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The literal translation of Baekdu Daegan is White Head Great Ridge. Its name originates from the very mountain that the Great Ridge emanates from, Paektu-san (san, ; mountain), 2750m at its summit. Located on the border with China, it is Korea s highest and most sacred mountain, where a volcanic plateau reaches up to windswept peaks that embrace a heavenly caldera filled with sapphire-blue water. It is an enchanting and powerful place. Its summit remains snow-capped almost the entire year, hence the name White Head. Although Korean territories once stretched into Manchuria, two mighty rivers that stretch to the west and east of Paektu-san, spilling respectively into the Yellow Sea and East Sea, now form the modern-day boundary with China. As a result, the only land-bridge that connects the spirit of the Korean peninsula to the Asian continent is that mighty massif. It is from this isolated land-node that Korea s genealogy of mountains begins, scattering a tapestry of endless mountains that consumes seventy-five percent of the peninsula s landscape. From Paektu-san the Baekdu Daegan stretches and twists continuously for some 1680km south towards the sacred peak of Cheonwang-bong (bong, ; peak), 1915m. Along its course, the ridgeline is never cut by water, making it the watershed of the entire peninsula. Korea s jutting landscape has always had an animistic influence on its people. Korea s earliest native traditions were themed around respect for mountains. Their founding leader, King Dan-gun ( ; b.2333 BCE), was said to have achieved the immortal status of Sanshin ( ; Mountain-spirit) instead of his death. Local people have always paid frequent respect to their village s local Sanshin. To protect and respect their mountain's spirit meant to take care of the land's bio-ecology providing better water and air quality for their village crops and themselves. Natural energies were appreciated for their life-giving vitalities. In the greater holistic realm, Paektu-san is seen as the birthplace of all this natural energy, making it the foundation of all civilized Korean life on the peninsula. It transmits this vitality called ji-gi ( ; Earth-energy) throughout the peninsula, via the Baekdu Daegan, according to traditional Pungsu-jiri ( ; geomancy; feng-shui;) theories. From the Baekdu Daegan twelve subsidiary ridges called Jeongmaek ( ) disperse this energy further, channeling the passage of Korea s greatest rivers to her seas at the same time. This combination of energy, land and water is transmitted via the lesser ridgelines even deeper into the very heart of Korean civilization and culture. This anthropomorphic exercise creates an image of the Baekdu Daegan as the spine of the nation, with a central nervous system of natural energy running through it. Its greater and lesser ridges are like the skeletal structure of a human body, providing rigidity and posture. Korea s waterways and streams are therefore the arterial networks that provide a pulse to the people. The clean air generated from this overall mountain-body is life s own breath. This is how the Korean people are intrinsically related to their mountains. It is part of their homogenous identity, mountain-born vitality ingrained into their very DNA. Together they are a family that populates this peninsula -- to damage the Baekdu Daegan is to damage the life of the Korean people. They are one.
