Namhansanseong (남한산성)

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A few weeks ago I made a short trip out of Seoul to Namhan Mountain Fortress, or Namhansanseong in Korean. Being a Vermonter, my roots are in the country. I grew up spending a lot of time outside, playing in the woods, biking, hiking, etc. When I first came to Seoul, the city life was overwhelming to me. I felt rushed, overstimulated and even little things like taking the subway and going to the grocery store, packed beyond what I was used to back home, felt like small adventures. Yet, after just about 3 years, this urban life has become normal to me. Recently I’ve come to miss the country. I’ve felt a desire to re-connect more deeply with nature and take more excursions outside of Seoul. I’d heard many times of Namhansanseong. I’d heard it’s a good day trip from Seoul, but my expectations were low. I thought it might provide a nice rest from Seoul life, but didn’t expect more.

I left from Seoul on Line 3 from Apgujeong on a Sunday afternoon, arriving at Namhansanseong 45 minutes later, where I took a bus up to the base of the mountain fortress. I was expecting a short, relatively flat ride, not anticipating the steep winding route the bus would take. As the bus inched, or rather zoomed, up the side of the mountain, views of the surroundings below expanded into the horizon. I was reminded of hikes I did in Hong Kong, where just getting to the trail head required long rides up the sides of mountains. The bus arrived at the base, where the old mountain palace is still in tact, nestled underneath the surrounding peaks and the fortress wall along their ridges. On the way to the North Gate, where I started the hike, were various cafes and restaurants selling anything from Sundubu (Tofu soup), various cuts of meat to Sanchae Bibimbap (Mountain Vegetable Bibimbap). There was a surprising amount of character and charm to this area and cozy, hanok-stye (traditional Korean architecture) cafe’s were pocketed away in the forest.

After reaching and passing the North Gate, I slowly made my way along the fortress wall towards the South Gate, where I’d finish my loop. I was hoping for the sky to clear. The air that day was extremely foggy and filled with smog. I brought my camera in hopes that it’d somehow clear up, a somewhat futile wish. Unsurprisingly by the time I reached a lookout providing views of Southern Seoul and the new Lotte Tower, the sky had barely changed. A dense haze/fog hung over the surroundings offering only a faint view of the buildings/landscape below. Nonetheless, the fortress itself was impressive. As I walked along the wall, images kept coming to my mind of battles between the Mongols and Koreans, stationed along the wall fending off incoming groups with arrows. I recalled a story about how Korean troops stationed at this fortress were able to fend off the incoming Mongols from this location, whereas elsewhere in Korea the Joseon elite were forced to flee to Ganghwado (an island west of Incheon) to escape the invasion.

On the way down I stopped by a local restaurant at the mountain’s base for a bowl of tofu soup before heading back to Seoul. I ate in a more relaxed, slower pace than usual, taking in the fresh mountain air and quiet; something harder to find in Seoul, allowing myself to be recharged by the energy of the mountain, before returning to my apartment nestled in the concrete jungle of Seoul. The trip turned out to be more than a simple excursion. I was impressed by the architecture and breadth of the fortress, enough to make me want to go back to try a new hiking route and hopefully catch a better view of Seoul.

Suwon Hwaseong Palace (수원화성해궁)

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I first visited Suwon back in 2014, as a way to kill time during a free afternoon. At the time, I went with the aim to visit Suwon’s famous Hwaseong Fortress wall, stretching a total of 5.52 km and dating back to latter period of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The Fortress Wall, demarcated at the four cardinal directions by four gates – Janganmun (nort), Paldalmun (south), Changnyongmun (east), Hwaseomun (west) – and the Sumun gates. which flank the point where the stream meets the palace, is a highlight of the remaining Joseon history in Korea, and provides a great day-trip from Seoul. Yet, at the time, I didn’t make it to the palace itself, seated below the iconic Hwahongmun pavillion. The palace was used as a temporary palace, to retreat from war, by the king and royal family during the Joseon era. Aside from this function, the palace had a particular purpose and value as a place for King Jeongjo to worship his father’s tomb, housed in one of the palace’s quarters.

This rich history, however, wasn’t what brought me back to Suwon. Rather, it was Hong Sang Soo (a famous Korean independent film-maker)’s 2015 film Right Now, Wrong Then (지금은 맞고 그때는 틀리다), that planted the thought in my mind. While watching the film, one quiet night in my apartment, I recognized the film’s background. The two main characters meet, at the start of the film, inside the palace, followed by an awkward exchange where the male protagonist (Jung Jae-young) asks Kim Min-Hee’s reluctant Yoon Hee-jung for coffee. “Insists” might be a better choice of words than “ask”, typical of the desperate male characters that appear in his films. Later on the two characters meet at a cafe and end up drinking soju, paired with sashimi and sushi at a small sushi bar near the palace.

