• [New Year’s Special] A walk on the Bau hiking trails in Gangneung

  • Hello, everyone. I’m novelist Lee Sun-one(이순원). Another year has gone by and a new one has arrived. Life has been hard for everyone with a struggling economy and cloudy political outlooks for the Korean Peninsula. But just as the fish slumber underneath the ice and the new shoots wait to sprout under the ground even in the harshest of the winter, we still hope for a better future and reach for our dreams at the onset of another new year. So, this is a perfect time for us to seek out the wisest paths in life by following a few that were taken by our ancestors.

    Located in the city of Gangneung in Gangwon Province, the Bau Walking Trails Guesthouse is bustling with visitors who have braved the freezing weather.

    Together with the Ole(올레) Walking Trails in Jeju Island and the Dule(둘레) Hiking Trails in Mt. Jiri, the Bau Walking Trails are among the three most popular trekking trails in Korea.

    The eighteen courses stretching for 350 kilometers over Daegwanryeong(대관령) Pass and to Gyeongpodae(경포대) and the beaches at Jeongdongjin(정동진) provide views to the spectacular landscapes and waterscapes so typical of rugged Gangwon Province. The first-time visitors come to the guesthouse to gather information and choose which course to explore and even make friends with other trekkers. One visitor has chosen to try out the Daegwanryeong Old Trail.

    They say that the Daegwanryeong Old Trail is really famous and supposedly fantastic. I’ve always wanted to try it out. I was really worried about walking this particular trail, because it had snowed so much. But a guide at the guesthouse said that the trail is wonderful throughout the year, and in winter it is a must to walk the snow-covered trails. That encouraged me to come out here today.

    Daegwanryeong is an ancient mountain pass that has linked the west and east sides of the Baekdu mountain range since the Goryeo era. Shin Saimdang신사임당, a renowned female artist and writer of the Joseon era and mother of esteemed Confucian scholar Yi I이이, wrote the following poem when she left her childhood home in Gangneung to go live with her husband in Hanyang, the Joseon capital.

    My lonely heart as I leave my aged mother in Gangneung to go to Hanyang.
    I turn to look north and the evening mountains under the white clouds remain green.

    The poem tells of her heavy heart as she leaves her family in Gangneung and wonders whether she’d be able to see them again. Just like Shin Saimdang’s sorrowful poem, Daegwanryeong has provided the backdrops to many sad tales from old. Measuring 832 meters above sea level, Daegwanryeong sees the heaviest snowfall in Korea, and consequently provides one of the most breathtaking sceneries.

    Wow, this is snow! It’s so fantastic, so wonderful! I wonder how many more times I will get to see such beautiful sceneries.

    The silvery, snow-covered field and the unobstructed view from the high plain mark the start of the Seonjaryeong선자령 segment and the Daegwanryeong대관령 Old Trail segment of the Bau Walking Trails. The two segments share the same road until the milestone at Seonghwangdang성황당. Then, the Seonjaryeong segment heads north and the Daegwanryeong segment goes down east to Gangneung. This is where the real walking begins for those who chose the second route.

    The 16-kilometer trekking course passes by a sheep farm, Seonghwangdang, an old tavern, and the Daegwanryeong Museum. This course takes about four to five hours to complete, but it’s not easy plodding through the thick snow that comes up to the thighs. Nonetheless, this trekker is not daunted at all.

    It’s my home. I feel fulfilled and enriched whenever I come here. This old trail and the Seonjaryeong trail are famous for heavy snow. Whenever I see snow coming down even in Seoul, this road is the first thing I think of. I dream of this place.

    Those who call Gangwon Province their home immediately think of the Daegwanryeong Old Trail whenever they see news of a snow storm. Despite the perils of cold and slippery terrain, the trail is the road home.

    “An Old Road to Gangneung,” a novel published in 1995, depicts my childhood home, a place where the water flows east and the wind blows inland. My childhood dream was to go and explore beyond Daegwanryeong. Adults used to say that Seoul lied beyond Daegwanryeong.

    There was no other road to the west than Daegwanryeong. Nowadays there are many alternate routes, but this road was the first one connecting Seoul and Gangneung. In centuries past, government tests used to take place only in Seoul, so people here had to go all the way to Seoul to take tests. People took six or seven pairs of straw shoes for the trip. My ancestors all went to Seoul to take exams for government posts.