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I was on vacation in Korea in early 2006 when I stumbled upon a grand mountain range stretching down the entire peninsula, and yet unknown to outsiders. The Korean people called it the Baekdu Daegan. I was intrigued to find that there is a long trail on its crest that many Koreans strove to trek, or at least aspired to. With little information and no language skills, I set out to discover it. What I found was a riveting mountainscape that exposed to me fascinating concepts of Korea s homogeneous culture, language and identity. Along my saunter, Korean trekkers would instruct me of the symbolic and spiritual significance of the Baekdu Daegan, and that trekking it was more than just pleasure; it was for them a pilgrimage that made them more truly Korean. It quickly captured my imagination. In 2007, I returned to Korea and walked it again, this time producing a guidebook in English with fellow hiker and friend Andrew Douch. The research for the guidebook reaffirmed to me what the Koreans had told me on the trail. Writing it became a phantasmagoric journey into what I term Korean Mountain Culture. Its lure grew. In 2009 I returned to Korea again where I began a six-month wander of the Baekdu Daegans subsidiary ridges, sleeping rough; never knowing what each day would bring, I seemed in-place. Flashes of enlightenment would occasionally hit me. These uncanny moments combined with an endless maze of mountain ridges and new cultural finds convinced me to seek permission within Korea to actualize my fascination with its mountains. Koreans called this draw I felt in-yeon - an inexplicable fate worth pursuing. Naturally, the idea to explore the Baekdu Daegan s entire length on a peninsula snarled by division ensued. I decided that the fairest way to do this would be photographically. I took my idea to Pyongyang, where I discovered that the Paektu Dae San Julgi, as it is titled there, was also an icon of the national spirit. My new idea was warmly received. And so in 2011, I took my first steps on the unexplored mountains of the Baekdu Daegan in the northern half of the Korean Peninsula. I returned again in 2012, and completed my photographic expedition for the first edition of this photographic study. A book that would for the first time document the entire Baekdu Daegan, North & South, featured together a torn nation unified by mountains. As I began putting this photo-art book together I found myself emphasizing mountain photography with minimal text; I would let the viewers decide what the images meant to them. But I do have a voice. The past seven years have seen me travel quietly to many places on this peninsula. Koreans of all kinds encountered along the pathways have always reacted with great enthusiasm about my project, and have helped me accomplish it at many different levels. My social contacts were always memorable and educational. It was all very moving and humbling. My fond memories of these wide travels tell me that the Koreans were wholesomely Korean regardless of what ideals they embrace. Their language, hearts and inner mannerisms are absolutely identical -- facts that we sometimes let outside influences coerce us into thinking aren t so. Although the Baekdu Daegan is on a divided peninsula, its backbone is geographically intact as one mountain-system. As an outsider who can pass across the barriers between the two, then, this book is the fruit of my desire to share the oneness of the Baekdu Daegan with the Korean people and everyone else who currently cannot experience it. Roger Shepherd Beopju Village, Sokli-san June 2013Review:
The beauty of the Baekdu Daegan has now been vividly captured, this time photographically. A hiker from New Zealand, Roger Shepherd, has published a collection of photographs that capture the depth and beauty of the mountains in a series of 108 photos, taken both day and night and colored by the changes of the seasons. In Shepherd s collection, titled Baekdu Daegan Korea, Mountains of North and South Korea, his photographs show the stunning mountainscape as seen through the viewfinder of his camera, taken from 2007 to 2013. The photographer intended through his photos to not only share the striking landscape of the mountains but also to bring together the two divided Koreas. The collection starts with a photo of a bird s-eye view of the Ryanggang-do region around Baekdusan and ends with a sunrise over Cheonwang-bong, one of many Jirisan peaks. As the photographer says, these 108 photos allow the viewer to feel like he is trekking from the starting point of the Baekdu Daegan all the way through to its end. It seems obvious that Shepherd s photographic expedition must have been an arduous task. George Richard Fleming, a photographer and professor at Sacramento City College, once said about Ansel Adams, one of the best-known American landscape photographers, that, Adams photos are the ones that captured the best moments of the place. That was possible because he lived there for a long time. So his pictures are not the ones that anybody could emulate. As the professor said, Shepherd, too, stayed in the Baekdu Daegan as long as he could to get the best shots. He even resigned himself to sleeping out in the open to find the best places and best moments. Everyone can see that effort in his photos, where he presses the shutter button at the exact, perfect moment, such as during the sunrise, sunset and throughout the changes of the seasons across the mountain ranges. Shepherd tried also to include in his book the Korean spirit enshrined in the mountains, plants and trees that have long taken root there, watching over Koreans lives throughout the years. Most notably, with this book, the photographer wanted to show that the peninsula, though now politically divided, is still linked together by the Baekdu Daegan. That s why he took so many photos that focus on its ridges, stretching from the north all the way through to the south. --By Jeon Han, Sohn JiAe Korea.net Staff Writers
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