This post was written in Seoul, 2012.
Autumn in Korea is perfect for hiking – the weather is cool and sunny, and the scenery is a beautiful mix of red and yellow leaves. Korea is a very mountainous country, and Seoul has its own fair share of summits to be climbed. Last Sunday we selected one at random – Dobongsan, in Bukhansan National Park – and headed off for an afternoon of mountain climbing.
Almost everybody else in Seoul, apparently, had the same idea. Dobongsan (accessible from Dobongsan Station on subway line 4) was swarming with people clad in brightly coloured hiking gear, and brandishing ski poles. The experience was more like being at a rock concert, or in a shopping mall, than preparing to hike a mountain. We followed the crowds – or rather were swept along by them – towards the mountain, an impressive rocky peak that towers over the landscape. The foot of Dobongsan was busy with restaurants and outdoor-clothing shops, eager to capitalize on the hiking craze. The most popular items for sale were bottles of makali, fluorescent hiking bandannas, and a strange kind of barbecued fish with clusters of pink eggs bursting from their cut stomachs.
As we began to move up the slope the restaurants, makali vendors and buskers (a man playing the saxophone sat at the edge of the trail) thinned out and eventually disappeared. There were a few trails to choose from, and we headed for Juanbong, or Juan Peak, with an elevation of 739 metres. While some of the crowd veered off to settle at the edges of the trail for picnics, the narrowing and steepening path was still crowded, making hiking frustrating at times. Western and Eastern (or at least Korean) ideas of hiking are very different, it seems. While we were hoping to get away from the crowds of the city for the afternoon, everybody else seemed happy to be surrounded by friends, family, and complete strangers.
Despite the crowds, the trail was beautiful, and remarkably free of litter. After about an hour of hiking the climb began to get quite difficult, and the last 400 metres were very tough. The peak was a slightly frightening scramble up a slippery rock face, still surrounded by dozens of other people. Once at the top the wind was strong and bitingly cold, and giant black ravens circled and cawed beneath us. There wasn’t much room to linger on the top for very long, and we made our way carefully back down after about ten minutes of admiring the spectacular view of the city below.
We reached the bottom of Dobongsan at around five-thirty, just as the sun began to set. At the base of the mountain the restaurants were full of triumphant hikers eating and drinking, and some even singing karaoke. All up the hike took about four hours, and left us with a satisfying strain in our calf muscles.
To get to Dobongsan take the blue subway line (Line 4) to Dobongsan Station. Once you arrive the beginning of the trail is on your left, and is clearly marked by the sprawling mess of restaurants and outdoor-clothing stores.