The northernmost station that still sits in Seoul City proper, and about as far north as you can go in the city period, Dobongsan Station is the gateway to Dobong Mountain (도봉산) and the eastern side of Bukhansan National Park (북한산국림공원). We made our way there this past Chuseok, and the cool weather and fresh air nicely accompanied the marginally more relaxed feel that the holiday brings to the city.
The main reason people come here, of course, is to visit or hike in the park, but a perhaps more relaxing spot sits across Dobong-ro (도봉로) where the Seoul Iris Garden (서울창포원) is accessible from Exit 2. It was too late in the season for us to view whatever flowers might bloom there during the summer, but the small park still offered an enjoyable stroll, with speakers playing classical music and several families with little ones dressed up, airing out their twice-yearly hanbok for pictures and a frolic on the grass. One of the nice aspects of the park being that the lawns were available for public use and didn’t sit behind the foot-high fencing silently tut-tutting any thoughts of stepping off the pavement, as is so common here.
Several different gardens – the Evergreen Garden, the Succession Observation Garden, the Forest Observation Garden – were signposted, but without the summer flowers they didn’t have a whole lot of distinction. Pumpkins and squash grew on vines covering two mesh metal archways arced over sections of walking paths, some of them hanging rather low and seemingly ready to fall off the vine and conk someone on the head any moment. On the southern side of the Garden a wooden walkway zig-zagged over a small pond filled with carp and other fish, and in the middle of the walkway, on a platform where several wooden chairs had been set up, a few old pensioners sat talking and watching the fish below.
The action, though, (and despite it being Chuseok there was some) is over the other way, out Exit 1. Cross Dobong-ro and you step into a veritable village catering exclusively to the throngs of hikers that come here. And throng they do – the Korean National Parks service states that the Guinness Book of World Records recognizes Bukhansan National Park as the world’s most visited, in terms of the ratio of visitors to area. 5 million people visit the 79.9 square kilometer park annually, and the area just outside of Dobongsan Station is one of the most accessible and, therefore, most popular jumping off points.
As soon as you cross the street from the station you’re presented with a huge array of shops set up to service all the hikers that come through here every day. Some are simpler pojangmachas, fruit stands, and snack shops, many of the latter offering grilled palm-sized fish, occasionally with the roe still in them. Others are much more permanent looking, including official Columbia, Black Yak, and North Face outlets.
The closer we got to the park entrance the more shops were open in spite of the holiday, and the more hikers we saw, either on their way to or from the mountain. Just about every type of restaurant you could imagine is in the area, and there are even some places whose type you wouldn’t really expect to see here. One of these was 느린 마을 양조장 (Slow Village Brewery), where it looked like makkeolli was made on site. I say ‘looked like’ because this place was one of those that were closed, so we could only peer through the plate glass windows at the large ceramic vats with drawings of mountains and phoenixes sitting in the sparse and very modern-looking interior.
One of the most pleasing sensory aspects of hiking areas in Korea is the wonderful ranges of colors they provide, with the natural browns and greens and grays of the landscape setting off the brightly-toned gear of the Korean hikers who descend on the mountains on weekends. Adding to this were a few trees alongside a mountain stream, their leaves having already gotten a head start on the seasonal change. On the opposite bank a few families were picnicking on a small platform constructed over the water, while from down below the sound of tumbling water drifted up from an artificial cascade.
Though Angelique and I had neither the time nor the inclination to hike the mountain ourselves, if you’re interested in trying out what is a very popular pastime in Korea, Dobongsan is a good place to start. For starters, it’s beautiful. Meaning ‘Daoist Peak Mountain,’ Dobongsan is filled with striking cliffs and rock formations, and is believed to be the home of powerful natural spirits. It’s also dotted with Buddhist temples, the two most well-known being Cheonchuksa (천축사) and Mangwolsa (망월사). On top of all that, it’s just a short subway ride away.
Seoul Iris Garden (서울창포원)
Bukhansan National Park (북한산국림공원) and Dobong Mountain (도봉산)
Photography for this post provided by Angelique Kuyper.