Seoul is a sprawling concrete jungle, renowned for marathon work weeks, crushing pressure in education and an unrelenting foundry of pop music and soap operas. But intertwined with this city of soaring aspirations are soaring mountains — nearly 40 of them — each unique and beautiful in its own way. Purled into the mountainsides are impressive webs of well-maintained trails, and it’s here that Korea celebrates one of its lesser-known but beloved pastimes: hiking.
Nearly one in three Koreans hikes on a monthly basis. Some consider it an “addiction”, with trailheads backlogged with hikers on weekends, the lot of them dressed in brightly-colored mountaineering gear. Just a few paces in, though, these same trails unfurl their offerings with a hush, a drastic departure from the city’s bustle. On a recent misty morning hike up Woo-Myun Sahn (Sleeping Cow Mountain), just behind the neighborhood of Bangbae in the Seocho district, we discovered a welcoming (and quite vertical) hike that revealed a multitude of sights we might not experience in the Tetons or the Adirondacks — the abrupt transition between a bustling municipality and the chorus of nature.
Dotted along the manicured trails (safe, yet natural) were open-air gyms where both the young and old exercised; farther in, brightly dressed hikers in bucket hats doggedly forged their way through sporadic showers, occasionally taking respite at the trail’s natural freshwater spring fountain; even deeper, there was the occasional remnant of a recent war, warning signs on a fence guarding a mine-riddled area (removed by the government in 2000). It would take nearly a week to explore this one mountain’s menu of trails, but summiting Woo-Myun offers a unique reward to those accustomed to natural vistas and endless landscapes: a soaring view of Seoul’s cityscape.