Happy New Year!: The sun’s rays beam through clouds onto the ridges of Mt. Jiri, the southern end of the White Head Great Range (Baekdu-daegan in Korean), the mountain chain running to Mt. Baekdu, North Korea, Wednesday. During these unprecedented economic hard times, people seek energy and hope from the great range, “Korea’s spiritual spine,” hoping they will be better off in 2009. / Korea Times Photo by Shim Hyun-chul
By Kim Rahn & Shim Hyun-chul
The Year of the Ox has dawned, and in this unprecedented economic turmoil, Koreans find a source of national energy and pride in the 1,400 kilometers of mountain ridges that run the length of the Korean Peninsula.
The ``White Head Great Range'' (Baekdu-daegan in Korean), known as ``Korea's backbone'' or ``spiritual spine,'' is the source of the country's watersheds and major river systems and home to the highest peaks in the nation. It runs through the peninsula from Mt. Baekdu on the border with North Korea and China, to Mt. Jiri in the southern part of the peninsula.
Since ancient times, the ox, a sturdy beast, has been an aid in farming particularly in rice cultivation.
Like oxen, Koreans are expected to work diligently this year to pull the nation out of its economic troubles on the back of the ``Baekdu-daegan spirit.''
There are things that people do not appreciate much because they have been always there and always will be. However, it was not until Sungnyemun, the nation's No. 1 treasure, was destroyed by arson, that Koreans became aware of their significance and that they had given them national pride and hope.
Likewise, Baekdu-daegan, the source of Korean people's lives and souls for thousands of years, has enjoyed little popularity until recently. However, it is drawing fresh attention from the public as a growing number of people have begun to study it and hike along its ridges.
``It is the mountain range that dominates and defines the Korean Peninsula, and separates many of its traditional regions from each other. You can't really talk about the geography of Korea without talking about the concept of the great range,'' said David A. Mason, a Kyung Hee University professor.
He is one of a few experts who have devoted themselves to researching and trekking the great range.
But Baekdu-daegan is not only about geography. The grand range is the center of the country's natural environment and ecology. It has not only divided the land but also helped create different and various cultures and lifestyles.
``These days, its alpine areas are the last preserved natural forests in this overdeveloped and overcrowded nation, the final refuge for birds, animals and native trees and plants. It is the remaining ecological treasure house of Korea, and it is essential to preserve it as much as possible, in balanced harmony with `green tourism' development,'' the professor said.
He also pointed out that most aspects of Korean culture originated from and flourished for thousands of years along the ranges, where ancient Korean cultures still exist.
From a spiritual and religious aspect, the range has been the place where gods and spirits can be contacted and where enlightenment can be attained, Mason said.
``Every religion and form of spirituality that has ever taken root and developed unique Korean characteristics can be found along the mountain range. Even Christian churches and prayer-camps are found along the way, because those mountains are held sacred by all Koreans and are holy places for every kind of belief,'' he said.
The tourist aspect of the mountains is also emerging. Casual mountaineers usually visit Baekdu-daegan site-by-site, while serious hikers aim at walking along all its ridges ― in South Korean territory.
It's sadly almost entirely unknown outside of Korea, with little attention from anyone and almost no relevant English-language information available. Mason and two friends are writing two books, to be published in April, the first publications about Baekdu-daegan in English.
``I believe that the Baekdu-daegan has a great potential to become a major tourist attraction, as the trail along its crest is both one of the world's great adventure-hiking scenic trails and a pilgrimage path that includes all the great Oriental traditions like Buddhism, Taoism, Shaman and Neo-Confucianism,'' Mason said.
He said all sectors along the main crest-trail should not be closed for hikers because Baekdu-daegan is more meaningful when it is unified.
``It is a symbol of the unity of the Korean nation, which was a fact for 1,000 years. It is one of the things we can point to when we argue, `Korea should be one,''' Mason said.
As a backbone yielding the branches, Baekdu-daegan has provided stout support to the country whether people realize it or not, so it may be natural that in the ailing economy, people turn their eyes to it for energy and hope.
``The Baekdu-daegan is the origin of every watershed in Korea: that is, the beginning of every river and large stream, the source of water by which all the humans in this nation live ― therefore, it is the source of life,'' Mason said.
In Baekdu-daegan's geography, there is a ``daegan'' (grand range), one ``jeonggan'' (big range) and 13 ``jeongmaek'' (branches).
The grand range is the root of each mountain ― the spine of the peninsula. The big range, called, ``Jangbaek-jeonggan'' is in North Korean territory and stretches from the spine to the northern end of the peninsula. Most of the 13 branches stretch southwesterly from the grand range.
Some people dream of walking along the entire trail along the crest of the range but only the section in South Korea is currently accessible.
Baekdu-daegan was widely recognized in the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) although people have long worshiped Mt. Baekdu. It was almost forgotten after Japan imposed modern geographical concepts during colonial rule (1910-1945) but enjoyed a renaissance beginning 20 years ago.