The northern edge of Old Seoul is watched over by BukHanSan; the North Korea Mountains. Seoul is only 55km from North Korea, so I presumed the name referred to the North, but its actual significance is that the mountains dwell north of the Han River, the largest river in Korea. This river also cuts through Seoul, dividing Old Seoul from its recent developments.
I’ve yet to brave these mountains, not for their rounded, steep slopes and not their modest height, but for the thousands of Seoulites congregated along the trails. If the cultural complacency of blowing through fellow pedestrians -dislocating shoulders and fracturing elbows- that has evolved in the over-capacitated urban streets of Korea is any sign of what to expect on Seoul’s most popular mountain, I’m definitely choosing my day to go hiking with great deliberation. Seoul is a city of over ten million, with another twelve in the surroundings, and hiking is their national pastime.
Amidst the cell phone ringers, scooters, SLR cameras, and other various symptoms of modernity that flourish like bad perms and fermented soy beans in Seoul, there is one sacred place I’ve found that manages to evade the multitudes. Tucked on the side of InWangSan, one of BukHanSan’s initial foothills, there is a small, blue tiled village of Buddhist Temples and Shamanist Shrines.
Shamanism and Buddhism evolved side by side in Korea, and have influenced each other throughout their history in Korea. On most Korean temple grounds, there is even a small Shamanist shrine dedicated to San Shin, and other mountain spirits. Korean shamans, known as “mudang”, are intercessors between spirits and human beings. In a “Gu’t” ceremony, the mudang will offer sacrifices, such as candles, incense, rice or meat, and perform ceremonies while beating a steel drum, chanting, dancing, waving five different colored flags, and other rituals to attract and evoke communication with the spirits. It had an important role in the traditions of rice farmers and fisherman, but as Korea flocks to urban life, agriculture and its ways are diminishing, along with the role of the mudang.
InWangSan was once known as the White Tiger Mountain, but they have been hunted to extinction a long time ago. The Korean equivalent to, “Once upon a time…” is, “When tigers smoked pipes…” but now, “Once, when there were tigers…” seems more practical. Its current name means the Benevolent King Mountain and was named for the first King of the Joseon Dynasty. Buddhism was established as the state religion in the sixth century, but as Neo Confucianism began to overrun the aristocratic community, fundamental contrasts between the two philosophies couldn’t elude conflict. Eventually Confucianism overcame and Buddhism was exiled to the mountains.
From InWangSan, you can look down on the Joseon’s grandest palace, but just beyond the ancient fortresswall that divides the mountain, the monks and shamans were not disturbed. The path leading up the hill is steep and when you arrive at the site, there are corridors of brusque stairways entwining the temples. The atmosphere is still old even though between the buildings you can peer down towards the towers of Seoul. Walking through the village, a part of you is taken back and separated from the usual existence. The mountain is swathed by the prevalent scents of wax and incense that mingle with the aroma of sacrificial alcohol, poured to the Gods. Dishes of raw pork are set outside temples. The spirits must still be fed, and in Korea they are fed well.
A straight climb up the stairway brings you to SeonBawi, the Zen Rocks. Seon is Korean Zen, and Bawi is the name given to specials rocks. The rocks are said to resemble a robed monk, and are really an amazing formation. Expectant mothers crowd in front of them, praying for the birth of a son. Behind the rocks, empty liquor bottles are piled high and a path around and over the hill. A large round stone sits half way up the mountain, with steps worn into the side. Sitting there, you can look down at the temples, at SeonBawi, and you have clear sight of the entire city. The seven hundred year old fortress wall is to your right, just below it stretches the Grand Palace, andSeoul Tower is facing you. Continuing on, you walk along the foot of the small cliffs, where there’s an ancientBuddha craved in the rock. This is where you will see many mudang engaging the spirits with their Gut. Once you reach the side of the cliff, you can climb up the wall, and follow it along the trail into BukHanSan.
I walked back to the boulder and sat through the evening. I watched as dusk approached and the sun went down, the city lit up with office towers, traffic lights, and assorted neon. Two weeks later, I returned in the wee hours and watched the scene in reverse. As the smog along the horizon began to glow, like tarnished gold, the city’s lights eventually went out. I cherished the moment of apparent solitude, listening to the dogs howling in the hill above me. As dawn broke, the bitter winds of the waking spirits gusted through me. The closer the sun came to rising, the more I shivered. Soon, the morning sun warmed my face, and the winds withered. The flocks of magpies were my only companions. I extended my stiffened joints and made it back down to join the millions.