Saturday, 12 February 2011
Mountain Hiking in Seoul
One of my favorite ways to spend a Saturday is walking in the mountains around Seoul. This kills more than one bird: Firstly, it's a free and enjoyable way to get some exercise (something my lifestyle is distinctly lacking). Secondly, it keeps me far away from the shopping centres and thereby helps me to save money by avoiding temptation. Another reason is the simple self-satisfaction of walking onwards for hours and finally reaching the goal, the top of a peak. I can then relax in the evening over a few shots of soju, saying proudly to myself, "I CLIMBED A MOUNTAIN TODAY." Which has a better ring to it than, say, "I spent 200,000won on shoes today." (Which is what I might have done otherwise.)
It's easy to escape the city for a day of hiking or climbing, with many mountains within reach by subway and bus. Bukhansan National Park to the north of Seoul encompasses a range of hiking routes and areas of natural beauty. More information can be found at the official National Parks website.
The trouble with this proximity to the city is the number of other people who flock to the mountains each weekend. It's clear to see that hiking is a popular pastime among Koreans. Some of the most popular and easily accessible courses are so packed with hikers at the weekends that you find yourself literally following a line of people up the mountain. It usually gets quieter the further up you get, though, and at least the number of other people is a comfort to inexperienced hikers like myself. I like to hike alone, but don't like the idea of accidentally falling down a mountain alone.
One thing you will notice is that many Korean hikers are OBSESSED with wearing the right kind of clothing and gear. New, branded, colour-coordinated, mountain-specific clothing is the norm, fully accessorised with paisley bandanas, sun visors, hiking poles, and backpacks loaded with makkeoli and kimbap. Did I say before that hiking doesn't cost anything? OK, if you do it my way it's almost free, but if you want the full Korean experience you could easily spend a lot of money. My only real investment has been a semi-decent pair of hiking shoes. These, a small backpack, single hiking pole and some sensible old clothing have really been all I need. For the rest of the (mostly middle-aged Korean) hiking population this really doesn't seem to be enough at all, and I feel like they are watching the lone, poorly-attired foreigner with much amusement as I walk on by. Little do they know that I am looking back at them just as amusedly as I marvel at their total dedication to uphill walking. Note that I am not talking about rock climbing in this post, which is something else altogether and requires a lot more expensive equipment.
You will often find at the foot of these popular mountain routes a lot of clothing and equipment stores, snack stalls and tent restaurants or 포장마차. It's great to eat some grilled meat or Korean pancakes (전) at one of these on your way down from a hike. You can also pick up anything you need on the way up - it's important to take a lot of water with you, and a bandana can be useful when you start sweating, plus it will make you look like a fully-fledged and super-serious hiker. I recommend buying one in bright pink.
All of this makes hiking in Korea a really great way to spend a day, a weekend or even just a few hours. As a person who has never been particularly outdoorsy, I always thought mountain hiking was some kind of intense activity that I wouldn't paticularly enjoy, but it's not! At a basic level it's little more than walking uphill through trees and small rocks - that's right, WALKING. How hard can it be? I started out taking easy, short paths with gentle inclines, and now look forward to challenging myself with more difficult and longer hikes as I get more experienced. Whatever your level, you'll find a trail to suit your needs.
So what are you waiting for? Grab a pair of walking boots, put some kimbap in your backpack, and get out there! You never know, you may discover a new passion for the outdoors, just like I did.