This is the 53th in a series of articles highlighting tourism spots in Seoul. The guide for planning weekend trips in the capital city will help readers rediscover Seoul. - Ed.
By Heo Shi-myung
Gwanaksan is a mountain to the south of Seoul. When Joseon officials designated Seoul as the capital 600 years ago, they turned their back on Bukhansan and made far-off Gwanaksan the city`s boundary. Gwanaksan`s ridges soar upward, so that it looks like the sharp backbone of a dinosaur. The problem is that the sharp ridges also look like flames. Those who chose the capital feared that the mountain could actually cause the city to burn.
Thus, in order to calm the fire energy of Gwanaksan, two "haechi" were erected at both sides of Gwanghwamun, the gate in front of Seoul`s main palace. A haechi is an mythical creature that eats fire. In addition, the officials hung the tablet of Namdaemun, Seoul`s southern gate, vertically instead of horizontally, and directed it toward Gwanaksan.
The letter "Rye" in the word "Sungryemun," the gate`s original name, symbolizes the south among the four directions and fire among the five principal elements of oriental philosophy. By hanging the tablet in a way that resembles a rising flame, they hoped it would hold out against the spirit of fire from Gwanaksan. Moreover, they dug a pond in front of Namdaemun, buried water jars in the mid-slope, and dug several puddles here and there around the summit of Gwanaksan.
However, these efforts did not prevent fire from affecting Seoul. The royal palaces and residential buildings were all made of wood. Fires broke out easily, and when they did many buildings were destroyed.
The riverside of Dongbu Ichon-dong and the park in front of Nanjido count among the ideal places to observe Gwanaksan. From here, the view of Gwanaksan soars upwards like flame. In the foreground is the Han River, stretching like a long belt. Gwanaksan is so named because it looks as if the mountain is wearing a hat - the Chinese character "Gwan" means "hat."
Two major organizations are based near Gwanaksan. The campus of Seoul National University, considered Korea`s most prestigious, has settled on the north side of Gwanaksan. Previously, the campus was in the foothills of the mountain. But as time went by, the rising numbers of buildings have nibbled away at the open space. In fact, the university is considered to be the main culprit for eroding Gwanaksan`s green space. The best way for citizens to climb the mountain used to be to follow the trail next to the main gate of SNU, but now the university`s retaining walls and buildings have reduced the enjoyment of that trail.
The other organization is the Gwacheon Government Complex located on the western side of Gwanaksan. The town of Gwacheon spreads out once you pass Namtaeryeong, one of the key landmarks at the southern edge of Seoul. The view of Gwanaskan seen from Gwacheon is imposing and beautiful.
There are several paths to the top of the mountain. Though you can climb from east, west, south or north, many people choose the path starting from Gwacheon Park which is behind the Gwacheon Government Complex.
At the entrance of Gwacheon Park, is Gwacheon Hyanggyo, a Confucian temple. Hyanggyo refers to the educational institution established by the government during the Joseon Dynasty. Gwacheon Hyanggyo was founded in 1398. In 1690 it was moved, because fires had broken out frequently and few students from there passed the state civil service exam, and thus the officials considered the site a poor one. Hongsalmun is the institution`s main gate. Once you set foot inside, there is Myeongyundang, the main lecture hall, in front and behind this are, Daeseongjeon, where rituals are held.
At the park there are several makgeolli and bindaetteok vendors. These days, makgeolli has become a popular drink after mountain climbing. Magkeolli is considered most delicious when one is hungry and exhausted after sweating much during the climbing. The best way to enjoy makgeolli, informed sources say, is to freeze a whole bottle of makgeolli for about five hours prior to climbing. After about two hours of climbing, the makgeolli should be at the perfect temperature.
From Gwacheon Hyanggyo, one heads toward the summit along the stream. Wooden stairs are provided here and there to make the climbing easier. The trail is uphill almost all the way. While climbing, I saw a pair of Jangseung, or Korean totem poles.
Jangseung used to act as waymarkers, guarding and filling the empty space. There are also heaps of stones marking the way. While climbing, many Korean people pick up stones to add to these cairns or make small stone towers next to rushing brooks, on small cliffs and under big rocks, wishing for their desires to come true. Phrases from the Buddhist scriptures like "Namuabitabul" are also written on some stones.
