Hiking Bukhansan; Seoul’s Highest Mountain

Adventure Travel, Korea, Travel, Trekking & Hiking

Though Seoul is more famous for its nightlife and culinary scene, this urban oasis is actually an incredible city for outdoor lovers. The city is ringed by mountains, with smaller hills popping up in almost every neighborhood. And every hill and mountain, no matter how tall or small, is covered in hiking trails. Though I lived in Seoul for nearly a year and a half, I still didn’t make it to the top of every peak. But one peak that I did manage to hike more than a few times was Bukhansan, Seoul’s tallest mountain.

Even after living in Seoul for nearly a year and a half, I still didn’t make it to the top of every peak. But one peak that I did manage to hike more than a few times was Bukhansan, Seoul’s tallest mountain.

View from Bukhansan

Bukhansan, located at the northern edge of Seoul, is both a national park and a mountain with three main peaks. The park has many different access points and mountains worth climbing, but in this post, I’m going to explain how to hike to the top of Bukhansan Mountain, the challenging Baegundae Peak. It’s a fairly tough 4km climb up, with several options for hiking back down.

How to Get to Bukhansan Mountain

Seoul has one of the best public transportation systems in the world, so getting to Bukhansan mountain is incredibly easy. From anywhere in the city, just get on the subway line 3 and take it all the way to Gupabal station. Take exit 1 then head to the bus stop just behind the exit. Take either bus 704 or bus 34 to the Bukhansan National Park stop.

If you’re confused, just follow the pack of older Koreans in brightly colored hiking gear. They know where to go.

hiking bukhansan trail markers

Get off the bus at Bukhansan National Park and follow the crowds up the hill towards the Ranger station. From there, you have access to several hiking trails that head up towards Baegundae Peak. Helpful signs point the way. I took the 4km trail, which follows a really nice river up the mountain.

Hiking Bukhansan Mountain to Baegundae Peak

The trail begins slowly. It follows a rather beautiful river as it tumbles down large rocks from the pine-covered peaks rising above you. After a short while, you’ll come to a road and a sort of open space. Keep walking around to the left to stay on the path for Baegundae peak.

Bukhansan Mountain Trail

After about 1.5km of walking, you’ll come to another fork in the path with two options for heading up to Baegundae. I chose to take the shorter of the two routes, heading towards Wonhyobong Peak. Further up, the trail splits again, one heading to Wonhyobong, and another (our track) heading directly towards Baegundae.

Climbing Bukhansan Mountain

You’ll pass a gate to a temple with Korean carvings all around. You can walk through the gate to visit the temple, but the trail to Baegundae continues up to the right. Not too long after that, you’ll come to the final fork and path to the peak.

Final Push up to Baegundae, Seoul’s Highest Point

The final half kilometer up to the peak of Bukhansan is classic Korean hiking at its finest. The trail, if you can call it that, cuts straight up the granite boulders. In some places, posts and metal rails are there to assist you in climbing. Cling onto these as you haul yourself bodily up the side of the mountain. Don’t forget to look up! Hikers will be descending by these same metal ropes, so be aware and try your best to avoid collisions.

Hiking in Korea

After some sweaty pulling and climbing, you’ll reach the top of the peak. You’ll know it’s the top because a) the trail stops and b) there is a Korean flag jutting proudly from the rock.

From the peak, you’ll get a great view of Insubong and Mangyeongdae, the two nearby, but slightly lower, peaks of Bukhansan. Mangyeongdae is covered in rocks and trees and the stairs leading up to it should be visible. Insubong is a smooth granite peak jutting up from the forest below. This peak is only reachable via rock climbing. On most pleasant days, you should see a few intrepid climbers scaling her steep sides.

Insubong Peak Bukhansan

Baegundae Peak has plenty of smooth, flat spaces to stretch out for some well-earned rest. Not a bad idea to bring up some food and have a picnic alongside the Koreans. Just be careful how much Makkeolli you drink. You still have to get back down off the mountain.

View from Baegundae Peak

Hiking Back Down Bukhansan to Seoul

For the hike back down, you have essentially three options: go back the way you came (boring but quick), continue on the path to Mangyeongdae and then back to your starting point (rather long and challenging but also quite beautiful), or go down the other side of the mountain to the Baegundae Information Center.

