Korea: Above It All

Photo: © Solnechnaja | Dreamstime.com

- January 1, 2011

We are in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt Seoul, about to visit the trendy downtown district of Myeong-dong. So why are we wearing hiking boots and daypacks?

The taxi drivers understand. When we step outside, they don’t leap into action. One glance at our garb confirms to them that we are not going to take the easy option. By taxi we would be at our destination within 10 minutes, but we have decided to walk. It is only three miles, with a slight catch: To get from here to there, we must traverse a mountain.

The Grand Hyatt is located on the southern flank of Mount Namsan. We cross a busy road into the Namsan Botanical Gardens, then ascend a winding trail. The cacophony of the city is left behind. The dominant sounds are the scuff of our boots and birdsong.

We are not alone. Power walkers and joggers overtake us. Chattering school children huddle together at one side of the path. Couples walk hand in hand, perhaps recalling a romantic scene from a favorite Korean movie; several have been filmed here.

On we go, ever higher. The trail broadens into a paved road. Ahead of us, the summit is crowned by N Seoul Tower, the city’s premier observation point. We take the elevator to the viewing deck and gain a revelatory view of Seoul.

At street level, you can’t escape the fact that you are in a crowded metropolis of 11 million people. Yet up here, a surprising truth is revealed. Seoul is dominated by its natural surroundings, crushed within the granite embrace of 37 mountains.

The Koreans themselves also confound our initial impressions. As we rub shoulders with them on the viewing deck, they fidget with the latest gadgets. They pose for smartphone photos which they promptly send to absent friends; they absorb the spectacular panorama to the soundtrack of their MP3 players. This obsession with technology is exactly what we expected. Yet there is another Korean obsession that is less well known: hiking.

Perhaps it is a throwback to the recent past. Until the second half of the 20th century, Korea had essentially been a rural country. Although most South Koreans now live in cities, many are only a generation or two removed from the villages of the hinterland, and they retain a special bond with the countryside.

photo: Mark Zastrow

You don’t have to go far to escape the frenetic city. Mount Namsan is merely a taster. For a more serious hike, we take Line 3 on the Seoul Metro from downtown to Gupabal Station.

At the start of the subway journey, the carriage is crammed with commuters in suits. With each stop, the demographic profile is shuffled. The business types get off, more and more hikers get on. By the time we reach our final stop, we are jostling among a throng of people outfitted in outdoor gear.

We follow the crowd to the bus that shuttles the short distance to Bukhansan National Park. At the trailhead, two strands of modern South Korea entwine: hiking and consumerism. A shopping complex offers everything a fashion- or safety-conscious hiker could possibly need.

Here at the busy entrance, it is easy to understand how, with 5 million visitors each year, Bukhansan is ranked by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s “most visited national park per unit area.” The odds for a peaceful hike are not encouraging. But that is to underestimate the scale of this protected area, which encompasses two mountains: Bukhansan and Dobongsan.

We are aiming for the park’s highest peak, Baegundae, the 2,742-foot pinnacle of the Bukhansan massif and the highest point in Seoul. Initially we tramp in a procession with dozens of other hikers. Gradually, with increasing height and diverging paths, the numbers dwindle until, at last, there is nobody else in sight — a rare luxury in this city.

Paved paths give way to rocky tracks. We can appreciate why most Korean hikers opt for two walking sticks to assist their progress. A walk in the park has transformed into a genuine physical challenge.

Luxuriant trees arch above us. Woodpeckers rap against the bark. Squirrels and chipmunks scamper among the branches. It is no great leap to imagine the tigers that once patrolled these densely wooded slopes, though they have been gone for decades.

As the summit approaches after a wonderfully lonely two-hour hike, trails converge and the crowds return. The last section of the ascent, guided by railings across a bald expanse of granite, is slow going. The illusion of wilderness is temporarily shattered as dozens of garrulous people queue ahead of us to complete the climb.

At the top, we attempt to savor the view. Seoul sprawls to the south of us. To the north, forested mountains roll unbroken to the fortified border with North Korea. The scenic splendor is diluted by the clamor of our fellow hikers.

Although Bukhansan provides an easily accessible introduction to hiking in Korea, for a more authentic wilderness experience we must head beyond reach of Seoul’s metro system.

Seoraksan National Park, one of the Korean Peninsula’s most beautiful areas, is a five-hour drive east of Seoul. It’s a mountainous paradise of virgin forest, sculptural rock formations, rocky streams, waterfalls and challenging peaks.

The park divides into distinct areas. Outer Seorak, easily accessible from the port city of Sokcho, is touristy, with hotels and restaurants and all manner of facilities for visitors who prefer their wilderness to come with the comforts of civilization.

Inner Seorak is the playground for serious hikers. The trails lead high up into the mountains, with breathtaking views down to the Sea of Japan. Dormitory-style accommodation is provided in modern shelters dotted strategically around the park.

Hikers in Korea tend to share a unique camaraderie that extends to foreign visitors. It goes beyond the occasional exchange of pleasantries with passers-by on the trails. There is always a sense that everyone is looking out for one another. If you were to find yourself lost, or to have an accident, there would be no shortage of people willing to help.

The camaraderie is cemented each evening with often raucous après-trek celebrations in the mountain shelters. Someone will usually produce a bottle of soju, the fiery local spirit, and shots will be shared until the bottle is empty.

An hour or two of noisy carousing is a price worth paying for the overwhelming silence of the following morning. Fragile heads are roused in the early hours to begin the ascent to the nearest peak in time for daybreak. The crystal light and pure air provide the perfect antidote to any hangover.

There is no need for mountain shelters during our Mount Namsan trek. From N Seoul Tower, we face an hour-long descent, mainly down flights of stone steps. Cable cars shuttle back and forth above us, permitting tourists to conquer the mountain without effort.

From the summit, downtown Seoul appears spread beneath us in miniature. We gaze down on the tops of the skyscrapers. Eventually we descend to the level of the highest floors. The remainder of the mountain slope takes us down to street level.

We arrive with a new perspective. The buildings no longer seem as big. The traffic is less oppressive. We look at our mud-speckled boots and remind ourselves that although we are in the center of one of the largest cities on Earth, a timeless, relatively peaceful wilderness remains just a short walk away.

Info To Go

Incheon International Airport (ICN) is 43 miles west of downtown Seoul. KAL Limousine Buses is one of several operators providing a shuttle between the airport and major downtown hotels (from $11 for adults, $5.50 for children). Daytrips to Bukhansan National Park from central Seoul are straightforward using the Metro and shuttle bus service. At Seoraksan National Park, there is a wide range of accommodations, from expensive luxury hotels to mountain shelters (less than $8 per night).