Our Airbnb Experiences guide, expat Zohid, told us that the hike we were undertaking would be easier than the trail through Dobongsan Mountain, the original planned hike. That idea had been destroyed, literally, by typhoon Lingling, who had thrashed her way through the capital the day before and left a trail of broken branches in her wake. Luckily, Suraksan was open, and as we overtook the local sexagenarians on the way there, I made peace with the idea that the four-hour walk would be more of a stroll than a challenge. The views of Seoul from the top would make up for it.
Sitting on a boulder at the first peak to catch my breath, I look around me. Beyond the greenery, the city of Seoul stretches far out below: national park and skyscrapers side by side. It’s the reverse of the view we saw yesterday from the 123rd floor of Seoul Sky at Lotte World Tower in the heart of the city in Songpa-gu. Lingling disrupted that outing too, rolling through Seoul after we’d finished taking our photos, the 60km winds so strong we were stuck in the lift 555m above ground for an agonising 20 minutes. Right now, I’m not as anxious as I was when I was trapped in the lift, but I can already imagine how happy I’ll feel when we head back down. And not only because Zohid tells us it’s a tradition to drink makgeolli, a Korean rice wine, after a hike.
Nope, it’s because I’ve severely underestimated the path and my fellow hikers. Those poles aren’t the accessories of enthusiastic Saturday strollers but essentials that make walking up the rocky path much easier. There are parts so steep and slippery that steel ropes have been embedded into the mountainside to help people pull themselves up. Even with that, along the way I still need help from Zohid and the impressively fit older locals – they hold out their hands for me, or offer encouragement through a smile, and laugh as they call out, “Makgeolli!” The promise of the drink dangling like a reward in front of me.
It takes another 90 minutes of intense concentration during the descent, and a few bum falls, before we’re back at the base and sitting on plastic stools in the front of a small stall, about to have my first taste of makgeolli. “Geonbae!” Zohid toasts. We sing back the Korean for cheers. I don’t know if it’s the relief of surviving the tough trail, the dehydration from the long walk, or the alcohol after burning 4000-plus kJs, but that ice-cold drink tastes a lot like heaven, and a little bit like kombucha. We get through two bottles and two servings of homemade kimchi, fermented by a joyful old woman who runs the stall. Accomplished and giddy (read: slightly drunk), we make our way back into the city. That 64 per cent of South Korea is covered in forest and home to many hiking trails, is the first of the unexpected wellness offerings of my visit. And there are plenty more…
We’ve only become obsessed with fermented foods in the past few years, but Koreans have been all over gut-friendly goodness for an eternity. There are 200 types of the most popular fermented K-dish of all, kimchi, according to Grace, our kimchi-making teacher, and just as many ways to eat it: as a side dish, in a pancake, as part of a tuna stew or as the star ingredient of the best dumplings I’ve ever eaten at Gwangjang Market in Jongno-gu (above).
Pampering, K-Beauty Style
The city that helped bring sheet masks to the world is one where you have to treat yourself. My first pampering is at the flagship store of prestige brand Sulwhasoo in Gangnam-gu (above). For 90 minutes during the Heritage Ginseng Journey, the beautician goes back and forth between lathering my face in at least 10 different Sulwhasoo products, many infused with the hero product ginseng, and massaging me. And this is a few hours after the hike. It’s the perfect recovery tool. Pamper number two is at Spa 1899 Donginbi in Myeong-dong on my last day in Seoul. I think of it as pre-recovery for the flight home. This time, red ginseng is the key ingredient and even though the spa itself isn’t quite as luxe as Sulwhasoo, the massage is so much more relaxing.
Good food is also good for the soul. Before starting the five-course Seon, or Joy of Meditation menu at Buddhist temple food restaurant Balwoo Gongyang (above), I read the pre-meal chant on the wall, “I will take [the food] as medicine to get rid of the greed in my mind and to keep my physical being in order to achieve enlightenment.” I don’t leave the vegan, Michelin-star restaurant any wiser, but the reminder to be mindful helps me slow down and enjoy the food.
Fitness lovers’ home
I split my time between the Novotel Suites Ambassador Seoul Yongsan, and the Novotel Ambassador Seoul Dongdaemun (above), an excellent choice if you want to be close to Dongdaemun Design Plaza and the food fest that is Dongdaemun Market. Both hotels have excellent gym facilities and all-you-can-eat breakfasts. They’re also a short walk to the subway, making it easy to get around the city’s varied attractions, from the historic streets and antique wooden houses of Bukchon Hanok Village, to the neon lights of the restaurants and clubs in Itaewon-dong.
You can now save more money for kimchi dumplings, because Jetstar is launching flights directly to Seoul (Incheon) from the Gold Coast from December*. Woo hoo! They leave three times a week with fares from $309 one way. Head to jetstar.com for all the details.
*Flights subject to government and regulatory approval.