A historic trek around Mount InwangThese days, when people in Korea seem to be putting a higher priority than ever on knowing how to enjoy leisure time, “trekking” has become the thing to do on weekends.
Though the word was coined in 19th-century South Africa to mean migration by ox wagon, in 21st-century Korea it means a leisurely hike along a mountain, free of the obsession with getting to the peak. One good trekking course in Seoul is Mount Inwang, in the western part of the city.
Mount Inwang, 338 meters above sea level, means a lot to Koreans in feng shui terms. When King Taejo founded the Joseon Dynasty, he had his subordinates choose the site for Gyeongbok Palace so that, according to feng shui theory, it would be protected by four mountains. Mount Inwang, whose name in Chinese characters means “a generous king,” was one spiritual mountain, sitting to the right of the palace.
It might have protected the Joseon Dynasty, but in 1968 it was used as a base by a squad of North Korean agents who’d marched all the way from Pyeongyang to assassinate President Park Chung Hee. The assassins were stopped, but not before making their way along Mount Inwang and Mount Baegak and nearly reaching the Blue House. After that, the Park military regime barred civilians from entering the mountain, a ban that lasted until Feb. 1993.
Park Chung Hee wasn’t the first ruler to declare the mountain off-limits. King Yeonsangun of the Joseon Dynasty evacuated every civilian house and Buddhist temple in the Mount Inwang area; that area remained restricted until Japanese colonial rule. The reason was simple: Whoever is on the mountain can look down on Gyeongbok Palace, where the king resides (and, years later, on the Blue House). This is also why photography was banned on the mountain until a month ago. Use of telephoto lenses is still forbidden. If you’re wondering who’d be there to enforce these restrictions, be assured there are police officers during the day and soliders at night watching over the whole area. Entrance to the mountain is also banned the day after a holiday. The official reason is to protect nature. It’s not easy to get a view of the Blue House from above.
There’s fun and history on this mountain. After trekking it, you’ll feel you’ve gotten to know Seoul better.
Sajikdan: Altar to the State Deities
Your trek on Mount Inwang starts at Sajikdan, the altar to the state deities of the Joseon Dynasty. It’s better known to Koreans as Sajik Park, without “dan,” or “altar,” at the end of the word. The name change dates back to Japanese rule, when everything related to Korean tradition suffered abuse. Sajikdan became a public park; the colonial government planted cherry trees (cherry blossoms being Japan’s national flower) and installed benches.
But the postwar Korean government didn’t treat the site much better. In 1962, the front gate of the altar site ― now registered as a national treasure ― was moved 14 meters backward to accomodate an urban development plan.
Sajikdan is where the kings paid respect to the god of crops and the earth with sacrificial rites. Sajikdan was among the very first sites that King Taejo, the founder of the Joseon Dynasty, established, along with Jongmyo, the royal shrine.
Sajik Park is open every day, but Sajikdan itself is open to the public only on the first Sunday of September, when the Lee royal family organization pays its respects. If you walk up past Sajikdan, you can get a bird’s-eye view of the area from a vacant lot, the site of a swimming pool during colonial rule. In 1969, the government got rid of the pool and erected statues of historical figures, which was a fad back then (Admiral Yi Sun-shin’s statue at Gwanghwamun was established around the same time).
Passing the vacant lot, take the stone steps until you reach a light yellow building, the Dangun Sanctuary, named for the legendary founder of Gojoseon, the first Korean kingdom, thousands of years before Christ. The sanctuary was originally part of Sajikdan, which had nothing to do with Dangun.
The original Dangun Sanctuary was on Mount Namsan, but the Japanese colonial government built Buddhist temples on the sites of the temple and the altar. In the late 1960s, the Park Chung Hee regime restored Sajikdan, which involved restoring Dangun’s sanctuary on Mount Inwang.
The portrait of Dangun in this sanctuary is the standard for the legendary figure, as decided in 1978 by the historians designated by the government. There are about 80 shrines for Dangun, which are all modeled after the Inwang sanctuary. In the sanctuary, however, there are portraits not just of Dangun but of the founders of the other dynasties in Korean history.
Continuing up Mount Inwang along the skyway takes you to the aged Hwanghak Pavilion, where kings once practiced archery. What’s important here is the location of the building, which originally was a part of Gyeonghui Palace in central Seoul. The place of today used to be the Deunggwa Pavilion area, a range where people practiced archery. Again, it was the Japanese colonial government that changed the location, moving the whole pavilion from the palace site to Mount Inwang. That’s why this pavilion is one of the palace’s few surviving buildings.
The Japanese colonial government banned all practice of archery, but made an exception for Hwanghak Pavilion. After liberation, it became the national center for the promotion of archery. If you sign up as a member, you can learn Korean traditional archery for a 300,000 won ($250) entrance fee and an additional 30,000 won every year.
You may wonder why Japan allowed archery in Hwanghak Pavilion. The answer is apparent once you stand on the pavilion with your bow and arrows: The arrow points toward Gyeongbok Palace.
On the ridgeline
Passing the Hwanghak Pavilion, take a left turn and you’ll see the hiking path. Walking up the stairway along the fortress, you’ll have a bird’s-eye view of the mountain’s ridgeline.
The asphalt-paved stairway, complete with flourescent lines painted down the center, stands out starkly from the surrounding nature; this is for the benefit of the soldiers patrolling the area by night. It reminds climbers that the whole area is full of guard posts. If you deviate just slightly from the designated climbing path, you’ll be stopped by soldiers or the police. So you needn’t worry about getting lost.
On your left side, you’ll see a strangely shaped rock called Seonbawi, or the Zen Rock. Named for its shape ― it looks like a Buddhist monk praying ― the rock is said to bring children to the childless who pray to it. The rock is still frequented by shamans.
