▲ Baeknokdaem, at the top of Mount Halla. Photo by Shin Yong Man
Since those first simmering eruptions around 2 million years ago, Mount Halla has dominated and defined Jeju Island. There is not a lot that can be said about Jeju that does not in some way involve the gargantuan of geology at its center and this was cemented with UNESCO World Natural Heritage recognition in 2007.
The three natural heritage sites - Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak), Geomun Oreum lava tubes and Mount Halla - were in little need of UNESCO to confirm their legacy, but that listing on June 27 changed both how the world views Jeju Island and how the world uses Mount Halla.
The UNESCO visitor center at Eorimeok is a case in point, as are the dedicated staff members who act as guardians of the treasured mountain. Director Kang Sung Bo keeps a watchful eye over visitors on security monitors from his office at 970 meters and feels a deep attachment to the mountain.
“Even in deepest winter when the snows cut off all the roads, I still come in to work. The 10 degrees Celsius difference in temperature between here and sea level can even cause me sickness, but I get such rich rewards it is all worth it,” he said.
Kang said that the local government was integral in campaigning for UNESCO recognition and the vote was unanimous with national government support. The changes brought were swift.
“The UNESCO center has allowed us to increase the role of education for visitors to Halla Mountain through our interactive visitor center and expert guides,” he said. “Our guides are crucial in protecting the mountain.”
Oh Hee Sam is one such guide, whose passion for the mountain is clear to see. He has worked on Mount Halla for 16 years and feels a deep affinity with it. He hopes to instill this passion in visitors to the center and national park.
“More important than the UNESCO designation is the protection of the park for the future generations. Thankfully UNESCO funding allows us to provide guides and wardens for Mount Halla as the people’s love for it can lead to damage, such as erosion,” he said.
The deep relationship with the mountain is, like many aspects of Korean culture, easier to intellectually grasp than to intuitively understand. The mountain’s looming presence provides a source of protection as its seemingly eternal shadow shields Jeju people from nature’s wrath.
“From smallholders to haenyeo, the first thing seen on a Jeju morning is Mount Halla. It tells us how our day will be and whether the seas will be rough. It even protects us from the strength of Pacific typhoons, which are deflected off towards Japan. Some Japanese have even complained of this,” Oh said.
Clearly, to understand the Jeju psyche one must understand Mount Halla. Its ancient name of Yeongju means holy mountain and Halla sits alongside Korean mountains such as Baekdusan in the pantheon of deified peaks. The ancient Chinese even believed it was one of the three holy mountains of Asia, alongside Mount Fuji, Japan, and Mount Hyang, China.
▲ The 500 Generals, on Mount Halla. Photo by Kim Hong Gu
“This belief was so strong that a Chinese Emperor, Chin, sent envoys to collect elixirs of life from its slopes,” Kang said. “Even today, we allow locals to perform rites on the mountain slopes when these areas are prohibited to the public. Even in areas such as the 500 Generals, which are completely prohibited, they secretly attend without our knowing. It is very important to maintain the spiritual connection between Mount Halla and the Jeju people.”
These are not just quaint superstitions, but living belief systems which bind Mount Halla and the people of Jeju. Kang shared the story of an official from the Jeju provincial office, who having three daughters but no son had visited a fortune teller.
“The fortune teller had asked about his workplace situation and was told that his desk was facing away from Mount Halla. The fortune teller advised that he should turn to face the mountain and he would beget a son,” Kang said.” He turned to face the mountain and three months later his wife became pregnant with a son.”
There are even modern-day incarnations of those Chinese envoys, with visitors from the People’s Democratic Republic numbering well over 17,000 last year, outnumbering all other foreign visitors, though this pales in comparison to the 988,000 Korean visitors. With such pressure, Mount Halla has to be at the forefront of sustainable tourism. Kang is clear where the priority lies.
“Preservation is the most important issue. The sheer number of visitors make protecting Mount Halla essential. Additional issues arise because people try to visit restricted areas, where they risk personal injury or damage to the mountain,” he said.
It is hard not to feel that this guardianship is deeper than just a feeling to conserve nature; as the once guardian has become the guarded. “Mount Halla is a not just a symbol of Jeju Island, it is also the root of life for Jeju people,” Oh said. “Water is the source of life and Mount Halla is the source of Jeju water. Mount Halla provides for all life on Jeju Island.”
With such a dependence upon its provision it is no wonder that Jeju people have come to view Halla as more than just a mountain.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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