Gwanaksan`s biggest temple, Yeonjuam, famous for its association with the mountain, is located at the summit - unusual for a Korean temple. Yeonjuam has its origin in "Gwanaksa Temple" founded by Uisangdaesa in 677, which was enlarged by Taejo Lee Seong-gye who created the Joseon Dynasty to make it function as a temple for national protection. A humbly shaped three-storied stone pagoda stands on the front yard of the temple. Considering the one-storied skylobate and a thick roof stone, the tower is assumed to have been established during the Goryeo Dynasty. Some say the tower was put up by Grand Prince Hyoryeong (1396-1486). There is a space where the portrait of Hyoryeong was enshrined in Yeonjuam. Hyoryeong became a monk here after his brother Sejong came to the throne.
Yeonjudae stands 400m away from Yeonjuam. This is the summit of Gwanaksan. Yeonjudae features many sharp and pointed rocks and a small Buddhist shrine sits on one of the dazzling cliffs. The person who built this shrine must have seen his life flash before his eyes on this dangerous precipice - no doubt making resolutions for selfimprovement.
It is said that there were several people who settled down here. One of them is Grand Prince Hyoryeong who conceded the kingship to his younger brother King Sejong. Others are the faithful retainers of the fallen Goryeo dynasty who rejected the creation of the Joseon Dynasty. They were said to practice austerity at Yeonjudae, with the view of Songaksan in Gaeseong in the distance. The name "Yeonjudae" means "missing one`s lord."
A transmitting tower and a meteorological observatory have also been put up here. The latter is open to the public. The distance from Gwacheon Hyanggyo to Yeonjudae is about 3.2 km and it takes about two hours if you walk slowly.
Gwanaksan has two peaks; Gwanaksan, which has Yeonjudae on its top, and Samseongsan, which is home to Sammaksa Temple. If you want to travel from Yeonjudae to Samseongsan, you need to go over Palbong ridge. It is a tough climb to extend the walk to Palbong ridge. Generally, those who climb to Yeonjudae go down the mountain toward the main gate of Seoul National University, to Gwacheon Park or Sadang Station. Note that the path to the university is very steep along the valley.
It takes a full hour from Yeonjudae to the fourth campsite which is in the mid of the path to the main gate of the university. However, it is easier to walk from the campsite to the main gate as the path is even. The fourth campsite stands at the dividing line between Sammaksa Temple and Yeonjudae. If you still want to climb some more, the trail to Sammaksa Temple is worth the walk.
If you have already climbed Gwanaksan once, try out the path to Sammaksa Temple. The temple has mysterious rocks, which many people offer prayers to. The two big rocks, named Namgeunseok and Yeogeunseok, stand one on each side of the temple`s Chilseonggak Hall. The stones represent male and female genitals. It is unusual to find such stones so close together and, facing each other, although there are many phallic "Gija Rocks" in the mountains of Korea.
That`s why these two rocks here have been held sacred. It is believed that these rocks can give prosperity and health to those who place their hands on the surface of the rocks or offer their prayers. Some people attach coins to Yeogeunseok, the female rock, praying that their desires may come true.
If you descend the mountain to the west from here, you`ll find Anyang. Likewise, Gwanaksan has numerous trails to choose from, and each trail gives different and unique landscape of the mountain.
l National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea
This museum has a wide outdoor sculpture park, while in the three-story exhibition hall there are famous domestic and overseas art works on display. Art education and training programs take place all around the year.
l Seoul Grand Park Zoo
Seoul Grand Park Zoo, one of the world`s 10 largest zoos, is home to more than 270 kinds of animals, including endangered species. It has also more than 1,300 kinds of plants from all over the world and forest for walking.
l Seoul Grand Park
Seoul Grand Park is a park complex with numerous state-of-the-art entertainment facilities and magic kingdom-style parks. It holds fantastic flower festivals and many performances especially for family visitors with kids.
l Gwacheon Racecourse
The race course is equipped with 25,000 seats and open every day. Admission fee is 800 won on weekend. There is no fee on weekdays or when races are off.
l Getting there
Walk toward Gwacheon Park from Gwacheon Station, Exit No. 7, on Line 4. If you use your own car, go from Seoul through Sadang, Namtaeryeong toward Gwacheon Park on the opposite side of Gwacheon Library. If you depart from Yangjae, go on the National Road No. 47 toward Gwacheon City Hall. If you choose the trail from the main gate of SNU, get off at Seoul National University Station or Sillim Station on Line 2, and take the bus to SNU.