Seoul: A Hiker’s Heaven

Sapaesan

No matter how much you’ve hiked in your lifetime, you haven’t hiked until you’ve hiked with Koreans.  They are the most stylish and well prepared hikers you’ve ever seen.  They sport the newest hiking poles and always don the best hiking gear.  Such kitting out generally signals the presence of a poser, but Korean men and women are nothing of the sort.  They are bona fide mountain men and women.  They know the trails inside and out, rarely ever show signs of tiring, and all the while manage to carry a feast on their backs!

A temple along the way

My first introduction to hiking in Seoul was with a hiking group led by five Korean men and women who ranged in age from late 40s to early 60s.  We met our guides at the base of Sapaesan located in the northeast of Seoul one Saturday morning, having absolutely no clue what was in store for us.  Words to describe this experience: thigh-breaking, surreal, invigorating, inspiring.

For the first hour or so, we hiked up a rocky path that sloped at a 45-degree angle (or steeper!).  As we huffed and puffed, or guides chatted, smiled and occasionally encouraged us with “Come on, not so bad…”.  The good news is that we were handsomely rewarded with a brief rest at this temple, which if I’m not mistaken, is called Hyerong.  A couple monks scurried about cleaning and making repairs as we watched on, entranced.

The following three hours had us walking a trail not much wider than our waists, scaling rocks with ropes that seem to have been put on the trail many, many years ago, and stepping aside to let the avid local hikers passby.  Yes, Sapaesan was trying, but it was equally enlivening.  Between the crisp mountain air and the breathtaking landscape, it was hard to believe that we were still in Seoul – that we got here by subway and that dozens of more hikes just as rigorous as this pepper the city.

Nuns hiking Sapaesan

About forty-minutes from the summit, though, something incredible happened: we spotted a small group of nuns ahead of us.  As they powered up the mountain – habbits and all – they broke every single stereotype I held about nuns.  In the west, I had never seen nuns challenging themselves through exercise or immersing themselves in nature; they were always tucked away indoors, deep in prayer (or so I imagined).

As there are various trails that lead to the summit, I persuaded our guides and my fellow hikers to follow the nuns.  And follow we did.  My curiosity and my desire to observe them far outweighed the urge to make it to the top.

The nuns feast at the top of Sapaesan

They lost us for a while – too quick for us foreigners – but when we got to the top, there they were.  As I approached, I noticed they were already well into their lunches.  Instead of disturbing them, I took in the view and tucked into my lunch.  Looking through the haze at the concrete jungle of Seoul in the distance was surreal.  It was still hard to believe that one of the world’s largest cities was in spitting distance, but it was even harder to believe that I encountered a lovely group of nuns who were even gracious enough to allow me a few photos atop the mountain.

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