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Korea,  Seoul,  winter

Bukhansan, Nature Within the City!

Forenote: This adventure took place over a year ago, but I want to share it because it was a unique and fun time. These photos were taken on that trip, on my phone and therefore aren’t the best quality. We went in winter, in summer Bukhansan is actually quite warm and nice. It definitely won’t have snow if you visit in any season other than winter.

Seoul is known by many as a massive metropolis of a city, an uber-modern city that doesn’t have room, nor allow for nature. However, for anyone that has that opinion, it can be quite wrong. Seoul has lots of mountains and natural areas within the city if you take the time to look for them, and today I want to talk about one such area, Bukhansan.

Bukhansan is probably the most well-known mountain in Seoul, with its highest peak reaching 836 metres tall. While this might not seem like a ‘mountain’ to many (me included… My home in New Zealand is right next to a 2.5km high mountain, a mere 30 minutes drive away), when I climbed it with my friend back in winter… Well, we realised it was indeed a mountain.

On a day in December, among final exams, my friend and I decided we would try and conquer Bukhansan. Equipped with a total lack of knowledge about where we were going, we headed on the most obvious path up the mountain. Signs told us that snow gear was required, but we didn’t believe them! It wasn’t bad at all! We walked for about 2 hours in peace before coming to the difficult terrain. Everyone around us was fully equipped, for what we had considered to be quite literally ‘a walk in the park’.

We got told to turn back by some friendly locals who said it was too dangerous for us without cleats (not to mention walking poles), and we even witnessed some fully geared people have accidents (slipping and falling down banks), however, we decided to push on. For the next 4 hours, we questioned our decision at every step. What was supposed to be a two or three-hour walk ended up taking 6 hours. We had many accidents and near misses (we really should have stopped, it was very dangerous. But we were stubborn) but we did eventually make it to the top.

Thankfully the way down was far nicer and the track was in much better condition.

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Something that stood out instantly to me as a foreigner was the amount of Buddhist influence on the mountain. As a New Zealander, Buddhism is in many respects nearly non-existent for me. While I see monks quite commonly around Seoul, this was my first time seeing (what I believe to be) authentic Buddhist buildings. The mountainside was covered in statues, houses, and other buildings, and many of them had some form of Buddhist influence. It was such a cool experience for me as I had never seen such things before.

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The walk is also filled with many different gates and walls that must be passed on the journey to the top. Bukhansanseong (the name of the fortress that was built on Bukhansan) was actually created to protect Seoul, and was also created as a point of retreat if the need arose. On our walk, we were heading to the Great South Gate which is one of the six great gates to the fortress. There are also a further eight secret gates.

The path is seemingly built around all of these aspects of the mountain, and due to this I believe it must be one of the paths that have existed on the mountain since the creation of the fortress hundreds of years ago.

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Another cool part about Bukhansan is that people actually live on it currently. There is a road that allows vehicles up the mountain, but this ends a certain distance up, and many of these houses can only be accessed on foot. These houses are beautiful, traditional looking houses and they blend into the rest of the mountain. It’s great that people can live on the mountain and yet the mountain can retain its unique identity.

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Did I mention it was cold?! Well yeah, yeah it was. And icy. This was exactly what we had underestimated, the cold, and the ice. The ice gave us a few injuries, but we did survive in the end. I think we underestimated it because there was not much snow or ice on the ground, however, all of the water was frozen over and the temperature was around -8 degrees.

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After about four and a half hours, we finally reached the Great South Gate! The gate itself was a work of art and it provided an amazing view. Unfortunately, the day we were there the clouds were low and we couldn’t see much. The top was quite busy, and when we got there we were congratulated by the older couple who had warned us to turn back earlier. They were surprised we had actually made it without giving up, and after their congratulations we felt great… We realised we had actually made it!

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Luckily the way down was much nicer than the way up (we had contemplated going down the way we came up as we thought the other way may be even more difficult… Thankfully we chose to risk the new path!) and actually had steps and was maintained.

This bridge was right before the exit of the park, and I can’t explain how happy we were to finally cross it, knowing we were near the end. A short ‘walk in the park’ had taken us 6 hours and had been extremely difficult and even dangerous.

