- Written by Dan
Part 2: Go for the Cities, Stay for the Nature
by Dave Hazzan
Most people who visit Korea go for the cities rather than the nature. At 517 people per square kilometre, Korea is one of the densest countries in the world. And you feel it—everywhere you go, people bang into you as though it’s nothing, without a word of apology. The thinking in Korea is: it’s crowded, get used to it.
Combine the density with breakneck industrialization, and the assumption is there’s very little room for nature. It’s true to an extent. If you’re expecting to go camping in the rainforest or bear hunting on the steppe, then you’ve come to the wrong place. The wilderness here has been tamed. But Korea is proud nonetheless that it’s maintained so much of its natural beauty, particularly in its mountains that run the length of the peninsula, and its islands, which surround it.
Koreans worship their mountains—literally, they believe there are spirits on the mountains they should defer to. Though evangelical Christianity has displaced many of these ancient, shamanistic beliefs, Koreans like to cover their spiritual bases.
Bukhansan is Korea’s most visited mountain. Located in the north of Seoul, you can get there by subway (Gireum Stn, Line 4, Exit 3; Gupbal Stn, Line 3, Exit 1; Mangwolsa Stn, Line 1, Exit 1). Owing to both its location and its majesty, it’s often packed with hikers, so unless you like big crowds with your hiking, its best to avoid it on weekends and national holidays. There are many paths to the three peaks, ranging in difficulty from easy to relatively difficult, but Dulle-gil is one of the best. It circumnavigates the park in lower altitudes on an easy-to-hike, mostly afforested path. Dulle-gil also brings walkers to small villages that were never visited much before and where there are usually great little restaurants.
Dave Hazzan Enjoying the View
On the east coast of the country is Seoraksan, just outside the beautiful seaside city of Sokcho, in the northeast province of Gangwondo. There are a series of paths through it that range in difficulty; the park is excellent for novice hikers and lazy bums like me, with its cable cars and (relatively) flat valley walks. But there are also some extreme peaks, and the top of Daechong peak is one of the best places in Korea to catch the sunrise. Up there, when the valley fills with early morning fog, Seoraksan is worth every drop of sweat you put into it. You can get to Sokcho by bus from most cities, and then take local Bus 7 or 7-1 from the Intercity Bus Terminal to Seoraksan.
The tallest mountain in South Korea is Hallasan, on the southern island of Jeju. Getting to Jeju you can fly from most Korean cities on the mainland, or take a ferry from the port cities of Mokpo, Busan, or Inchon. From Seoul it’s about $150 and takes about an hour each way. By ferry from Mokpo, it takes about four hours and costs at least 30,000 won for a walk-on (without a car). Ferry from Busan is about 12 hours, and costs a minimum of 43,000 won. From Wando, it takes anywhere from an hour and 40 minutes to five hours depending on the service, and costs upwards of 24,750 won. Hallasan is a massive volcano, and its peak is visible throughout the island—most of Jeju is in fact “on” Hallasan. There are five different trails through Hallasan, two of which reach the peak, and they vary in difficulty–there is generally something for everyone. At the top of Hallasan is White Deer Lake, built into the crater, and one of the most stunning lakes in Korea. Hallasan is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with a UNESCO ecology museum at the Eorimok trailhead.
Hiking is an activity Koreans take seriously, as evidenced by the amount of money they put into hiking gear. Older Korean men and women, ascending the mountain, look like flocks of brightly coloured tropical birds, with their day-glo orange, pink, blue, and yellow Gore-Tex jackets, pants, backpacks, boots, and poles. Once they reach a mountain peak, Koreans like to crack open a bottle of makkoli, a milky rice wine, and drink that with a bit of food. Look kindly and lost enough, they’ll probably share it with you.
Mountains are great for the fit—but for the wheezing kids down here in the valley, it’s the islands that provide the real refuge from Korea’s cities. The peninsula is surrounded by hundreds of islands—some are barely islands, connected to the mainland by well-trafficked bridges. Others are hours distant, accessible only by churning ferry rides.
Hongdo is as far southwest as you can go in South Korea. The island is made up of steep peaks and lush forest, most of it protected, to preserve the island’s wild birds and plants. But the high and stunning trail that connects the villages of Ilgu and Igu offers some beautiful views of the island, its peaks and beaches, and its colourful birds. Cars are gloriously banned. Getting there, you take a ferry 115 kilometres from the southwestern city of Mokpo, which is on the KTX high-speed train line. You can also stop off in Heuksando, Hongdo’s larger and more developed neighbour, or any of the other islands that make up Dadohaehaesang National Park.
For something closer to Seoul, you can take the subway to Dongincheon Station (Line 1, Exit 2), and then get Bus 12 or 24 to Yeonan Budu Ferry Terminal. From here, there are ferries to all the west coast islands that dot the sea between Korea and China. My personal favourite is Deokjeokdo, about 50 kilometres west of Incheon. It’s a feast of mountain trails and beautiful, white sand beaches, and a good distance from the mainland. It is rammed in the summers, but fall and spring are great times to visit.
One of Korea’s most remote islands is Ulleungdo, in the West Sea between Japan and Korea, 120 kilometres from the shore. You can get trains and buses to Pohang, an industrial city on the east coast, and then a ferry to Ulleungdo from there. Ulleungdo is a beautifully isolated volcanic peak, and is famous for its tasty squid, which you can see drying on rocks all around the island.
Ulleungdo is also the place to get a ferry to the disputed islets of Dokdo, which Japan also claims. If you spend more than a few days anywhere in Korea, you will undoubtedly have someone tell you that “Dokdo is Korean land.” If you know what’s best for you, you will not argue with this person, or even ask why. Most Koreans passionately believe Japan is seeking to reoccupy Korean land, and they will begin with Dokdo. The islands themselves are not much to look at, but the fever and pageantry around them are something else.
In our third and final column, we will have more South Korea travel tips on how to see the whole country in a couple weeks. Cause you can do that in Korea.
Click Next to Read Part Three of Dave Hazzan's advice column on how to visit Korea in two weeks: where to go.