Hiking Korea’s Treasured Jirisan Park

  • Cho Hoe-eun, owner of the Persimmons Flower in May guesthouse.

    Cho Hoe-eun, owner of the Persimmons Flower in May guesthouse.

  • Paper lanterns at Silsangsa temple.

    Paper lanterns at Silsangsa temple.

  • Prayer halls on the grounds of Silsangsa temple.

    Prayer halls on the grounds of Silsangsa temple.

  • A view of the Jirisan range on the climb to Baraebong Peak.

    A view of the Jirisan range on the climb to Baraebong Peak.

  • Namulbap (rice infused with mountain herbs) with beef patties, deodeok root, and condiments at Jirisan Namulbap restaurant in Inwol.

    Namulbap (rice infused with mountain herbs) with beef patties, deodeok root, and condiments at Jirisan Namulbap restaurant in Inwol.

  • Hikers on the section of trail between Inwol and Unbong.

    Hikers on the section of trail between Inwol and Unbong.

  • Tracing country roads and old village paths, the Jirisan Dullegil comprises a diverse range of walking routes, though trekkers looking for untamed wilderness can easily veer onto the mountain itself.

    Tracing country roads and old village paths, the Jirisan Dullegil comprises a diverse range of walking routes, though trekkers looking for untamed wilderness can easily veer onto the mountain itself.

  • The writer inspects a sign on the trail.

    The writer inspects a sign on the trail.

  • A bridge pavilion at Cheoneunsa temple.

    A bridge pavilion at Cheoneunsa temple.

  • Ornate carvings adorn the roofs of temples.

    Ornate carvings adorn the roofs of temples.

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Cho is something of a treasure herself. A former Seoulite who tired of big-city life, she’s been running the Persimmons Flower for three years, during which time she’s also helped establish several of the Dullegil’s 15 sections. She says that while most of the villages that lie along the trail are pleased with the new influx of visitors, others fret about people traipsing through (and occasionally eating) their crops. She’s also frank about the changes tourism is bringing to what is still one of the most conservative corners of Korea. Old houses are already giving way to multistory residences and restaurants; once-quiet paths are now relative hotbeds of commercial activity; and nearby Sancheong County will soon inaugurate a cable car designed to ferry even more tourists to Jirisan’s upper reaches. “We’re trying to persuade people along the trail not to change the scenery, but naturally, when they get some money, they want to build bigger things,” Cho sighs.

Yet Craig and I see few signs of change as we explore the Sannae area. Instead, we’re treated to the sight of winding lanes and small houses, carefully tended rows of cabbages and chili peppers, and a bridge across a rushing river dominated by kids-on-bikes traffic. When the sun starts to dip behind the mountains we make our way to Silsangsa, one of several important Buddhist temples near the trail network. Jutting skyward from the rice fields, the ancient complex’s main hall is capped with a graceful flared roof, while its grounds contain a trove ofnational treasures, including two ornately carved stone pagodas. Silsangsa faces Jirisan’s highest point, the 1,915-meter Heavenly King Peak (Cheonwangbong). Cowed even from a distance by its rocky outcrops, I head for the temple’s sansingak, or shrine to the mountain spirit, who is depicted in a fantastical painting as a wizened old man with a flowing beard, accompanied by a leering tiger. Despite detecting a trace of amusement in the spirit’s heavily lidded eyes, I mutter a hurried prayer for good things on the road ahead.

Someone was evidently listening, as a short stroll later we’re sitting in a restaurant ready to tuck into one of the region’s most celebrated deli-cacies: pork from a jet-black breed of pig raised in the Jirisan highlands. Locals would have you believe this meat offers medicinal benefits, everything from preserving one’s youth to protecting the liver. I’m skeptical, but that doesn’t stop me savoring the tender chunks of pork, which we cook on a tabletop grill then garnish with sesame oil and wrap in pungent perilla leaves. As is typical for the area, the meal is accompanied by an eye-popping array of mountain greens, boiled and chopped with garlic or drizzled with gochujang, a smoldering blend of soybean paste and crushed dried chilies. It all makes for an exquisite introduction to the local larder, and we manage to stuff ourselves silly long before the bill arrives.

***

The chill dawn air comes as a shock after a night spent on floors heated to toasting, but we are soon warming up again in the Persimmons Flower’s kitchen over mugs of bitter green tea supplied by fellow guest Lee Chang-rim. A frequent visitor from Seoul, Lee is quick to explain why Jirisan keeps drawing him back. “It’s one of the only places in the country where there are no high-rises, no apartments —just mountain.”

Today we’ve elected to tackle the western half of the 19-kilometer trail section between the towns of Geumgye and Inwol, which traces an old road linking several secluded villages. Like the rest of the circuit, it’s clearly marked with wooden signposts that indicate the direction and distance to the next major checkpoint. It also provides a good introduction to the Dullegil’s varied character; we begin our walk on a busy road with buses trundling past, before veering off onto a trail through farmland that’s fit only for tractors. Soon enough this gives way to a rocky path that ascends into Jirisan’s foothills. It’s a workout, but a pleasant one. The air is crisp and suffused with the scent of pines, and breaks in the trees allow us to survey the still valley below. Though we occasionally pass a fellow rambler, for the most part we have the path to ourselves, and the tranquility is mesmerizing. When we finally do hear a sound above the crunch of our boots, it’s the muted roar of a river that we’ll cross by picking our way over a series of stones.

We emerge from the forest at Junggun. Home to a major military outpost during Japan’s 16th-century invasions of Korea, the village is now devoted almost exclusively to farming, with its houses backing onto a patchwork of rice terraces. Residents have evidently taken to their role as stewards of the trail: rest pavilions have been built for hikers, and colorful murals spell out messages of welcome. We stop to watch a spry old lady sifting licorice-like roots in a massive basket, and are almost immediately invited to join her for a cup of coffee. As we sit in the shade of her porch, Choi Sun-hee tells us she’s more than 100 years old, and that she hasn’t seen Junggun this busy in decades. “There are only us old folks living here; my five children moved away a long time ago,” she says with a thick Jeolla accent. “So it’s a bit less lonely now—though perhaps there are too many people on the weekends.” As we take our leave, she apologizes for not being able to offer us a full meal, and fills our hands with ripe chestnuts.

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