One of the first things you’ll probably notice when you exit Bulgwang Station is that the air is just a little bit more breathable here than in other parts of Seoul, and being so close to the edge of the city and to the mountains that makes sense. The most dominating feature of the neighborhood is Bukhan Mountain (북한산), especially nearby Suri Peak (수리봉), rising up northeast of the station, though the hulking 2001 Outlet/Kim’s Club/CGV building attached to Exit 6 is trying its best to change that.
Across the street from that building is what looks – with its gunmetal gray exterior, roof curved at just the right height and angle, and bare bulbs visible through the windows – like an old-fashioned passenger train. What it actually is, is Jeil Market (제일시장) just steps from Exit 7. We’ve gotten to the point in this project where our usual reaction is, ‘Oh. Another market,’ because in all honesty there’s often not much that differentiates one neighborhood market from the next (and there are a lot more in the city than I ever expected), and after a while you start running out of new things to write/photograph. But the Bulgwang market is, frankly, pretty unique.
To begin with, it’s unavoidable. Step out of the exit and just in front of you the sidewalk has been commandeered in a way that would give American zoning regulators fits. Beneath that gray metal and plastic covering, businesses on the inside of the sidewalk extend displays out onto it, and on the sidewalk’s outside smaller vendors have set up stands and tarps. Old women sell plastic bags of kimchi and butchers offer Styrofoam packs of coagulated blood. There are eels, steamed corn, blocks of tofu, and crates of chicken feet on ice. So if you want to walk south from this side of the station, you have to run the gauntlet a little bit, for about three blocks.
After doing so, I turned right into a side street and wandered for a bit through a calm neighborhood of four- or five-story buildings. The occasional breeze disturbed the hot heavy air, but otherwise it was so quiet that I could actually hear the low hum of a barber pole as it spun, and I thought of a guy in the market selling potatoes whose t-shirt just said ‘SLOWNESS.’
If instead of walking into the market after leaving Exit 7 you make a u-turn and then an immediate left on Tong-il-ro (통일로) you’ll soon come to the Seobu Intercity Bus Terminal (서부시외버스터미널), a run-down, cigarette butt-colored building. I was surprised to find out that there was a bus terminal here, but it does make some sense that there’s one to service Seoul’s northwest corner. After seeing it, though, one wonders about keeping it open. As uninspiring as the exterior is, the interior is even worse, like a station you might expect to see in a provincial Chinese city, not inSeoul. The unlit waiting room looked like it hadn’t seen any upkeep in years, and the only person sitting on its uncomfortable straight-backed wooden benches was an old woman with her shoes off picking at something on her leg, completely impervious to my presence.
There’s office space on the second and third floors of the station, though the only thing open on the second was the bathroom. A lone potted plant sat in front of a closed office at one end of the third floor hallway, and at the other end the one sign of life was an open door revealing a lone man in a tank top sitting at a computer, a fan blowing a breeze in his direction, and some papers strewn across a meeting table in the middle of the room.
Out back, in the small lot, a couple green and white buses pulled in and out, heading to places like Uijeongbu (의정부), Jeokseong (적성), and Beopwonni (법원리), mostly carrying hikers.
Immediately outside of Exit 1 is Bulgwang Food Street. (Much better is its Korean name: 먹자골목, or Let’s Eat Alley.) Aimed primarily at the large number of hikers on their way to or from Bukhan Mountain, the street isn’t anything terribly special, just a large concentration of restaurants ranging from galbi (갈비) to fermented skate (홍어) to bindaetteok (빈대떡), with a healthy sprinkling of noraebangs, pool halls, and bars for some post-hike fun. The majority of the patrons in the area were of course weekend hikers, decked out in their colorful backpacks, caps, and visors. One group of about 12 middle-aged men and women must have been members of some club, since they all wore matching Irish green nylon vests.
As you’d expect, the area has a lot of hiking supply stores, especially between Exits 1 and 2. A left on Jinheung-ro (진흥로) from the latter leads toward the start of the Bukhan Mountain Perimeter Track (북한산 둘레길), about 800 meters away, an entry point for hikes into Bukhan Mountain and further on into Dobong Mountain. As it was mid-afternoon when I got there, a steady stream of trekkers was heading back toward the station, passing a couple people who’d set up large tables on the sidewalk to sell hiking supplies.
This leafy area also houses a large concentration of government buildings on either side of the road, especially ministries related to health and wellness. Here you’ll find the mammoth Korea Food and Drug Administration (식품의약품안전청), the National Institute of Health (국립보건연구원), the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (질병관리본부), the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs (한국보건사회연구원), the National Institute of Toxicological Research (국립독성연구소), the Korean Women’s Development Institute (한국여성정책연구원), and the Korean Tourism Human Resources Center (한국관광공사 관광인적자원센터).
If you’re not really much of a hiker, you might still want to head this way to check out Bulgwang Temple (불광사), a small temple an approximately 200-meter uphill walk from near the start of the Perimeter Track. Signs will point the way, starting at a small street just between some apartment buildings and a park.
The temple sits on a little plot on a low hillside at the base of Bukhansan, and offers a convenient respite from the city and the chance to snatch a few breaths of fresh air. It’s quiet – I was alone when I visited – and consists of only three modest buildings. Behind one is a small garden where leafy vegetables grow in the ground alongside plants in rows of Styrofoam boxes. The main building and the one behind it feature paintings on their sides, and a small shrine of sorts was set up between them – a couple dozen small Buddha figurines sitting on a rock. Rather strangely, some of the leaves on the trees in front of the main temple building were not green, like all of the others around them, but a very autumnal red and rust instead.
Another option for the non-hiker is the aforementioned park, the Bukhansan Ecological Park (북한산생태공원). Plenty of trees, rocks, and even a stream make it a very pretty little place, though it’s better for a stroll than a picnic since there’s little in the way of flat areas.
Jeil Market (제일시장)
Seobu Intercity Bus Terminal (서부시외버스터미널)
U-turn, Left on Tong-il-ro (통일로)
Bulgwang Food Street (먹자골목)
Government Health Ministries
Left on Jinheung-ro (진흥로)
Bukhan Mountain Perimeter Track (북한산 둘레길) and Bukhansan Ecological Park (북한산생태공원)
Left on Jinheung-ro (진흥로), approximately 800 meters
Bulgwang Temple (불광사)
Left on Jinheung-ro (진흥로), Follow signs just before Ecological Park