In the little spur of Seoul that pokes up in its far northwestern corner, Gupabal is barely in the city. If you zoom in on the station on Google Maps, what you’ll see is an area with two clumps of apartment buildings and a lot of empty white space. Those apartment buildings feel less like part of the city than they do a bedroom community, isolated and about as suburbia as things get around here, though it’s unlikely that they’ll remain so detached for long. Along the west side of the road running above the tracks, metal fencing bearing computer-rendered images of fancy apartment complexes indicated where ground would be broken for future construction projects. Others already in progress were dotted with cranes or the skeletons of half-completed buildings. And the neighborhood business that was more common than any other was the real estate office. One strip mall-esque building in a completed development held seven of them, three-quarters of the building’s available office space. Actually, besides them there wasn’t a whole lot of commerce taking place. When I tried to find a convenience store where I could buy something to drink, I came up empty-handed after a good twenty-minute search.
For the time being, Gupabal development is still more about promise than realization. Looking around outside the station, trees were still the single most abundant thing that I could see. And that plot of land west of the station behind the metal fencing is still just that – a plot of land, full of bushes and scrub and a rather sorry little creek from which I saw an egret push into the air and fly away.
Regardless of how much development eventually does come to Gupabal, it will retain at least a slightly more natural feel to it than other parts of Seoul due to its proximity to Bukhan Mountain (북한산). The mountain’s located not too far to the east, and the station serves as a jumping off point to the national park’s trails, as evidenced by the preponderance of people in reflective sunglasses and hiking backpacks that were lined up at the bus stop between Exits 1 and 2 and the vendors selling them snacks, ginseng roots, and frozen bottles of water.
Behind the bus stop there’s a small plaza, and in addition to the weekend warriors lounging about pre- or post-hike you’ll also find Gupabal Waterfall (구파발폭포) there, a small artificial falls that was turned off on the day I visited, despite it being May and in the 20s. As well as the waterfall, the plaza has a small amphitheater built into it, in front of which a man in a suit and an ajumma visor was playing treacly saxophone tunes to the accompaniment of music on the laptop he’d placed on a stand before him. Behind the plaza a forested hill rises up sharply, and you can follow one of the sets of stairs to its walking paths.
The two completed apartment subdivisions were in different states of filling in. Nearly all of the retail space on the first floor of the complex north of the station was still empty, their glass fronts framing just vacant cubes. The complex to the south, on the other hand, was more or less complete, finished off by dozens and dozens of beautiful azalea bushes throughout the development, as well as a day care center and a new elementary school.
While there’s generally not as much to see or do around Seoul’s fringes, one feature that does pop up regularly, precisely because it’s on the fringes, is Buddhist temples, and in Gupabal there are several of these, including three that, though not spectacular, are a short walk from the station, and from each other.
The first of these that I went to was Siyeon Temple (시연사). After going out Exit 3 I turned right on Jingwan-2-ro (진관2로), following the yellow signs. After crossing Tong-il-ro (통일로), I continued straight up a dirt road running alongside a large plot of land where a construction company was breaking ground on a new hospital. Following a five-minute walk I arrived at the temple, which, from the approach, looked more like someone’s house. In fact, the part of the complex that makes up the caretaker’s home is probably bigger than the temple, and as I walked up to the latter a small, white, long-haired dog came rushing out of the former to bark at me, though it didn’t quite have the courage to make it any further than the stoop.
The wood temple had colorful and well-kept paintings on the undersides of its beams and a pair of dragon heads, one yellow and one blue, with long curling whiskers that extended from just below the roof. There was nothing terribly special about the temple, and what was its nicest feature – its isolation amid the trees – had been compromised by the development next door, but as you walk back down to the street you’re treated to lovely views of the peaks of Bukhan-san. Just be careful where you walk, as at the base of the temple the caretaker keeps bees in 21 wooden hives, the constant, gentle hum they create something like the purr of traffic on a distant highway.
The second temple I went to was called Bodeok (보덕사), which you could get to by walking north from Siyeon-sa or by heading out Exit 4 and then turning left on Jingwan-3-ro (진관3로). A statue of a very corpulent Buddha, with five Buddha Juniors clambering over him, greets visitors to Bodeok-sa, and just behind the fat man is a nine-tier pagoda. The temple complex is very small, the actual prayer room looking like someone had renovated and repurposed their living room. It had a lacquered wooden floor, and the low light that gently gleamed off the tiles and off the gilt Buddha gave the room an almost sensuous feel.
Before reaching the temple visitors will pass by the Tapgol Eco Park (탑골생태공원). The park has a nature learning center, (empty) eco stream, and a marsh garden with a pond that was densely populated by water striders. A group of old women were having a chat around a picnic table near the entrance and not too far away two old guys, socks off, were napping on a pavilion, but apart from them the park was nearly empty. This will likely change once the nearby apartment towers get filled in, but for the time being the park is a remarkably quiet place and you can have entire sections almost completely to yourself.
The final temple I visited was just north of Bodeok-sa and the Eco Park. Heungchang Temple (흥창사) is not what one thinks of when they think of a Buddhist temple, as it sits right on the heavily trafficked Tongil-ro and therefore suffers from a very un-Zen lack of peace and quiet. Like Bodeok it didn’t look very old, and the complex was an odd mash-up of temple and house architectures. On a second floor landing I could see a mattress propped up against the wall in a glassed-in stairwell. To see if there was anything more interesting I walked toward the back of the complex (There wasn’t.) where I discovered that Heungchang-sa, like Siyeon-sa, had a temple dog as well. From the end of the chain that tethered him to his house, he took a few moments to regard me and consider whether or not he too thought I was worth barking at, before deciding that yes, indeed, I was.
Gupabal Waterfall (구파발폭포)
Exit 1 or 2
Siyeon Temple (시연사)
Right on Jingwan-2-ro (진관2로), cross Tong-il-ro (통일로)
Bodeok Temple (보덕사) and Tapgol Eco Park (탑골생태공원)
Left on Jingwan-3-ro (진관3로)
Heungchang Temple (흥창사)
Left on Jingwan-3-ro (진관3로), right on Tong-il-ro (통일로)