I don’t think I ever would have chosen to travel to Jirisan on my own, but friends of mine invited me to go. Turns out, my friends have great taste. Jirisan is stunning. Jirisan (지리산) is part of the Sobaek mountain range (소백산맥) which stretches across three provinces, reaching up from Jeollanamdo and Jeollabukdo to Gyeongsangnamdo (전라북도, 전라남도, and 경상남도). Located inside its own national park of the same name, Jirisan is considered to be one of the three most important mountains in Korea, though Hallasan (한라산) and Seoraksan (설악산) tend to get all the hype. It’s gorgeous and peaceful with abundant plant and wildlife, good food, and cultural treasures to explore.
Over the Chuseok holiday, I joined a crew of fourteen others to make our way to Jirisan National Park (지리산국립공원) to celebrate and send off our good friends Frankie and Dave. An avid hiker and animal-lover, Frankie wanted to make the 1915 metre-high hike up to the top of Jirisan’s Cheonwangbong Peak (천왕봉) and see if she could admire any wild critters along the way. She and her husband Dave are not alone in that ambition: the national park sees 280,000 visitors annually, with hikers and nature nuts visiting during all four seasons. As Korea’s first official national park, the area is particularly famed for its danpung (단풍) or autumnal leaves and for its bright wild flowers. Clear blue streams run throughout, attracting some of nature’s prettiest insects, including brightly-coloured butterflies, iridescent fuzzy moths, ladybugs, furry caterpillars, and horned beetles. I had a great time resting on the rocky shores of rivers and playing with the butterflies that contented themselves by landing on my shoulders and arms over and over again!
We spent a few days tucked away in a little pension in Gurye (구례) about four hours from Busan by bus in Jeonnam. Each day started with a communal breakfast and ended with a group dinner. We dozed off each night tucked eight in a room, sleeping on the heated ondol floor (온돌) with our yo (요), or Korean floor bedding, listening to the sounds of the nearby stream, chirping crickets, and frogs (and yes, an occasional snore or two!). During the day, we were free to our own activities. I took the time to visit Hwaeomsa or Hwaeom Temple (화엄사). Constructed during the Silla Dynasty (신라) in 544, the temple, like many others, burned down during one of Korea’s many conflicts, falling to ash in the 1590s during the Imjin War (임진왜란). Rebuilt, the temple is now home to eight of Korea’s national treasures, though I found the setting and its natural, unpainted wood eaves to be the most picturesque aspects of the temple itself. You can peer into any of the several buildings or ponder the construction of the massive temple bell and three-storied stone pagoda or simply stroll the dirt-covered paths and hills. The temple was one of the prettiest I had seen in a long time and unique in its unfinished look. Fellow Korea blogger Dale gave Hwaeomsa a 10 out of 10 on his blog!
While I was busy admiring golden Buddha statues and ancient stone lanterns, my friends made the trek up the mountain, reaching the two highest peaks. They had a great view but were really hoping to spy of the area’s famous ‘moon bears’ or Asiatic black bears (반달가슴곰). A species of medium-sized black bears living throughout Asia, moon bears are named for the small, white moon-shaped patch on their chest. Sadly, the moon bear is classified as a threatened species in Korea and greater Asia, and so the park has taken great strides to protect the bears and conserve their habitat. You can visit a bear sanctuary within the park, though it was closed when I went to visit due to the holiday. I did get a peek of one ursine friend through the fence though, which made me very happy. Known as the Species Restoration Technology Institute, the sanctuary is located near the entrance of the national park within Gurye-gun. Click here for English information (and adorable pictures of moon bears).
Having missed out on the moon bears, my friends and consoled ourselves with some of Gurye’s delicious natural foods. We stuffed ourselves at a local Hanjeonsik restaurant. Hanjeongsik (한정식) is basically a table full of side dishes served with soup and rice. It’s a veritable feast for the senses, with bright colours, pleasing textures and a variety of tastes to please any palette. Although you can get Hanjeongsik anywhere you please, the offerings in Gurye can’t be beat! I was as sad to say goodbye to the restaurant as I was my friends… well, almost!
Although it was just three days, my stay in Jirisan was a trip I won’t soon forget. If you have the chance to visit this beautiful park, please do so. The gorgeous scenery, calm atmosphere, and natural treasures are truly worth seeing.