Urban exploration is a practical working term but doesn’t entirely describe the hobby. Anyone with a passive awareness of this subculture knows of urbex from seeing Instagrammers post pictures of Midwestern American abandoned malls or Chornobyl. While rooftopping, tunneling, draining, and exploring abandonments tend to be in urban locations, many locations are in the middle of nowhere.
I’d say that many of the best explorations I’ve done here in Korea are in rural settings. I agree that the term “urbex” doesn’t precisely fit while on a quest for abandonments. Many members of this worldwide community have embraced the term “rurex” to specify the areas they explore; Abandoned mines are definitely in rural settings while rooftopping and craning predominantly take place in the city.
Stepping past socially sanctioned limits offer potential thrills and dangers. In Korea, hiking has some urbex/rurex qualities; going off-trail is akin to going behind the tarped scaffolding of an urban redevelopment zone. Finding hidden or abandoned mountainside shamanic shrines deep in the woods is exciting as discovering a shamanic ritual scene inside a house in a condemned neighborhood. There are many potential dangers in both rural and urban exploration adventures. You might fall off a building while rooftopping, attempting to get the sweetest panoramic shot of the cityscape. Whereas, hiking off-trail in Korea’s mountains, you risk slipping off some of the country’s famous crags for a perfect view.
Both opportunities potentially offer you a scene that most people don’t encounter in their daily lives. Not many people in Korea are interested in taking a peek behind the tarps to see the destruction of communities. I don’t blame them, especially if someone sees their childhood neighborhood get chewed up. It’s an upsetting scene; I would be perturbed if I were to witness the demolition of the houses I grew up in. Also, not many people want to put in the time and effort to walk off the path, get tripped up in branches, and risk twisted ankles to see blooming azaleas that most people would never see.
A couple of weekends ago, Shawn Morrissey and I risked twisted ankles’ or worse, potential falling death in search of a legendary Koryo-era Buddhist carving located on the cliff rocks around Gaknyeongsa, a temple with a giant golden Buddha located within Bukhansan National Park. People who follow this blog will recall I went out with Shawn on a hike in June 2021, exploring the lesser-seen aspects of Korean mountain culture. We continued where we left off, scanning the rocky hillside on the right side of the Golden Buddha.
As the Bukhansan mountain range covers three sides of the temple, we had our work cut out for us and decided to hike the steep terrain up Uisang-bong and hope that the Mountain God would smile good luck upon us. Local monks living in the mountain provided Shawn with limited information about the carving. All we were going with was that it was on the cliffside behind the monastery.
On top of being weary of slippery slopes, we needed to take care not to step on hibernating snakes. Korea has a variety of venomous snakes; Coetzer and I almost stepped on a coiled pit viper while exploring the abandoned silk factory. After Shawn mentioned this, I because hyper-aware of each step into the leaf litter. After a steady climb, we spotted a possible locale for a Buddhist carving. It was challenging to get to and a place only die-hard seekers of the way would search for to pay tribute to the Buddha.
Towards the end of our ascent, Shawn and I stumbled upon a rock formation with too many perfect lines and ninety-degree angles to be natural. Much discussion and theorizing happened that this could have been a mountain shrine long ago.
The descent down Uisang-bong, the official trail, was slow. After that climb up, we began to run into other off-trail hikers picnicking in under big shady trees. The trees also offered a respite from the gusty winds blowing that day. Shawn took special care to hold tight onto his fedora; it would’ve been terrible to see the wind take that, perhaps a mischievous mountain god trying to ruin an explorer’s quest?
The trek was arduous, and we all celebrated with beer and chicken at our home. What a day!