With only a plan to visit the palace, I unexpectedly stopped by the sushi bar as well. I met my friend Jun-ho one afternoon, and we spent time catching up while walking along the fortress wall, meandering our way towards the main palace, where Jun-ho explained to me both the palace’s history and unique architectural characteristics. We spoke together, mixing English and Korean, helping each other find the words we needed at times, as the language used in describing palaces and Korean history can be uncommon and complex. While a lot of what I learned has since left my mind, one image remains. It was Jun-ho’s description of the chimney’s used in the palace…To the western mind, it’s hard to imagine a chimney without a thick cloud of black smoke ascending from it’s mouth. Yet, these palace chimney’s were designed in a way so that the heat emerged clear. Jun-ho described the interior of the chimney as being composed of a complex tube system which cools/alters the smoke in such a way to reduce it to clear heat. Again, science isn’t my specialty, so I don’t quite remember nor understand how it works..but the image stuck in my mind, as another example of Joseon-era innovation.

After our walk around the palace, we stopped by the sushi bar I previously mentioned, sharing a beer over a mixed sashimi/sushi platter, as the day winded down. Scenes from Hong Sang Soo’s movies repeatedly sprung to mind as I ate, a experience I’ve repeatedly had in Korea, having watched many Korean films prior to first arriving here. The sushi was okay, nothing to rave about, but the quiet atmosphere and the cold beer made the meal a pleasant end to the day.

Dalmaji Park (달맞이 공원)

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Dalmaji Park, located near Oksu Station on Line 3, offers a beautiful expansive view of Seoul’s Han River and a panoramic of Gangnam and Southern Seoul. It’s also a rewarding trek for those not so keen on hiking, being less of a mountain and more of a hill. The hike up took me just around 10 minutes, granted I was scurrying up, more in fashion of a run than a brisk walk. I visited the park this last weekend after parting with a friend, in search of somewhere new in the city to check out. I went during Chuseok weekend, Korea’s thanksgiving…a time of honoring the shift in seasons during the Fall Equinox. The Korean traditional holidays are all based around the Lunar Calendar, and Chuseok lines up with the full moon, symbolic of a completion of the growth cycle during summer and a time of harvest.

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I hadn’t considered the name of the park until I met an older Korean man at the top of the hill. The man saw me and began speaking to me in Korean, asking me where I’m from, what I do, the standard questions. But to my surprise I was really able to follow along with him as he started telling me the history of the park. The Korean name for the park is “Dal” (Moon) and “Maji” (Greeting/meeting)..So when translating, the park’s name is something like “Meeting the moon/connecting with the moon Park”. The man gestured to the sky, making a sign of connection between the sky and himself while explaining this to me. During a time where the moon’s symbolic of a completion cycle and new beginning, was a nice surprise to hear the story behind the park. After the older man complimented my Korean he launched into a description of the history of a lot of the holiday’s in Korea, talking for a good 5 minutes straight. At this point I realized I was struggling to grasp a lot of what he said as I nodded and smiled. We walked down a ways together and parted ways. I continued taking shots, breaking up my time reading a book and taking in the crisp evening breeze.

For a easy hike and slice of quiet in Seoul, Dalmaji Parks a great getaway. Fortunately the sky’s been clear for the past few weeks…providing great views of the city, uncovered from the coming and going hazy veil the city often wears.

Saturday out with Samchon

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Met up early morning with “Samchon” (korean name for “uncle”) as my friend prefers to be called, for a easy 2 hour hike along the Seoul Fortress Wall. The sky was hazy but the weather really nice, hot but with a cool breeze. It’s been a few months since we last met, as samchon’s been really busy. He showed me his schedule for the next month and it’s packed every weekend with golfing trips with his colleagues and friends. I was surprised he’s making a trip to Japan to golf. He laughed when he told me it, because he has very few good things to say about the country. He said the food is good and he can enjoy his travels there, but nonetheless the Japanese are always trying to “rock the boat” as he, to my surprise, expressed in English. His english is really limited, but he’s clearly using a phrase book to study because some of the expressions he used impressed me. Nonetheless, at this point, we speak primarily in Korean but I still help him practice.

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Today, we met for a hike and finished with a meal and beer as we usually do. The restaurant we chose doesn’t sell beer, but allowed us to purchase some next door. They said they usually don’t let customers do that, but it’s okay today. I waited for the food as Samchon went to the nearby convenience store. Once he came back and we drank beers, he made it clear the tall bottle was mostly for me. He said “I’ll have one glass, you drink the rest”. He told me he went out with coworkers last night and drank more than usual so had a headache this morning. He encouraged me to enjoy the beer and filled the cup as soon as it got a little low. He’d remind me to “enjoy the beer” as we spoke. After our meal, despite saying how full he was, he took us to get Busan style Odeng (Busan = southeastern port city, Odeng = fish patties), ordered 4 sticks and ate really quickly.

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During lunch today, he told me he’s thinking about me a lot even though we haven’t been able to meet. He said I’m always on his mind. He’s been somewhat of a teacher to me here in Korea, and it’s great to have the extra support from someone who knows there way around this culture far better than me. He’s one of the few people I know who eats faster than me.

Dalmasa Temple – 달마사 절

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  It’s been a while now since my last post. Since my break from school started, it seems I’ve also taken a break from the blog. After my past set of final exams and all the work/thought that led up to it, I was pretty exhausted. I also came down with a cold for 5-6 days following the beginning of my break. I needed some time to just take it easy and let myself wind down a bit. I also wanted a bit of space from writing/posting. School’s starting up again 2 days from now and I’m feeling great about it. I’m feeling well rested and prepared to begin again, and so my activity has increased as well. I’d originally planned to use my break time to travel down to Busan and Gyeongju, but due to my sickness plus another event, I chose to stick around Seoul. I’ve done a lot of travel within Seoul now and beginning to understand its geography/areas pretty well. Yet with a city this size, 3rd in population in the world, one could explore the city for a lifetime and still find interesting new spots. So, I’ve embraced this and I won’t simply settle with the major places I’ve seen. I’m starting to do some of my own research, a combination of Korean websites and English language sites, to find new spots. I’ve got a particular interest in buddhist/shamanic temples. There’s no lack thereof of these in Korea (1000+) and about 59 (according to Wikipedia) in Seoul. I was craving, as I often do, some time in nature and a break from the 빨리빨리 (Balri balri, literally “hurry hurry”) culture of Seoul city life. I found a temple named Dalmasa, located in the Dongjak area of the city, overlooking the Han River.

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   This turned out to be a great find. I got lost along the way, but mainly due to text messaging my girlfriend on the bus and losing track of time/where I was. All in all the trip there from Sinchon was pretty easy. I’ll start adding directions onto my blog in case anyone chooses to visit Seoul and happens to be reading my blog, but I took Line 2 to Dangsan station, then line 9 to Heukseok. From there, I took bus 1 from the Jungang College Hospital stop. The bus ride was short, only about 5 minutes, but steep. Along the way, the bus stalled about 3 times. Granted, it appeared the bus driver was in training. He was there, with another man sitting on his side. They were both talking loudly and the bus driver himself kept making loud exclamations. As he tried to get the bus back going, the other man helped him out. I, however, could not understand most of their Korean, so my interpretation could be incorrect. Nonetheless, the bus made it up the hill and from there I walked to Dalmasa.

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   It wasn’t immediately apparent where to go, but I saw an old rusted sign with the name Dalmasa printed on it. The trail leading up was a bit wild looking, and there was some trash scattered along the side. I followed the steps up, eventually reaching a pathway that led to the entrance. I noticed near the entrance were some piles of trash and the temple stood parallel to an indoor golfing range. I’d be surprised to see such things near a holy site, but I’ve found this to be somewhat common in Korea. I’ve been reading Michael Breen’s book The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies. In one of the early chapters he recalls a conversation with a Korean tourism expert and friend of his about Deoksugung palace in Seoul:

   “What do you see out there?” said a Korean friend, a tourism expert. He was pointing down to the grounds of the historic Doksu Palace. It was pitch black.

    “Where?”

    “Down there” He pointed again.

    “Well, it’s the Doksu Palace, but you can’t really make it out” I said.

    “Exactly”, he said.

    “What?” I wasn’t quite following this Socratic method.

    “Can you imagine any other major capital city in the world which hides its most historic sites like this? All the other places are the same. You can’t see them at night. They should be floodlit for everyone to see.”

   “Is it because they don’t know what tourists like to see?” I ventured.