    Test takers and job seekers, they all had to pass Daegwanryeong to reach the wider world. I also ventured out to the bigger world through Daegwanryeong and have shown the beauty of Daegwanryeong and Gangneung in my books since I became a writer. I think of it as my duty as a Gangneung native to walk on the trails I’ve walked in my childhood and publicize them. But it is not easy pioneering a new road.

    There is a sheep farm one kilometer away from the Daegwanryeong rest stop. When the blistering north wind reaches the grassy plains at 1,000 meters above sea level, it howls like a wild animal and frightens the sheep at the farm. The trail seems to have disappeared under the snow and wind just twenty minutes into the trek. Fear descends in the hearts of the trekkers.

    It reminded me of Park Bum-sin’s novel, “Cholache.” Of course, this place is nothing compared to Cholache, but the freezing wind and blinding snow storm make this place feel like Cholache to me. I can’t see what is in front of me, not to mention the road.

    Footsteps get erased immediately by the swirling snow and leave no trace. Should they keep going or turn back? As in life, this is the question faced by most trekkers. And their choice is to brave what lays before them.

    (Woman 1) I’m carving out the path for those who follow me. I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile and challenging.
    (Woman 2) It was okay when I just followed the trail. But when I veered off, I fell thigh-deep into the snow. I was so scared. I’m thankful that someone marked the path with footsteps. All I have to do is follow the footsteps in the snow.

    It takes only one person to open a trail. Then, many more follow to tamp down on the snowy trace and a wider path is created. The Bau Trails we enjoy today were created by people like them.

    In order to open a trail, a person has to explore the area at least ten to twenty times to find a path. Then, he has to find ways to connect that path to others. There may be many different paths, but some are rocky, some go through the woods, while some may be great for walking. Finding the good ones was all a part of the process of creating the Bau Trails. In all honesty, we can’t say we created the paths. We just connected the existing ones. But the care and dedication that went into the trail search and networking are what shaped the Bau Trails of today.

    That was my friend and fellow trekker Kim Seong-nam김성남. It takes a lot of work and dedication to find and connect the trails. Fortunately, Gangwon Province still has a number of alternate side routes that connect the mountain villages. But the Bau Trails are the product of a number of pathfinders from all over the country who worked tirelessly to link them together as a series of beautiful trails.

    In my novel “Eunbiryeong은비령,” I imagined the eight sceneries of Eunbiryeong to tell the heartbreaking story of unrequited love. But imagination doesn’t have a place in the carving out of the Bau Walking Trails. I had to walk each and every part of the paths to create a network of accessible trails. Every weekend I was accompanied by an able trekker like Choi Jong-won to pioneer and expand the trails.

    I knew of two segments – the twelfth segment to Jumunjin and the thirteenth one called the Hyangho, the Path of Wind - before I met Mr. Lee. When he was scouting out the roads for the Bau Walking Trails, there wasn’t many who knew about these two routes. So I joined him to guide him through them at first, and eventually accompanied him in exploring other trails, too. I enjoy this work. Sometimes, I have to literally lay out a new road to link two existing ones. That’s the work I enjoy and I feel proud that I had a part in establishing the trails for others.

    It has been three years since the Bau Walking Trails were opened to the public. Since then the trails have grown to include 18 segments that branch out to all parts of Daegwanryeong and the East Sea. Some of the walking courses are replete with myths and legends like the Pine Tree Trail, and some are restored ones like the routes to Gulsan굴산 Temple and Jumunjin주문진. About an hour into the Daegwanryeong Old Trail, trekkers come to a stop at Guksa Seonghwangdang국사성황당.

    This is where a high shamanistic priest started his trip down to the Dano단오 festival site in spring. Our ancestors used to consider this the starting point of their trek over Daegwanryeong.

    Guksa Seonhwangdang is where Gangneung’s famous Dano Festival starts. The site for the UNESCO-designated intangible cultural asset marks the real beginning of the Daegwanryeong Old Trail. About 200 meters from the shamanistic temple is the knife-like narrow ridge of Baekdu Mountain Range. The downward slope to the east toward Gangneung is the main part of the Daegwanryeong Old Trail.

