Not to be confused with next door Dobongsan, Dobong Station sits perched on concrete pillars above Dobong-ro (도봉로). Below the tracks is an arcade lined with small restaurants, and due west a handful of apartment towers line up like dominoes.
I started on that side of the station, crossing the street from Exit 2. Shops along the road were open, but business was slow, and one woman selling vegetables on the sidewalk had taken advantage of the lull by commandeering a phone booth where she sat on a plastic stool, out of the sun. Across the street, to the east, the Prosecution Service (검찰) sat big and blue, gleaming in the sunlight like a giant computer chip.
Aside from those towers, there weren’t too many tall buildings around and I could see more of the sky than was normally possible in most places in Seoul. From certain angles the only thing visible above the elevated tracks was an autumnal blue sky, and when a train went past it was a pretty picture.
After I crossed Dobong-ro I wandered through the backstreets, unassuming and very typical: four- or five-story red brick buildings, people out for walks or an October bike ride, small businesses doing light sales. On Dobong-ro-167-gil (도봉로167길) I took a left, going past a taxi park, a couple concrete shells of buildings, and some small shack restaurants, before arriving at a minor entrance to Bukhansan National Park (북한산 국립공원). That’s not clearly marked, but if you see the 국제 배드민턴 클럽 (International Badminton Club) sign, you’re in the right place. ‘International Badminton Club’ is a pretty lofty name, though, for what seemed to be there: a few fenced-in courts where some weekend warriors were playing tennis, not badminton, and another group of about ten middle-aged friends were grilling and picnicking just behind the chicken wire.
Near the courts is a set of stairs, and this leads up to a section of the hiking trail that runs through Bukhansan. The sandy, gently rising path winds between thin trees, their summer foliage still up, making things shady and cool. As I sat on a tree stump and listened to insects humming in the treetops a wild caramel and white cat strolled out of the underbrush and trotted off down the path.
After a bit of a rest I followed Dobong-ro-167-gil back out to the main drag, and it was at this minor intersection that I came upon a modest stone plaque set amid a small flower bed. The plaque was a memorial commemorating U.S. Army General Walton Harris Walker who died on this spot on December 23, 1950. Walker graduated from West Point in 1912 before serving with the 5th Infantry Division in World War I. An illustrious military career found him command troops in both World War II and the Korean War, rising to the rank of a four-star general, collecting a display case’s worth of awards and honors along the way, and even landing on the cover of TIME magazine. In contrast to his decorated career, however, his death was a remarkably prosaic one, as he was killed in a traffic accident when his jeep collided with a civilian truck. The plaque may seem a small and remote commemoration for someone who played such a large role in South Korea’s self-defense, but then-president Park Chung-hee honored him with a much more visible memorial, which you’re no doubt familiar with if you’ve ever visited the eponymous Walker Hill.
If you walk north from here, or if you cross Dobong-ro from Exit 1, you’ll note a signpost at the main intersection, with Dobong-ro-169-gil (도봉로169길), pointing the way to the Bukhansan Dullae-gil (북한산둘레길), 1.4 kilometers hence.
The route takes you along the Dobong Stream (도봉천), which, at the time of writing was completely drained, save for a few big algal puddles between long stretches of rocks and sand. There seemed to be some construction work about to begin, which was the likely reason for the dry bed, though no indication of when the water would be back. Nevertheless, several people were out using the walking and biking paths on either side of the stream. Although the waterless stream was a bit glum, the sights of the hazy gray ridges of Bukhan Mountain in the bright afternoon light and the thickly forested hill just behind a quiet neighborhood to the north did well to make up for it.
If you follow the dry streambed east it’ll take you to the Jungnang Stream (중랑천), which runs south, eventually draining into the Han. There’s a small plaza near where the two meet, which may well best be avoided if you’re not a fan of the endlessly obnoxious strain of Korean techno that sounds as if it were made by one ajeosshi armed with nothing but soju and a Casio, which was what was blaring out of two massive speakers that a saxophone player had pulled out of his minivan. Judging by their clapping and even dancing enthusiasm, a large crowd of ajummas evidently did not share my distaste.
