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Paektusan - A view from our expert author


Lake at Paektusan, North Korea by Maxim Tupikov, ShutterstockA volcanic lake at the top of Paektusan in North Korea © Maxim Tupikov, Shutterstock

The Tuman and Yalu rivers dividing Korea and China source from one mountain, Mount Paektu. This volcanic mass of frozen lava smashed out from the wide, elevated planes of dense forest and bogs surrounding it over a million years ago, and has a powerful spiritual symbolism for the Korean people, as indicated in the local tourist literature:

When children begin to study language, they are taught to sing song of Mount Paektu and when they begin to draw a picture, they make a picture of the spirit of Mount Paektu. When they attain the age of discretion, they visit Mount Paektu, because they know their real mind by reflecting it on Lake Chon and when their hair turns grey, they climb Mount Paektu with a desire to be reborn as a youth and live a long life. Those that leave the motherland in a state of sorrow for lack of a nation return to visit Mount Paektu first of all.

Paektu is the backdrop for many of the almighty mosaics and paintings seen across Korea, and its significance for all Koreans is evinced by the dominance of South Koreans in the thriving tourist industry on the Chinese side of the mountain. Paektusan means ‘white-topped mountain’, as it’s streaked in pumice and usually crowned with snow. It sits in an extensive lava area of its own doing, and hasn’t stopped adding to it.

This volcanic mass of frozen lava smashed out from the wide, elevated planes of dense forest and bogs surrounding it over a million years ago, and has a powerful spiritual symbolism for the Korean people.

There was a massive eruption in AD940. Pumice showered the area and lava flowed many times in the 12th century; the last known eruption was in 1903. In 2002 to 2005 there were concerns about another eruption, as seismicity picked up and the volcano inflated. Many feared it would go off, impacting the Chinese and Korean economies (it’s also only 70km from the DPRK’s underground nuclear test site, and as those blasts increase in size, so do concerns that one of them will set off the volcano). Those rumblings came to naught, but a positive development is greater international volcanic co-operation, as in 2013 when US–UK scientists were deployed to Paektu to work with Korean scientists in assessing the volcano’s mood.

The harsh terrain around the mountain, high barren rock beset by bitter winters, its remoteness, and not least its propensity still to go off, have meant Paektu’s environs have remained sparsely populated and sparsely defended for centuries; across its porous border cattle herders, trappers, hunters and loggers pass back and forth. These occupations survive today alongside the slither of a tourist industry that accommodates ‘tens of thousands every year’ and activities and jaunts by KPA units. The locals are also exceedingly friendly and warm, highly welcome in such beautifully serene desolation.

Koreans once believed that dire punishment befell anyone intruding on the seclusion of the resident spirit, as Captain Cavendish’s companion H E Goold-Adams found out when hunting on the lower slopes in the 1880s:

Before we could sit down to our magnificent repast, the spirit whose domain we were invading had to be propriated; for this purpose rice had been brought (otherwise difficult to cook properly at altitude). A miserable little pinch was cooked, spread out on the trunk of a fallen tree, and allowed to remain there for a quarter of an hour or so until half cold; my men in the meantime (though professed Buddhists) standing in front, muttering, shaking their hands in the Chinese fashion, and now and then expectorating. Their incantations finished, the rice was brought back to the fireside and solemnly eaten. They explained to me that the spirit being such, could not eat rice, and only required the smell, so there could be no harm in their consuming this tiny luxury … At a later juncture I had to fire both barrels of my shot-gun in the air to appease the spirit.

A more modern mythology has been built around the Great Leader’s exploits here, for officially this is where he was based from 1937 to 1943. With mercurial powers, he led his forces into thousands of victorious battles against the Japanese at ‘200-ri at a stretch to annihilate the Japanese punitive troops and mowed down all the enemy force’, a feat the enemy thought only possible through ‘the art of land contraction’. Another time before the liberation the Japanese forces surrounded the mountain where hid a small KPA unit led by Kim Il Sung.

The harsh terrain around the mountain, high barren rock beset by bitter winters, its remoteness, and not least its propensity still to go off, have meant Paektu’s environs have remained sparsely populated and sparsely defended for centuries.

A ferocious battle raged all night but, next day, only dead Japanese were found, and not one single guerrilla. The Japanese had been fighting among themselves! This positively spooky occurrence finally scared all the Japanese away. Numerous secret camps and battlegrounds have been rediscovered since the 1970s, with more sites being found all the time, and are on public show. For all the mythologising, Kim Il Sung’s book With the Century provides a much more down-to-earth account of the years of battling the Japanese around Paektu, and is a good insight into the lives and livelihoods and turmoil of life at war with the colonial power during the appallingly desperate period during the 1920s and 1930s.

The average temperature on the mountain is -8˚C, the highest being 18˚C and the lowest recorded -47˚C; Korea’s coldest area. The weather changes quickly, some say four times a day, others say four times an hour. The wind is always strong, as the Paektu range striding northwards into China provides the battleground for warm air from the mainland blowing into a barrage of cold. As a result, much of the flora has a distinctive ‘blown’ shape to it. The freeze begins in September and thaws from late May. Around 2,500mm of rain comes each year, mainly in July. Snow starts falling from early September until mid-June. The harshness of the weather effectively rules out any winter visits, although the scenery is at its most icily barren and empty then, but in spring and summer liquid emerald erupts from the hills and carries down currents of flowers, washing across the area’s meadows and valleys.

For all the mythologising, Kim Il Sung’s book With the Century provides a much more down-to-earth account and is a good insight into the lives and livelihoods and turmoil of life at war with the colonial power during the appallingly desperate period during the 1920s and 1930s.

Within Paektu’s thorny crown of petrified lava is cupped the world’s highest mountain lake, Lake Chon (‘Heaven Lake’). Lake Chon used to be known as Ryongdam or Ryongwangthaek because dragons were thought to live there. Snips of alpine meadow and birch trees cling on to the sheer cliffs of young, crumbling pumice that make the crater like a marbled bowl, filled with an eerily blue water. Should a hurricane be raging around you, the absolute stillness and intense blueness of the lake in its grey-white bowl becomes even more prominent.

The surface of Lake Chon is at 2,190m, covers an area of 9.16km2, and has a depth of 384m, making it the deepest mountain lake in the world. Supplied by rain and underground springs, its volume is 1,955 million cubic metres. A local guidebook handily points out that should you ever try to empty Lake Chon, get a pump discharging faster than 1m3 per second, because that’ll take 60 years. The lake’s surface ice freezes to 4m thick, and its water temperature never rises above 6˚C, so good luck to the hardy ones wading into it.

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