Getting lost and stumbling upon something unexpected is the best way to travel. In this case I had planned to do a short hike up to Mongwolsa Temple, which is about an hour outside of Seoul. Various tourist websites said the trail itself only takes about an hour, plus however much time you want to spend at the temple. I figured I could do the hike in jeans in converse so I would be able to meet my friends in the city after I'm done. But naturally I read the map wrong, took the wrong trail up the mountain and ended up finishing about 5 hours later.
And I have no regrets.
This was easily the most fun I have ever had doing a solo hike. The trail was really challenging and involved scrambling up rocks with the help of ropes and cables. The fall leaves were still in full swing and you could see miles of colorful forest from the top of the mountain. For the majority of the hike I was the only person on the trail, and it wasn’t until I was almost at the temple that I saw my first larger group of people.
For whatever reason no native korean under the age of 50 hikes for fun, so my only companions on the trail were older koreans lugging around their giant day packs. Koreans prefer to hike in style and dress in head to toe coordinated hiking gear. Their backpacks are so full because they carry around extravagant picnic lunches complete with a blanket for seating, various side dishes, kimchi and, of course, a bottle of soju or two.
As I descended from the peak to the temple I made friends with a group of korean hikers after I offered to take their picture. They took a couple pictures of me in front of the fall leaves, and we talked for a little bit with me speaking broken korean and them speaking broken english. They were adorable and just as excited about the fall colors as I was.
The trail alone was worth the trip, but the temple tucked into the mountain was the perfect way to end the hike. Most temples in Korea that I have seen feel very touristy and are usually crowded, but this temple was almost completely empty except for a couple hikers and monks. The artwork on the doors and sides of each building were more intricate and careful than other temples I have seen, and the atmosphere was more calm.
After wandering around the temple I made my way back to to the train on the trail I had intended to start with. It was a much less exciting trail, and I felt grateful for my poor map reading skills.