
On reaching the peak’s wide, flat top, the open view made my heart feel refreshed. The peaks rising one behind another, clouds apparently hanging from the ridges and a river that looked like a small stringy snake presented a magnificent spectacle. Clouds and fog viewed from here are considered one of 10 views one must see on Mount Jiri.
From Nogodan, one can also see Cheonwangbong, the highest peak in Mount Jiri at 1,915 meters above sea level, and second highest in South Korea after Mount Halla.
There is also a natural garden of wild flowers on top of Nogodan, explaining why it’s referred to as Korea’s Alps. To visit the garden, one must make a reservation in advance. The national park office put the area off limits in 1991, after finding it was being devastated by careless campers. Beginning in 1995, the Korean government has put efforts into regenerating the garden by trucking in soil and transplanting grass. Since 2001, the government has allowed a limited number of people to enter the zone and, these days, groups of up to 100 people may enter the area four times a day.
To make a reservation, visit http://www.knps.or.kr/chiri/eng/main.htm. The garden is open from May to October.
Entering from the northern entrance of Mount Jiri National Park, the first valley encountered is Baemsagol, literally meaning “valley where a snake died.”
The valley was named so after a legend: A monk from Songnim temple, which is said to have existed for 1,300 years in the valley, could become a mountain god if he prayed on Mountain God’s Rock in the seventh month of the lunar calendar. One day, a powerful priest who doubted this tale appealed to the king to bestow upon a monk a poisoned silk cloth and compel him to pray on the rock. Next day, the priest found the monk had disappeared and only a huge serpent remained dead at the bottom of the valley.
Since then, people have called the valley Baemsagol.
At Baemsagol Waun village, there is a pine tree estimated to be over 1,000 years old which is designated a natural monument. People come here on the third day of the first month of the lunar calendar to pray for luck during the new year. At other times of the year, couples pray here to have a son. That is probably why there are so many stone towers on one’s way to the top of the Baemsagol valley.
Baemsagol meanders for 14 kilometers from Banyabong peak. Observing its hidden depths and curves, it is easy to understand how difficult it was to find the communist guerrillas who once hid on this mountain.
From 1948, a great number of partisan fighters from the North hid on Mount Jiri to create unrest and fight for the nation’s unification under communist rule. Until 1955, when the South Korean government announced the end of its fight with the partisans, more than 20,000 were killed, plus thousands of ordinary people, in the process of hunting down communists.
The residents of villages near Mount Jiri, harassed by communists at night and ruled by democrats during the day, were threatened day and night and even had to endure random raids, often being asked at the point of a gun whether they were communist or democrats.
Among the temples in Mount Jiri, Hwaeom Temple is considered one of the best. The temple is considered to have an important function as a place to foster great monks, one of three key foci of Buddhist religion ― Buddha, sutra and the monks.
The temple is said to have been built by Reverend Yeongi Josa of India in 554 under the reign of King Seong of the Baekje dynasty. The temple was named after Hwaeomgyeong, the sutra or law, which the reverend held. He declared the temple to be Buddha’s world in our world that could lead living creatures to a world of enlightenment.
The Hwaeom Temple houses four national treasures, including Gakhwangjeon Hall and a stone lantern, five lesser treasures, including Eastern and Western five-story stone pagodas and a lion pagoda, and a natural monument in the form of a rare species of cherry tree.
By car, take the Gyeongbu Expressway and turn onto the 88 Expressway at Hamyang junction. Exit at either the Hamyang or Jirisan intersection.
The top 10 views found on Mount Jiri
1. The sea of clouds seen from the top of Nogodan.
2. The autumn foliage in Piagol valley.
3. The sunset from Banyabong peak.
4. The full moon from Byeoksoryeong.
5. The royal azaleas on Seseokpyeongjeon plateau.
6. The Buril Waterfall in Ssanggyesa valley.
7. The enchanting scenery of Yeonhabong peak.
8. The Chilseon valley.
9. The sunrise from Cheonwangbong.
10. The clear waters of the Seomjin River.
by Park Sung-ha