Bukhansan trail markers

I chose to go down to the Baegundae Information Center, as the sign said it was only 1.6km away and I was out of water. It was a mistake and I don’t recommend taking this trail down unless you’ve got plenty of time on your hands and love exploring every last nook and cranny of Seoul.

The trail heads down steeply from the peak until you reach the Baek-Woon Mountain Hut. This is a sort of traditional Korean house that has been built and re-built over the years. Today, it serves as a shelter and a small shop where you can buy water, drinks, some candy bars, and perhaps some soup or kimchi. It also marks the starting point for the ascent of Insubong (I think).

Mountain House Bukhansan

From there, the trail continues downhill more gradually. Stone stairs feature prominently in the descent. After a short time, you’ll come to the Baegundae Information Center, characterized by a large parking lot and coffee shop.

Insubong Peak Bukhansan

But lest you think you’re back into the city, you are not. No, from there it is a further 2km walk down a paved road with wooden sidewalk until you reach a bus stop. In my opinion, there are far more scenic ways to get off of Bukhansan Mountain. I really don’t recommend taking the Baegundae Information Center route.

Baegundae Information Center

If you do end up down here, just follow the road off the mountain until you come to town, then continue until you reach the main road. When I was there in September 2017, they looked to be building a new subway line but it was not yet operational. When it does become operational, the stop will be called Ui Bukhansan.

Seoul Streets near Bukhansan

For now, I hopped on the 120 bus and took it to Suyu station and back into central Seoul.


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Hiking Bukhansan; Seoul's Tallest Mountain: a complete guide for how to get to Bukhansan and How to Hike Bukhansan, the tallest mountain in Seoul, South Korea Hiking Bukhansan; Seoul's Tallest Mountain: a complete guide for how to get to Bukhansan and How to Hike Bukhansan, the tallest mountain in Seoul, South Korea

Hiking Seoraksan National Park

Adventure Travel, Korea, Travel, Uncategorized

I had been hearing about hiking in Seoraksan National Park place since I got to Korea in July, 2013.  Of course, I wanted to make it out there before winter hit.

Seoraksan is the highest mountain in the Taebek mountain range, and the third highest mountain in all of South Korea. Located only 2 to 3 hours from Seoul without traffic, Seoraksan National Park is a really popular place to see autumn foliage in Korea, as I learned the hard way.

The most popular route through Seoraksan is to climb the tallest peak in the park, Daechongbong Peak, rising to 1,708m (5,603ft). However, this route takes 2 days, and since I hadn’t gotten organized to do this, I went with a big group of ex-pats and Koreans to hike the easier, one day route. We started hiking at about 10:30am and finishing around 5pm.

But we were not alone.

lots of koreans

I kid you not, I have never seen so many Koreans hiking at the same time. It was beyond ridiculous but made for a very amusing day.

Near the top we were all crammed onto a wooden platform. On a normal day this platform is probably a great place to take in the view. On this day, it was a great place to feel like livestock.

koreans on platform

Myself and a few other people from the group decided to take a “quick” (read: 30 minutes) detour to the top peak of this hike. The view from up there was truly incredible. But all the views all day were breathtaking.

koreans stopgo

Hiking down we encountered the most traffic. It was literally stop and go on these stairs on the way down. The traffic was caused by places in the trail that were slightly perilous and so only one person could walk through it at a time. Again, on a normal day this would not be a problem. But when most of the population of Korea is on the mountain, it caused some traffic.

foliage

But why, you may ask, was the entire population hiking Seoraksan National Park on this particular weekend?

This weekend was supposed to be the best for fall foliage in Seoraksan. And once we’d made it up and over the pass the foliage started to show itself and let me tell you, it was worth it.

foliage2

I was born and raised in New England and as such I am no stranger to Autumn. In fact, it is my favorite season. But I’ve spent the last 5 years living in Los Angeles in perpetual Summer. This weekend for me was almost like a rebirth experience. Being in among the fall leaves, smelling crisp autumn air and watching the colorful leaves blow in the wind was cathartic on so many levels. I spent a good hour walking by myself along the canyon taking pictures of leaves and feeling so spiritually connected with the Earth. It was beautiful.

view2

The end of the hike was an absolutely stunning walk along a stream at the bottom of a canyon. Gorgeous foliage. Gorgeous views. And thankfully no traffic.

food1

Afterwards we all went to a restaurant to drink beer and eat dinner.

