Day 7 (20 April 2016)
You know you are near the border when you start seeing more military checkpoints. I was initially still puzzled about the need for all the checkpoints until D my female guide, who had perhaps cleverly guessed that I was thinking about this, reminded me that we were very close to the border with the south.
And indeed we were. We were spending the day at Kumgangsan which lies practically next to the border.
Kumgangsan is a mountain in the southeastern corner of North Korea with its highest peak at 1,638 metre above sea level. It is famous in Korea and the source of inspiration for many works of art since ancient times. Indeed the Wikipedia article on the mountain states that practically every poet and artist during the Joseon period made pilgrimages there. The mountain is today protected within a national park and is an important tourist destination in North Korea.
I think some consider Kumgangsan to be the queen of all Korean mountains. However this fame is probably mostly restricted to within the Korean world. Sadly, I think the rest of the world knows the mountain, if they can remember it, as the site of the scandalous shooting of a South Korean tourist in 2008.
South Korean tourists were allowed beginning in 1998 to visit their famous mountain. The tours seemed rather popular and in 2005 Hyundai Asan, the South Korean company that had helped to develop Kumgangsan as a tourist area, announced the one millionth South Korean visit.
Then in 2008, in the pre-dawn hours, North Korean soldiers shot and killed a 53-year-old South Korean tourist. The tourist had been walking on the beach of the resort she was staying at and then she allegedly entered a military zone. The North Koreans claimed that despite their soldiers’ orders for her to stop she ran.
I had already known by then that visits to North Korea were very controlled. It was a wonder to me therefore that the poor woman was allowed to wander about unmonitored and enter a military zone unchecked. And it was puzzling that there was a military zone so close to a tourist resort so that a foreigner, and a South Korean at that, could barge in at anytime.
South Korea demanded an inquiry but this was rejected by the North Koreans. Forensic tests carried out on the victim however apparently suggested that she had not been running although this did not discourage the north from putting blame for the incident squarely on the poor woman and the south. All visits to the mountain from the south were stopped by Seoul following the incident.
I remember reading the news at the time and thinking to myself: the only person who could tell the story differently from the North Koreans is dead. In any case I doubt that anyone harboured any delusion of actually finding the truth.
My guides D and E warmed me up for the hike in Kumgangsan by taking me to Lake Samilpo for a visit before lunch. This lake is designated a natural monument by the government and is an important habitat for many species of birds.
If only the weather could be better that day. And I wonder where all the birds were.
Lunch was at a restaurant somewhere in the mountain. My hosts made sure that I had more than enough to eat at every meal. But that always made me think about the possibility that just a couple of miles away someone might be starving while I was glutting. And there were always plenty of leftovers.
I protested to D about the excessive food and she guessed that this was because of my Asian aversion to wasting food. That was only part of the reason but I could not possibly tell her about my belief that I was depriving some hungry Korean of food. The portions were reduced considerably after that but even then they were sometimes still quite a lot.
The food served to me during this part of the trip was a little different from the fare I had received during the first part. The food felt somewhat more local. This was probably because I was no longer travelling with Westerners and my hosts thought that I would be able to handle more local flavours. I have to say that they were absolutely right and in fact I preferred their local dishes.
The weather did not improve in the afternoon when I started my hike but I was still quite excited about finally being able to have a proper long walk. I had a local guide, a young lady, who escorted me through the mountain together with D and E.
I have to admit that Kumgangsan was quite gorgeous. The rocks in their many different shapes and the trees that grow around them make the mountain look like a classical East Asian landscape painting brought to life. It is no wonder that so many Korean artists considered the mountain to be their muse.
Being beloved by Korean literati, there is a cultural aspect to the enjoyment of Kumgangsan. Classical Korean culture is so strongly influenced by classical Chinese culture that I found myself able to understand the associated culture. But although I was able to understand it I could not really appreciate it entirely. I personally found classical Chinese literati sentiment to be highly annoying sometimes. These smart people (or maybe smart alecks) could be so pompous or mawkish at times and often just plain pointless.
We mostly know the mountain as Kumgangsan but this is actually the name of the mountain in spring. There is at least one name for the mountain for each season. In summer, it is called Pongraesan, named after the Chinese mythological mountain that is the equivalent of the Greek Mt Olympus. In autumn, it is called Phung’aksan, referring to the colourful maple leaves. In winter, it is called Kaegolsan, evoking the desolateness of the harsh season. As for Kumgangsan, it means “diamond mountain” (san means “mountain”).
Giving a mountain a different name for each season sounds like something a bored intellectual with too much time on his hands would do.
One phenomenon that often pops up in the country is the many carvings on rocks to commemorate a visit and/or the spouting of some pearl of wisdom by one of the Kims. This is however not a phenomenon that only appeared recently and is definitely not peculiar to modern North Korea or the Kims. Evidence of this age old practice, of can I say vandalism, can still be found on some rocks around Kumgangsan. Visitors in ancient times, particularly intellectuals, loved to carve their names onto rocks to mark their visits.
It is noteworthy that the words carved on the rocks were all Chinese. Ancient Korean intellectuals, and the government, wrote exclusively in Chinese and it was only in the 20th century that the current Korean alphabet received due recognition and acceptance by everyone in the country.