The stream itself, parallel to Madeul-ro (마들로), is wider than many other urban streams but less nice. There’s less vegetation on the banks and residents along the walking paths aren’t particularly buffered from the noise of traffic on the major roads flanking either side of the stream.
A hike south on Madeul-ro eventually leads to Dobong Market (도봉시장), not much more than a series of open stores on the sidewalk and a cluster spilling out of the first floor of an old gray concrete building on Dobong-ro-162-gil (도봉로162길). If you need to pick up huge bags of popped corn or dried chilies, though, it’ll do.
More amusing is what you’ll find just north of the prosecution service, that big blue computer chip-looking building. Step out Exit 3, take a left, then a right onto Dobong-ro-168-gil, and then follow it along the concrete wall as it curves around to your right. Just before you meet up with the main road there’s a small entrance to the Sungkyunkwan University Baseball Field (성균관대학교 야구장). (A bit longer but more direct would be to go out Exit 1, walk up to the intersection, turn right on Dobong-ro-170-gil (도봉로170길), and follow it until you see the entrance on the right.)
Anyone weaned on big time college athletics in the States or elsewhere might be a bit taken aback by what passes for one of Korea’s most prestigious universities’ baseball diamond: a dirt expanse whose only grass was some rough stuff in the outfield that disappeared into three big swaths of sand where the outfielders stood.
There was a game going on, but as much of a baseball fan as I am, I was more intrigued by the American football game going on on the adjacent soccer pitch. There’s something almost bafflingly amusing about watching Koreans play football, the fish-out-of-water element and the sheer unexpectedness of it all; much the same, I imagine, if a bunch of Americans decided to take up ssireum.
The football game, between Korea University (Go Tigers!) and what I presume was Sungkyunkwan (The lettering on their jerseys was all in Chinese characters, so I couldn’t be absolutely sure.), was being played on dirt, giving a whole new meaning to the saying ‘Three yards and a cloud of dust.’
Without meaning any disrespect at all to anyone involved, although this was technically college football it bore little resemblance to its American brethren. The level of play was generally lower than what I experienced playing high school ball, some of the jerseys had numbers peeling off, one of the Korea defensive linemen had a helmet a different color than the rest of his teammates, and the referee announced ’10-yard penalty, holding,’ in a comically heavy accent.
What the spectacle had going for it, though – and this was particularly winsome in the wake of the multiple scandals that enveloped U.S. college football at the beginning of the season – was the unassailable purity of it. For the kids playing, and likely for the coaches too, there was no possibility of money in it, no possibility of advancement to some higher level. Both sides had no more than a handful of reserves on the sidelines. There were seven people watching the game, including the scorekeeper. Outside of the people there and maybe a few parents and girlfriends nobody in the entire country could care less about what happened between the end zones that day. There was nothing to play for but the love of the game.
When I showed up, just after halftime, the score was 7 to 2 in favor of Korea University. When I left, a quarter later, it was the same. For the next twelve minutes that was all that was going to matter to about 50 people, if no one else.
Bukhansan National Park (북한산 국립공원) Entrance
Cross Dobong-ro (도봉로), turn right, left on Dobong-ro-167-gil (도봉로167길)
Walton Harris Walker Memorial
Cross Dobong-ro (도봉로), turn right, at intersection with Dobong-ro-167-gil (도봉로167길)
Bukhansan Dullae-gil (북한산둘레길)
Cross Dobong-ro (도봉로), follow signposts
Dobong Stream (도봉천)
Cross Dobong-ro (도봉로)
Jungnang Stream (중랑천)
Right on Dobong-ro-170-gil (도봉로170길)
Dobong Market (도봉시장)
Turn left and walk east, right on Madeul-ro (마들로)
Sungkyunkwan University Baseball Field (성균관대학교 야구장)
Right on Dobong-ro-170-gil (도봉로170길)