A hike along the Naksan Trail in Seoul reveals the city’s soul to Rebecca Ilham
THE rain seemed to have let up when my sister and I emerge from Hansung University subway station, but we cannot afford to let it damper our plan. So sharing an umbrella, we gingerly brave the heavy drizzle to Hyehwamun.
Hyehwamun is not our end destination, though. Instead, the auxiliary gate of Hanyangdoseong (Seoul City Wall) will be the starting point of a hike along the Naksan trail. No trip to Seoul is complete without a hike along its extensive city wall.
During my maiden visit more than a year prior, I went up the trail along Nam Mountain (Namsan), with the hard-to-miss, visible-from-any-part-of-the-city landmark — N Seoul Tower — as my intended destination.
The route is very popular among casual walkers. Even though I was hiking solo, I was rarely alone — the local ajumma (middle-aged women) and ajussi (middle-aged men) were out on their routine morning exercise, while foreign travellers scaled selected sections of the trail, particularly those near the Namsangol Hanok Village.
Setting off from Jangchung Park in front of Dongguk University, the leisurely snail’s pace that was frequently interspersed with stops to marvel at the crowded city took me two hours to reach the base of the tower. Yet, it was one of the best moments of the trip. A city within mountains, Seoul saves its best for the worthy ones.
Now that I am returning to the Far East pop culture mecca, one of my priorities is to emulate the experience. Yet, the rain is not the only thing that is against us that morning. In our excitement to be early birds, we forgot to check the gate’s opening hours. It turns out we are half an hour early.
If not for the rain, we would have walked around the quiet residential area and found a place to breakfast in, but as our shared umbrella is too small, there is no way we can hold up for long. Thus, we surrender to nature and vow to return.
THE HEAD TRAIL
Thankfully, the weather changes, for the better, two days later. We retrace our steps, and are glad to see the metal gate outside Hyehwamun is unchained. As an auxiliary gate of the city fortress, Hyehwamun lacks the grandeur of its main gate brothers, yet its traditional colourful wooden roof and square-block walls are no less imposing. Located to the northeast of Seoul, in its heyday Hyehwamun was an important control point for residents’ movement towards the north of the country.
Hyehwamun today is a reconstruction of its past structure which was reduced to rubbles during the Japanese colonial period to make way for a tram line. It was also rebuilt a little to the north of its original site. But for us, it’s still important — at least as a marker of the start of the Naksan Trail.
My sister and I descend to ground level again and make our way across the street to the elevated boardwalk that is the beginning of our highly anticipated adventure. It is past nine in the morning, and save for a mother hurrying her school-going son, the trail is ours. The head of the trail is relatively easy to climb, and we take our time admiring the remnants of the city wall on our right, and the greenery surrounding our chosen path. In no time at all, we are enveloped in the calm and serenity of the place.
If we were impressed then, it doesn’t prepare us for what awaits as the trail turns and forces us to go up a short, yet very steep incline. As soon as our feet reach the top, we turn around and are left breathless. The trees from the earlier part of the trail give way to low lying long grass, providing a clear view of the city below.
Even though I have seen similar views before, seeing thousands of tall, narrow, and closely clustered together apartment buildings with mountains on the background never fails to amaze me. Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is inhabited by 10 million residents.
After the interlude, we return our focus to scaling the trail. A young university student emerges from the opposite direction, and I wish him annyeong haseyo (hello). Korean values are based on Confucian teachings, hence he obligingly returns the greeting.
THE GATE (ONE OF THEM)
Our destination is Dongdaemun, or to be specific, the Heunginjimun, one of the wall’s main gates, which on paper is about an hour’s hike. In 1396, King Tae-jo, the founder of the Joseon dynasty, started a long-lasting legacy by ordering the construction of a stone fortress around the capital of his kingdom.
Familiarly known as hanyangdoseong or Seoul City Wall, the wall was originally 18.6 km long, connecting Seoul’s four inner mountains — Bugaksan, Namsan, Naksan and Inwangsan. Fires, neglect and intentional demolitions to make way for modernisation over the years has only left two-thirds of the original fortress intact.
For novice hikers such as ourselves, it is highly advisable to split tracing the whole ancient remnants into multiple days. The city wall trails are not very technical in nature; most of them are well paved, equipped with sturdy railings, well-marked and laid with layers of hay-like materials at slippery intervals for traction. Still, they are best savoured in moderation. By that, I mean both in pace and quantity.
Our pace drops significantly when we reach a recreational area at the top of the granite, mountain. Naksan, or nakta-san (camel mountain), which gets its name from its camel-hump like appearance, was gazetted as a park back in 2002 to preserve its natural landscape.
In support of this initiative, multiple facilities have been built to encourage visitors to enjoy the outdoors through recreational activities such as basketball court, badminton court, and a centre for senior citizens and viewing pavilions. The area is now referred to as Naksan Park.
The sun is out in full force, so apart from a sweep, we do not linger for long. Besides, just a short walk downhill awaits another highlight of the hike — Ihwa Mural Village. A village within the inner city wall, Ihwa was originally a slum and slated for demolition.
However, in 2006, it was brought back to life when artists were commissioned to paint murals on almost every surface of the village, turning it into a street art paradise. Both local and foreign visitors come in busloads, and the village is even a coveted film location.
My sister excitedly trots around, checking out various murals of landscapes, flora, animals and famous characters, and I am never far behind. We climb up some stairs, before climbing further down, tracking some famous murals, particularly one in the shape of widely spread white wings.
However, despite the colourful and interesting paintings, it is not hard to see that the houses, which are built very close to each other, are bare and a little rundown. The residents of this daldongne or moon village are of the working class, and now, most of them are senior citizens. Perhaps that could be the reason for the lack of refinements in the structure, design and care of the buildings.
We exit the inner city wall and continue our journey on the trail outside. The hard part of the climb is all behind us, as the route is now all about descent. Houses give way to trees once again, and realising that the end is near, we make sure our eyes absorb the greenery that will soon be replaced by urbanscape.
Even with carefully paced steps, it feels like the end does come too early. In no time at all, we arrive at Seoul City Wall Museum. Looming ahead is the ancient Heunginjimun, perfectly located in the middle of the roundabout of the busiest street in Dongdaemun. From the hill, we could make out the outline of Dongdaemun Design Plaza, the most futuristic-looking building in the country.
Contrasts are not alien in this city. Instead, they are in the air its residents breathe. The experience along the Naksan Trail is definitely different from my previous hike on Namsan, but it does not disappoint — once again, it reveals its inner Seoul to the worthy ones.