South Korea is frequently labelled as one of the most overworked nations in Asia, this busy population take their downtime seriously and hiking is popular a way to escape the polluted capital. Bukhansan national park lies within Seoul’s huge subway system, but in a city of 10 million people it gets crowded.
Getting there: Aim to reach Gupabal station (line 3 ) around seven o clock in the morning to avoid the biggest crowds. When leaving the city the train becomes quieter, sleepy businessmen go home after a long night drinking and studious teenagers start their weekend at Saturday school. Only the keen early risers remain onboard, patiently waiting for the last few subway stations, anticipating their weekly dose of the outdoors. They are dressed in the latest technical fabrics, clean boots, walking poles and rucksacks stuffed with a weekend’s supply of whole chillies, boiled eggs and plenty of makkoli rice wine. The first impression might be daunting, especially if you turned up with your holey converse and a slight hangover. But this is Korea, where personal image is highly important, there are full sized mirrors in subway stations and compacts are common accessories for both men and women. So hiking a small mountain dressed in alpine expedition gear is to be expected, ice axes have even been spotted hanging uselessly from bags in the middle of summer. There are outdoor stores lining the road towards the mountain if you want to join the fashion parade, but all you really need is comfortable layers and walking shoes for the rocky paths.
Hiking: From the station join the line of bright visors, or simply follow the noise. Kpop proudly blares from phones and groups chatter their way up the side of the mountain, don’t expect to hear the rustle of leaves under your boots or spot any wildlife, this is a social pastime and can feel like a race. Old ladies will put you to shame with their agility, barely taking a breath from under their giant sun brims as they race past you. You might hear a shy “hello, have a nice day” from a school child, nudged by their parents hopes to see results of expensive English tuition.
If you have a reasonable level of fitness, the hike up to Baegundae, Bukhansans highest and most visited peak at 837m, will take a couple of hours. It is tough in places but the rocky path is sheltered from the sun by trees and there are plenty of spots to rest. Towards the top it becomes more of a scramble but huge steel ropes have been installed to help drag your tired body up to the summit.
At the top you can squeeze in amongst the crowds to take a breath, eat and crack open that rice wine. If you didn’t come prepared, ice cream and drinks are often hauled up the mountain by an enterprising salesman by late morning. The strong cold winds are a refreshing accompaniment when looking down at the sprawl of high rise tower blocks covered in thick hazy smog.
Hiking South Korea’s most popular peak won’t be your greatest outdoor adventure, but the camaraderie is uplifting, strangers will strike up a conversation with offers of snacks and photo taking. Yes it can be noisy and busy and maybe not what you expected, you might even have to wait in a queue at the summit. But when your legs ache and your breath is heavy, kind offers of food and attempts at practicing English make a change from the facelessness of this huge city.