Huge flakes of snow were falling from the sky and to most it would have seemed an inopportune time to head out to hike the Fortress Wall of Bugaksan Mountain, but plans had been made and the hiking club members, no strangers to adverse hiking conditions, suited up to head out into the cold.
Snow keeps many people away from the mountains, but for those that do make it out, it can be an extra special time to hike in the quiet after the snow and the calm surroundings with few people on the trails. The Fortress Wall of Bugaksan Mountain is more steps than anything, so it’s not so much hiking as it is partaking in discussions of history while meandering over cobbled stones. Don’t meander too far though, as this part of the wall is heavily guarded and the servicemen on duty will be sure to keep you in line. This part of the wall follows the mountain that sits just behind Gyeongbukgung Palace and the Blue House, where the president resides. Bugaksan is the guardian mountain of the palace, and now the president, and reaches 342 meters high. The men on duty along this ridge keep a watchful eye on all hikers in the area and are sure to stop anyone from taking photos in a certain direction, that being the Blue House. Photos in any other direction are completely allowed though. Another duty of the men on guard also seems to be snow blowing the trails, interestingly, so don’t be worried about snow and ice making the trail completely inaccessible. We followed behind one snow blowing gentlemen for about 10 minutes as he cleared the way.This part of the path had been closed to visitors for 38 years after an assassination attempt on the then president by North Koreans but was opened once again in 2006. In order to keep an even tighter reign on visitors, everyone is asked to sign in and receive an ID badge with an assigned number to be worn while following the trail. Each person fills out a piece of paper with their passport number for foreigners, or their resident number for nationals, name and address and then inside workers collect the paper and look at passports and IDs and input the information into a computer before handing over a numbered badge. It’s easy and doesn’t cost a thing, just be sure to bring all proper identification along or you will be denied entry. Sukjeongmun is the first major gate seen past the security checkpoint. It is the northernmost of the four main gates of the fortress and was originally built in 1396 a bit more to the west than where it now stands. In 1504 this gate was rebuilt where it now sits. Since this gate was built just to the north and behind the royal palace, it was rarely used except on formal occasions. According to the traditional ideas of Yin and Yang and the five elements, the north gate represents water thus it was left open and the south gate would be closed during times of drought during the Joseon Dynasty. Along with this idea of Yin and Yang is another idea being passed down concerning this gate. According to the scholar Hong Seok-mo, “If women were to visit Sukjeongmun three times before the first full moon, then all the misfortune of the year could be avoided.” However, scholar Lee Gyu-gyeong states that, “If Sukjeongmun were left open, the women within the fortress became lustful and the gate was ordered to be closed all the time,” because of this. The gate is currently left open at all times…While walking along the wall, it easy to notice major differences in the size and color of the stones as different kinds of stones were used during different periods of construction. The original parts of the wall built in 1396 use the smallest stones to be found along the wall and they are not uniform in shape. Later parts of the wall constructed in 1422 have a more uniform rectangular shape with some small stones placed in the cracks. Still later, the parts of the wall erected in 1704 have stones trimmed down to 60cmX60cm and required four sturdy men to lift each.This is a perfectly reasonable trail to hike in the winter as well as any other season, so don’t neglect it just because of the snow and ice.
If you’d like to take a tour along this path of the Seoul Fortress Wall with me, click the banner above. I’d love to share some stories about this wall, culture in Korea and the history while I show you around.
Directions: Anguk Station, exit 2. Just outside the exit there is a bus stop, hop on bus #2 and get off at Sungkyunkwang Rear Gate.
Admission: Free, but bring a passport, or a Korean resident ID card.
Days: Open everyday except Mondays. If Monday is a holiday, then it’s closed Tuesdays.
Hours: March – October 9AM – 4PM; November – February 10AM – 3PM (Takes 1-2 hours to walk between the security checkpoints. No bathrooms or water stations are along this trail, so come prepared. There are bathrooms and water available at the security checkpoints though.)