A hike in Seoul for the easily windedIt’s a truth universally acknowledged that if you want to hike in or around Seoul, you’ve got to climb a hill. There’s no avoiding it: nearly all the flat parts have been built on. It’s just as well the mountains are there, because if they weren’t, those parts would have been built on too. And just imagine what Seoul would look like then.
Of course, this means that if you want to hike, you’ve got to make an effort. Climbing a mountain requires, first, climbing out of bed at a reasonably early hour and traveling to a point from which to start walking.
Considering that your free time probably falls on weekends, that means getting up early on a Saturday or Sunday morning. Which may be asking a lot.
Well, here’s a hike that you can do even if you don’t wake up until the early hours of the afternoon after the heaviest drinking bout of your life. You’re guaranteed to be at the top of the rock within one hour, no matter how slowly you ascend, and to start getting great views within 30 minutes of starting out.
And the best part is that you can get to this place on the subway. It’s not even that far from the city center.
The hike starts from Dokbawi station on subway line No. 6, the “brown” line that goes through Itaewon and the World Cup Stadium.
This is one subway station that seems to have been built purely to enable people to get to Bukhansan National Park. The station has only one exit, and there is a map right outside showing you how to get through the local streets and up to the hillside, 10 minutes’ stroll away. (If you can’t read maps, don’t worry: just follow the steady stream of hikers in their bright red knee socks, while envying them their taste in fashion.)
Dokbawi is actually the name of the rock you’re going to climb. You can already see it from the subway steps. It’s about 360 meters (1,180 feet) high, which, by the standards of Korean peaks, makes it just a baby. But the views from the top of the rock are nothing short of spectacular ― really.
After reaching the start of the mountain path, the going will quickly get tough. Yes, it’s a steep climb, and it can be a little gritty and slippery in places, but if all those 50- and 60-something married couples and tiny tots can do it, then so can you. And you can lean on some shiny new railings when you reach the really difficult parts. Including rest stops, it shouldn’t take longer than about 45 minutes to get up to the top.
On your way, about 10 minutes up the hill, you might have to pay 1,300 won ($1.10), depending on whether the park official is on duty. This is the entrance fee for the national park, but it allows you to walk all day if you are so inclined. Trails continue past Dokbawi for miles into the heart of the park, where the really big mountains are located.
Take note, however: As you may have read, some paths in Bukhansan and other national parks will be closed for the dry season from tomorrow through Dec. 15. The approach to Dokbawi will remain open, though, according to a National Parks Authority official.
If, by the time you reach the peak of Dokbawi, you find you’ve run out of steam, just head back down to the subway, or continue 500 meters and turn right onto the long ridge that you can see from the top of the rock. This is an easy walk that brings you down to Sangmyung University after a couple of kilometers, from where there are buses that will take you downtown in 15 minutes or so. Another alternative is to reach the outcrop a few hundred meters to the north and follow the signs 1.5 kilometers (0.9 miles) straight down to Bulgwang subway station, also on line No. 6.
But if you’re still feeling energetic, and the sight of higher peaks fills you with an urgent need to ascend them, you can of course continue upwards into the main area of Bukhansan National Park. A strenuous one-hour hike will bring you to Daenammun, the south gate of the Bukhan fortress that was built to encircle the mountaintops and so provide an impregnable refuge in times of invasion.
Again, though, keep in mind that some paths in the park will be closed for the next month. And besides, the point of this hike is Dokbawi, and the view from the summit of the rock.
This is not only a 360-meter peak, it’s a 360-degree viewing point. Depending on visibility, you should easily be able to spot Namsan Tower, the 63 Building in Yeouido, the World Cup Stadium, the Han River stretching down toward the Yellow Sea and a whole lot of the rest of Seoul. You might also be able to see the exact point in the sky where the smog line ends, which will make you wonder why you spend so much time lurking down in the soup instead of up the hillside where the clean stuff is.
At the top of Dokbawi, you’ll find what seems to be about half of Seoul up there with you. As well as admiring the view, this is a great venue for people watching. Whether you find couples with children, older folks or groups of drinking buddies, a fairly representative cross-section of Korean society will be sitting atop the rock with you.
And everybody’s usually very friendly. If you’ve had the foresight to bring some refreshments, this is a great spot to consume them, and perhaps share something with some of your newfound neighbors, if they don’t beat you to it.
On the other side of the rock, if you dare to look down, you may spot some crazy types who are attempting to scale the peak the hard way ― with ropes and crampons. Perhaps what they are attempting to accomplish looks dangerous. It is. (Also illegal, according to that National Parks Authority official.) Don’t try it with a hangover. But it’s certainly worth watching them go at it, especially if you descend a little way and take a seat on the rock below.
With the wind whistling through your hair, the birds circling above your head and a view of the entire central and southern part of the city laid out before you, it’s very likely that your head will suddenly feel a lot clearer than it has in a while.
Now, wasn’t that worth getting out of bed for?
by Jeremy Garlick