There are many things I love about Korea. Undoubtedly, mountains top the list of my favourites. Unlike walking, hiking has never been easy for me. Often, I’ve let my fear of heights get the better of me and have given in to defeat without a honest fight. And that’s why, I admire those rocky peaks — fiercely competing — with Seoul’s jagged concrete skyline. It’s possible to be one with them and try to touch the sky, whilst keeping your feet, firmly on the ground. The path may look simple, almost too easy, but requires a sizeable amount of fitness to continue your ascent to the summit. And fortunately, there will always be a path to suit your fitness level; a smooth paved road, a rocky outcrop, or a sharp ascent of cascading steps. And if you really don’t feel like the effort, in rare cases, a cable car.
Myeondong is one of the most popular streets for shopping and street food in Seoul. By evening, swarms of tourists walk in unison, sampling food or mobbing clothing malls. Over lazy weekends, we head to Myeongdong, to do nothing. We’d probably walk around, sit in a coffee shop, and indulge in people watching from the window. On our last trip, two months back, on one such weekend, we thought of doing just that. Basil convinced me to walk toward Namsan Park instead. A small detour from Exit 3 of Myeongdong Subway Station (look out for the local 7 eleven), leads you to a narrow winding path, away from the noise of the main street. On either side, restaurants compete for your attention, and honestly, it is hard to stay focussed on the road. Few tourists opt for this path and that makes waking along this street all the more enjoyable.
Seoul Comics Street
There was a little huffing, maybe some panting, with the day turning out to be warmer then expected. We passed cute figures of anime and street graffiti. At the end of the road, a left turn leads you towards Seoul Comics Road. We walked a little further and reached the main road which leads to Namsan Park. Tour buses and private vehicles add to the chaos of this road and it’s wise to be careful while crossing. Across the street, the Seoul Animation Centre had just closed. We poked in for a bit and continued walking towards Namsan Park.
Roses dotted green vines along the towering stone walls running parallel to the road. On the other side, coffee shops peppered the air with a whiff of a strong brew and local diners competed with the aroma of marinated meat.
The Hidden Trail
Most tourists prefer to head towards N Seoul Tower for panoramic views of Seoul city. We had already visited the N Seoul Tower, last August. I wanted some quiet and a spot away from the crowd. So, we chose the first marked trail (keep your eyes peeled for signboards), a hidden pathway of stairs, leading away from the confusion of the main road.
During the month of May, flowers were in full bloom, and the pathway was almost hidden under a canopy of drooping leaves. Without tourists or even locals, this hidden pathway was a peaceful retreat from the chaos that surrounded the mountain.
Along our path, to the right, a shrine rested in the silence of the evening. Few more wooden stairs later and a sharp turn through the mesh of green, united us with a paved road. Waryongmyo Shrine, a shrine dedicated to Zhuge Liang, a statesman and military strategist from Shu China, lay empty to the right of the paved road.
Discovering hidden trails like these are worth the effort. Clear of tourists, locals walked or jogged along the path, as if, it were their daily routine. Could a city ever be so close to nature? Water gurgled along stony pebbles on one side of the paved path and magpies noisily flew in the thick of the woods below. In the distance, Seoul city seemed like a long long way from here. The sun was sinking behind the grey jagged lines in the distance. We tried to trace the route we had walked up. We continued further, occasionally, meeting the glance of a surprised local.
Signboards indicated multiple paths leading to N Seoul Tower or Namsangol Hanok Village. It was nearing sunset and we chose to end our trail and exit the park and explore the village. In the distance, we could see the pathway disappear under a thick canopy of dense vegetation. We’d have to return — to explore — what’s on the other side.
Tunnel of Sounds
A steep winding road lead us towards the main street below. The whirr of speeding cars and buzz of people ambushed us again. Signboards began to get iffy here and we walked on instinct. Up ahead, the tunnel of sounds looked like an interesting path. Here’s the thing with places like these, when no one’s looking, you take your best shot at acting like a kid. So, Basil and I called out, and patiently waited for an echo to follow. We were met with moderate success. At the end of the tunnel, a board gave a brief description of the significance of the tunnel. The tunnel is constructed from rocks, originating from 8 different provinces of Korea and is a reminder of the countries bitter past.
Upon exiting the tunnel, we walked over a small bridge. We spotted a foreign couple emerging from the other side and blindly retraced their path. The old village would have to be on the other side, we reasoned. My legs were beginning to show sign of fatigue, but Basil seemed to be in high spirits. Following signboards (hard to find), we entered the village from the side of the manicured gardens. Daylight was fading quickly and most tourists had wandered away, leaving the old village eerily deserted. A signage pointed toward the Time Capsule. We followed a curved stony pathway leading into an underground basement. Artificial lights had taken over and the atmosphere felt strangely creepy. Etched on three plaques, was a declaration. To commemorate 600 years of Seoul being the capital of Korea, a Time Capsule containing 600 articles of Korean culture was buried in 1994, only to be re-opened in 2394.
Namsangol Hanok Village
Namsangol Hanok Village gets its name from the Mt. Namsan. We were late to join the festivities of the day and most of the stalls were closed and soon enough — doors would be closed. We wandered aimlessly. This village seemed more touristy if you’d compare it with Bukchon Hanok Village. We were mildly disappointed, but tried wandering through the maze of wooden doors. Lanterns adorned a string on the rooftop and the moon gently crept in the far distance of the night sky.
Tired, hungry, and with worn-out feet; we exited the Hanok area and headed towards the main entrance of the village. A schematic map displayed the prominent areas of the village. As we tried to find our way to the nearest subway station, we came across a street art festival; instead we opted out. It was time to end a rather long walk.