Exhilarating, Intoxicating and Invigorating Bukhansan


Leaving Chungju on the 6:35 am Saturday morning it was my intention to head direct to Buam-dong to take the trail up Inwangsan Mountain. On settling in my seat I was randomly searching Seoul blogs to find extra-curricular activities and discovered that Gangnam Express Bus Terminal has a roof garden. I found this intriguing, as one of my less enjoyable Seoul experiences is the titanic maelström of noise and activity that is Sunday at EBT. On arrival I picked up a coffee and headed across the car park taking the lift to floor 10 of the “Pyramid”. There are a couple of restaurants up there and a church! The “gardens” are actually decked terraces adorned with a range of greenery and flowers but what an antidote to the snake-bite of early Sunday evening EBT!

Returning to terra-firma I took the subway to Geongbukgung (exit 3) and bus 1020 to Buam-dong. I passed through Changuimun Gate stopping at Club Espresso for proper Sidamo and a jam scone. I then climbed the hill of Poet Yun Dong-ju otherwise known as Cheongun Park. The view across the city from here are fabulous on a clear day or when the sun burns off the morning mist but today it was still early, the silhouette of Namsan tower barely visible in the brume. A five minute walk brought me to the start of the trail that snakes over Mt. Inwangsan. The mountain is known as the highly-sacred “Benevolent King” Mountain and is the Shamanic centre of Korea‘s Capital.

It’s a steep walk as Buam-dong falls away beneath you and the back-drop is the highly militarised area of Bukhansan Mountain which rises behind the Blue House. There are some lovely rock out-crops where hikers stop to relax and take in the view whilst snacking or imbibing Soju and Maekoli. In a number of places photography is forbidden for “security   reasons” and sentry post guarded by reluctant “boy” soldiers but there are still many photo opportunities. As the weather improved and the mists cleared I took advantage of this to record my journey up and over the mountain. I passed the usual array of ninjas and there masked accomplices; I was particularly enamoured by a pet lover carrying his sky blue clad pooch over the mountain, not a place you would usually find Man City fans. The Blue Moon was rising over the Blue House on Saturday!

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I reached the summit which was fully populated by Black Yak, K2, Red Face, Kolon Sports, Millets adorned “mountaineers”. I felt naked in my Adidas trackie bottoms and t-shirt :-). I stopped and chatted to a group of elementary kids and their forward-looking young teachers, who actually eulogised about outdoor activities being educational.  Korea there is hope, they have seen the light! After a 30 minute stop taking in all the views I began the steep hike down glad that once again I had begun my trek early and East to West. Why? It seems trekking the Seoul Fortress Walls invariably is easier on the legs when  going East to West, whilst still steep the climbs are more gradual and less intimidating. There may be some geological reason, I don’t know, but maybe I’ll investigate.

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At one point a hikers traffic jam reached numbers of around 150 but the atmosphere was generally light-hearted, walkers clung to the ropes that helped them navigate the vertical slopes. Some folk took the opportunity to find a ledge on which to take refreshment, others complained with grizzled expressions, others giggled fuelled by either good humour or Soju I’m not sure. After about 40 minutes, and after a free lunch offered by kind Koreans, adjacent to yet another sentry box there was a break in the wall and a staircase gave access to the other side and views across Muak-dong and Sondaemun-gu towards the prison. I also stumbled upon a temple complex in an area known as Muak Park.

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Inwangsa is a Buddhist temple of the Bonwon Order on Mt. Inwangsan. It is located at San 2, Muak-dong, in the Jongno-gu area of the city. When King Taejo of Joseon Dynasty established the capital city in Seoul, he assigned Josaeng (조생 祖生), a monk of Buddhist temple affiliated to the royal court as the head monk of the new temple to establish it at the site. The complex has a number of shrines but the most venerated in Inwangsa is a large volcanic rock called Seonbawi, which means “Zen Rock,” because it resembles an old monk bending in prayer. The rock is also known as Gijaam, the “Rock of Childbearing Prayer,” because many women and married couples pray for childbearing at the site. After  visiting the shrine, without a thought for procreation, I climbed up the side of the mountain taking a circular route passed impressive rock formations with carved messages presumably declaring unbridled passion. I also came across further small shrines alongside which people picnicked. I then followed the path down through pine groves emerging again at the fortress wall to take the final 20 minute walk to Sajik Park. On the way I chatted to a mother and daughter, the kid clung to her moms legs über shy at even having her picture taken by mum.

The name of the park dates back to 1395 when Taejo Lee Sung-gye made the first Sajikdan (altar to the State deities) along with the Jongmyo Shrine (Royal Ancestral Shrine) at the centre of the park. “Sa” refers to the deity of the earth while “jik” refers to the deity of the five grains. Rites wishing for a good harvest were held regularly at the Sajikdan. I had a refreshing Vitamin water and watched kids soccer training before I took the walk to Gyeonbokgung Subway station and the three stop journey to Jongno 3-ga to book into my hotel for the night Amiga Inn.

In the evening i headed over to Itaewon to try the F & C at the The Rose & Crown. The place is tarted up to look like traditional British boozer, the likeness stops there! Positives, the ale selection (bottled) is excellent though not cheap and the F & C’s are good though not earth shattering.  Why can no one prepare fresh chips nowt could be easier? The London Pride Battered Cod tasted fine, though the batter whilst crispy was a bit “thin”. Finally no mushy peas! Negatives, the atmosphere was about as none British as it gets for a traditional pub. Music was loud and dance orientated at 7:00pm? Baseball was shown on the large scree TV’s and I was the only Western customer, not that this bothers me particularly but it was like they hot footed down from Gijaam. It was essentially young Korean couples holding hands over their London Pride which was evaporating slowly! This is the Lotte World of pubs and a major disappointment, ne’er to be visited again. I returned to Jongno for a few beers before retiring early with the intention of visiting Dream Forest on Sunday.