    Breaths come in short gasps and the legs shake like Jell-O as trekkers plod through the deep snow and winding mountain trail. That’s when Mr. Kim Seong-nam, who has been helping the lagging trekkers, gives his advice.

    Don’t try too hard not to fall. Use the snowy surface to slide down the slope to avoid any strain.

    If you can’t avoid it, enjoy it. That’s how people should enjoy this trail and how they should face life. Sometimes you have to let go and slide down, but it’s human nature to tense up when faced with seemingly overwhelming obstacles. The truth is the Daegwanryeong Old Trail is difficult even for the locals.

    This 70-something couple has been living in Daegwanryeong for well over half a century. They reminisce about the old days.

    (Man) We used to sell firewood in Gangneung. There were no gas heaters then. We used to heat with coal and firewood. But selling firewood didn’t bring in much money, perhaps enough for a bushel of barley.
    (Woman) Life was hard back then. I even chopped firewood during the day and gave birth to my youngest daughter that very night. The roads were not as good as the walking trails these days. It was really hard walking up and down the mountain.

    It measures only 13 kilometers, but Daegwanryeong was an imposing obstacle and the only access point to the wider world to the poor mountain people. A road pavement project was launched for this area during the Japanese colonial years, but it was an arduous challenge for the village residents who were forced into labor in the west of Gangneung and at the foot of Daegwanryeong.

    The Daegwanryeong trail was unpaved when I was little. Workers were conscripted from each village. I remember walking the Daegwanryeong trail carrying lunch for my parents who worked in the road construction project. I tell my children that people paved this road with shovels and pickaxes.

    My older brother used to often work in the paving project instead of my parents. Stoic and reliable, my brother doesn’t talk much about the hard days, but walking on the Daegwanryeong trail like today seems to bring out a flood of memories for him. I had also written about my trip over Daegwanryeong with my son in “The Road I Walked with My Son.” It appears that walking on the Daegwanryeong trail evokes childhood memories for almost everyone.

    People seem to rediscover the child in them as they have a snowball fight and slide down the gentle snowy slope.

    Sometimes the snow comes up to our necks. We would put on snowshoes, but boars have no such thing. Boar hunting is good, because four of us would each get a leg at least. Even the dogs would fatten up with boar meat in winter.

    While the memories of boar hunting are relived, the trekking party arrives at Banjeong반정, the halfway point of the Daegwanryeong Old Trail.

    This is the halfway point. You can see the city of Gangneung down there. The view is better today because the weather is so nice.

    The view from Banjeong is spectacular enough to amaze even a seasoned trekker like Choi Jong-won. The scenery had so captivated even renowned Joseon painter Kim Hong-do that he sat down and painted the city of Gangneung and the East Sea right at the spot. But what good is a trip without delicious food? An outdoor meal is made even more delicious by the splendid view.

    A two-hour trek can surely wear out people’s energy. So, they just plop down on the snow to prepare lunch. The meal is nothing fancy, but the snowy background makes it a special one.

    (Woman 1) You know how delicious winter cabbages are, right? So, I made some cabbage soup and stir-fried mushroom. I also have kimchi. It’s tastier because I get to see the beautiful view and enjoy good company.
    (Woman 2) How should I express this feeling? I’m lost for words. You wouldn’t know what it’s like without experiencing it. It’s delicious and fantastic.

    In truth, walking is tedious. The eight-kilometer distance between the Daegwanryeong rest stop and Banjeong can be covered by car in less than 10 minutes. Walking may be inefficient time-wise, but it has its own merits, such as the pleasant feeling of togetherness.

    I felt it was boring to walk the trails at first. But after a while I realized that I enjoyed walking and talking with other trekkers. It’s really fun now.

    Just like Mr. Kim Jae-won, who found the virtue of slowness while walking the Bau Trails, people began to see their surroundings in a different light.

    (Woman) People don’t see this memorial stone when they hurry past it. It’s to remember all the good works of a Joseon era village official, Lee Byung-hwa이병화. He built a small inn over there to provide food and rest to travelers. I wish more people would realize what good deeds he did.

