Hiking Baegundae in Seoul, S. Korea

Baegundae mountain in the Bukhansan National Park in Seoul offers an incredible view of the city and the mountain range.  The hike also provides an excellent historical walk along the ancient wall that once protected Seoul from invaders.

Leslie and I decided on our last trip to Korea to attempt this hike.  We followed the advice of a fellow blogger and Korea traveler to take a bus to the Bukhansan Park entrance.  The tricky part was to figure out the bus system.  I generally avoid buses as a rule, because the last time I tried to figure out the RTD system in Denver, it felt like I was learning a foreign language.  Leslie and I even tried to take an RTD at 3am to the airport on our first trip to Korea for Edric’s adoption.  We arrived at the RTD station at 3am, only to discover that the station had been temporarily closed due to construction.  We then drove all the way to the airport so we wouldn’t miss our flight, and kindly asked Leslie’s parents to pick up our car later in the day so we wouldn’t get charged hundreds of dollars in parking fees. 

So now bus schedules tend to make me sleepy.

Still, we had to figure Seoul’s bus system out if we were to make it to Baegundae.  Tired and stressed from all the adoption messiness, Leslie delegated me with the task of working out the plan to get to Baegundae the night before our hike.  I don’t know very much Korean (I am learning), but I have at least learned how to read Hangul well enough to sound out words.  I downloaded a bus app that was written entirely in Hangul, and worked out which bus we needed.  I could even track it live through the app as it made its slow and steady way around the city.  We were to simply ride a few stations North on the subway and take the 3rd exit topside, and then get on Bus 704.  No problem. 

The next day, we rode the subway a few stations up, went topside at exit 3, and then watched as Bus 704 passed us on the street and, about a hundred yards later, pulled off at the little bus stop we hadn’t seen when we got to the top of the stairs.  We both took off running at full speed and hopped on the bus.  Breathing hard, we settled in and enjoyed a little ride around the city.

And the little ride became a longer ride.  And then longer.  And then Leslie asked me how many more stops we needed to make.  I checked my live-tracker app, counted the stops, and replied “fourty-two.”

“Huh,” she said from the seat in front of me. 

About eight stops later, Leslie said, “It looks like we’re headed to Seoul Station, which is in the middle of the city.  We needed to head North, out of the city, and it should have only been a few stops.  Are you sure we’re on the right bus?”

“The website said ride the subway, and then go topside on exit 3, and then take bus 704.”

“I thought it said Exit 1.  Let’s check again.”

Sure enough, she was right and I was wrong.  We got off at the next stop nearest to a subway station and then spent 45 minutes back-tracking to our starting station, where we exited the station at Exit 1 on the other side of the street.  The website said to take Metro Line number 3, and I guess I confused the Line with the Exit.

When we got to the top of the stairs, a vending stall had been set up that was selling, of all things, hiking gear and some kind of fried hot-dog thing.  By now we had shaken off our (read “my”) earlier mistake and were laughing at this sign that we were now obviously on the right track.

Just like here in the States where it’s fashionable to wear expensive clothing to the gym, in Korea, it’s fashionable to wear expensive hiking gear when hiking.  A whole crowd of walking REI ads stood near the bus station labeled “to Baegundae,” written in both Hangul and English.

As we approached one of these groups, I noticed a woman observing us.  She looked us over.  We were dressed for hiking (backpack filled with camera and snacks, water bottles, cold weather gear), but definitely not in the style that would fit in with this crowd.  One woman walking among us had her hiking poles, crampons, ski-goggles, balaclava, and gaiters.  Her backpack looked like it was packed for a five day trip to the Arctic circle.  I wondered what else she had packed it with, because most of her standard hiking gear was strapped to the outside.

Anyway, this other woman looks us over, and her eyes come to rest on Leslie’s shoes.  Leslie was wearing her trail-runners, and I had on an old pair of retired tennis shoes I had ran a half-marathon in a while back.  Her eyes opened wide in alarm, and then she motioned to the other two older men standing with her, and they looked at both our shoes as though we had committed some sort of horrible fashion faux-pas.  They proceeded to examine their own hiking boots, apparently pointing out to each other how superior their shoes were to ours.

At this point, and I write this with a tinge of guilt, my guard is down and I start to experience what can only be described as “tourist-arrogance” toward this little group of critics.  “Look lady,” I think to myself, “we’re from a little place called Ca-lorado.”  I have no idea why, but the voice in my head spoke with a Chicago accent, like Elwood from the Blues Brothers.  “We don’t need no stinking hiking boots unless we’re talking about anything more than a three-day.  If it weren’t 28 degrees outside right now, I’d be hiking this thing in sandals…  Sandals!

Out loud, I began to whisper little sarcasms to Leslie like, “Hey, did you remember to bring your crampons?”  and “I seem to have forgotten our ice-axes, I sure hope we’ll survive this.”  We chuckled together.  I laid on a few more thick sarcasms as the bus pulled in and soon we were away. 

We got off at the right station, and hiked up a residential road toward the Park entrance.  We got a little worried at one point wondering whether we were going the right way, but I was able to ask a park ranger in Korean where the mountain was located, and he pointed us ahead.  We finally found the park entrance, and were met with this:


That’s right.  If a fire engine had sprayed the trail and then let it ice over it couldn’t have been more slick.  All of a sudden, I felt very stupid.  I asked Leslie, this time with ever-sobering sincerity, if we could please go back to one of the outdoor retail stores we had seen on our way up the hill so I could buy a pair of crampons and maybe an ice-axe.  She said definitely not after I had already delayed us by sending us to the wrong bus station, and that I would just have to deal with it.  My head down in penance, we trekked on.

The ice continued.  About a mile and a half up the trail, I started swearing to myself that if I ever traveled to a foreign country and someone gave me a look of surprise and alarm at what I was wearing, I would henceforth take the warning seriously and reconsider my choice in attire before proceeding further.  Arrogant fool that I am.

The path grew icier as we climbed.  Even the rocks that weren’t covered in ice had been polished to a shine by countless other hiking boots.  Leslie’s shoes provided more traction than mine, which had been worn smooth by the half-marathon and all the training prior to it.  Thankfully, all the other wise Korean hikers had come prepared with actual crampons, and the teeth of their shoes crushed up the ice enough that I could get at least a little traction to stand upright and walk slowly.   We even received a few sympathetic looks and expressions from sufficiently-prepared hikers along the way.

What should have been for us a 2-hour hike turned into about 5 hours.  Handrails made of cable-wire had been installed along the rougher parts of the trail.  I found that I could use them almost like a climbing rope.  In fact, on the descending hike, in several places I would turn around backward and grip the cable at my side as though I was rappelling.  This made it easier and more likely that I would catch the wire before sliding to my death off the mountain (heh-heh).

We finally made it to the top.  I had one of those weird moments where I very honestly considered whether the view, though incredible, had actually been worth the cost of my life.  I was certain I would pay it on the descent, and while there were a few times that a slip of my foot and a tighter grip on the cable amped my heart-rate and made me thankful I have stayed in relatively good physical condition despite long bouts of inactivity in my life, in the end Leslie didn’t have to peel me off an icy rock when she got to the bottom, and we survived a beautiful day.

I’ll end with a few photos: