Every morning, for almost a month, I’d wake up to the view of a mountain trying to break away from towers of concrete. In a strange way, it reminded me of my own urge to escape concrete jungles and find a quiet spot – somewhere in a patch of green.
Four guardian mountains stand guard – watching over Seoul – protecting it from the outside. Perhaps, that’s why, it made sense to build a fortress wall along the ridges of the mountains, Baegak(Bugaksan), Naksan(Naktasan), Namsan(Mongmyeoksan), and Inwangsan. The wall dates as far back as 1396 and quite like the ‘Great Wall of China’, it’s primary purpose was to protect the city from invaders. There are four main trails (along the mountains) to explore and the trail to choose, depends on the level of difficulty and monuments you’d want to discover en-route. The fortress wall is scattered at sections and it’s possible to see a glimpse of it at popular heritage and tourist sites.
Not our first choice, we decided to go for the Naksan Mountain Trail . The plan was to start at Hyehwamun Gate, get a glimpse of Seoul city in the evening, explore Ihwa village, and end the trail at Heunginjimun Gate (Dongdaemun Gate). As with most of our trips, things didn’t work as we planned.
We took the subway to Hansung University Station and wandered the wrong way. After walking for 15 mins, in the wrong direction, we asked around and were pointed towards Hyehwamun Gate. Barring a description board and a sleeping guard, there was no sign of a fortress wall. Basil wasn’t having a good day with his directions and we missed the wall (tucked away in foliage across the road) and set-off walking in circles.
Once again, with the help of some helpful locals, we walked the streets to Hyehwa Station. Direction boards lead us through a maze of shouting youth into a quiet back alley. We’d already spent an hour without actually seeing the wall. Few direction boards and locals lead us towards Ihwa village.
The route to Ihwa village and Naksan Park is a steep curved climb. Locals seemed to walk gently, while I puffed away and secretly prayed for the ascent to end. At the apex of the hill, a road to the right leads to the village. We had to skip Ihwa village (known for its street graffiti) and thought of visiting another day.
We continued climbing up and reached Naksan Park. The park gets its name from the ridges of the mountain that resemble a camel’s undulating humps. Trails lead to different observation points in the park. The temperature dipped considerably here and the view of the city below is stunning. Pathways lead to park benches, observation decks, and open air gymnasiums. We were amazed to see elderly men and women walk the same walk up and have the energy to peddle a cycle.
After a small walk, we finally glimpsed the Seoul city wall. Couples and families, armed with their selfie stick, clicked away. We took a break, to breathe fresh air. Down below, a pathway ran parallel to the wall and lead towards to the the base of the mountain.
It’s possible to walk along the wall on its outer surface (exiting the park) as well as along the trails which run parallel within the park.
We exited the park and walked downhill, towards Dongdaemun Gate. The trail is pretty scenic, often interrupted by old houses, panoramic views of the city, and cherry trees. Groups of elderly women parked themselves on benches and chattered away. Not surprisingly, we came across exercise equipment at regular intervals.
We reached the base at 7 pm as the lights on Heunginjimun Gate were slowly turning on. We crossed the road and waited at a rooftop cafe, to watch Seoul plunge into darkness only to be lit up by light.
We’d been walking since 4 pm and strangely, didn’t want to head home yet. So we crossed the road and decided to walk along Cheonggyecheon, an underground path which runs parallel to the stream. Organisers shuttled around as models walked the runway. We walked away from the noise, for about half an hour, with breaks, before heading to the nearest subway station and finally calling it a night.