I still can’t decide what I liked the most about the hike up Gwanaksan Mountain, if it was the path right at the start filled with spring flowers and cherry blossom, whether it was the rewarding views of the city of Seoul from the summit or whether it was the sight of the tiny hermitage (Yeonjudae) sitting defiantly on top of vertical stone pillars like a diamond on a precious ring; it was a memorable hike.
The entrance of the park next to Seoul National University main gate is nothing grandiose; the beginning of the path runs along and around the university grounds towards the mountains visible in the background. At the beginning, with the university buildings in sight, it feels like any other city park, however it doesn’t take long before I start forgetting that we are in the heart of a huge metropolis.
This is Seoul: one moment you are in the middle of the city that never sleeps being shovelled and pushed by impatient old ladies the next minute your thoughts slow down and your inner peace returns as you catch a glimpse of your own smile over a perfectly still pond while leaning out of a beautiful Korean pavilion.
Seoul city is always bustling. When I step out of the flat it feels like it sucks me into a vortex but I just need to step slightly to the side, into a park or a hidden corner to find beauty and peace. Gwanaksan Mountain is one of those places.
When I find these places I am always caught by surprise. Maybe because I haven’t quite worked out this city yet. It stirs all sorts of feelings.
I sit for a moment in awe surrounded by blossoming cherry trees wondering whether I have been hit by some kind of spell and frozen inside a beautiful painting. But the spell has to be broken, if we are to reach the peak of the mountain.
Reluctantly we continue on the path to the left towards the summit. At 629m in height, it may not sound like much, but the steep steps near the top seem a struggle for the less fit.
It is hard to imagine what the summit has in store, as we walk through the wood it is not possible to appreciate the gloriousness of the view through the foliage. It is only at the very top when we eventually emerge above the vegetation that our eyes are able to take it all in and wander over Seoul’s skyline and beyond.
We scramble across a ridge to reach a different side of the summit. When I find myself precariously balancing above a high cliff I wonder whether this is where I want to die. Of all the places it doesn’t seem so bad but I have other plans for the day so I hang on tight and press on.
As I raise my head away from the stone that supports me my attention is suddenly captivated.
Yeonjudae hermitage balances itself over a steep outcrop of rocks right in front of me. It becomes the focus of my will.
Getting onto its terrace requires skilfully negotiating stones carved into tricky, narrow and steep steps. It doesn’t deter me. Once there I can see why one would go to all this effort to build a place for worship and meditation right on this spot; from up here everything looks so still and peaceful.
The temple is tiny and filled with lanterns, votive messages hanging from the ceiling and offerings by the altar. There is just a small place to pray and a small area outside to contemplate. Not too far below the materialistic world is in full view.
After exploring the summit, which also includes a weather station and another nearby temple, we decide to walk down the opposite side of the mountain and exit the park from Gwacheon.
At Gwacheon a few restaurants offer food and drinks, including Makgeolli (a typical Korean alcoholic beverage with a milky colour that is a popular choice by Koreans on a hike); this is the end of the path and a call straight back into the practical world.
Just a short walk and we are returned to urban Seoul; the metro whisks us into the busy city leaving the peak of Gwanaksan behind.
Yet the mountain remains in sight. Now when I look at it from within the city it is no longer the same; I can feel its gaze on me and I remember that even here, within the boundaries of this huge and fast metropolis, it is possible to slow down.
How to get there:
Seoul National University station (subway line 2 – green line); then take a green bus just outside exit 3 and get off at Seoul National University (it’s a short ride or a rather steep 20-minutes walk up hill along that main road). The entrance to the park is 20 meters to the right of Seoul National University main gate or to your right when you get off the bus. Bus numbers: 5511, 5513, 5515A, 5515B, 5520, 5528)
Refreshments: I could see no available refreshments inside the park on the path we took however at weekends there are numerous stalls selling snack to hikers just at the entrance of the park near Seoul National University gate (kimbap, various meats packed in take-away boxes, boiled eggs, fruit etc.) there is also a small convenience store as you get off the bus by Seoul National University.
There are also toilets near Wongaksa temple near the summit.
Tip: go early in the morning if you want to avoid the crowds. This is Seoul after all.
The photos were taken during the hike which we did in early March 2014 when the cherry trees were in full bloom.