Thursday, 6 August 2009

The Guardians of Seoul

Things happen for a reason.

The original form of this piece was written for The Korea Times but wasn't published due to constraints in space. I then offered it to the Seoul webzine, but they advised me to enter it in the Seoul essay competition instead.

So I changed the title, revised it, and turned it into a mushy, corny, sentimental piece, which I thought would tickle the jurors of the Seoul Essay Contest.

Tickled they were, but obviously not enough. They only awarded me an Honorable Mention with a cash prize of about US$200. Not bad for an essay written over a lunch break.

Here's the list of the winning essays.

* * * * *

The Guardians of Seoul

I have always liked Seoul’s character: great shopping, old palaces, cosmopolitan atmosphere, efficient transport system and mountains. Yes! Mountains in the city! I live in Seoul, but I come from another country, where you have to travel hours in order to climb a mountain, but in Seoul, a mountain is just a bus ride or even a subway ride away.

I am a nature lover and it makes me happy that these mountains in the city offer me and my kind a sanctuary to discover and enjoy nature even in the middle of a busy cosmopolitan. There are actually many mountains in Seoul, and I am so enamored by the peaks I already visited that I can identify them from anywhere in the city: An-san, Bukhan-san, Gwanak-san, Pugak-san, and Nam-san. The Korean word ‘san’, by the way, means ‘mountain’. Of the ones I have been to, my favorite is Nam-san.

Nam-san offers a spectacular 360-degree view of the city as it is located right in the heart of Seoul. On its peak is a very tall structure, the NTower, which has restaurants and cafes, while its surroundings include a line of cherry blossoms which is a delight in spring when they bloom; an exciting cable car ride; and a jogging path which traverses from one side of the mountain to the other. This is why Nam-san is very popular among tourists and Seoulites. So having enjoyed the hikes on certain mountains in the city, I was ready to discover one more. And lucky me! My prayers were answered when I stumbled upon an invitation from the Seoul Help Center for Foreigners ( for a free tour of Pugak-san. This center, as its name connotes, is a big help to foreigners, like me, living in Seoul. After reading the invitation, I didn’t waste a moment, I immediately signed up.

So, on a sunny Saturday in early summer, a group of foreigners from the Philippines, Brazil, Bolivia, U. S., India, Italy, Hong Kong, China and Canada, all living in Seoul, met up at the Seoul City Hall for the bus ride to the starting point of the tour, near the mouth of the Samcheong Tunnel in Seongbuk-dong.

Pugak-san, or Pugak Mountain is in northern Seoul and is only 342 meters high, with hiking trails around it. The hike around the mountain is monitored and controlled, requiring hikers to make a reservation and submit proper identification beforehand. Why? Close by is Cheong Wa Dae, or the Presidential Residence.

The trails around the mountain run alongside the ancient fortress walls known as the Pugak Fortress built by King Taejo of the Chosun Dynasty in the 14th century. The original length of the fortress was about 18.2 kilometers, but today, only 10.5 kilometers remain. I learned that most of the fortress walls were destroyed during the Japanese occupation of the country, and of the remaining length, 4.3 kilometers run the trail around Pugak-san. But even with the destruction, King Taejo would still have been proud of his achievement as the fortress walls snaking around the mountain still stand strong and solid like the indomitable Korean spirit. This Fortress has two standing gates, the Sukcheong-mun and Chang-ui-mun, through which hikers pass through.

At the highest point, we were able to enjoy the amazing view of Seoul. And though that day was a bit muggy, we were able to identify the downtown buildings and avenues, Nam-san and NTower, and even the structures south of the Han River. Had the day been clearer, I could have identified my favorite cafes and shopping outlets (kidding!).

Along the trail, one will encounter a pine tree with holes. The holes were caused by bullets during an exchange of gunfire between the authorities and unsuccessful North Korean assassins who made their way through this mountain in 1968 to kill the then sitting president. Until today, this pine tree wears these bullet holes like a badge of honor, still standing firm and loyal like a real sentinel protecting its leader.

While discovering Pugak-san, what struck me was its serenity. I was still in the city, but I could not feel the city: no noisy car engines, no chit-chattering of people on the phone, no loud vendors. In other words, the mountain protects its visitors. And along the fortress trail, you can’t help but admire what King
Taejo and his subjects did centuries ago: the huge, polished blocks of rocks must have required hundreds or maybe thousands of workers who toiled countless days and nights under the heat and coldness of the weather all year round, carrying, shaping and putting all these rocks together to create an astonishing and admirable fortress, a symbol of pride for Koreans then, as it is now. This realization did not only dawn on me, as everybody in our hiking group shared the same feeling of admiration and awe at what the mountain has kept secret for years. Pugak-san was actually closed to the public for about four decades, but was recently opened in April 2007, and we all felt honored to be one of the first lucky foreigners to have been invited into its heart.

My hike at Pugak-san made me realize that all these mountains in Seoul have, in one way or another, touched, protected or even nurtured the people of Seoul. And just like Pugak-san or Nam-san, or which-ever mountain in Seoul, each has its own beauty and unique character, its own kind of serenity and calmness, and its own way of endearing itself to the people, like the parents and their children, couples, and hikers, enjoying a trek along its trails, or tourists who simply like to admire it from afar. All year round, it welcomes those who choose to keep it company: be it in spring when all the colorful flowers bloom; or in summer, where up in the mountain, hikers still enjoy cooler breezes; in autumn when all the leaves turn a mountain into a giant and colorful mural of yellow, red, orange and brown; or even in winter, when a mountain sleeps while it is blanketed by snow.

As these mountains have been here even before the first inhabitant settled in what is now Seoul, they are a witness to Seoul’s rich history, from the day it was founded, to the centuries it flourished, to the years it was ruined by war, and up to the present day, when it has become South Korea’s proud capital, recognized as one of the best cities in the world. And as grateful as we all are, we also owe it to these mountains, to help protect and preserve them as the Korean culture progresses and the human civilization advances.

As throughout history, the mountains of Seoul have stood guard, closely watching over and selflessly protecting Seoul and its people.

These mountains are the real guardians of Seoul.

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