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The history of trail usage in Korea
As Korea is a predominantly mountainous peninsula, it is fair to say that the average Korean walked everywhere right up to the Korea War of 1950-53. Hundreds of years ago if not thousands, they walked the river valleys and mountain ridges to get from one village to the next. Many of the saddles became halfway trading points between the two villages. Korea’s main mountain system, the Baekdu-daegan became a natural frontier that partitioned the early Three Kingdom Period before the mid 7th century. High saddles and passes on the Baekdu-daegan acted as defensive positions, or control points that allowed the safe passage of its users. Many of Korea’s scholars walked from one coast of Korea to the next to sit their state examinations. Monks, Taoists, and Shamans, would wander the high ridges searching for places of sacredness and power to practise their ascetic lifestyles. Rogue bandits and adventurers would also seek cover in the mountains, ambushing people whom came their way. Even during Japanese occupation (1895-1945), the mountains of Korea served as a haven for Korea’s freedom fighters, using well known trails and famous ridgelines to manoeuvre themselves along. The mountains of Korea became places of great reverence and trails were used to access and pay homage to the village guardian mountain. Korea’s unique topography allows an unimpeded and continuous line of ridge and spur that can take the traveller for hundreds of kilometres. The roughness and rockiness of the mountain ridges made it only passable for men on foot – horse or cart could not adapt to such treacherous terrain, giving an edge of sacredness between Man and Korean Mountain. The trails were sometimes wrought with Tiger, Leopard, and Bear, with the Tiger becoming respected as the King of the Mountain, a kind of sacred spirit that required great respect so as to ensure safer passage. Many Sanshin Gaks (mountain spirit shrines) were set up on high saddles and ridges so travellers could pray for safe passage, offering small tokens as payment.
All of Korea’s great Master Monks wandered the mountains finding places of great energy to establish new temples, some achieving enlightenment along the way. Local villagers forged mountain trails into the hills to bury their deceased, forage for rare herbs, or find small caves or cliff faces from which to worship. Even now, these trails still remain, either well used or unused forming a massive network of clay coloured lines that scratch the mountain landscape. You can become a wanderer, pilgrim, or traveller passing freely from one mountain system to the next, from one temple to the next, and from from one village to the next, enjoying great hospitality and friendliness along the way. The whole entire openness of the Korean mountain scape allows you to just move, keep moving, and not to worry about obstacles. It allows you to slip in and out of the mountains, using them as your highway that takes you from one unknown destination to the next. Feel free to wander in a yet be explored landscape.