Scaling emerald hills to autumnal heaven

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Scaling emerald hills to autumnal heaven

We slipped through the door of a small shack and crouched by a fire. Strange shadows played against the earthen wall next to us.

We were on temple grounds in Mount Gwanak. Outside, red leaves littered the soil like scattered confetti and the cold chilled our skin. Inside, the flames licked the sides of a black earthenware pot. Boiling water threatened to froth from beneath its heavy lid. Waist-high piles of green onions were stacked against the walls.

We hushed as a monk passed by the crack of the door. When he left, my friend pulled out a mandarin orange from her backpack. She peeled it, gave me half, then bit in.

"What do you like better?" she asked, wiping a drop of juice from the corner of her mouth. "The mountain or the ocean?"

"The ocean," I replied, "but when I lived in the American Midwest, I missed autumn in Korea."

Korea may be exciting for it modernity, but it is just as exciting for its topography. About 70 percent of the peninsula is covered by mountains. On just about any mountain, you'll find old temples, old pine trees and old people. All are fascinating, and particularly gorgeous in fall.

When the temperature drops to the proper crispness, I can almost smell the apples in the air and am more amenable to hiking. So last fall, when my friend, the mountain lover, suggested a subway ride to a trail near Seoul and a day kicking through autumn leaves, I immediately agreed.

Which brought us to the temple on Gwanak. She nodded and wiped her hands. "I prefer mountains," she said.

A nation like Korea begs to be enjoyed from a hillside trail, with nothing more to do than wander and survey the landscape. It's easier to remember your humanity here, where you're dwarfed by wilderness so much older and so much crueler than you.

Warmer now, we gathered the orange peels into a black plastic bag and peeked out the door for monks. We were pretty sure they would not look too kindly on interlopers in their kitchen. We crept outside.

The warmth lasted all too briefly. We walked briskly past the temple grounds, back on the mountain trail, scaring a rabbit.

An old man with a rucksack stuffed with water bottles and his pants tucked into leather boots walked jauntily behind us. He nodded as he passed. Korea was built on the solid legs and the sturdy back of people like him.

Breathing quickly, we stopped by a ledge and looked out. The air smelled delicious. A bird flitted past.

I wished for deers, tigers, elves and fairies. I pictured life long time ago, menacing nightfall filled with folk tales come to life, or strange occurrences in life that become folk tales.

My friend outstretched her arms and said, "I like to see the sky from up here. I like the earth. Winter. Spring. Summer. Fall."


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MOUNT BUKHAN


Legend has it that the mountain spirit of Mount Baekdu traveled south one day to the Bukhan mountain range. He chose a spot surrounded by the peaks Insubong, Baegundae and Mangwongdae. From here, he saw Mongolian oak and pine tree forests, wildflowers, and rocky trails, and was at peace. The mountain spirit eventually returned to Mount Baekdu. But to this day, he continues to visit Mount Bukhan. Perhaps you'll feel his breath brushing through your hair as you hike up the granite mountain.

The area was designated a national park in 1983. About 4 million people visit annually. The hiking is excellent. When the sky is clear, you'll be able to see Seoul from the top.



ANOTHER NAME: From a distance, the profile of Insubong, Baekundae and Mangwondae peaks resemble three horns, which is how Mount Bukhan got its other name, Samgaksan (Three Horn Mountain).

ADVENTURES: Rock climbing. Some walls are more than 200 meters, with stretches suitable for beginners to experts. Climb weekdays or weekend mornings to miss the crowds.

SIGHTS: Bukhansan Fortress. The original fortress dates to the early days of the Baekjae Dynasty. It was rebuilt in 1711 during the Joseon Dynasty to repel foreign invasions. None of the 143 guard posts along its walls have survived.

GETTING THERE: Subway line No. 4, Suyu Station, exit 4. Or take bus No. 8 or 8-1.


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MOUNT DOBONG


The rock walls of Mount Dobong look intimidating.

The hikes are challenging.

But the peaks attract visitors year-round. Some of the most popular are Manjangbong and Seoninbong. Jaunbong, at 740 meters, is the highest.

People also come to view the vast green valleys that spread in all directions.

