A Seoul-ful High: Hiking Mt. Bukhansan (Baegundae Peak) in South Korea

IMGP3383Before I proceed, let me just say — I consider myself a rock star for being able to reach the peak of the 836 MASL-high Mt. Bukhansan in Seoul when I’ve had only two legitimate climb experiences in my life (Pico de Loro, 664 MASL and Mt. Marami, 405 MASL in the Philippines). I didn’t even expect myself to reach the top at first because it was so high and I’m not in the best physical condition. This comes as nothing new to people who have read this blog before because I’ve said it on any post involving physical activity.But now that I did, I’m glad I put up the effort. The journey was definitely worth it.

When my friends and I were planning our itinerary for our 7-day Korean adventure,we thought of doing something out of the ordinary. While doing our research, we came across some blogs about hiking in Korea, and Mt. Bukhansan, the tallest mountain in Seoul, was just a few minutes away from the backpackers’ inn we were staying at.

It seemed like a good idea because the weather was cool and the conditions were good for a climb. I was still a bit iffy about my fitness but one of our housemates at the inn, Lee from Canada who also hiked a couple of days before, showed us breathtaking pictures of the peak to inspire us and said he was confident that we could do it because he and his brother saw that even little kids were doing it.

So, armed with our our cheat sheet and tips from our dorm-mates, we headed out on a Monday after a hearty breakfast of bread, eggs and brewed coffee. We bought kimbabs from a local shop (1,500 KRW) for our lunch (kimbabs are filling and quite compact to carry) and headed for the bus station. From Hyehwa Exit 1, we walked ahead for a couple of minutes to take Bus 160 and alighted at the last stop which was the terminal.

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FOR POSTERITY. Mae, Hannah and Sheh model their outdoor look before the climb.

There, we found a bevy of outdoor shops like North Face, Red Face, Campline and some Korean hiking brands, as well as food shops to purchase provisions for the hike. There were also convenience stores to buy water and energy drinks, as well as gelatin, which is a great way to load up on sugar and hydrate at the same time. A piece of advice — bring plenty of snacks to ensure that you don’t get hungry. My rule of thumb is always “hungry hiker is a cranky hiker.” Well, this goes for everything anyone really does.

Hiking Mt. Bukhansan is actually quite convenient. Despite having multiple entry points with hikes of varying levels of difficulty, the trails are well maintained mostly due to the volume of hikers that frequent the area. There are also signs that guide hikers to their respective destinations. Near the starting point, we followed the sign that leads to Baegundae Peak, which other Filipino climbers referred to in their posts — 3.2 kilometers? We trudged on looking for the landmarks we researched for like Hansel and Gretel looking for bread crumbs in the forest. We made sure to photograph each sign and landmark to serve as markers to trace back our steps in case we got lost.

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PHOTO OP. First sign leading to Baegundae Peak, the highest peak of Bukhansan.

We passed by an older couple having a break near the foot of the mountain and enjoyed the view before we decided to sit for a couple of minutes to regenerate. At the beginning, the trail was pretty straight but as it went along, we noticed that there were gradual assaults, with the paths getting steeper. Good thing there was plenty of shade and a beautiful view of orange leaves falling to make our rest more enjoyable. Pretty soon, after our third jelly break or so, we found more and more people hiking up, among them the couple we passed on our way up. We realized soon that this was going to be the trend for the day as Korean hikers breezed past us (even the oldies) effortlessly. We were pretty chagrined when the older ahjussis started climbing at a faster pace than we were. But hey, we’re amateurs so it wasn’t much of a big deal. No, it didn’t hurt my pride at all.

We also noticed that we didn’t pass through any of the landmarks that Filipino blogger weekendsidetrip mentioned so we figured that they took another route. Still, the signs indicated that we were going the right way so we continued with our trek.

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GETTING SHOWED UP BY SENIORS. Friendly ahjussis and ahjummas greet us on their way down, secretly laughing at us for resting at the first opportunity.

In the Philippines, its customary for hikers to share greetings when passing other groups and we did pretty much the same, except good morning and good afternoon was supplanted by Anyeong Haseyo, the standard greeting for hello. The Koreans we met were very polite and sensing that we were foreigners, some even volunteered to take our group pictures for us so we could all be in the frame at the same time. There were these two ahjussis who were really funny because we already said that we didn’t speak Korean but still continued to chat us up in their native tongue. I only caught bits and pieces of his speech based on what I learned from watching Koreanovelas and apparently, he thought we were students (or that’s what I understood when he said hak seng) on a nature trip. At the small picnic area near the ranger station, there was also a group of middle aged ladies and gents who took our picture with the mountain as a backdrop. The guys referred to us as uri chingu which I understood as “our friends” 😀 This also happened on the top. I told you they were nice.

