What really got me attracted to exploring Seoul was my own little, local mountain. Back in 2005 I lived next to Bongwhasan, which means Beacon Mountain. At the time I was living there I would go up there at least two or three times a week, and even during the middle of winter and summer. Before long I had learned my own routes to follow and where, more or less, I would arrive when I took a particular pathway down. As I said before, if I got lost on the mountain, I could just walk down and follow the mountain around and I would find somewhere I recognised sooner or later. To this day when I move somewhere I always look for the nearest mountain. Bongwhasan has much to do with this.
When I arrived in Seoul first, I didn’t really notice whether the city was hilly or not. In the beginning, my immediate sphere – from my apartment to work, Emart, and Bongwhasan station – didn’t involve too many hikes. What was certainly more obvious was how built up the city was. This affected me more than anything.
I come from Meath. Meath is famous for having lots of fields. When I was in secondary school it was assumed that my family background involved agriculture (which it actually did, but that’s beside the point) and that I live knee deep in cow shite seven days a week. Meath is farmland and proud of it. That being said, I hated being from Meath. Maybe it was because I just wanted to be young and urban and cool. Being next to Dublin, there’s a lot of rivalry between the two, not only because Ireland is incredibly tribal minded, but also because they are completely different places with completely different histories. A fair bit of this has to do with GAA. Much of the tribalism surrounding Meath-Dublin rivalry never really appealed to me, although this may have had something to do with the fact that I wasn’t particularly good at football. While I had yearned for city life, I wasn’t prepared for what Seoul provided. From a village of nearly eight thousand people to a city of over ten million people is the change I made.
Driving through Seoul the first time I couldn’t get over how big the city was and how much it kept stretching and stretching. How the buildings didn’t thin out or get much smaller. I also noticed that there was very little, or I should say no open spaces. The longer I spent in the city the more I noticed that, despite there being lots of very pretty green mountains in the distance, there were no parks or places to get some fresh air. At least, there were none that I could see.
When I couldn’t find any parks I started to feel like I would go crazy. I walked around and tried to find a little bit of nature around my neighbourhood, but I wasn’t very successful. One day after many effortless searches I found a local map at a bus stop. What looked like a few hundred yards away, as the crow flies, was a big patch of green. Green usually implied that there was some form of a park nearby, at least this was the case in most countries I had been to. I decided that the next morning I would explore.
Making my way through the carpark of the local dong office I came across a small hamlet like collection of houses. Passing through these I could see the trees rising from the ground and stretching up the slopes of a small, sheer hill in front of me. Other walkers passed on their way down, some attired in full hiking regalia and others uniformly dressed in office attire, and equipped with regulation paper coffee cups in one hand and cigarettes limply dangling from their lips. After less than a hundred yards into the newly discovered natural paradise, I was pretty sure that I had found a rival to the Amazon.
While I’ve written about how much this mountain has affected my time in Korea before, I haven’t really encouraged anyone to go and find their own mountain. That’s what this post is all about.
If you ever look at some of the photos of Seoul from a height, one of the most outstanding features is the number of green hills projecting from the grey paste of the surrounding city (follow this link for some stunning pictures from a height of Seoul a sunrise). If you take a look at Seoul through the satellite image on Google Maps, you can get an even better idea of what I’m talking about. There are mountains everywhere.
Don’t expect the Himalayas though. A mountain, or ‘san’ in Korean actually really isn’t a mountain in the traditional sense, but in Korea’s case they are usually quite steep hills that are heavily forested and do take you up higher than all of the surrounding buildings around you, the one exception being Namsan Tower.
As far as I know, the majority of these mountains have been developed as not only suitable walking spots, but as complete social facilities. Bongwhasan, for example, had public toilets with running water, there were exercise machines, badminton courts, drinking fountains, and gyms where old men lifted weights and passed the time. All the way up there were well constructed steps, with benches along the way for people to rest or picnic at. Still, despite this sense of over-developed natural amenity, there was still an entire swathe of the mountain where no one went and anyone could escape and get away from the stresses of daily life. The mountain was not a mountain in the traditional sense, but a focal point for the community, and a place where the city dwellers could leave the flashing neon, honking horns, and fumes in the streets behind.
Since my first years in Sinnae-dong on the foot of Bongwhasan, having a local san has been vital to my sanity. Right now I live by Cheongyesan next to Yeongtong-dong in Suwon. Last year there wasn’t much of a san nearby as most of the development seemed to restrict anyone climbing up it. We did make it out to Gwangyosan a few times, but that’s more of a serious climb and we chickened out more often than not. Before this I lived next to Gwanaksan, right beside Seoul National Unviersity, but we found this a bit like Gwangyosan; too serious for casual wandering, and also too busy and loud for escaping the madness! Still it was enjoyable when we got off the main trail and away from the company parties and hiking clubs. Some years ago I lived in Itaewon and had Seoul’s most famous san, Namsan. While we didn’t hike to the top too often, we did explore the park and the area and road around the mountain on plenty of occasions, and we always found it very enjoyable.
To make the most of your own mountain you have to find it, right? Take a look at your local subway map, or any local map for that matter, and find a green patch. Walk to the green patch and start to walk around there. It’s that simple. You would be surprised what you find. Every little thing you see is different. Everything is unique and specific to that place, and if you open your eyes properly you can see this. Take a moment to ingest it and then leave it and move on to the next new thing. Regardless of how small or how typical it may seem, it is not in anyway the same. That’s why Seoul stands out as a wanderers dream.
If that’s not exciting enough, take a look at the subway map and find the stations that are next to mountains. Usually you can do this by finding a stop that ends in ‘san’, like Bongwhasan (line 6). I did a very rough scan over the subway map and counted around twenty, but that’s not very accurate because my eyes hurt and I’m bad at maths. If this fails you can try some of the bigger trails like Dobongsan and Bukansan, both of which are big enough and diverse enough to avoid the weekend traffic. But whatever you do, make sure your only plan is ‘find the place’.
By the way, I’m pretty sure that you can do this anywhere in Korea.
For what it’s worth, If I Had A Minute To Spare is not a travel blog, it’s a personal journal on the internet which charts my own experiences and opinions. I don’t claim to be a travel guide or an expert, I only talk about what I think. Please enjoy these posts for what they are. If you are inspired then please share your story too.