I got a kick out of reading all the carved names. And I found out how to read my own surname in Korean. There is probably a Korean pronunciation for every Chinese word although I have not been able to verify this. Nevertheless, there are many Korean words today that sound very similar to their Chinese counterparts, especially when compared with the older or more conservative members of the Chinese language family. For example, the Korean word for “student” is pronounced exactly the same as in Teochew although without the tones. The cultural influence that China had on Korea in ancient times was really quite deep.
The ancients’ love of the scenery, and for vandalism, however did not always translate to a love for walking. According to the local guide, those who could afford it would hire people to carry them on their backs around the mountain. That sounds like torturous work as firstly it would hardly be a stroll in a flat urban park and secondly those who refused to walk were likely to be heavy.
Mountains in Northeastern Asia are famous for various reasons. The scenery is one, or the mountain might have been associated with some person, event, myth or legend. Another surefire way for a mountain to become famous in this region is for the rocks on the mountain to bear interesting shapes or resemble something such as an animal. Kumgangsan happens to have a number of such rocks.
The ancients in this part of the world also enjoyed making up stories to explain certain natural feature or phenomenon. For example a rock on the mountain that looked like a rabbit was said to be originally a heavenly rabbit that had come to play on Kumgangsan. The rabbit however was so distracted by the beauty of Kumgangsan that it did not return to heaven on time. As punishment the emperor of heaven turned it into a tortoise and then into stone.
It looked every bit like a rabbit to me but I think it was supposed to have the body of a tortoise. That is the point of such rocks, different people may see different things in them and they can have fun talking about what they see.
Along the way we passed by Samroksu which is a natural spring said to have wild ginseng and deer antler, both expensive herbs in East Asian traditional medicine, dissolved in its water. It is also said that just one sip of the spring water will make one ten years younger. But after more than a bottle full of the clean and refreshing water I was still not back in my mother’s womb.
The local guide was in a chirpy mood. She must have hiked the mountain countless times but she said that she never once felt bored doing it. And then before I could fully understand what was happening she started singing about the mountain. I had a really bad feeling the whole time she was singing although her performance was not bad at all. My intuition was in any case proven right the moment she finished singing and I was asked to sing for her in return.
If there is one thing I hate it is to have to sing for people. But I simply had to be agreeable. But what do I sing? Instead of wracking my brain for too long, I chose a short Malay song about some old parrot which although I could not remember the words to (and my knowledge of Malay is limited to some commonly used words) I could fake it all the way through since no one understood the language. And besides I was sure they would like the song more since it was in a language they had probably never heard before.
A popular scenic spot in Kumgangsan is Kuryong Falls. The 74-metre waterfall was named after the nine dragons said to be protectors of the mountain and who once lived in the pool below the falls.
There are three Chinese characters carved into the rock next to the waterfall. They form the Chinese name of Maitreya Buddha. The carving was made based on the work of renowned Korean calligrapher Kim Gyu Jin in 1919.
At the waterfall I was given the option of either turning back or continuing on to the observation point on Kuryong Rock. It was supposed to be a leisurely climb up and I was told that it would take no more than 30 minutes. Since 30 minutes did not sound excessive and it was still early I decided to push on. And what a crazy decision that was. I forgot that I was absolutely unfit and the guides probably thought that I was fit. It was a steep climb up what to me were countless flights of steps and ladders. Halfway through the climb I was not the only person who had rued my decision.
The view from the observation point was fortunately fantastic. I could see beyond the valley I had been walking in the entire afternoon and notwithstanding the still overcast sky the scenery was gorgeous. The main point of interest on this rock however was the view of the eight pools below collectively called the Sangpaldam Pools. These were a series of eight (or maybe more) pools above Kuryong Falls carved out by the flowing stream. Legend has it that they were the bathing pools of eight fairies and there is even a fairy tale about them.
Once upon a time, a local woodcutter saw the fairies bathing and was mesmerised by their beauty. He hid one set of their beautiful celestial clothes and the fairy whose clothes he had stolen could not return to heaven with her sisters. The woodcutter then took her home and married her. The couple enjoyed some years of blissful marriage and had children together.
One day the woodcutter decided that it was time to return the fairy her celestial clothes. The fairy therefore went back to heaven. After some time however, she began to miss her husband and children. She therefore went back to Kumgangsan to be with them.
There is a similar folk tale in China except that in this version there were only seven fairies, the voyeur cum thief cum fairynapper was a cowherd and the couple were torn apart by the fairy queen because mortal-immortal love was forbidden although they were granted the special privilege of meeting once a year on a bridge of magpies. E joked that after the events of the Korean story the fairies went to China to bathe. Since one of their sisters had stayed behind in Korea, only seven went to China.
Looking back on my day on Kumgangsan, and in spite of the torturous climb up to Kuryong Rock, I have to say that it was one of the best parts of the entire trip. I enjoyed the scenery very much but this was also the only day that was untainted by politics and ideology. In fact I do not even remember seeing any political slogans here. What I experienced that day was the real traditional Korea with its beauty and idiosyncrasies.