    Kwon Myung-ja had discovered a small memorial plaque about 300 meters from Banjeong. She now wants people to know more about the honoree of the plaque, a little known village official Lee Byung-hwa who helped lonely travelers some two centuries ago. If she had traveled by car, she would have never found out about the kindhearted man. The discovery has delighted the veteran trekker Kim Jae-won, too.

    I’ve been living in Gangneung for 46 years, but I didn’t know there was such a road. But as I explored various trails and heard stories about them, I came to know a lot about the area. I now know where a mountain fortress is and an altar for the Shilla Dynasty General Kim Yu-shin김유신.

    People tend to get bigger and more meaningful impressions as they near the end of the 7.6-kilometer Daegwanryeong Old Trail.

    The latter half of the Daegwanryeong Old Trail follows the valley down to the center of Gangneung. I watch the water flow in the valley throughout the year and realize how so many things in nature remain the same and retain their beauty.

    The water of Eoheulri어흘리 Valley meanders through Daegwanryeong to find its way to the sea. The valley stream seems to encourage us to resolutely follow the path we’ve chosen in life. The deeply rooted trees along the Daegwanryeong Old Trail also seem to tell us a story of their own. I think the trees tell us to preserve our innocence easily lost in today’s busy world.

    One hundred forty thousand Geumgang금강 pine trees keep the Daegwanryeong area green even in the winter. Firmly rooted century-old chestnut trees give us the gift of sweet chestnuts every year, and diligent plum trees usher in the spring with their white blossoms early in the year. All these trees show us how to be giving.

    I come here to walk off any work-related stress. All my worries seem to melt away as I walk the trails. I can empty my concerns and become one with nature. I become completely involved with my surroundings. I feel entirely different after I’m done with my walk.

    Walking the trails is a great way to find myself. Nature teaches us life lessons in everything we see – the sky, the trees, the wind, and the water. Another two hours with Mother Nature brings us to the site of an old tavern, our next rest stop.

    My brother, an expert of Daegwanryeong trails, tells local stories about the tavern. An old tale says that travelers used to form a group at this stopover to avoid the bandits targeting lone travelers or small parties. Fatigue melts away as we listen to my brother’s old tales in a warm room. Now it’s time to take a sip of cold spring water and set off again to finish up the trail.

    Energized by a short rest and a drink, the journey down to the Daegwanryeong Museum, the finish point of the Daegwanryeong Old Trail, took less than an hour. My brother seems especially sorry to see the trail end.

    The trail is similar to life. Some parts of it are difficult and treacherous, while other parts are smooth and easy-going.

    Perhaps we think about life as we follow the trail, because the trail itself is so peculiarly similar. Some segments are short and straight, while others are long and rough. Up and down, up and down… that’s what life is.

    I tend to think about my work, family, and many other things. But while I walk the trails, I find myself not thinking about them, emptying those concerns out of my mind. Walking in quiet solitude allows me to recharge myself and take another step forward. I think that’s what life is all about.

    In the year 2012 Mr. Kim Seong-nam seems to have discovered a new aspect about his life. What did I realize over the past three years I’ve been walking the Bau Walking Trails? Let’s go back to the guesthouse where we started.

    Even in the middle of the night, guesthouse operator Woo Sang-ryeol우상렬 is busy providing information in person or over the phone. He’s also responsible for clearing out the snow on the walkway. He sure can use a pair of extra hands, but there is always a big smile on his face.

    I’m amazed and grateful that people come all the way into this remote place in the mountains. Their presence gives energy to the village. We have five rooms here, and I get inspired by seeing those rooms light up and reflect in the snow outside. The visitors all have their own issues and purposes for walking the trails, but we become friends overnight as we share our life stories. I try to encourage them wholeheartedly as they set off on their journey up the trail. That’s my job here.

    Life is played out in its full glory and suffering on the Bau Walking Trails and the guesthouse.
    Mr. Wu bids farewell and gives encouragement to every trekker. As I see him wave goodbye to a group of walkers, I’m reminded of my father who used to wait for us at the end of the Daegwanryeong mountain path.

    As the writer who first introduced the Bau Walking Trails to the world, my next mission is to write a book about the trails. I hope to tell a story about people fulfill their life objectives and find the true meaning of life by walking the trails. Every trip starts with a single footstep. Why don’t you start on the journey of life today?