On the peak
About 10 minutes’ walk from the ridgeline is the peak of Mount Inwang. Although you’ll have to climb over a huge rock, which will be a bit demanding, the safety equipment is reliable.
The trip is worth it once you’re standing on the peak, where you’re literally on top of the world, or Seoul, at least. You’ll see Mount Namsan to your right, Mount Baegak to your left and the Blue House down next to Mount Baegak.
What ruins the view, unfortunately, is the high-rise buildings everywhere. It seems there’s plenty of blame to go around for spoiling the landscape.
You’ll also find the police up here. Until a month or so ago, these officers, whose job is to make sure climbers follow the rules, weren’t so friendly. Now you can take out your camera without fear (unless it has a telephoto lens), and the police are even kind enough to give directions.
Chimabawi (Skirt Rock)
On your way down from the peak, you’ll see a huge, broad rock called Chimabawi, or Skirt Rock, after its shape, which resembles an old-time hanbok skirt.
There is a sad story about this rock that dates back to the mid-Joseon Dynasty.
In 1506, there was a revolution in the court against the tyranny of then-king Yeonsangun. The revolution, known as Jungjong Banjeong, succeeded, and a new king, Jungjong, took the throne.
But Jungjong’s father-in-law, Shin Su-geun, who was killed during the revolution, had been on Yeonsangun’s side. And so Jungjong’s faction deposed his wife, known as Ms. Shin, for it was impossible to have a daughter of an enemy of the country as its queen.
King Jungjong missed his wife, and every day, from the Gyeonghoeru pavilion, he would look in the direction of her house in the foot of Mount Inwang. The story reached his wife, and she responded to the king’s sorrow by hanging the red skirt she used to wear on the rock. That, according to legend, is another reason the rock is called Skirt Rock.
The art of fortress-building
Climbing down the mountain offers the chance to get a close-up look at the fortress architecture of the Joseon Dynasty.
Precisely speaking, the whole trekking course on Mount Inwang is an exploration of the Joseon’s art of fortress-building. From the peak, you can view the remains of the Joseon fortress wall.
King Taejo, the founder of Joseon, was especially keen on building the fortress, using more than 200,000 people for the construction. The whole population of Hanyang, as Seoul was called during the dynasty, was about 50,000. The fortress wall was 18 kilometers (11 miles) long in total.
The fortress certainly had symbolic value, as is obvious from the Japanese rulers’ attempts to destroy it. In 1907, before the visit by Japan’s crown prince to Seoul, the colonial government even formed a “commission to deal with the fortress,” whose main task was to damage the fortress, for “it’s impossible to have the crown prince pass under his colony’s fortress.”
The crown prince arrived 10 days after the dethronement of King Gojong of Joseon. The fortress shared the dynasty’s fate.
And here’s a glimpse of how Seoul became Seoul, according to legend. The founder of Joseon, King Taejo, assigned his tactician Jeong Do-jeon to design the fortress. It was not an easy task to decide the course of the fortress wall.
One morning after a snowy night, Jeong went out to find that some of the snow had melted, forming a particular course.
Jeong Do-jeon built a fortress wall along that course, giving Seoul its name, from “seol ul” ― “seol” meaning “snow,” in Chinese characters, and “ul” coming from “ultari,” meaning “fence.”
On your way down
From the starting point, it takes about three hours to get to this point. Now you’ll see civilian houses in Buam-dong. The day’s trekking, however, is not over yet.
If you walk down along the houses, you’ll reach a site where you can see remains of the house where a celebrated modern Korean novelist, Hyun Jin-geon, was born. The only clue to its significance is a tiny monument.
When you reach the Buam-dong office, that is officially the end of the trek. You can take a bus to downtown Seoul from here. For those with an adventurous spirit, however, there’s a bonus.
Walk about 50 meters to your right, and you’ll reach a restaurant, Sonmandujip, specializing in mandu, or dumplings, in authentic Korean style. The name of the place literally means “a house of handmade dumplings.” One serving is 8,000 won ($7). For a reservation, which is a must on weekends, call (02) 379-2648.
After a hearty meal, it is time to check out the Cheongun-dong neighborhood. You’ll see Changuimun Gate, better known as Jahamun Gate, one of the four gates of the Joseon fortress walls. If you want to take a picture, do it before you pass the gate. Photography is not allowed after you pass the gate, which is controlled by the Blue House guards.
Tragedy of Cheongun-dong
The reason you must check out Cheongun-dong to make your trek complete is to see the statue of Choi Gyu-sik, the police officer. On Jan. 21, 1968, Mr. Choi was one of the officers who confronted the North Korean assassins who’d come to kill Park Chung Hee. He was killed in the struggle, which stopped the assassins only a 10-minute walk from the Blue House. It’s little wonder that the Park regime made Mr. Choi a hero.
The North Korean agents failed in their mission, but in their way, they did change Korean history. In reaction to the assassination attempt, the Park regime banned access to Mount Inwang, paved Bugak Skyway passing through Mount Baegak and built the Namsan tunnels, whose purpose was to help evacuate the city if necessary.
And the major reason for building apartment complexes along the Han River was to hinder possible North Korean attacks from the river.
Sajik Park: Always open, 24 hours, 365 days. Sajikdan, however, is off-limits to the public (except the first Sunday in September). No parking is available. To get there, take subway line No. 3 to Gyeongbokgung Station. Take exit 1 and walk about five minutes. For more information about Sajik Park, call (02) 731-0536.
Getting back from Mount Inwang: After you’ve finished your day of trekking, take bus No. 59, 135-1, 136-1 or 143-1 from the Buam-dong Office Station. After passing several stops, you’ll reach central Seoul.
by Son Min-ho