Japan and South Korea share numerous things in common - among them: nameless streets, a tendency of co-workers to go out with each other after work for drinks, students studying ridiculous hours to prepare for university entrance exams, and cuisines typically unfriendly for vegetarians.
And another thing: excellent hiking opportunities near their capitals. While Tokyo offers Mount Fuji, those in Seoul can satisfy their hiking urges at Bukhansan National Park - home of Dobongsan. Unlike Mount Fuji, which can take at least an hour and a half to reach from the center of Tokyo, Bukhansan is easily accessible from downtown Seoul via lines one and seven on the Seoul Metropolitan Subway. After going through the gate at Dobongsan Station and making a right, only the street (in which bus stops are located in the middle) separate you from joining the crowd of hikers.
But before reaching the entrance of Bukhansan, a dirt road (then a paved road) takes you through a market. Numerous cafes and restaurants flank that path, but the most striking aspect of the short walk to the park entrance is the quantity of hiking equipment stores. After crossing the street exiting Dobongsan Station, one such store immediately greets you. Hiking boots, sticks, and other mountain suitable clothing is available. If you get off Dobongsan Station unprepared for hiking and you find one outdoor equipment store's goods aren't to you liking, don't despair. Lafuma, Montbell, the North Face, and Millet (among others) are there to rip off... er, help those looking for better equipment.
As for the actual hike, after crossing the information office, two diverging paths emerge - the one going left heads to a mountain named Uiam. The one going straight leads to Dobongsan, the summit which is roughly three kilometers away. Despite arriving at Bukansan equipped with a Lonely Planet guide containing information about the place, I purposely don't know too much about the park so I can learn about it through my own eyes during the hike. I'm thinking that reaching the summit shouldn't be too difficult. I'm in shape, having completed the Tokyo Marathon 24 days prior. I've previously climbed Mount Fuji and Mount Gassan, Yamagata Prefecture's highest mountain. This hike doesn't worry me as Dobongsan doesn't have an international reputation as being intimidating.
Sure enough, the hike is very simple at the beginning. The weather is so warm I'm lead to remove my sweatshirt and put it around my waist. Shortly after I pass a saxophonist, the smooth, paved path becomes slightly rocky, but no difficulties have arisen. At times, the path upwards curves like a snake but the way to the summit still seems pretty clear-cut. Unlike some touristy mountains, there are no distractions such as restaurants or shops. The other hikers I see making up their way up to Dobongsan all seem to be in their fifties or older. There are a group of school children near the Buddhist temple Gwangnyunsa but they're likely on a school trip.
One of those older hikers approaches me after I pass a shelter named Dobongdaepiso. The man - wearing a purple wool coat and red hat with an Edelweiss on it - asks me where my final destination is. I tell him it's Dobongsan, so he then draws a map in my journal. I'm roughly eight minutes from a mountain rescue police hut at that point. After passing the hut, going straight will take me to another hut (maybe). And then, a rock will greet me. Or if it isn't a rock he drew, it's a hexagon with a circle in the middle. At that rock/hexagon, turn left and the peak will eventually emerge.
I'm thankful that the man took the time to draw the map although I really don't need it because there's a map in my Lonely Planet guide. His map is accurate as shortly thereafter, I pass the police rescue hut. I'm still on the right path as signs pointing to Dobongsan occasionally appear. There seemingly should be no hiccups on the way.
Until the huge rocks appears. Up to that point, the path to Dobongsan appears to be straightforward. But the rock - out in the open as it's not surrounded by trees - represents a dead end. In a best case scenario, it's a rest stop before the descent down. On a beautiful day, the city skyline and the mountains overlooking the city are to be admired. At the big rock, I see a few other hikers taking a short rest before admitting defeat.
Or are they? I see hikers climbing upwards past the big rock so they have obviously found something. And besides, the big rock is definitely not the summit. As there seems to be no path upwards behind the big rock (which can't be jumped or climbed over), possibly the only way forward is to take a step backwards. So I decide to go back down the gully. Fortunately, the ridgeline leading hikers to the summit appears. I breathe a big sigh of relief.
But any thought of the worst being in the rearview mirror is completely misguided. The top of the ridgeline features more rocks - none of them as big as the rock that almost sent me back to Dobongsan station, but these rocks can't simply be walked on. The only way to reach the summit is to grab the ropes that guide you upwards. It's dangerous as one misstep could spell injury - or worse. The ridgeline also narrows so much that it's not possible for hikers going in opposite directions proceed at the same time.
Since being momentarily stopped by the big rock, the thought of calling it a hike is popping has popped into my head for several reasons. First, I'm on vacation, and I don't need to do anything nerve-wracking. Second, I've already climbed a fair distance and gotten in a good workout. Third and perhaps most importantly, I have acrophobia. That has prevented me from enjoying snowboarding and downhill skiing, but oddly enough, a fear of heights hasn't prevented me from hiking several mountains. But the higher I climb Dobongsan, the faster my heart beats as my nerves grow.
But I push on - motivated by the fact the distance to the summit is dropping. Oddly enough at one point less than a half kilometer from the peak, I see trinkets of snow on this beautiful day weather-wise. After the ropes portion of the hike, the path doesn't revert to being a straight incline but the rocks are laid out well enough that if you concentrate on your path, the summit will beckon.
Eventually, the sign says 0.3 km to Dobongsan. But within a few meters of that sign, an information board about Dobongsan (all in Korean) appears. I join the several nearby hikers relaxing and admiring the Seoul skyline. While we're not looking down at the center of the city, we see a maze of highways encircling tan apartment buildings (that look much better from afar than from the inside of a nearby subway train) standing like dominoes. But that's not the most impressive sight. While on the top of one mountain, your eyes behold more mountains overlooking a beaming city of more than ten million. It's a perfect time to relax and gather your thoughts...
Before you ask yourself, How the hell do I get back down?