#1 of 8, Korea's sacred mountain and geologic wonder
The Eight Scenes of Korea
Korean tradition notes eight places across the entire peninsula considered to have the most beautiful scenery.* Collectively these are known as the 'Eight Scenes of Korea' (조선팔경).
Today five of these places are found in North Korea: Mt. Paekdu (백두산), Moran Hill (모란봉), Mt. Myohyang (묘향산), Mt. Kumgang (금강산), and the Pujon Highlands (부전고원).The remaining three are located in South Korea: Mt. Jiri (지리산), Haeundae (해운대), and Bulguk Temple (불국사).
This year our National Day Mega Tour (September 2-23) will have a chance to visit all five in the DPRK during the 21-night journey across the country.
In the next few months, our blog will be introducing these sights one by one, starting with Mt. Paekdu (see below). If any of our readers have seen all of the Eight Scenes of Korea in north and south, we would love to hear about your experiences!
Mt. Paekdu (백두산)
Mt. Paekdu, ‘sacred mountain’ of the Korean people and of the Korean revolution, is a sight to behold. Its stark volcanic landscape, one minute enveloped in clouds, the next cast against a clear blue sky, marks the meeting of the heavens and earth. Indeed, it is said that it was here that the Korean people originated, progeny of Tangun, son of a sky deity and a she-bear, transformed into human form. From these mythic beginnings, the mountain has always been an important symbol of the Korean nation.
Tradition has it that the family of Wanggon (877-943 AD), founder king of the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392 AD), were from the region, living among the exiled descendants of the fallen Koguryo Kingdom. True or not, the symbolic connection of the mountain to Tangun and Koguryo has carried important value through the ages. Koguryo had been a powerful kingdom, ruling over the northern half of the Korean peninsula until its destruction in 668 AD the hands of Tang Dynasty China and the kingdom of Silla in southeastern Korea.
‘Paekdu’ literally means ‘white-headed mountain’ in reference to year-long snow cover at the summit. It is also called ‘Changpaek’ or ‘long-white mountain’, and this name is employed today in China - Mt. Changbai (长白山). Once a towering stratovolcano the likes of Mt. Fuji, in the half-century after the establishment of the Koryo Dynasty, a gigantic eruption decapitated the peak mountain. One of the largest eruption in recorded human history, it left behind a crater lake known as Lake Chon (천지), or ‘Heaven Lake’ in the mountain’s massive caldera.
During the Japanese occupation of Korea, the region surrounding the mountain was used a base by Korean guerillas. A number of ‘secret camps’ line the mountain, including one used by future President Kim Il Sung and his family, and so the mountain is doubly important in the DPRK today. The eponymous epic poem, Mt. Paekdu, by Jo Ki Chon is famous throughout the DPRK as an ode to the formative struggles of Korean revolutionaries during the colonial period.
Today, many Koreans will make a kind of revolutionary pilgrimage to Mt. Paekdu in their life. Select high school and college students visit the mountain, marching the old revolutionary roads in vintage military gear – in summer heat and winter sleet. Likewise, work units send able-bodied individuals to the region to carry out the will of the party and state. Spending years at Mt. Paekdu, like serving in the military, is an important credential for future career advancement.
For foreigners, Mt. Paekdu is the hardest to reach area open to visitors in the DPRK, located in the far northern wilderness of the country on the border with China. Reaching the mountain requires a special charter flight from Pyongyang. Koryo Tours charters two flights a year in August and September for a chance to see the mountain.
Legend, lore, history aside, Mt. Paekdu is a geologic wonder as a well as a potential hazard. The last eruption, a small one, was in 1903. A multinational team of scientist from Korea, China, the United Kingdom, and United States keep a close eye on the mountain to look for signs of reawakening.
Despite its remote location, one never knows whom one will run into at Mt. Paekdu. In August 2016 we caught up with Werner Herzog at Mt. Paekdu. He was filming part of the documentary Into the Inferno about volcanoes around the world.
*There is more than one version of this list, as is the case with most traditions.
The Koryo Academy is a regular posting on Korean history, culture, and language. In this series we will cover the five of ‘Eight Scenes of Korea’ located in today’s DPRK.
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