Most fellow explorers that I associate with use the label “urban explorer” somewhat reluctantly. It’s more of a placeholder because other designations to describe our hobby don’t fit. Urban exploration is a catch-all term to describe the investigation of human-made structures. An urban explorer explores drains, cranes, catacombs, rooftops, tunnels, and my favorite, abandonments. Despite containing the word “urban,” locations are not strictly limited to the city, nor are they bounded to neglected structures. There are plenty of forgotten yet active places in rural settings as well.
I’ve always held Korea’s mountains in high regard; I used to near the foothills and the Suyu-side of Bukhansan National Park. On the days where I didn’t work until the afternoons, I would take advantage of the free mornings and hike up the various trails leading up to the ridge. On weekends, I’d make the trek up to Baekundae(白雲臺 백운대), putting up with the crowds to the top. I can also say I’ve hiked every prominent mountain in the Seoul area. Before urban exploring took up most of my free time, hiking played a central role on weekends and off days. I’ve always loved hiking in Korea’s wilderness, despite having to compete with the crowds.
There are plenty of opportunities to “rurex” (as the kids called rural exploration)the mountains of Korea. The most common structures you will find are pillboxes, trenches, and guard towers built after the Korean War. ind old burial mounds throughout the hills and mountains in Korea. Some are well taken care of, like the graves of Korean Independence fighters. In contrast, nature is reclaiming the mounds of ordinary folks buried before the modernization of Korea. Isaiah Winters wrote about locating an abandoned goldmine dating back to the colonial era outside of Gwangju. I tagged along with him early on to find it, but we came up empty on that day. It didn’t matter because we found some shamanic shrines to photograph, so the trip was a win in my book; This brings me to a new focus in my future explorations of Korea: shamanic sites in the mountains!
Last year, I wrote about exploring Inwangsan to find rediscovered Sanshin on the mountain. It took multiple trips, but I eventually found all three Mountain God carvings along with a hard-to-reach Mireuk (Maitraya, Future Buddha) Bosal. This experience tied together my love of Korean folk religion, hiking, and exploring.
What a joy it was when in June, I was able to synthesize all my interests once again in a hike organized by Shawn Morrissey. Shawn is a folklorist that runs the Seoul Hike Tour through Bukhansan National Park. Along with Joe McPherson, he runs the Dark Side of Seoul ghost walk tour and hosts the podcast of the same name. I have yet to go on the ghost walk, but it sounds pretty fun! Their podcast is informative and entertaining, especially for someone who wants to learn more about Korea other than K-Pop and the Dongdaemun Design Plaza. In their series on the disasters that shaped modern Korea, you see the tragedies occur because leaders made the same mistakes repeatedly. Also, they interview some guy about urban exploring in Korea.
Back to the hike, on a warm, smoggy day, I met up with Shawn to lead me along a trail while telling folk stories related to the mountains and the region. I had never much hiked the Western side of Bukhansan before; as mentioned earlier, I pretty much entered from the Eastern side, so it was a treat to walk a route I’ve never been on before. Despite the haze sticking around most of the day, it was a great day. It was a pleasure meeting Shawn and talking with him about the field of heritage interpretation, Korean folklore, and how urban exploration in Korea is an avenue to see modern Korea deal with its chaotic past.
I kick myself for writing this so long after the fact. I will try my best to relate what information I retained, but the pictures will be talking for the most part. In going through these pictures, I am committed to hiking more this fall. Shawn showed me that hiking has its exploring opportunities, especially when trying to find shamanic sites. The ones we saw were either abandoned or hidden out of sight from iconoclasts.
The first set of pictures is from early on our hike, working our way through a rough, craggy valley. Shawn offered to take me to a hard-to-reach shamanic cave site. No signs mark this as a shamanic site; it’s right along the trail, hiding in plain sight. This cave was difficult to access that an iconoclast wouldn’t even bother trying to vandalize it. On a dry day, you could grab a crag and pull yourself up, but recent rains made the rock slippery, so we had to maneuver up and down the stone carefully as a team, watching each others back. Our patience and effort rewarded us with a cool cave to ourselves, and we discovered an alter for Guan Yin (觀世音菩薩 관세음보살), complete with a snack offering. Who knows how long it had been there. It looked like someone placed the snack there recently.I imagine devotees still go when the weather and their bodies are cooperating. Even on a dry day, followers of the way need to put in the effort to pay their respects.
Further along, on our hike, Shawn took me to a shrine with some beautiful carvings of Chilseongshin (七星神 칠성신), deities that represent the Big Dipper, and a rare instance of a Sanshin (山神 산신) accompanied by a horse. The man who carved these had a dream of this particular boulder and urged to put the carvings of these deities here. He spent years crafting the images while dealing with government officials cementing in the crags and religious groups vandalizing his life’s work. Shamanism is looked down upon in Korean society for thousands of years. Many people see these practices as backward and embarrassing to the version of Korea they want the world to see in modern times. Despite its outcast status, Shamanism persists and is still alive in 21st Century Korea.
First, I present the iPhone photos of the shrine. It was notoriously difficult to photograph these carvings. I love the detail put into the coloring of these deities.
Here are two versions shot on a 6×4.5 medium format film camera, using expired Fujifilm Pro400H. By the time we got here, I had run out of black and white film, but I think it would be fun to reshoot this in black and white.
And finally, here are some shots taken on the Olympus XA2 35mm rangefinder with fresh Kodak Color Plus 200 film.
Our final shrine visit was to a cluster of abandoned shrines right off a busy road out of the park and back to civilization. National Park officials didn’t seem to tolerate these shrines as much as the most isolated ones. As mentioned before, these shrines were not too far off from an entry/exit to the mountains, with a plethora of hiking gear shops and restaurants erected to entice hikers. I can’t help but think these abandoned shrines are a result, of once again, people embarrassed of their “outdated,” “simple,” humble folk origins and desirous of projecting hypermodernism to the rest of the globe.
I only got photos of the cave shrine area. Walking further along the hillside, we came across the outlines of other former altars. The debris of past ceremonies remained buried in the dirt and leaves. I wonder how much resistance the mudang or other community members put up before calling quits. Usually, city officials will order workers to cover up sites with concrete, then the shamans or the followers will come back and tear down their work. At some point, the worshippers thought it was not worth the hassle and found another auspicious place to have ceremonies.
Although amid the summer heat, this hike with Shawn has inspired me to take up hiking again. I already have a route and mountain in mind I’d like to go on within the next couple of weeks. I hope to explore more shrines around the mountains and hills around Korea in the fall. Hopefully, I will have some fodder for this blog soon. In the meantime, here are some photos of some giant Buddhas I took while Shawn and I hiked through some Buddhist temples along the tour. I love the accidental light leaks on the Buddha’s head.