Korea

WINTER HIKING IN JIRISAN: KOREA’S HOLIEST MOUNTAIN

Jirisan offers endless hiking, exceptional views and the opportunity to stay in mountain shelters overnight. Forget day trips to leisurely destinations such as green tea fields or bamboo forests, Jirisan is for those who want more. More adventure, more sense of accomplishment, and depending how seasoned you are, probably more pain. Don’t be like my friend and I, quickly picking routs and failing to realize how difficult they are. Let me get you familiar with the map now, so that you can make more educated decisions than I.

When choosing your rout through Jirisan, the first thing you have to do is decide where you will enter the Mountain. One of the most popular points of entry is (1) Hwaeomsa Temple (화엄사) because of its convenient location. If you are coming from the Gwangju area you can take a direct bus from U-square, completely bypassing the transfer to a local bus or taxi necessary for most other entry points. Hwaeomsa is also one of the most holy and historically important temples in Korea so you may find it worth a visit. 

Another popular, and usually convenient, place to start is (2) Seongsamjae (성삼재). Normally you can take the bus to the Gurye (구례) terminal and from there you will take a local bus to Seongsamjae. Unfortunately, if you are hiking during a major holiday such as the Lunar New year, that local that bus will not be running. If this happens, it’s not the end of the world…but it is a 35,000 ride from the terminal to that point in the mountain. (If you are going to Gurye from Gwangju you can just go to U-square, hop on the bus towards Hwaeomsa and get off at the second to last stop. I believe it was 7,000.)  

Here is a closer look at the map, marked with the trail I took.

By the time we got to (2) Seongsamjae and started hiking it was around 11:00am and it didn’t take very long to get to the first shelter on the map, (3) Nogodan (노고단). This would have been a good time to refill our water bottles, as the rest of the day was pretty brutal. It’s not that the rest of the trail was very steep or difficult, it’s just that we terribly underestimated the length of time it would take.

*Note: If a map indicates that a section of the trail will take 10 hours to complete, you should only take it seriously if you are an experienced hiker. If you are newer to hiking…THE WRITER OF THESE MAPS IS NOT TALKING TO YOU! You might plan for your trek to take 1.5x the amount of time estimated.

We planned on making it to the heart of the mountain where the largest shelter is located, (4) Byeoksoryeong (벽소령), and we may have been able to make it there if we hadn’t taken a 1.5 hour detour to a random peak along the way. My friend was very eager to take on a peak and she convinced me to the top of (8) Banyabong (반야봉). Either a sign, map or some kind of advice-giving element told us that it should take a half hour to reach the top. NOPE! It ended up taking us at least an hour to the top and then of course another half hour back down. It was a pretty steep trail. By the time we were back on track, the sun was hanging pretty low and the first doubts of making it to our reserved shelter began to rise. Up until this point, (other than the sidebar up to the peak), the trail had been pretty relaxing as it was filled evenly with ups, downs and even straight portions. Once we passed (6) Hwakaejae (화개재), circumstances changed. The terrain became steeper, the temperature started to drop  due to the setting sun and our moral shifted a bit for sure.

We decided then that we would never make it to Byeoksoryeong and instead shot for the next shelter on the trail, (7) Yeonhacheon (연하천), which was still a good four kilometers away. The next hour was the hardest. Our attitudes took the shape of roller-coaster courses as we went from gawking at the sunset, to feeling doomed each time we realized the incline was still advancing. We would feel positive and accomplished at some moments, and then take pictures of the rescue signs’ location numbers at other moments. After an hour we could not believe that we had only traveled one kilometer!

As you are reading this now, you can guess that my friend and I made it safely. Luckily the last three kilometers did not take quite as long, but it was pretty much pitch black without the lights of our iphones. (I really wished that I had a headlamp with me!)

