Dear Travel Diary,
After getting out of the hostel and exploring the sights of Seoul, and weaving through the iconic palaces of Geongbokgung and Changdeokgung, I decided it was time to get out of Seoul itself for a day. Unfortunately, little did I know I was in for one of the most gruelling hikes of my life!
For a big metropolis, Seoul is surrounded by mountains. There are some in the heart of town itself, and to the north, the Bukhansan National Park sprawls in the distance, and hiking is a favourite past time of many Koreans. I had heard a lot about the natural beauty of the mountains around Seoul, and it was in fact, my main reason for coming to Korea in the first place. I’ve been looking at them in the distance for far too long; today was the day I hiked Bukhansan!!
I started relatively for me – I was out of the hostel at 10, which was at least one or two hours earlier than I usually did in Seoul (if you’re wondering why, you can check my earlier diaries. Basically no one sleeps until like 3am in Seoul hostels). The train out to the nature park required several transfers, so the ride out there took me almost 40 minutes.
Sadly, the entrance to the park was not handily signposted, or perhaps I just didn’t see it, but I eventually found my way to the entrance to Bukhansan National Park. I got there by following a group of Koreans dressed for hiking – I figure they had to know where they were going right? Traversing alleyways, and eventually streets lined with all kinds of hiking gear sold by market-style stores alongside big international chains, eventually the park entrance greeted me with a large map of the trails.
Turns out Bukhansan is the name given to a massive (re: massive) national park consisting of a range of mountains to the north of Seoul. The entrance I had made my way towards was the beginning of the popular walking trail to the summit of the famous Dobongsan track.
Almost half and hour into my walk, I stumbled upon another caucasian fellow. As we both stopped for a breather and a drink of water; we chatted. He was American, in town for the wedding for the friend of his family. He was getting away from the crowded hotel room, and trying to get some fresh air.
‘I’m going to the top,’ I said.
‘Shall we go together?’
The best part of the hiking up these trails is that they are many small diversions you can take to temples that are sheltered in the mountains. They are hidden amongst the valleys and crags, shrouded by thick forest, their colourful lanterns and roofs the only thing giving away their location.
My new American friend and I made our way through a diversion to one of the temples; it was amazing! *love heart eyes* It was surrounded by forest, these bright orange lanterns guiding the way, hanging from string between the trees. There was a platform full of tiny statues, that I sadly didn’t get the chance to learn much about.
Not too much further up the mountain, and we were huffing and puffing as we came to an outcrop of smooth rock, upon which many Koreans were sitting and taking lunch or drinking tea. I wondered for a moment at this stage as to whether we had reached the tope, but it didn’t appear so. We could see people creeping out of the forest behind us, making their way down from somewhere higher. We paused for a moment, taking a drink and getting photographs on our cameras.
At this point, I looked around for my American companion, and found that he was absolutely… nowhere to be found. I sat and waited for him to return – I wrongly assumed he was off taking photographs somewhere.
Deciding that he may have taken off without me, I start on my way up the remainder of the mountain, and this is where it got really, really challenging.
The trail became less like a trail, and more like, well, rock. It was rock. It was just jagged, uneven, steep, slippery loose rock, with barely anything to hold onto, and basically it was like rock climbing towards the end there. I was stopping what felt like every five minutes for a breather, even though it didn’t feel like I’d made much progress, it sure as hell felt like I’d exerted the same amount of effort on those five minutes as I had the previous two hours!
At the last part of the trail, the mountains was well and truly upon me, as the last part of the hike required me to essentially ab-sail up a rock face, using a hand railing to essentially pull myself to the top! It was freezing at the summit, and I had no gloves, much to the shock and dismay to a pair of Korean women who pointed, surprised, to my bare hands, with expressions of pain on the face as if it was their own hands. The metal railing almost burnt with the cold, but I managed to get to the top, where much to surprise I found my American friend waiting for me. We laughed at how we lost each other, rugged up in warmer clothes as the wind was very, very chilling, and the Koreans very kindly offered us a cup of coffee.
And so we stayed there for about half an hour. Sharing in the moment, and soaking up the scenery. The view was quite phenomenal; the mountains and forest spread out towards the north, and to the south, Seoul sprawled into the horizon. It was an incredible moment, to feel so free from the concrete jungle of Seoul, and feel lost in the wilderness so close to civilisation.
It was one of the most challenging hikes of my life, without a doubt. But also one of the most rewarding.