Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Hiking and "Eye Shopping" in Seoul - Inwangsan and Insadong

On the first Sunday of April we decided to take a little hiking trip to Seoul. It was a pretty mild day considering how early in the year it was still (it takes a long time for Winter to recede here in South Korea and the comfortable, pretty Spring season is unfortunately way too short). There are a lot of mountains to hike in Seoul just as there are in the rest of the country (hiking is one of the great Korean passions) but the main place that people visit to get their hiking fix is Bukhansan National Park on the Northern edge of Seoul. We, however, decided to avoid the hordes of tourists and walking-pole wielding, visor-clad ajummas (older married Korean woman) by going to a much quieter (and smaller) mountain called Inwangsan to see the Shamanist shrine, part of the old Seoul Fortress Wall and small Buddhist temples there.

Darth Vader-esque ajumma visor - you gotta love 'em.

Inwangsan is a relatively small mountain at only 338 meters high but it's very distinctive looking with it's many giant granite peaks and makes for a nice backdrop to downtown Seoul. Apparently, the name Inwangsan means "Benevolent King Mountain" in Korean and  long ago, in the days of the Joseon Dynasty (1392 -1910), it was referred to as "White Tiger Mountain" due to the large number of tigers that used to live there. Sadly, the tigers have long since disappeared from Inwangsan as they have from the rest of South Korea, though there are reportedly some wild Siberian tigers still roaming about in North Korea. 

Siberian Tigers, known in Korea as Korean Tigers or Mount Baekju Tigers, used to roam wild throughout the whole of Korea (North and South) and were (and still are) an important part of Korean culture and mythology. However, because the tigers were known to attack both livestock and humans, the government during the Joseon Dynasty and the Japanese Occupation set about systematically eliminating the tiger population in Korea. That, combined with loss of habitat, led to the last wild tigers being sighted in South Korea in the 1920's or 1940's. 

Tigers regularly appeared in Korean mythology and folktales as a fearsome but powerful spirit. They were revered as people thought they could fend off evil spirits but they were also a real threat to villagers and miners in rural Korea and there are many records of deadly tiger attacks in Korea from the 10th to the early 20th century. 
(See this interesting article for more information on the relationship between Korea and it's tigers - http://joongangdaily.joins.com/article/view.asp?aid=2906165)

We took the long subway journey to Dongnimmun Station up in the northern part of Seoul and then headed out exit 2 to get to the mountain. With our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook in hand we set about trying to follow the directions up to Inwangsan. It was a little difficult finding the trail as we had to walk through a load of shops and towering new apartment blocks to find it but we made it there eventually. We knew we'd found the right place because we saw the brightly coloured temple gateway at the base of the steep path up the small mountain as promised in the guidebook.

The colourful temple gateway at the foot of Inwangsan Mountain. That road was STEEP! 

The first thing we encountered on our way up the mountain was a rather idiosyncratic village populated with old wooden houses with the traditional sloped roofs and small Buddhist temples with brightly painted murals of birds and flowers. It was strange to stand there in this quiet and peaceful village listening to the temple wind chimes clinking and the occasional dog barking when we were still so close to the hustle of modern Seoul. In fact, as it was still early in the year there were no leaves on the trees so we could actually see the massive concrete apartment blocks rising up around the mountain down below. 

Climbing the steps through the quiet little village.

There were many beautiful paintings of birds and flowers on the walls of the buildings in the village.

Looking out over the traditional sloped roofs with the Bongwonsa temple in the background.

But all around this quiet hillside village were the towering concrete apartment blocks of modern Seoul.

Despite the close proximity of modern hustle and bustle the village still retained a unique atmosphere of life lived at a slower, more peaceful pace. 

A path winding up through the village.

The village convenience store with the usual plastic chairs outside so you can enjoy a drink or a snack al fresco - much cheaper than a pint down the pub!

We carried on up the path to the bell pavilion that marked the entrance to the biggest temple on Inwangsan called Bongwonsa. There were colourful paintings on the entrance gate doors that according to the Lonely Planet Guidebook "depict the guardian kings of heaven who protect Buddhists from evil and harm". They were some pretty funny looking guardian kings but they had massive swords so I wouldn't have messed with them!  

Bongwonsa Temple and the bell pavilion. 

Close up of the pretty bell pavilion. 

The entrance gate to Bongwonsa temple with the paintings of the heavenly guardians.

Close up of one of the heavenly guardians from the Bongwonsa entrance gates.  

Buddhist statue in front of the temple. 

Further up the rocky hillside we saw Guksadang, Seoul's most famous Shamanist shrine. Origonally, Guksadang was built on a different mountain in Seoul called Namsan but it was destroyed by the Japanese in 1925 during the occupation so Korean shamanists secretly rebuilt it here on Inwangsan.  There was some kind of ceremony going on in there when we wandered by. I could hear an old woman singing/chanting and drums being played. I really wanted to stick my head in and see what was going on but felt it would have been rude so just contented my self with listening form the outside and looking at the diverse array of  food and drink that had been left as offerings for the dead (according to Lonely Planet, Korean Shamanists "believe that the dead still need food and drink").  

