Hiking in the English Lake District was never like this, even on a Public Holiday! These thoughts flashed through our minds as we toiled up the mountain with what seemed like half of Seoul’s 11 million population. It was a glorious day in May, and some Korean friends had invited us to join them for a hike to Gwanak-san, the jagged ridge which dominates the view to the south of the city.
Many folk were dressed in Hanbok, the Korean national dress and, as usual in this country, everybody was in a hurry. One elderly lady shot past, realised we were foreigners, and amidst much mirth and arm waving, bowed to us and said that we were most welcome to Seoul, particularly on such an auspicious occasion as Buddha’s birthday. Now we knew the reason for the vast crowds!
The sprightly lady disappeared into a milling throng of worshippers approaching a temple further up the path. Here, dozens of monks were chanting soothing Buddhist mantras amongst thousands of coloured lanterns hanging from the trees around the temple. Leaving this colourful spiritual scene behind, we climbed in relative peace up the steep path to the summit ridge some 700m above Seoul’s suburbs. There was a splendid panorama, with the Olympic Park to the east and the Yellow Sea to the west. However, the real gem was the small shrine at the summit itself, where we joined others in the age-old tradition of placing coins in cracks in the surrounding rocks.
However, our day was far from finished. Our Korean hosts had toiled up the slopes laden with bulging rucksacks and, after locating a peaceful spot, began to prepare the BBQ. The male head of the family meticulously cooked delicious Bulgogi (marinated beef strips), under respectful supervision by his wife. Why is it that all over the world men rush to cook ‘alfresco’, but are rarely observed at the kitchen stove when inside their own home?
Later that afternoon, we descended back to the car replete from a splendid meal and our faces beaming red from the sunshine and just possibly one too many glasses of Soju, the local firewater!
We made many excursions into South Korea’s splendid mountain landscape and were fascinated to see just how seriously the locals were about hiking and climbing. Most were immaculately turned out in the latest Alpine fashion from their headgear right down to their boots. They really enjoyed their walking!
Not for them, a sombre trudge up the hillside complaining of heat and flies, but with a spring in the step, a song to sing and maybe a stop for a drink or two or three. Koreans firmly believe that hiking is a leisure activity to savour, where it is essential to make the most of every minute on the mountain – with the whole event recorded with myriads of photos!
To the North of Seoul, the mountains are made of sterner stuff. Although only rising to around 800m, the popular peaks of Bukhan-san and Dobong-san have multiple summit buttresses of sheer granite projecting above the lower wooded slopes. These peaks provide hiking and climbing at every grade of difficulty.
Our excursion to ascend Dobong-san, this time without a Korean to guide us, coincided with what turned out to be the first day of the monsoon in early July. It was hot and humid, definitely a day for shorts and T-shirts and, being a Sunday, walkers were out in thousands.
Our leisurely pace was slowed down further by Koreans testing out their English skills. Such conversations were unpredictable in content, always good-humoured and usually ended in a joke at our expense! We frequently met University Professors with their students on the mountains, and this day was no exception, as we were to find out later.
We were about half way up Dobong-san when the rain arrived – a monsoon torrent. Well-prepared Koreans, who had clearly been caught out many times before, immediately erected awnings of plastic sheeting and sat down, in the dry, to cook lunch. Clad in our thin summer anoraks, we were soon drenched to the skin. Luckily for us, we turned the next corner to find a temple nestling in the trees. It proved to be a decorative and very convenient shelter from the downpour.
Much to the amusement of all about us, we consumed our soggy sandwiches whilst gazing at the rain outside. We couldn’t have looked more British if we had unfurled the Union Jack!
Undaunted, we then toiled onwards and upwards out of the trees on to the bare rock. “Of course the rain will stop,” we said … and amazingly it did.
An exquisite set of steps and finally a sporting scramble brought us to the summit of Dobong-san on a tower of granite. Here, we vied with another dozen steaming, sodden climbers to reach the highest point where we could view the city of Seoul stretched out below us in the sweltering summer heat haze.
It was a memorable moment, made even more enjoyable by the laughter and chattering of those around us. During the few quiet interludes, the metallic chink of pitons and other sophisticated climbing hardware could be heard below. It was a reminder that more talented climbers than ourselves were attempting the difficult routes to the top.
Our descent was no less fun as we slithered knee deep in mud and tree roots back to civilization. We missed the path, of course, but were soon put on track by a kindly Professor and his eager students in return for providing a potted history of recent British Prime Ministers.
Koreans find the career of the ‘Iron Lady’ particularly interesting and always ask if she was a close friend of the Queen!
Temptations abound at the side of walking trails at this late stage of the day, with dozens of stalls proffering soft drinks, hard liquor, scrumptious hot vegetable pancakes, tangy char-grilled chicken, rice cakes with hot chilli sauce and golden fish-shaped waffles. They were doing a roaring trade with the returning happy, dripping-wet hikers and we saw no reason to miss out on the mouth-watering snacks available. It was a fitting end to a great day in the mountains.
Korea is a very mountainous country and hiking is an incredibly popular past-time. Guided tours and walking holidays can be organised through Seoul’s many travel agents. Seoraksan National Park, in the east of the Korean peninsula, is the most beloved mountain region and has spectacular jagged peaks rising to 1,700m. No doubt these beautiful mountains will soon appear on our TV screens as they are close to the 2018 Winter Olympic Games Centre at nearby Pyeongchang.
By Nigel Wright
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Nigel Wright, and his wife Sue, moved to Portugal eleven years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.