Seoul is full of paradoxes and aesthetic train-wrecks: in a single day you may travel from the glittering hyper-reality of a shopping district like Myeong-Dong the peace and natural beauty of a mountain-top—and these two polarities of experience are just a quick train ride away from each other!
If you’re like me, when you think of Mega-tropolises—Tokyo, Shanghai, Sao Paolo—you think of neon lights, high-rises, hyperactive street traffic, densely packed shopping centers, bizarre vendors. And Seoul, Korea (the world’s 8th largest city) is characterized by all of those things in its low-lying neighborhoods. What makes Seoul distinct from every other super-metropolis that I’ve been to is its’ mountains. I remember Tokyo best for the bizarre, hyper-reality of its buzzing wards like Shinjuku, Roppongi, and Ueno Park. Seoul I remember for its’ mountain.
Seoul’s top three must-see mountains, in my opinion, are as follows:
I scaled Achasan and a few other smaller mountains while I was in Seoul, but these are the memorable ‘heights,’ so to speak. Many people would reverse the order in which I’ve listed the peaks above. They would say that Bukhansan which gives you a view of the ruined city walls erected to defend against advancing Chinese hordes and which—with a summit of 837 meters—is the tallest mountain in Seoul. And Bukhansan really is an amazing experience. Note: get there early and plan to leave late. It takes all day to hike Bukhansan, which has a gentle slope most of the way to the summit. But I think the Bukhansan and Suraksan are more interesting climbs. The slopes and paths are more dramatic and interest—steeper and more fun—and the view from both is breathtaking. This may be a totally subjective judgment but so be it. I prefer the view from the monastery on top of Dobongsan’s ‘Jang-Bang’ path to the view from the summit of Bukhansan. Spending time on both mountains is definitely a worthy way to spend the day. Suraksan was the most fun for me to climb. Where as the paths up the sides of Bukhansan or Dobonsan can get pretty crowded at times, Suraksan attracts the least amount of traffic, and the cliff-faces and ropes leading to the summit, are the most sheer and therefore the most exciting to climb. The view from the top of Suraksan is, for me, as breathtaking as any other, and it’s enhanced by the adrenaline of having just crawled up a sequence of virtually sheer rock faces.
Must-haves when climbing mountains in Seoul include:
Shoes with some serious traction. This is common sense, but I myself once made the mistake of leaving an appointment in Itaewon one morning and deciding to diverge from my normal route home to Gangnam for an afternoon hike up Dobongsan. I regretted the shoes I was wearing before summiting. JAoonbong peak is not a good place to wear your Stout’s.
Makgeolli (pronounced ‘Mahk-ol-i’) This is the sweet rice-wine that Koreans drink when they summit. You’ll feel left out if you arrive without a bottle. Luckily, Makgeoli is for sale at the stalls that populate the foot of every mountain in Seoul. It costs about 2 bucks, or 2000 Won.
When you descend from the mountain, you’ll be greeted by shanty-towns of vendor’s intervening between the mountain and whatever subway station you’re trying to retreat to. The smell of meat grilling in the stalls and all of the other delicious (if sometimes ‘exotic’ or just plain ‘bizarre’) foods available at these stalls is usually welcome sensation for climbers at the end of a long day of climbing. I am particularly partial to piping hot bowls of Bulgogi Chi-Gae (a spicy beef soup) served at the stalls. I was somewhat less excited about fish-heads and pig-feet.
My girlfriend would never fail to inquire in horrified tones, “Don’t they at least want to remove the eyes before eating the whole fish?” The answer apparently is: no, they don’t. And that’s okay, because Koreans are some of the nicest people in the world. In a public-park area densely packed with Americans, I could expect to spend most of the day in a red-haze of low-grade irritation. In Korea, the crowd’s are almost unfailingly polite, courteous, and helpful almost to a fault.
There’s a whole culture of mountain-climbing in Korea. It’s kind of a national past-time. As such: if you’re able to go on a weekday, I’d recommend that. It can get a little bit crowded on the weekends.
Back in America, at my desk in ‘the big city,’ I find myself longing for the mountains. It will be awhile until I can get back to climbing. If I lived in Seoul, I would only have to wait for the weekend. On the other hand, if I was a native of Seoul I would probably have a sixty-hour, six day work week. These are the vicissitudes.