The small but interesting Guksadang Shamanist shrine (from http://aweekinseoul.wordpress.com - I couldn't get a picture myself as it felt rude to photograph while people were praying). 

Some rather odd offerings for the dead outside Guksadang Shrine - 3 bottles of Makgeolli (Korean rice wine) one bottle of  unknown contents but also possibly makgeolli and a plate of...something once edible? Just cos you're dead doesn't mean you can't party!

There were piles of green glass soju bottles and crates of empty makgeolli bottles stacked round the back of the temple area - not sure if they were old offerings to the dead or the traces of the many hikers who had passed this way (it's usual for Korean hikers to imbibe some liquor, usually makgeolli when they get to the top of the mountain). 

We climbed up more stairs and came to the strange, heavily eroded rocks called the Seonbawi or Zen Rocks. The Lonely Planet book contends that these rocks look like "two hooded monks" though I wasn't so sure! Apparently, women still come to an altar in front of the Seonbawi to pray for the birth of a son. 

The steps up to the Zen Rocks (Seonbawi).

An old man cleaning the area by the altar in front of the Seonbawi.

After spending some time admiring the Zen Rocks we wandered a little further up the hillside past more eroded rocks and natural springs. People had left more food offerings, candles and incense sticks in front of crevices in the rocks on the way up. After climbing up some rough steps for about 15 minutes or so we reached an outdoor altar with a small Buddha carving on the rock face. 

A carving of a Buddha in the mountainside with a small altar in front.

We carried on up the hillside a little further to take a look at the restored Seoul Fortress Wall that surrounds Inwangsan Mountain and got some really nice panoramic views over Seoul. We saw some braver hikers climbing right up the grey granite boulders but we weren't that energetic or that brave! 

View of the village and Seoul from further up the mountain near the Seonbawi rocks.

The restored Seoul Fortress Wall that runs around Inwangsan.

You can clearly see Seoul Tower on Namsan mountain from Inwangsan.

Hikers sitting on up on the granite slopes.

It was a little early in the year still for there to be many leaves on the trees so everything was a bit grey and bare looking. These trees (not sure what they are) added a welcome splash of colour.

One of the giant boulder peaks on the top of Inwangsan.

Close up of the same peak. Look closely and you can see a guy standing on the top of the left one.

Close up of the guy and his girlfriend standing on top of the rather loose looking boulder - I admired their bravery but didn't feel like following their example!

Rowan trying to freak me out by standing on one leg on the rocky slopes of Inwangsan. It was a long way down.

After spending some time sitting on a rocky ledge and enjoying the views we made our way back down the mountain to the subway station. If you have the time and the inclination you can follow another path that takes you up on the other side of the fortress wall right to the top of Inwangsan but we decided to take the subway to nearby Insadong instead. Insadong district is the cultural heart of Seoul and still retains a traditional, relaxed atmosphere. It has lots of galleries, craft shops and pretty little tea shops and the main street is pedestrianised so it is one of the few places in Korea where you don't have to worry about being run over all the time! Because of the atmosphere and the car free streets it's a really nice area just to walk around, do a little souvenir shopping or just people watch. There are lots of interesting antiques and old trinkets for sale too which are fun to have a look at. 

The main streets of the Insadong are pedestrianised which is a nice change from the usual mayhem of scooters and cars driving crazily all over the place, including on the pavements.

Browsing the book stalls in Insadong.

Some old guys playing games (possibly Chinese chess) in the street. I hope they're not gambling - it's illegal for Koreans to gamble here and casinos are only open to foreigners.

There are many traditional craft shops like this one in Insadong. I think this one is selling calligraphy tools.

Some really old books written in Chinese characters for sale in Insadong. 

Antiques shops lining the street with their wares.

This was a fun stall that sold all kinds of handmade wooden toys. We bought a wooden rifle with giant elastic bands for ammo and a bow and arrow set. Should be fun getting that back through customs!

There was some beautiful antique furniture for sale in Insadong. 

The ubiquitous Turkish ice cream man. We seem to see them everywhere in Asia, well we've seen them in Korea and Thailand at any rate! The ice cream is a bit of an odd consistency, kind of elasticy but it tastes good and the guys do a funny sleight of hand routine with their long metal ice cream spatulas which always draws a crowd.

After spending some time wandering around Insadong we stopped off at a nicely decorated little Indian restaurant for some dinner. It was pretty tasty though of course not as good as the Indian food at the Cafe Baghdad in Jeju City that we visited last year.  

The front of the Little India restaurant. 

It was nicely decorated inside the restaurant and they actually had some music playing which is unusual for a restaurant in Korea.

Mmm, samosas!

All in all, a very nice, chilled day out in Seoul. If you ever get the chance to visit Inwangsan I would very much recommend it as an interesting comparison to the usual concrete and neon face of Seoul.  


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  2. Insadong is a pedestrian zone only on Sundays unfortunately. The rest of the time it's packed with tourists AND cars, what a pity.

  3. Aww shame about Insaqdong allowing cars most of the time. It's so nice to be able to walk around somewhere in Korea without fearing for your life!

  4. I've been there on a weekday morning and there were no cars to be seen...

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