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STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN I had heard the myth many times. The prince of heaven, eager to pursue a life on earth, is sent down to Changbai Shan, a volcanic peak 250 kilometers from Ji’an, on the North Korean border. There he challenges a tiger and a she-bear. Whoever can stay for 100 days in a cave, eating nothing but mugwort and garlic, will be rewarded with human form. The bear triumphs, becomes a maiden and marries the prince. Their child, Tan’gun, is father of the Korean race. The origin myth explains only a part of the mountain’s significance to Koreans. Changbai Shan has more recently been touted by North Koreans as the birthplace of their Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il (who, by all evidence, was born in Russia). Every Korean wants someday to make the pilgrimage to the 2,774-meter peak.

I make my own pilgrimage to the mountain via Baihe, at the end of the rail line from Tonghua. The Chinese have built steps up the mountain, all the way to the crowning Heavenly Lake, a massive crater pool whose waters feed the Yalu River. Many Koreans still believe all the peninsular qia sort of universal energyemanates from this lake, proceeding down the backs of Korea’s mountain ranges like an electric current. I took a risk and drank from its waters. I would need the energy for the climb down.

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