Foods

A selection of “banchan” the traditional small plates that accompany every meal in Korea.

Then we piled back onto the bus to sit in traffic for 5 hours back to Seoul. I slept for 2 of them and spent the other 3 hours watching the Korean countryside go by. It was nighttime so the views weren’t that great but it was a nice chance to think.

So that is my update on my life here in Korea. Every weekend is different from the last. I am always excited, always experiencing new things. All in all, I think I’m overcoming the culture shock. I am less enamored with everything I see, but overall much happier. I feel like I am myself again, just myself living in Korea. This is going to be a great year, and at this point I’m starting to understand why people would stay for a second one…

me on mountain

Love you all!

four stages of culture shock in korea

The 4 Stages of Culture Shock and My First Experience

Adventure Travel, Expat Life, Korea, Uncategorized

If you move abroad, whether to study or to work, culture shock will happen to you. You’ll probably experience all four stages at some point during your transition. But it doesn’t have to ruin your time abroad.

The key to surviving culture shock is being aware. Read articles like this one. Familiarize yourself with the process. You won’t be able to avoid it completely, but at least you’ll understand what’s going on when you burst into tears while waiting for the bus at 11am on a regular Monday.

The 4 Stages of Culture Shock

Honeymoon

You’re new to the country. Everything is fresh and exciting. Each new day holds another adventure to be had. You’ll feel like you were meant to move to this country and you couldn’t possible have any trouble adjusting.

Rejection

 

Aspects of the new country that were fun and exciting begin to feel irritating. Small inconveniences become major issues. You buy body wash instead of moisturizer for the 3rd time and cry in your shower. Homesickness starts to kick in. You may idealize your home country and miss it intensely.

Adjustment

Those feelings of frustration at your host country start to happen less frequently. You begin to find aspects of life in the new country interesting and enjoyable. You can read social cues. You may start to understand the new language somewhat better.

Adaptation

You start to feel stable and relaxed in your new country. You enjoy certain aspects of it, are still frustrated by others but are not overly emotional about it anymore. In short, that foreign land has become home.

You don’t have to take my word for it, aside from my lived experience, I doubled checked with some fine scholars over at Princeton and they agree, culture shock comes in stages.

Like everything having to do with the human psyche, culture shock isn’t a straightforward process. You’re not going to progress neatly from one stage to the next. Everyone is different, and everyone experiences culture shock differently.

The line between each stage will blend. One day you may get irrationally frustrated at a bus for being 2 minutes late, the next day you might be shopping in the local fruit market with no problems at all. It isn’t a cut and dry process, and your experience of it will be unique.

How Long Does Culture Shock Last?

Expect to go through culture shock for at least six months to one full year. It depends on who you are as a person, your past experiences, whether this is your first time living abroad, or your fifth, and much more. The only thing you can know for sure is this: you will experience it.

The best thing you can do is acknowledge your feelings. Don’t try to pretend that culture shock isn’t happening to you. It is. The sooner you become aware of the process, the quicker you can move through it and start developing coping mechanisms.

Though I’ve experienced some level of cultural adjustment each time I move to a new country, the most dramatic and painful was certainly the very first time, when I moved to Seoul, South Korea.

Teaching English in South Korea

Teaching English in Korea: My Culture Shock Story

I moved in South Korea in July of 2012. As you might expect, at first I was enamored with my new home country. The simple notion that I was in Asia filled me with childlike wonder.

One of my favorite things to do when I first moved to Seoul was to go for hikes. As an ESL teacher at an afterschool Hagwon, I didn’t start work until 3pm. My mornings and lunchtime were free, and there were mountains throughout Seoul for me to explore.

I’d be walking through the forest, listening to the cicadas, and the simple thought that “I’m in Asia right now” would cross my mind and take my breath away. I’d stand still in the middle of the trail just absorbing the impact of it.

I was on the other side of the planet, living in a city I’d only ever dreamed of before. I lived in South Korea. Wow.

This glowing pleasure in the strangeness of my new home continued for several months. I would sit on the subway and gaze around me, enamored with everyone and everything. I eagerly pursued new flavors, new smells, and new sights. I drank it all in.

And yes, I thought I was adjusting with no problems at all.

At the end of September, after I’d been living in Seoul for two months, I had a visit from a friend from home. He came and stayed with me for two weeks, exploring the country and sharing in my sense of awe. We hiked, we ate (a lot!), and we partied. It was an excellent two weeks, but everything ends.

