I love famous mountains. Kilimanjaro. Uluru. Mount Fuji, Puncak Jaya, Aconcagua. Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in the solar system. The deadliest, Annapurna. The Matterhorn. Citlaltepetl. Cerro Torre. Such beautiful names, such mysticism.
These mountains have a great cultural power over the people who live their lives below them. They have a powerful hold on me, too, though I grew up in the flatlands of Maryland, where 150-foot Eagle Hill was the highest topographic prominence for five miles around.
I stumbled across a great post on AnotherAsia.com describing Mount Tai in China. The descriptions stumble into that lyric, almost poetic beauty of surprising usage found in many casual translations from other languages. Listen: “the picturesque from the Mount Tai,” according to this article, “has various sceneries like cragged cliff, deep canyon and gorge, grotesque peak and strange rocks.” It goes on to note that the mountain “boasts the initial marvelous wonders: the increasing sun at dawn, the jade plate of sea of clouds, the aura appearing around Bixia Temple, rosy clouds at sunset etc.”
It is a very “steepy” mountain too.
Even when we can’t get our words right, that post makes it clear: mountains are cool.
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You probably recognized most of the names that begin this article. The mountain-lovers like me will know all of them and more; but one mountain in particular is lamentably unsung. I tried to include it in the list up top, but even to me, it read like an imposter hiding in the ranks. That mountain’s name? Baekdusan.
Rising over the border between China and North Korea, Baekdusan (or Mount Baekdu) is the foundational peak of the Baekdudaegan, the mountain range that runs the five-hundred-mile length of the Korean peninsula. I read about it in an article by Shin Ik-cheol, professor at the Academy of Korean studies. Baekdudaegan is the spiritual spine of the peninsula, and Baekdusan is the mountain that anchors that spine. As early as 1357, the writer U Pilheung said of the Korean nation, “our country begins at Baekdusan.”
Koreans have even used their knowledge of the mountain to prove that they are true Koreans. Shin Ik-cheol, professor at the Academy of Korean Studies, tells one story:
Choe Bu (1454-1504), a Seongjong era scholar-official, was lost at sea during his trip back home for his father’s funeral in 1488. He had been on official duty on Jeju Island. He and his entourage drifted to Ningbo of Ming China’s Zhejiang province. He and his entourage were moved to Shaoxing, where they were investigated by Ming officials. To prove that they were Koreans, Choe Bu was asked to speak of Korea’s history, geography, famous people, customs and rites. Speaking of Korea’s geography, Choe Bu first mentioned Baekdusan—“for mountains and rivers, Jangbaeksan is in the northeast and it is also called Baekdusan. Its width is some 1000 li and the height is some 200 li. The lake on the top of it has a circumference of some 80 li. It flows east becoming the Duman River, flows south becoming the Abrok River, flows northeast becoming the Suping River, and flows northwest becoming the Songhua River. The lower part of Songhua River is Huntong River (Choe 1488: gwon 1).
Through his extensive knowledge of the details of his country’s foremost mountain, Choe was able to prove himself a Korean.
By 1767, King Yeongjo formally recognized Baekdusan as the seat of Korean national identity, adding rites for it into the official book of state rituals, and Seo Myeongeung wrote, “All features of our mountains and rivers, regardless of their height and steepness, originate from Baekdusan. It is similar to that of the polar star—the polar star does not move, but remains as the source of all other stars.”
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The mountain remains hugely significant to modern culture in South Korea. Tapestry-sized paintings of its caldera’s Heaven Lake adorn the walls in the schools I taught at in Jeollanam-do, South Korea. The first line of the national anthem prays for God to protect and preserve Korea “until the East Sea dries up and Mount Baekdu is worn away.”
Mount Baekdu is equally important for North Korea; it figures prominently in their stories of national identity, rooting Kim Il Sung there through his fighting for the Korean resistance against Japanese occupation. It’s also the mythical birthplace of Kim Jong-il.
And for both countries, it is the legendary site of the birth of Dangun, the “grandson of heaven” who founded Korea in 2333 BC. (The myth is fascinating).
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Mount Baekdu is at the top of my list of places to visit in North Korea. There is a crater lake high at the top of it, encircled by mountain walls and sky; its blue waters are a thousand feet deep.
Tourists can visit the mountain from the North Korean or Chinese side, but South Koreans (since they’re not allowed to visit North Korea) have limited access. Division of the peninsula blocks off this treasured mountain from two-thirds of its people.
But it’s one more reason to look forward to unification: when it happens, the Korean people will be able to walk the entire length of the Baekdudaegan, the spiritual spine of their country, from Jirisan in the south all the way to Mount Baekdu in the north. That’s a day to look forward to.