A City’s Hidden Valley

Though often overlooked for its neighboring hiking trails on mounts 북한산 [bukhansan] and 북악산 [bugaksan], 백사실 [baeksasil] Valley offers one of Seoul’s most peaceful, hidden inner-city escapes.

Baeksasil Valley in northern Seoul is one of the city’s greatest secrets, well-kept by neighbors and hikers seeking its peace. Groves of tall trees bridge the ground to the blue skies in this quiet mountain vallet, where the air so silent that even the soft falling of snow will lightly sound on dry leaves.

Often named one of Korea’s most picturesque landmarks, Baeksasil dates back to the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), where it is believed to have been the site of a grand villa owned by Yi Hang-bok, a renowned prime minister in the early 17th century. The valley was named after Yi’s penname “Baeksa”. Its unmatched views of the city led to it being called a Baekseokdongcheon – “baekseok” is short for Mt Bugaksan, while “dongcheon” means scenic outlook – and an ancient rock carving still proclaims that title today.

The course to Baeksasil begins long before the actual entrance of the valley. The hike to its entrance can be found in the charming neighborhood of Buam-dong, home to several hole-in-the-wall eateries and coffee shops boasting beans roasted in-store.

Explorers head north on Jahamun-gil, a winding road with an icline that rises and falls with the side of Bugaksan. Along the path, pop culture fanatics will appreciate Sanmotoonge Cafe, better known as one of the shooting locations for the hit Korean drama The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince. Though the area is undergoing new development, pristine views of Seoul and the seonggwak-gil fortress wall can still be glimpsed all along the walk.

At the entrance of Baeksasil, wave upon wave of majestiv trees greet the eye, welcoming weary hikers into a pleasant, downhill walk. Strategically located wooden benches provide perches perfect for reflection, as passersby dwindle to a minimum.

Remnants of Yi’s villa can be found nestled in a clearing in the valley. Though the building itself has long been lost to time, foundation stones stand in their original locations. Separated from the hiking trails by a stream, the outlines of a pond and hexagonal pavilion stand in place by the main building.

At the end of the trail, 현통사 [hyeonthongsa] Temple peeks out from a corner of the mountain, its entrance located next to a spring that flows down larger-than-life boulders. The vibrantly painted gate ushers in curious onlookers, before they descend once more into the city.

Though Baeksasil Valley ends at the temple, many will continue on to make one last stop, near the end of the trail. 세검정 [segeomjeong], a small pavilion designated a landmark within Seoul, was a resting place for soldiers. Its name literally translates to “place to wash swords and pray for peace”, and the quiet environment it rests in helps illuminate the name.

The original date of construction is unknown, but its current state was restored in 1977, after a fire burnt down the structure in 1941. Records show that it was dirst rebuilt in 1748, and its likeness was captured in a work by Joseon Dynasty painter Jeong Seon.

Though the valley’s easy trails will only take an hour or two, at most, to traverse, the mini excursion provides relief from the city’s bustling frenzy of 10 million people.

Source: KOREA People & Culture Magazine, January 2012

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