Mere moments after we said goodbye my mood took a nosedive. I felt sad and lonely. And for the first time since my arrival, Korea felt unbearably foreign.

Not wanting to let the homesickness get to me, I set off for my local hike, a short trail up to the top of a hill and back down. Probably a two hour walk total.

The trail to the summit wound through the forest at the base of the mountain before ascending sharply top the peak via a steep set of stairs. As I jogged up the steps, my mind focused on my breathing, I thought about nothing except the push to the top. My mood leveled off the more distracted I became.

From the summit, my descent was much like the ascent, I was focused on not tripping and falling down the steep stairs, my mind devoted to the act of balancing.

Then everything changed.

Triggered by absolutely nothing at all, I burst into tears. Anguished thoughts and uncontrollable emotions burst out of me. I missed my home. I missed my friends in Los Angeles. I didn’t want to go to work tomorrow.

So there I was, walking down the side of a mountain, in bright sunshine, beneath leafy trees, sobbing my eyes out.

The difficulty of life in Korea smashed into me. I needed a haircut, but I couldn’t speak the necessary Korean to call and make an appointment. I wanted to buy some new furniture and accessories for my apartment but I had no idea where to find them.

I had purchased a bottle of what I thought was moisturizer, only to discover once I got home that it was a massive bottle of body wash. I already owned a massive bottle of body wash. Now I had two. And no moisturizer.

I rushed home to my apartment and threw myself into bed. Filled with homesick, I reached out to my friends at home the only way I knew how, I posted a sad cry for help to my facebook wall:

“I try not to post negativity on my facebook but this has been a tough week. I’m two months into life in Korea and while it is awesome and amazing and I’m making great friends and having crazy experiences, I also miss everyone in America and today, I would really like a hug.”

The response from my friends was overwhelmingly positive. For a few moments at least I was safe in the knowledge that I had friends who loved me. ONly, they were thousands of miles away.

Lonely, isolated, and sad, I knew I needed a gameplan to get over this. I needed a reason to leave my apartment and build a life for myself in Seoul.

Royal Palace Seoul South Korea

Overcoming the Shock

I googled “English Language Yoga Classes in Seoul” and found Celebrity Yoga, a Bikram yoga studio in the Gangnam district of Seoul. The next day I was there taking my first class. It was unbelievably difficult. I had taken a few yoga classes in high school with my mom but I had no concept of Bikram yoga, no idea what I was in for.

For the uninitiated, Bikram yoga is 90 minutes of holding difficult yoga poses for an extended period of time in a room that often exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

My first session was hot, hard, and sweaty; and exactly what I needed. I had found something to focus my energy on, something that made me feel healthier, gave me a goal to work towards and was a fun way to spend my mornings. Especially now that winter was looming and my weekly hikes were going to be put on hold.

Did the yoga classes fix everything? No. Of course I still felt angry at Korea for things I deemed “stupid”. I still got annoyed when Koreans bumped into me, or pushed in front of me to get on the train first. I still got frustrated and longed to hear people speak English. I still spent weekends in the foreigner neighborhood simply because I needed a break from Korea.

But the yoga classes were the first in a long list of coping mechanisms that I adopted to process my new life in Korea. Over time, as I found more things that made me happy, I learned to fixate less on the things about Korea that annoyed me, and adapt more to the parts of it that I enjoyed.

I made a group of friends. On the weekends, we took trips around the country, exploring waterfalls, beachside towns, and climbing mountains. The rest of the time, we adventured around Seoul, which many times boiled down to just finding the new, hippest spot to drink soju and beer.

Eventually I progressed towards the fourth stage of culture shock, I started to adapt and feel comfortable in Seoul. I had my bus routes, my subway station, my friends, and my life there. When it came time for my one year teaching contract to end, I extended it for a further three months.

Culture Shock Comes in Stages, But You’ll Survive

The moral of my story is not to scare you away from moving abroad. I would firmly encourage anything thinking about studying or living abroad to go for it! It was the best decision I ever made. But you will experience culture shock and it will be a challenge.

In an upcoming post, I’ll cover some of the coping mechanisms I used to overcome my culture shock, and at least make the 4 stages more bearable.


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The 4 Stages of Culture Shock hit everyone who moves or studies abroad in a foreign country.