Before we moved to Seoul, I didn’t realise how undulating the terrain could get. It’s not surprising that the people living here — are incredible fit. Abandoned railway lines are converted into lengthy walking trails, exercise equipment can be found in every park or mountain trail, and almost every mountain path is connected by a series of cascading stairs. In 2014, the Seoul government inaugurated the Dulle-gil trails, to explore the best natural sights in the city. The Seoul Trail is a 157 Km walking trail, which runs across, around 12 mountain ranges and offers a closer look into Korean history.
Two months back, much before the temperatures began their steady rise, we decided to hike Mt. Achasan early in the morning. Most reviews of Achasan indicated a relatively easy hike — with excellent views of the River Han and Seoul city. Mt. Achasan also played a significant strategic role in Korean history during the Three Kingdom Era. We took subway line 5 to Achasan station. At 7 in the morning, the subway was reasonably packed with couples, excited hikers, and cyclists. It took us about an hour to get to the station. After exiting the subway (exit 2), we lost track of the signs and wasted about 20 minutes in figuring the route. Most boards pointed towards the Grand Children’s park. After walking in the the wrong direction and realigning our orientation, we kept an eye for the main signboards, and turned left into a narrow alley. In the distance, there was a towering patch of green, and we assumed it had to be Mt. Achasan. Few hikers had already completed their trail and were on their way down — putting all our doubts to rest. The walk uphill is pretty steep and takes you through a local school, street graffiti, and shops selling hiking gear.
It took us over 30 minutes to reach the main trail, factoring the time we lost figuring out the route to the the trail, and a pit stop to buy something to drink. We missed the old temple, in our hurry, and were happy to finally hit the wooded trail. As with most trails, if you’re not careful, chances are you’ll miss the hidden pathway. At regular intervals, signboards indicated alternate routes that could be explored. We decided to head straight and see where it took us. After 15 minutes of climbing wooden stairs, we meandered away from the stairs, and hit a patch of rocky terrain.
The silence of the pine woods was broken by an occasional bird call. It was hard to spot any bird species and yet, their presence was unshakeable. We were lucky to spot a red woodpecker (my best guess), but Basil wasn’t fast enough to capture it on camera. As we climbed higher, on the far right, Seoul city began to fade away. Elderly men continued their hike in quiet meditation, only to break it, to give us a surprised look.
As we climbed higher, we reached an Goguryeojeong Pavilion. We took a small break to eat our packed sandwiches and drink concentrated grape juice. The sun was out and the heat was beginning to sap us. From the base of the valley, on the left, we could see hikers climb up the rocky patch of mountain — appearing out of nowhere (last pic above). At the base of the pavilion, we could see children play and elderly ladies make good use of the exercise equipment. It was children’s day and was a declared public holiday. I was surprised to see the number of kids opt for a day of hiking.
The next leg of the trail, once again, took us through a wooded forest. We walked further and hit another patch of rocky mountain. It was getting hotter and as we climbed higher, sans tree cover, the rays felt sharper. On the opposite side, children and their parents were walking and playing with remote controlled cars.
At this height, the sweeping views of the city below were stunning. There are three designated viewing points on this part of the trail. We paused at every viewing point, ignoring the heat or sun and couldn’t believe how beautiful everything looked from up here.
The last stretch leading up to the summit of the mountain takes your through the mountain ridge — with a bird’s eye view of Seoul city — on either city. When we reached here, an elderly man looked at as, and happily congratulated us. We smiled back.
And that’s the beauty of the mountains. I don’t think it’s about showing how great you are, but more so, how much you can achieve, when you set your heart towards something. Mt. Achasan is a simple hike for the seasoned hiker, but when I saw hikers, the age of my parents, hike solo or with a partner, with a steely grit; all I could think of is: it isn’t about how fit you are or how many miles you’ve walked, but how much you could take back with you. A walk in the woods, on a mountain ridge, isn’t very different from setting on a spiritual journey of hope and inner strength. And I could see why so many elderly people chose to set on this trail — in quiet contemplation.
We continued our hike and the further we walked, we came across the old ruins of Fort No 4. Joining ahead was the Seoul Trail that lead to Mt. Yongmasan. I was tempted to continue, but the heat was starting to get to me. I was’t sure if I could complete the trail and didn’t want to take a chance with my knee — which was behaving excellently. We’d have to revisit the trail on another day. We knew we’d be back in two months.
We retraced our paths along the stony road, through the mountain ridge, and back to the rocky patch. As we walked down, I became aware of the height, we were at, and suddenly felt a little light headed. Up ahead, two men, partially paralysed on the left half of their body, walked down the same rocky path with the support of a stick and rare tenacity. It’s hard for me to write what I felt at that moment. I was overcome by emotion and admiration. Here I was, able-bodied and afraid, and right in front of me, were two inspirational men who didn’t care much for their condition and descended with conviction — than disability. That’s what amazes me about the human spirit and the will to survive and win against the odds.
On our way back, we got a bit lost in the woods, and then found ourselves on another path of stairs leading towards Achasan Ecological Park. Another trail lead to a fortress, but I was too tired to explore. We walked down a flight of steps, often bumping into hikers, starting their hike from the park entrance. I was happy to have completed yet another hike, without really feeling significantly drained or down with a painful knee.
We had a half a day left and we walked aimlessly in the park.
Looks like I reached the limit of my word count. I’ll have to continue the rest of our walk in my next post…