Rising early to watch MCFC play well but labour to beat West Ham, I had a coffee then surveying the skies decided that the large expanse of reclaimed Seoul that is Dream Forest could be a less than dry experience and so defaulted until a later day. Searching the net I googled “what to do in Seoul on a rainy Sunday” and the results were less than inspiring. I am inspired to write a blog post on that my self next week during mid-term down time. I did find a post suggesting a visit to Hwagyesa Temple could be rewarding and so after an Ediya coffee and cream cheese onion bagel I took a 10 minute walk into Hyehwa to pick up the line 4 subway to Suyu Station. Emerging at exit  3  I took the small green bus #02, I got off at Hanshin University and walked up the hill, the temple is well signposted. Strolling up the hill, garlanded with lanterns in preparation for Buddha’s birthday, I passed a lively park were kids practised baseball and a gathering of hill walkers re-fuelling on Makeolli.

Hwagyesa was built-in 1522 by Zen Master Shinwol and has been home to many Zen Masters. Amongst them, world-renowned Zen Master Seung Sahn. Hwagyesa has been used for many years as an international Zen center, receiving people from around the world. They claim that a temple stay will ensure that you “gain clarity of mind in an inspiring environment!” I have to say this was not the most inspiring environment, it actually felt business-like. Templestayers wandered around looking very smug and not in the slightest spiritually uplifted. Maybe this was because my visit coincided with the frenetic activities supporting the upcoming birthday but it was not a place I wanted to dwell.  And so, with the weather improving I crossed a bridge and followed a sign that beckoned me to ascend Mount Samgaksan. Day two had now also become a hike, I needed uplifting, Bukhansan National Park welcomed my creaking limbs with open arms.

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Samgaksan (Three-Horned Mountain), is named after the trio of rocky, phallic peaks that are its signature feature. The highest of these, Baegundae, at over 830 meters, is Seoul’s highest view-point. There are many trails to choose from, from relatively bucolic strolls on the mountain’s lower reaches to hardcore hikes on its peaks that have walkers reaching for ropes and railings. In general the park is well signposted and routes are easy to discern, but due to the mountain’s sharp elevations many are fairly strenuous. This I can readily confirm.

I climbed upwards passing a badminton competition on the mountainside and carried on a well-marked trails punctuated by the roped ascents mentioned above.  I had no idea where this would take me just an assumption that at the end of around 4 hours trekking I would take a bus back to central Seoul.  Even now after returning to Chungers I can find no information about the trail I followed.  Theres lots of information about marked trails in the National Park but not the one I apparently took. I met and chatted to number of fellow hikers who almost invariably offered me food and drink, most tried to explain I was ill-equipped to ascend mountains. I had no ninja gear, no mask or walking stick, no overladen back-oak, no crampons, no water bottle or sustenance. The water bottle I agree with, the stick I’m beginning to contemplate BUT whilst hard on the knees and tough exercise this not K2, whatever they may think.

After two-hour hiking I faced a dilemma, ahead was yet another peak speckled with ant like Koreans many singing! It looked insurmountable, it wasn’t but I needed to use my common sense. If I went ahead I would need to carry on to the fortress I could see in the distance, perhaps leave this for another Spring sojourn back to Seoul. Decison made I followed the sign left and down hill to Jeongneung Information Centre. It was a steep and slightly uncomfortable descent with visitor number increasing the lower I got. I passed foragers, more Soju parties, crying kids and arguing couples before reaching the information centre. I was famished and had Kimbap washed down with Vitamin water.  The ranger ushered me south to the bus station where to my uttermost surprise I came across the resting pace of the 1020 bus. The 1020 from past posts passes through Buam-dong and then into central Jongno. I’d never been beyond Buam-dong on the bus but this was a great “know-it” for future hikes.

Returning to central Seoul, I passed through a huge flea market in Sejong-daero before stopping to charge my dead phone at Olleh Square.  Outside there was a major military recruitment drive those already conscripted looking magnificent in their finery. The need for coffee was justifiable, the demolishing of a waffle with ice-cream, blueberry coulis and fresh cream was pure greed and over-indulgence. I walked towards Jongno 3-ga, passing a chestnut seller, a couple engaged in a minor tiff and  the Jongno Tower before stopping at Tapgol Park before  heading back to Gangnam Express Terminal to read On The Road in the roof top garden. Chungers, shower then bed.

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Today (May 1) was Labour Day and a surprise day off for me.  Initially, still feeling stiff limbs from my weekend exertions, I’d thought I’d chill, watch movies and carry on with my novel. Instead I set out early for a bike ride heading through Allim-dong and upwards past the new hospital towards Chungju Lake. At the apex of the road is a rest area and a memorial to war veterans. I stopped to read and noticed to my right a walking trail up the mountain. I secured the bike and headed onwards and upwards my lover legs burning with an irritating ache. The preservernce was worthwhile, teh pain subsided and I was afforded remarkable views down Chungju Lake towards Woraksan Nartional park and Danyang. A lovely day, Kings Cross or Mt Gyemyeongsan, no competition, life is sweet!

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