If possible, I highly recommend making reservations for a shelter before-hand, with the help of a Korean friend! (Note: You must pay with a card over the phone in order to reserve.) Though our arrival was not highly welcomed by the staff initially, our experience at an unreserved shelter actually turned into a pretty unforgettable one.

Once we finally reached Yeonhacheon, everyone seemed to be sleeping and we really had no idea how to go about checking in. It’s one of the smaller shelters and when you walk in there is just a short hallway with a few doors leading to dorm rooms, no common rooms or anything. After just opening every door there was in the building, (which obviously resulted in some awkward laughs), we came across a locked door. After shaking the doorknob a man’s voiced yelled and a window (which I did not know existed) flew open, revealing a small office with a couple of park rangers. At first they seemed confused and annoyed that we were there. After realizing we didn’t have a reservation one man kind of brushed us off and pointed in the direction of the next shelter. We basically just stood there and stared at them until they got the idea that we were cold, exhausted and not really willing to hike for a few more hours in the dark. Neither of the rangers knew English and I apparently didn’t know enough Korean to express our desire for dinner. After passing a phone back and forth with a ranger’s English speaking friend on the line, we learned they were not giving us the food for sale because we did not have the pots and pans you are supposed to bring with you as a hiker. Woops, didn’t know that. At that point we begged for anything one doesn’t need to cook and they were about to throw some crackers and canned peaches our way….but then all the sudden one of the rangers took pity on us and just made us dinner! We were seated in a mini kitchen at a table that folded down from the wall and we were given ramen, rice, kimchi and another side dish. We made a bit of small talk but I felt bad that I couldn’t tell them how truely grateful we were…other than “Kamsahamnida! Kamsahamnida! Mashiseoyo!”

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After dinner we discovered our room. This shelter has two big rooms, one for males and one for females. You sleep on the ground but you can rent a thin sleeping pad and a nice blanket for 4,000, in addition to the 7,000 you initially pay for the night. (Bring cash). The room is almost arranged like a bunk bed because the sleeping area has two stories with a latter leading to the top one. There are also wooden privacy walls between each person’s “bed” from your head down to the middle of your body. We used our coats for pillows and I was decently warm, however my friend was cold.

The next morning we were on the trail by 7:00am and really ready to be done, despite the twelve or so kilometers that laid between us and the nearest village. We headed back the way we came and by the time we got to the Hwakaejae intersection we had used up ninety-nine percent of our energy and motivation. The next eight kilometers were incredibly easy, however we hiked slower than we had ever hiked before. The trail from Hwakaejae to (9) Banseon Village (반선) is a gradual decline alongside a river and would be a very relaxing hike if you are not completely exhausted. At that point, even walking on a paved sidewalk would have been a chore.

Finally we reached the very end of the trail and got directions to the local bus terminal. (To get back home you must take a bus to the Namwon terminal and from there you can catch a bus to other major cities.) After walking half a kilometer we found the terminal, which was actually disguised as a restaurant! (Not in the park rangers’ description of “bus stop” of course.) If you can read Korean the door says 남원식당 (pronounced Nahm-won Sheek-dahn) which means Namwon restaurant. Tickets are 5,000 and the bus ride is around an hour. From Namwon back to Gwangju (U-square) tickets are 7,000 and I don’t remember the bus ride because I PASSED OUT. 

If you are looking for an easier one night trip: Maybe try starting at (1) Hwaeomsa and making it to (3) Nogodan (노고단) or (4) Piagol (피아골) for the first night. From there you could hike east until you hit (6) Hwakaejae (화개재) and then head north towards (9) Banseon Village (반선) / you might see signs for 뱀시골탐방안내소, pronounced “Baem-shee-gorl-tahm-bahng-ahn-nae-so”.

If you enjoy hiking at all, I strongly urge you to give Jirisan a try. I would say based on the scenery, it was one of my favorite hikes so far. Here’s a photo I snapped while we were practically dying. Though we were both a little bit miserable, I couldn’t help but appreciate this Mordor-esque view of the sunset.

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