We ate half of our kimbob and saved the other half for later, drank our water and took a short rest. According to the map we should head down to reach the next landmark, an ancestral house with a couple of picnic tables outside. I think this was what Lee was referring to when he said there was a place to buy some food before the final ascent to the peak. The place was owned by a nice haraboji (Grandpa) and his dogs were so cute.  After resting for a bit (and feeding the dogs some of my snacks) we got ready for the last leg of the journey.

We felt relieved upon reaching the Baek wun Bang -amun Gate (which leads to a traversing trail) where the sign indicated that there was only .3 kilometers separating us from Seoul’s highest mountain peak. But of course, it wasn’t going to be easy, because the way up, while alternating between moderate (with stairs) and difficult (super steep where you had to pull your weight with support from the railings erected for safety), it was mostly the latter. The stones were a bit slippery too, so for amateurs like us, it was a bit of a challenge, to put it mildly.

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SO NEAR YET SO FAR. The ropes and the railing really help hikers reach the top. I know without its support, I wouldn’t have made it.

Finally, we made it to the top, where it was freezing. The wind was so strong because it passed unobstructed, and the view was purely magnificent. I wanted to savor the moment so I didn’t wear my light jacket but conceded to wear a scarf for good measure. At the top was a viewing area with a Korean flag waving proudly to serve as a backdrop for the documentation of hikers’ successful climb. The area was a bit small and can accommodate only a few people at once so I was glad we decided to go on a weekday because the place was generally packed in the weekends. Koreans do love to hike, it doesn’t matter if they’re young or old.

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FEELING LIKE ROCKY. After the gruelling climb, I make it to the top. I feel like such a badass.

After taking our requisite pictures, we stepped down from the viewing deck and settled a few feet below where a flat rock formation allows hikers to take beautiful pictures of the Seoul skyline and the other peaks of Mt. Bukhansan. On the left is the Insubong Peak (810 MASL), which hikers cannot climb without ropes and climbing gear, and to the other side is Mangnyeongdae (799.5 MASL). I loved the contrast of the modern city and the beauty of nature and from our vantage point, it was a great photo opportunity to showcase the two aspects of South Korea.

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IN BETWEEN. On the left is civilization, on the right nature. And I’m right in the middle of it. This is what I call excellent framing.

It was an amazing accomplishment to reach the peak, but it was also freezing. Before our fingers got too numb, we started our descent. Besides, we wanted to make good time before dusk hit because we weren’t prepared for a night trek. We also took into consideration that we were in a foreign territory and it would be really difficult to ask for help if we got lost in the dark.

But instead of taking the same route as our upwards journey, we went through the Baek wun Bang -amun Gate to the Yongammun trail which will end at the Daedongsa Temple and Yongammun Park Ranger Station. I think this was the trail that the bloggers were referring to that they took on their ascent because it was rockier and steeper than the Baegundae Trail. Still, we had a different view of the mountain from the other side, which was also beautiful. On the way down, we could see the colors of autumn flourish.

OUR TRAIL. From the Baagundae Park Information Center, we followed the trail to Harujae, towards the Baegundae Shelter. From the gate, we hiked up the peak and returned by going through the gate headed towards the Nojeokbong Peak, and followed the trail to the Yongammun Castle Gate, went straight 1.1 kilometer and followed the path. The trail will end at the Doseonsa Temple.

OUR TRAIL. From the Baegundae Park Information Center, we followed the trail to Harujae, towards the Baegundae Shelter. From the gate, we hiked up the peak and returned by going through the gate headed towards the Nojeokbong Peak, and followed the trail to the Yongammun Castle Gate, went straight 1.1 kilometer and followed the path. The trail will end at the Doseonsa Temple.

The road was much farther than the way up but the trail was pretty consistent. The way down was much harder on the knees but we only stopped to rest for a couple of minutes before we were on on our way again because we were running out of light. When went through the Yonggamun Gate, we knew we were in the right direction so we continued to descend the same way. It was a long trek down and with less people using the trail, I admit that at some point, I got nervous. But there was still light and there was still a trail so we kept the faith.

MADE IT. Safe and sound, we took our last photo of the trek at the temple

MADE IT. Safe and sound, we took our last photo of the trek at the Doseonsa temple

After a couple of hours, we found the Doseonsa temple that our map was referring to. Success! We made it a little before 6 pm, enough time to say our prayers at the temple to thank the Gods for our safe journey. It was a long and tiring day, indeed.

All in all, it was an awesome accomplishment. My first international climb and I know I have every reason to be proud. I’m glad I did it with my friends. It was a bonding experience I will never forget, for sure.

WATCH OUT FOR THESE LANDMARKS:

Baegundae Park Information Center

Harujae sign

Baegundae Shelter

Haraboji’s resting stop

Baek wun Bang -amun Gate

Yongammun Castle Gate

Doseonsa Temple

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