A group of foreign hikers decked out in rented hiking outfits pose for a photo on a trail in Bukhansan National Park. (Seoul Tourism Organization)
With its rugged granite peaks, leafy forests, streams and walking trails, Bukhansan is an oasis of greenery in the bustling metropolis of Seoul. And it has rightly been receiving attention from foreign residents and visitors.
The only drawback is that it is not a leisurely walk but one that requires proper hiking gear.
To address this and support foreigners who want to explore Bukhansan but don‘t have the right shoes or outfits, the Seoul Hiking Tourism Center offers a free rental service.
On a recent Sunday morning, the center, which is located near Bukhansan Ui Station, where one of the most popular trails starts, had a group of foreign visitors getting ready for a walk along the Dullegil Trail.
“The hiking gear is a bit heavy and usually expensive to buy,” said Camille, 31, from France.
Camille receives hiking gear from the Seoul Hiking Tourism Center staff. (Choi Jae-hee / The Korea Herald)
“I’ve never experienced this kind of rental service for foreign hikers in my homeland and other European cities. This is something unique to Korea, which can draw foreign tourists,” she said.
The center, occupying an entire floor of a building, has a vast collection of hiking shirts, pants and boots of different sizes and colors, complete with two fitting rooms. The center even has shower rooms that renters can use for free.
Sushrut Kelkar waits for this turn in front of fitting rooms. (Choi Jae-hee / The Korea Herald)
All of the rental items are provided by the local outdoor brand and official sponsor, Black Yak, and shoes are available in sizes up to 310mm (about a US size 14), an official there told The Korea Herald.
Other than the gear, staff at the center provide guide information on hiking courses in four languages -- Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese.
According to officials, the rental service is available both on-site and online at www.seoulhiking.or.kr.
“It is really a good opportunity for foreigners who just want to experience hiking here without carrying heavy baggage,” Bambet, a tourist from the Philippines, said as she signed up for the rental outfit.
Her friend Shrestha, a 28-year-old Nepalese woman who has lived in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, for more than two years, added, “Many tourists usually don‘t bring hiking clothes and shoes from their country unless they are enthusiastic about mountain hikes. This service will encourage many foreign visitors to take impromptu hikes in Seoul’s many beautiful mountains.”
The free hiking gear rental for foreigners is a pilot project.
After the trial period ends in September, the Seoul Tourism Organization will study whether to expand the service, with potential new locations including Dobongsan, Inwangsan, Suraksan, Gwanaksan and Bugaksan.
The service is currently limited to foreign nationals only. The agency said it also will study whether to include local hikers as beneficiaries in the future.
The pilot project comes amid growing interest in Seoul‘s mountains and trekking trails among foreign visitors.
According to the latest survey conducted jointly by the agency and the Seoul Metropolitan Government on 1,092 visitors from the United States, France, China, Japan, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Thailand, more than 82 percent of the respondents said they were willing to go on hiking in Seoul.
In love with Seoul’s mountains
After changing into hiking outfits at the Seoul Hiking Tourism Center, the foreign renters embarked on a day‘s excursion along the Bukhansanseong Fortress Course. This popular 3.4-kilometer trail begins at the Bukhansanseong Hiking Support Center and goes all the way to the highest peak on the mountain.
Bambet (left) talks with other foreign hikers while climbing up the mountain. (Seoul Tourism Organization)
They were the members of “Climbing in Korea,” a social club based in Seoul of more than 14,000 hikers, 70 percent of which are foreigners. It holds weekly hiking meetups, where members make new friends by hiking and trekking together.
For Sushrut Kelkar, a 28-year-old Indian office worker living in northern Seoul, “easy access” is the best part of hiking in Seoul and what makes him do it on the weekends.
“I can reach the mountains by taking public transportation. Most of them are within walking distance from subway stations. In my homeland, it usually takes more than three hours to go to the mountains’ entrance,” he said.
From exit No. 2 of Bukhansan Ui Station to the entrance of the Bukhansan National Park, it takes less than 10 minutes to walk. Largely thanks to its convenient location, Bukhansan draws 5 million hikers a year, according to the Seoul tourism agency.
“Well-maintained hiking trails along the mountains in Korea are also perfect for a good workout and enjoying gorgeous scenery along the way,” Kelkar added.
Besides great accessibility, the local hiking culture in Korea has some unique features.
Korean hikers sharing food with strangers is one among them, he said.
“Even though they didn‘t know each other, some Koreans exchanged climbing food like granola bars or nuts. I learned that Koreans are good at sharing things,” he said, adding people drinking on a mountain peak or at rest areas along the hiking trails was another interesting scene.
Bambet added, “many Koreans talk to strangers while walking on the trails. They smile and greet other hikers along the way. Some of them were helpful in giving me directions.”
By Choi Jae-hee (email@example.com