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South Koreans trek to China to see their sacred mountain
by Staff Writers
Changbai, China (AFP) Jan 06, 2014


14 killed in China mosque stampede: Xinhua
Beijing (AFP) Jan 06, 2014 - Fourteen people, some of them children, were killed and 10 injured in a stampede that broke out as food was being distributed at a mosque in China's Ningxia region, state media reported Monday.

The stampede occurred at lunchtime on Sunday while traditional food items were being handed out to people attending an event to commemorate a late religious leader, the official Xinhua news agency said, citing the local government.

The injured were hospitalised, with four in critical condition, the brief report said.

One photo posted online by Chinese news outlets showed six bodies laid out side-by-side inside a building, with several children in colourful outfits among the dead.

"Those poor children," wrote one poster.

Ningxia is one of China's poorer regions, and other Internet users lamented its poverty.

"Are Chinese people so poor, for all this to happen over a piece of pastry?" asked one poster on Sina Weibo, a Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

Another added: "The Chinese people's living conditions are so poor that they will do this for a few free cakes! Murder caused by a pie!"

Some Internet users displayed images of red candles online to commemorate those who died.

Others wondered what might have triggered such a large stampede. "It must be thoroughly investigated," said one.

Pictures posted online showed a large crowd, most of them men and many wearing white Islamic caps, standing outside the green mosque, apparently after the incident.

Clothes and shoes were scattered on the ground, along with what appeared to be a collapsed section of scaffolding.

An inquiry was under way into the cause of the stampede at the mosque in Xiji, around 280 kilometres (174 miles) south of the regional capital Yinchuan.

"The investigation is still underway. We have nothing to reveal," a man at the Xiji county police surnamed Wang told AFP.

According to NXNews.net, a regional news portal connected to the local authorities, at a meeting on Monday a Ningxia Communist Party committee "determined that the Xiji stampede was caused by poor organisation and insufficient supervision during a regular religious activity".

The committee said that "religious activities must be strictly managed, placing public safety above all else so as not to allow any life-threatening situations", NXNews.net added.

Ningxia, in northern China, is home to the Chinese-speaking Hui minority, who are mostly Muslim but distinct from the Uighurs of Xinjiang.

According to government statistics, the semi-desert region's six million Hui make up about 36 percent of its population, with Xiji one of the major Hui population centres.

Ningxia, on the upper reaches of the Yellow river, was the scene of a Muslim rebellion in the 19th century but has no recent history of ethnic tensions or other strife between the Hui and China's Han majority.

In contrast, restive Xinjiang, several hundred kilometres to the west, has seen several deadly clashes between Uighurs and security forces in recent months which authorities have blamed on separatist "terrorists".

Xiji is primarily an agricultural county whose main products include wheat, peas and potatoes.

Ningxia is renowned for its wines, some of which have beaten French vintages in blind tastings, and the industry has already attracted the likes of French luxury group LVMH, owner of Dom Perignon champagne among other brands.

The spiritual birthplace of the Korean people is a volcano steeped in myth and legend. But with the peninsula divided for decades, South Koreans longing to see it must first travel to China.

The peak -- known as Changbai in Chinese and Paektu in Korean -- and its spectacular crater lake straddle the China-North Korea border.

Small tour buses screech around hairpin curves before unloading South Korean tourists for a short walk to the rim to catch sight of the forbidden North -- and dream of a future as one.

"Unification!" shouted a South Korean man at the site, one of the tens of thousands who make the pilgrimage every year.

According to Korean myth Dangun, who founded the nation's first kingdom in 2333 BC, was born on the mountain to a mother who was transformed from a bear into a woman.

The local tourism bureau says there were about 137,000 overseas visitors in 2013, with more than half said to be South Koreans.

"This place is so sacred," said Choi Byung-Eui, who had journeyed with his father from the South Korean city of Gyeongju.

He paused among the heavy, sustained gusts of wind at the crater's edge that occasionally opened up the thick cloud to allow glimpses of the crater.

"I'm so disappointed and so sad because a lot of people are divided because of the (Korean) war," he said. "Our Korea must be one."

'More than just a mountain'

The peak, which stands roughly 2,750 metres (9,022 feet) high, is the highest on both the Korean peninsula and in China's northeast, and is the source of the Yalu and Tumen rivers, which between them mark most of the border between China and North Korea.

The body of water in the crater is known in Chinese as Tianchi, or Heaven Lake, while a few endangered Amur tigers still prowl the slopes and hills of the broader Changbai range.

South Korea spells the name as Baekdu, and a guidebook to China published in Seoul describes it as "more than just a mountain soaring high. It's like a sacred place of national origin."

The volcano has generated headlines in recent years as seismologists warned it could erupt for the first time in centuries, raising alarms over what such a cataclysm could mean for impoverished yet nuclear-armed North Korea.

That country has appropriated the peak's importance in Korean history into its own political propaganda by incorporating it within the mythology of the ruling Kim clan.

The late North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il was officially said to have been born on its slopes in 1942, with hagiographic accounts claiming a double rainbow and new star appeared at the time. Outside scholars say his birth was in the Soviet Union.

When Kim died on December 17, 2011, "layers of ice were broken... shaking the lake with big noise", North Korea's state news agency reported.

Kim's father and predecessor, the North's founder Kim Il-Sung "organised and led the anti-Japanese revolution to victory from there", according to an official biography of Kim Jong-Il.

The Korean name translates as "white-headed mountain", while the Chinese version can mean "eternally white".

The Changbai range spreads through Manchuria, the northeastern region from where the Manchu ethnic group conquered all of China in the 17th century, subsequently ruling as the Qing dynasty for 268 years. Its emperors are recorded making offerings to the mountain.

'Beyond imagination'

Gao Shang, a graduate student and ethnic Manchu, said he had wanted to see the crater ever since his parents told him as a child that "there is a magic pool on the Changbai mountain", recalling the tale might even have included a "monster in there".

According to family lore his ancestors came from the area, he added. The mountain "is important for me", Gao emphasised.

Some in South Korea resent China's possession of part of the peak -- five South Korean female athletes at the 2007 Asian Winter Games in Changchun, China held up a sign reading "Mount Baekdu is our land", though they later reportedly apologised after Beijing protested.

Lee Kang-Ho, visiting with his father and son from the southern Korean port city of Busan, was overwhelmed with pride at scaling the volcano.

"It's beyond my imagination," he said, calling the mountain the "lifeline and very root of Korea".

At the same time he was embarrassed that he could not travel through North Korea to reach it, he added.

"I felt shame that I had to spend money in China in order to come here."

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