Dobong is part of Bukhansan Park, and is located in northern Seoul.

Centuries of wind and rain have worn the rocks into shapes that have given rise to folktales. There is one that looks like a dragon's head ascending to heaven, another that appears to be a skeleton and yet another that looks like a large raindrop trickling down the face of another rock.

Those who prefer seclusion might want to check out Obong Peak, which is in the midwest area of the range. It is not part of the main route and draws less people.



ADVENTURES: Seonginbong soars 708 meters above sea level and has 37 trails.

SIGHTS: Cheonchuk Temple is the oldest temple on the mountain. Another famous peak, Manjangbong, is behind the temple. The tranquil views are said to enhance meditation.

GETTING THERE: Subway line No. 1, Dobongsan Station. Get on the National Road and walk for 10 minutes.


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MOUNT GWANAK


The ancient Koreans believed that all mountains, rivers and houses were represented by four animals. There was the tortoise for the north, red phoenix for the south, blue dragon for the east and white tiger for the west.

Mount Gwanak, located in the suburbs south of Seoul, is represented by the red phoenix. The ancients believed that the phoenix burns before it is reborn. So they feared the area was susceptible to forest fires. The first king of the Joseon Dynasty ordered the building of temples and ponds as a charm against fires.

As the years passed, poets and painters visited the area to contemplate life in a beautiful setting.

Now Mount Gwanak is endearingly called "Small Guemgang," after the mountain range in North Korea. The hiking trails are picturesque, with ravines, dark forests and rugged climbs.

The highest peak, Yeonjudae, is just 629 meters above sea level. It takes four or five hours to reach the summit. Time your climb to catch the sunset.



ADVENTURES: The Palbong Ridgeline is a good for rock climbing.

SIGHTS: Sammak Temple and Yeonju Hermitage. Here you'll find portraits of three monks, Jogong, Naong and Muhak, who may have been the founders of the temple.

GETTING THERE: Subway line No. 4, Gwacheon Central Government Complex Station, exit 10.


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MOUNT SURAK


Mount Surak looks easy enough. The trail to its summit is mostly gravel at the outset, so dust kicks up with every step. The incline is gentle. But halfway up the mountain, just when things are getting boring, you'll reach a bawi, a giant rock. You'll have to scramble and navigate your way up, only to reach another boulder.

The views beyond each rock are worth the struggle. The boulders themselves are famous; one looks like an elephant, another like a seal. There are also several small waterfalls in the area. By the time you reach the peak, you will be 638 meters above sea level.

And then perhaps you will understand how the mountain got its name. Legend has it that a Chinese writer named So Shik, christened Mount Surak. Its name, loosely translated, means "water drops straight down from the rock mountains."



SIGHTS: Visit Naewonam Temple and Heungguk Temple in the valley. In 1790, King Jeongjo chose Heungguk Temple as one of five formal temples in Korea, along with Bongeun, Bonseon, Yongju and Baekryeong, where government officials prayed for the nation.

Try hiking the valley from the Hachon Village to Cheongpyeong Resort, which was created in memory of Kim Si-seup, a 15th century poet. Also see Gwesanjeong pavilion, where the 17th century scholar Bak Se-dang taught his disciples, and Nogang-seowon Confucian Academy, built in memory of Bak Tae-bo, a 17th-century scholar and officer.

GETTING THERE: Subway line No. 7, Suraksan Station, exit 2.


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CLUBS OFFERING A CHALLENGE



TREK KOREA www.trekkorea.com

A dentist founded this club in 1996 to promote Korea's natural heritage. The group's hikes are organized around three themes: exploring nature, cultural visits and outdoor adventures. Prices include camping gear, meals, campsite fees and park entrance fees.



HASH HOUSE HARRIERS gotothehash.net/korea.html

Hashing in Korea often takes place on mountain trials. Check out one of the dozen clubs if you're athletic, or an athletic drinker, and looking for a social group.



KIM YONG-KI CLIMBING SCHOOL www.kimcs.com/english/e01.html

Feel like rock climbing, ice climbing or hiking? Kim Yong-ki, a champion climber, runs this school, which provides lessons in English.


by Joe Yong-hee

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