One of the things I was keen on doing in Seoul was to get out of Seoul. Not substantially, but enough to satisfy an idealised Zen-like image in my head of rugged mountains cloaked in forest with the occasional temple perched upon a rocky outcrop. The kind of scene you might expect to see on the front of a guide book, probably in the midst of a multicoloured autumn. A throwback to times past, to tradition, to a world before Samsung, M*A*S*H and Kim Jong-Un being weird across a border.
Thankfully I noticed the presence of Bukhansan National Park literally on the northern and western doorstep of Seoul. My guide book with idealised images told me you could reach here on the metro and offered a walk from one station to another, via winding trails, mountainous ridges and occasional temples. It also advised avoiding the weekends, because half of Seoul would be here.
So it was a Friday and unbeknown to me a public holiday. The train to Dobongsan was suspiciously bustling with people in sturdy shoes, sweat-proof tops and the kind of trousers with 12 pockets and 20 zips. From the station it was not at all difficult to find the park entrance – just follow the backpacked mass past more food stalls and stores selling outdoor adventure wear (should you decide you look conspicuously out of place in everyday shorts and a plain T shirt).
The stream of people continued along the first, generously wide and paved section of a trail, thinning slightly with the introduction of a junction. Before long, an incessant parade of steps appeared, the upward thrust causing pockets of walkers to pause and congregate in clusters for water, snack bars, some even breaking out a stove and cooking up a soupy concoction. Barring a handful of souls, almost everyone was Korean and I received the odd, surprised, what is he doing here look. One old guy offered me a boiled sweet in broken English, proclaiming them as the elixir to conquer Jaunbong. In our stilted conversation, he deduced that I was from Austria, noting his love of Mozart and possibly proclaiming the hills to be alive. For an Austrian, such climbing as it was here should be a breeze. For an Australian: faaaaaaahk.
There was no breeze and it was tough going…particularly given it was the day after I had arrived on a plane from England and then gorged on fried chicken. Some welcome respite came at Cheonchuksa, a small detour leading away from the upward procession and revealing a temple and its various ornaments snuggled into a cliff. Simultaneously serene and vivid, offering fresh water to refill bottles, to take a break, to tread briefly on level ground and tiptoe in a suitably reverential hush. I could have lingered and napped.
But apparently the path to enlightenment continues up and up, past increasingly frequent groups pausing for food and water, wiping sweating brows, recovering breath and looking somewhat abject. Eyes silently pleaded when would this end, how much more of this would there be? Signs that were once in Korean and English had reverted to Korean but I deduced there was something like a kilometre to the top. And it probably took an hour, but after that time a rocky crag appeared above the forest. Bedecked with yet more picnickers, convivial and relieved, catching hazy, smoggy views of the hills and occasional snatches of suburban apartment tower sprawl.
It was more like a series of mountaintops here, some reached via slick rock faces and chains, others by more sedate steps and switchbacks. In fact, there were paths leading off in any number of directions to various places unknown. The two information signs I could find were practically unfathomable and after an enthusiastic and accurate start my guidebook had given up the ghost. I’d like to say it was through rational deduction and decision-making that I made the right choice, but it was 90% luck and 10% checking the compass direction on my phone.
Beyond the top of Jaunbong the trail became blissfully less populous and delightfully more even. It broadly followed the Podaeneugsan ridgeline through a patchwork of fragrant shrubs and shady trees, pierced by a series of rocky platforms with more murky views to Seoul. In the lull between two of these outcrops, a path dropped down towards Mangwolsa Temple, where I finally found my nirvana.
The path to enlightenment is never easy and after a long slog upwards all day it was only when gravity was on my side that I fell completely ass over tit. A winding, gravelly descent was more competent than my footwear and I received a very nice caking of dust over one side of my body. No-one else was present to witness this event, something I was actually pleased about in terms of embarrassment management. It’s kind of like if a tree falls in a forest and if no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Unharmed and dusting myself off as best I could, a few more corners led to the reveal of Mangwolsa Temple. This was the kind of place I had imagined before coming to South Korea, the idealised image within forested mountains far from the madding crowd. Yes, for a guide book cover the sky could have been clearer, the foliage more autumnal. But this was pretty much exactly as I had imagined (making me wonder if somewhere, subconsciously, I had viewed such an image). Featuring a bonus water fountain in which to clean myself up and refresh, this pause, this retreat was worth the hike, including the looming, endless shin-jarring descent back into the confines of Seoul.