It’s interesting to see how cultures, across the world, mimic one another, in a bid to keep what-should-be-kept-out — outside. Fortress walls have proven to be a common feature of almost every citadel, fort, or palace complex we’ve visited. From the sandstone citadel walls of Rajasthan to the ginormous, ‘Great Wall of China‘; protecting territory, has and probably will be, the top priority of any ruling or governing power. And perhaps, it explains why, not much has changed since then or now.
Running across the ridges of four guardian mountains: Bugaksan, Namsan, Naksan, and Inwangsan; the Seoul Fortress Wall was built, during the reign of King Taejo, to protect the Royal Palace and the ancient city (present day Seoul) within. And while comparisons might be unavoidable, it isn’t really fair to compare the Great Wall of China with The Seoul Fortress Wall. Or you could find yourself thoroughly disappointed. The Fortress Wall’s biggest strength lies in its proximity to Seoul and vantage views of the city spread below. Reaching the highest point involves climbing a series of steep wooden or stone steps — depending on the trail you choose. But, it’s definitely worth every muscle (pulled) stretched, gulp of air craved, or step left behind.
On our last trip, in the month of August, we covered the trails along Namsan and Naksan. This time, we teamed up with Basil’s Korean ex-colleague, YJ and her Italian husband, Vito; to tackle the section of the wall along Bugaksan. YJ proved to be a valuable local resource, although, she was often mistaken for a guide with three foreigners. She helped make this hike possible by planning the trail, occasionally adding a snippet of history, and interpreting signboards or passerby conversations. There are three (probably multiple hidden) ways to cover the Bugaksan trail. While reading up, I realized, that we may have covered it backwards. But, it really doesn’t matter.
We met at Hansung University Station, exit 6, at around 9 am in the morning. After a quick cup of coffee, at Starbucks, we boarded bus no 1111, to get to the trail. We got off at the last stop and followed the arrows marked on pasted banners. The end of the paved road, leads towards a forest reserve above, with a well marked wooden walkway.
The ascent is gradual with more flat paths and fewer steps. The forest was alive with birds, furry squirrels, and bursts of blossoms. As we inched towards the top, we caught a glimpse of the wall running parallel to the wooden walkway. It took us 20 minutes to reach this point, quite possibly, because I slowed the group.
From this point (and many points before) the trail forks into multiple options. YJ asked a local for directions. If you’re traveling on your own, try sticking to the direction board pointing towards Sukjeongmun Information Centre — the starting point of the hike.
After walking for 5 more minutes, we reached the information centre. The Bugaksan trail is within close proximity of the Blue House (Cheongwadae) or the official residence of the President of South Korea. This trail was closed after a failed assassination attempt on the President in 1968 and was later reopened in 2007. Given its checkered past and sensitive location, this trail is a military zone and identification is mandatory for all hikers. Foreigners have to show their passports and locals can use valid government identification. After filling our forms and collecting our identity cards (and passports); it was time to begin the hike.
It is best to adhere to the rules here, as military guards will be present, at regular intervals, and will not hesitate from stopping you click unauthorized snaps or entering zones barring hikers.
After a 5 minute uphill climb, we reached Sukjeongmun Gate. From here, you could choose to explore Waryong Park or head toward Baegakmaru (342m) — the highest point of Bugaksan. Basil and Vito climbed the steps leading to apex of the gate. Whilst YJ made inquiries with the guard stationed, I chose to catch my breath and stretch my tired legs. Clearly, my fitness was not what I had expected it to be.
From there onwards, the trail to Baegakmaru runs parallel to the wall and the wooden steps change into restored stone steps. As you reach higher, the views of the city below, look more enchanting. It was nearing noon and was getting hotter. Some of the stone tiles below are loose and it might be a good idea to walk along the center of the walkway. Vito accidentally hurt his leg by stepping on the edge of a tile. An elderly hiker was equally taken by surprise when his foot hit the edge.
Hiking groups were swarming the wall. Koreans take their fitness very seriously and any doubts, would be squashed, by taking a look at the wide demography of hikers.
The last stretch leads towards a steep walkway, of stone steps, leading upwards. I knew there was no turning back and I put every effort in walking up. Fortunately, my problematic knee hadn’t decided to act up — just yet. On top, a small offshoot, leads towards the highest point of the summit. There’s a loose boulder, on which, most hikers choose to get their photos clicked. The view behind the rock is dizzying, but I had made it, despite my apprehensions, and so I climbed above.
The descending trail transforms into a steep, maze of wooden steps. For the first time, I had an idea of how high above we were. With the wide gaping space in front of me, hikers panting up and leaning on the support rail, I found myself facing my worst nightmare. The others were supportive and waited for me, Vito cracked jokes to boost my morale, and we made it to the Dolphin Rest Area.
After a break of 20 minutes we continued our descent downwards to reach Changuimun Gate. Most hikers choose to start their trail from here. A word of warning, although you might reach faster to the summit, the wooden steps are pretty steep.
Following Korean post-hike drinking tradition, we headed to Gwangjang Market, and raised our cups filled with Makgeolli (alcohol made from fermented rice/wheat) and ate Pajeon (green onion pancakes). Vito tried teaching Basil (recently acquired from YJ’s father) the Korean way of holding and serving with both palms of the hand. Gauging by the snap above, I’d say they were lost upon Basil.
1. Malbawi Shelter – Green bus 02, 08
2. Sukjeongmun Gate – Green bus 1111, 2112
3. Changeuimun Gate – Green bus 1020, 7022, 7212