Every weekend and public holiday, throughout Seoul there are crowds of people, like streams of brightly-coloured neon ants, swarming through the subway and cramming into buses. This eclectic bustle of colour, despite its appearance, has nothing to do with a Bollywood movie, the latest HD television advert or a psychedelic flash mob. These are just normal Koreans, leaving in droves to spend some time away from the groaning metropolis to hike in the mountains that surround Seoul. So what is this ritual exodus all about?
If you haven’t yet had the chance to strap on your boots and explore some of the impressive peaks that often fall within easy reach of Seoul’s pulsating downtown districts, then you will inevitably be surprised by the thought that just 30 minutes on the subway and with the N Seoul Tower still in full view, you can experience some of the most stunning and exhilarating hiking to be found anywhere. Indeed, the mountains themselves often serve as islands of calm, rising out of the squall of civilisation that surrounds their tree-lined bases. This sense of disconnection from the city beneath is all the more unexpected, when, as with many of the popular hikes, you can emerge from a subway station (often bearing the mountain’s name) located neatly at the foot of your chosen peak; an impossible proposition anywhere else in the world.
The mountains themselves often serve as islands of calm, rising out of the squall of civilisation that surrounds their tree-lined bases. This sense of disconnection from the city beneath is all the more unexpected, when you can emerge from a subway station located neatly at the foot of your chosen peak; an impossible proposition anywhere else in the world.
One of the easiest hiking excursions in Seoul, and a great little peak to test your legs, finds itself in this exact situation. Achasan (아차산), standing above Achasan Station towards the eastern end of Seoul Metro Line 5 and just north of the impressive Hangang (Han River), provides a compact but fun circuit along a pleasant ridgeline. The climb up from Achasan Station requires a short weave through a quaint suburb before scaling some easy granite slabs and gaining the ridge. There are great views across both the North and South sides of Seoul, a range of viewing platforms and areas to take a quick break and an historic hill-fort under restoration. It is not a long or strenuous day by any means but a great introductory hike with rewarding vistas across the city.
A slightly more demanding hike, and a perfect progression from Achasan, is the peak of Dobongsan (도봉산). It is also served by a subway station of its namesake on Line 1 in Northeast Seoul, ensuring easy access. You begin the walk through a market area before making your way into a densely wooded valley, where you follow the winding path up to a lofty ridgeline. The ridge is dotted with a number of smaller granite outcrops and spires, which if you are feeling adventurous, can provide some extra fun in the form of some challenging scrambling. The ridge tops out at a high point which is reached by the most Korean of mountain phenomena—a wooden stairway. From here you can choose to continue via a lower ridge to surrounding peaks or simply admire the panorama across Seoul and the pillars of golden granite that form the adjacent summits.
Hiking in South Korea is shockingly convenient. As well as the fast and clean public transport systems which give quick access, the popular peaks are often surrounded by everything you could need during and after a day on the mountain. Vendors sell kimbap, noodles, chocolate, and even makgeoli among much else, for you to fill your rucksack with the perfect mountain picnic. There are numerous outdoor clothing stores if you find you have forgotten your gloves or fleece, restaurants to fill your stomach when you complete your descent, and public toilets on the mountainsides if nature suddenly calls. What’s more, is that to climb most of the mountains around Seoul, all that you require are a sturdy pair of trainers, a small rucksack, and if you are going between November and March, a warm jacket, gloves and a hat. If you could find a criticism, it would probably be that hiking in Seoul is too convenient, as the mountain paths are usually bustling with enthusiastic trekkers to the extent that queues can form on the mountains’ upper reaches in order to reach the Summit.
If your legs are still feeling strong after the first few outings, it could be time to try something a little more challenging. Bukhansan (북한산) is a popular, demanding and majestically impressive peak. Composed of swathes of bare granite, the massif can be found rising out of the earth with impunity to form sheer sided domes which tower above the deep forested valleys beneath. Higher up the mountain you can find some exposed scrambling slightly off the ordinary route, and you will certainly remember edging along a precipitous face in an orderly queue of mountaineers, guided by a handrail!
Ultimately however, as with all of Seoul’s many mountains, when you reach the summit you will enjoy the most exhilarating and surreal of sensations; the special sense of reward we all receive upon summiting a mountain, flavoured with a distinctiveness that only Seoul could offer—the peculiarly tranquil view across this lively metropolis.