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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!