Hiking Bukhansan in Seoul

The last time I climbed a mountain in Korea, I remember telling myself I would never do it again. I was severely unprepared. I wore shorts (with stockings), sports shoes that were not made for hiking and I had no food in my bag save for a bottle of water. I was also not prepared for the rigour of the route, thinking that it would literally be a walk in the park, but it ended up being a climb where I had to hold onto ledges above my head and hoist myself up, being on all fours to advance upwards because it got too hard to stand straight as it was too steep, and having to balance precariously on slippery or thin edges.

This time round, when I went back to Korea, it was 5 years since that experience, and I felt ready to climb again. Korea is a really mountainous country and hiking can be considered one of the national pastimes. Since I had begun exercising a little more since the start of 2015 and even took up rock-climbing (which had no effect on my hiking, as I would discover later), I figured why not give mountain climbing in Korea another go? To be exact, I was aiming for Bukhansan (836m).

It helped that my friends, CJ and Joy were completely on board with me on this. I think part of them wanted to burn off the calories that we were planning to consume while we were there. We did a little bit of research and found out that yes, while there were crazy high and difficult routes, we just needed to take the easier route and it wouldn’t be that difficult.

How very wrong I was.

We started our day bright and early (to avoid the sun and the crowds) and took Subway Line 3 down to Gupabal station. Once there, we exited via Exit #1 and came to a bus stop where there were dozens of colourfully-dress Ajummas and Ajusshis all ready to hike. There were also a couple of roadside stalls that sold hiking gear, (but don’t get your gear there, you will see why later). We could take either 70 or 34, which would take us to the vicinity of the gate of the Bukhansan National Park.

Along the route to the gate, you will pass by a few stalls selling food, drinks and hiking gear. Get your Kimbaps, Makkeoli (which is actually frozen so that it will be nice and cold by the time the hike ends), and whatever gear you need here, like caps. The Ajusshi I bought my cap from actually gave me a discount because I was his first customer for the day and he really wanted to make that first sale, y’know for good luck and all.

We then entered the park via the main entrance. We saw signs that were pointed towards Baegundae Peak, which was the peak we intended to head to, but we also bumped into another Ajusshi who told us that there was a shorter route and that it would only take about 2 hours each way. So we believed him, and took the route he pointed us in the direction of.

This is where I learnt a very important hiking lesson – a shorter route is not necessarily the easiest nor the best route. I think we reasoned that a shorter route equals lesser hiking agony. Nu-uh. A shorter route also meant that the route would be way steeper than expected.

The route started out pretty alright, with stairs and a couple of levelled slopes. We even had time for photos. Just look at our smiles.

Then, it started to get a lot rockier. We started having to take bigger steps, and more rests as the lactic began to build up in our thighs and calves.

I recalled reading on the blogs previously that the Baegundae Peak was a moderately-paced one and wouldn’t be too difficult for most people. Again, wrong. The climb to Baegundae Peak can be pretty alright, IF you are on the right route.

We were wondering just why it was so difficult when we came across a signboard halfway which basically told us we were on the advanced route. We were like omg, what?! By then it was too late to head down because of how far we had climbed.

Had to take a photo to commemorate how far we had come.

So we continued, albeit slowly. We started having to hold onto metal wires, grab onto trees to pull us up and climb on our fours (again).

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When we finally got to what we thought was Baegundae Peak, we were greeted with a sign that said 300m. Having already gone through 3km of inclined slopes, we thought that we could manage the remaining 300m.

This, my friends, is the start of the remaining 300m.

It is nothing but rocks on a sloped surface. Going up was fine by me, but the thought of having to go back down via the very same route (and possibly sliding off the surface of the rock) made me think for a while. CJ and I are deathly afraid of heights, so CJ opted to wait at the base of the 300m start point.

Me being stuck and thinking if I should continue, as I stared down at my unnis.

Me thinking again, what if I totally slide down this?!

Fearless Joy went on ahead. While I, torn between my fears and FOMO (fear of missing out), spent a good 15 minutes thinking about whether I should continue. In the end I decided to go ahead with it. Only because I had come so far and to give up before I reached the peak – what I came here for – would be such a waste.

Because I didn’t have Joy with me for emotional and physical support, and I was still shaking a little from the height, I started the 300m slowly. Soon, an elderly couple caught up with me and I told them to go ahead in front of me because I felt so bad for delaying them. But they wouldn’t let me! The lady got in front of me, stabilised herself and pulled me up when I came across slippery or steeper rocks, while her husband stood behind me, keeping a watchful eye and even occasionally offering his foot as a step if the rock was too slippery to step on.

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After about 15-20 minutes, we finally reached the summit where I finally met Joy and they offered to take a photo of both of us. I swear at that point of time I was really holding onto Joy for dear life!

We got our summit shots and then decided to make our way down. During this time, the elderly couple was STILL looking out for me. (What did I ever do to deserve such kindness!) They led the way and showed us how to descend in the most efficient manner. When we got down, we knew we had to take a photo with these lovely people!

We then gathered from the Ajusshis at the information station nearest to the Baegundae Peak that we were definitely on the more difficult route up, and while the route down wasn’t easy, at least it wasn’t going to be as tough.

And he was right. We came across a little pit stop on the way so we sat down and had our Kimbaps and Makkeoli (not too much though, we wanted to descend sober). While the route down was still pretty slippery to me – I slipped at least thrice and got cuts and bruises – but it definitely was no where near as steep nor difficult as the route we took up. When we got to the base, we realised that the easier trail starts from Baegundae Hiking Support Centre NOT Bukhansan National Park. Always remember this.

Once we finally stepped onto flat land, we saw a bus going towards civilisation but they had stated rather explicitly that hikers were not allowed, as the bus was only for temple-goers, so we contemplated walking down. Nonetheless some Ajumma just told us to hop on (I guess she saw how tired we were) so we hid at the back of the bus and tried to look like we just came from the temple. The key word here is TRIED. Obviously our sports gear gave us away, but our next strategy was to act like we didn’t speak Korean, which we thankfully didn’t have to use.

The shuttle bus took us to a little retro-looking bus interchange where I saw a bus that was going towards Suyu station. I had been to Suyu station a day before to check out the North Face climbing gym in the vicinity so I recognised the station. Off we went to Suyu, then to Hongdae, and back to our apartment.

Would I do it again? Maybe. At the end of my hike I remembered declaring to myself I would NEVER head back because of how tired I was. But now, a few months on, I think it was indeed a good challenge and if I had proper hiking shoes (which I neglected to bring previously because I had limited baggage) and enough training, I think I would attempt Buhaksan yet again. Next time, with lesser rest stops and perhaps more Makkeoli!

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