If you have the chance… Visit Bukhansan! I would 100% recommend visiting, if you want to have a relaxing day (don’t do the whole track, just have a stroll…), or a serious hike. Be careful in winter though, as gear is definitely recommended and it is a difficult walk. I loved the journey and will definitely be visiting again. Although this time I hope to go in summer for a change of scene!

13 Comments

  • Wendy

    I love those frozen waters… Which trail did you take? I did the Bogukmun Course last month and the path was still icy which made it more difficult. I am not too sporty though so it made it even harder for me but I felt good after I did it!

    • Ethan Brooke

      I have actually tried to find the name of the trail but I really can’t remember. I know we started near orange line (took a bus), and then went to the Great South Gate before heading down the opposite side. Then we had to walk about a further hour to get to another subway station to get home… It was tiring! We went in December, and the path (being smooth) and covered in ice was treacherous. How long did that path take? I want to go there again sometime soon since summer is fast approaching!

  • Odessa

    I’m glad you didn’t have anything too serious happen on your hike. Not being appropriately prepared can definitely be dangerous in winter conditions.
    If you enjoyed seeing the temples in Bukhansan, you should take a trip out to Gyeongju– a lot of cool historic sites, mountain temples and the coast all in the same area. Golgulsa is the big temple out there that’s apparently pretty famous. I hiked through there a couple years ago and found it very interesting.

    • Ethan

      Me too! At the time we didn’t realise how dangerous it was, but after some near misses we sure did. However, at that point we thought it would probably be more dangerous to turn around and head back down than continue going up.

      Thanks for recommending Gyeongju! I will add that to my list of places to go as it sounds great! Are there lots of hiking tracks there?

      • Odessa

        I just kind of ended up there with other people– didn’t arrange the trip myself, but I remember that the trail we were on was pretty well maintained and not super strenuous terrain-wise. It was also August, to be fair.
        I’m not sure if there were other trail options, but we might have stuck with an easier one because it was so humid and a bit steep regardless and we were a bunch of amateurs.

        • Ethan Brooke

          Oh, I see. Sometimes the most unexpected adventures are the most fun! Hmm, that sounds very different to the path we took. The path we took either had a very rundown trail, or at some points, no trial at all (just markers of where to go). I guess that the more commonly used tracks are maintained better and the one we took was one of the exceptions. I’ve heard from lots of other people that the tracks were great and well looked after!

  • Alla Ponomareva

    I bet going through all the gates makes you feel closer to your goal (if you know how many you’re supposed to pass) or that you’re nearing some kind of inner sanctuary only the fittest, the knowledgeable or the most adventurous deserve to know/to visit. I was waiting for you to say that no hiking shoes/sticks were ACTUALLY necessary until I saw that frozen waterfall. I bet some spiky cleats would do the trick.

    • Ethan Brooke

      I am sure it would! We didn’t know how many gates there were unfortunately. But even though we didn’t know how many gates there were, we definitely felt like we were getting further towards our destination… Like we were getting deeper within a castle almost. We expected it to be a literal ‘walk-over’ but it was much more than we had bargained for for sure. It was all worth it in the end though!

  • Eric Coleman

    I love Bukhansan!! I’ve been a couple times, once in summer (soooo hot) and once in fall (perfect weather). The gates and the buddhist architecture flow so well with the landscape. Makes for a very rewarding hike.
    Have you been up to the giant golden Buddha that’s on the mountain?

    • Ethan Brooke

      I totally agree with what you said! It’s a great place to get out of the city for a while, and a great place for some exercise! I did see a giant Buddha, but it wasn’t golden, rather it was (I believe) stone. If you look in the first picture you can see it next to the building in the distance!

  • NATASHA

    i’m hiked Bukhansan on a few occasions, but always with a hiking group cause you can be wandering around up there for hours freezing your ass off, as you discovered. Also, hiking here is more like mountaineering, and I often come across huge, steep boulders and cliffs that push my comfort zone. Nice pictures!

    • Ethan Brooke

      Hiking with a group does seem like a wise move. I know in New Zealand they always say to never hike alone, and that’s very true. The path we were on was quite busy though, so we could have always asked for help if needed which was comforting. Haha yes… I always thought the hikers here were over-equipped, but after experiencing it myself I have to say they aren’t at all!

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