   “It’s because we Koreans hate our history” he said. “We don’t want to think about it and we don’t want to show it” ¹

   He follows this to say his friend was only partly right. He continues to say that he also believes Koreans do have a negative view of their past and a lack of regard for their history, but primarily because they do not know how to observe it. This is another post in and of itself, but the point is, the observation made above and my experience is consistent. The temples and palaces here are wonderful, but there’s a sense that they aren’t valued as much as they can be. Dalmasa’s a beautiful temple, albeit small, but the way there didn’t suggest anything special. I’d consider this temple a hidden gem, as the interior itself was beautiful but it also offers some amazing panoramas of the Han River, with Yeouido Island’s bronze coated 63 building (5th tallest in Seoul) and Mt. Namsan and Namsan tower in view.

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    I started by walking through the temple area and checking out the chamber halls. This spot’s a bit off the tourist radar and not a huge draw for either locals or tourists (from my understanding) so it was pretty quiet and I was one of the only people there. The smell of the fresh incense is always calming to me, as well as the plants and flowers spread throughout the meditation halls. There was also a really unique meditation chamber carved into rock, essentially a cave, with turtle statues placed outside. I’d like to comment more on the temple, but I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking. All the signs were in Korean, there’s very little to no information on the temple in english on the internet, so my observation and picture’s about all I’ve got for now.

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    After making it through each temple quarter, I walked along a connecting walking path that offered views of the city and the Han River. It was a beautiful late afternoon/early evening and one of many unusually clear days. The humidity, however, was heavy as you can see in the distance. Continuing onwards I came across an older man walking across a strip of rocks laid out in an ordered fashion, alternating between black and white sharp but rounded stones. He’d first walk on the sharper stones, then go back along the side to repeat the walk. I asked my girlfriend about this and the name is 지압판 (Jiappan), a bed of stones used for acupressure purposes, creating more bloodflow and movement within the body. Walking further, I encountered a group of older Korean men and women playning Go, a popular game for the older generation here, in a wooden pagoda. This was the top of the hill. On the way down, I scrambled through the woods on some worn trails and watched the squirrels leaping through the trees. This was honestly a refreshing sight. I sat down for a few minutes to watch the squirrels doing their thing. Back in Vermont, squirrels are ubiquitous. Living in Seoul, it’s a rare sight, and these were slightly different, as their fur was pitch black. It’s a small thing, but it brought some temporary joy to see them bouncing about.

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   I then followed the trail back down to the temple entrance and made my way by bus back to the station. The trip down was beautiful, as the sun was setting. Along the streets, back in town, the vendors were still open, loud speakers blaring, selling fruits and snacks. Large bags of popcorn, crackers, dried beans and sugary treats. The crosswalks weren’t working so you had to find your way through the heavy traffic, and as usual, the motorcyclists were whizzing past to and fro. I could feel the energy, from the previous quiet to the frantic and pulsating. All the while I was in Seoul, but after some recharge in the forest I felt ready again for the streets.

¹ Breen, Michael. The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

  

An Interesting Encounter

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 Yesterday I went for a walk around Samcheong-dong, Seoul. Samcheong-dong, if you’re not aware, is a popular area in the city for shopping, food, unique cafes and gallery’s. It’s situated directly next to/in Bukchon Village, an area of Seoul full of Hanok style homes. Hanok is the name for traditional Korean wood-built homes. I often like to walk around this area of the city for the historic feel and the variety of cafes and shops. I didn’t anticipate I’d be hiking yesterday, but it seems my body has some sort of gravitational pull to the forest. Maybe this is due to living in Seoul for too long as a native Vermonter. No matter the mysterious cause, I ended up in Samcheong-dong park, outside the busy streets near Mount Bugaksan, a prominent peak in Seoul that overlooks Gyeongbokgung Palace and the current Presidential Blue House. 

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   I walked along in the park and notice trail markers leading up to a boulder lookout. The weather was hot, but it was a nice time for a walk and I felt a peace being in a quiet, forest area. So I decided to follow the markers and make it a hike. It was so humid out that within minutes going up the trail I was beginning to get damp with sweat. The air also was thick and humid. It was difficult to see much in the distance due to the heavy air. Along the way up I passed a few woman chatting and eating box lunches and a man and his friend resting at a lookout sharing rice wine. The path was beautiful, wooden steps and handle bars, with glimpses along the way to the neighboring mountains and the city stretched below.  


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   The top of the climb scaled along the edge of some protruding boulders, offering what would be amazing views of the city. With the hazy air, it was hard to see much. I continued to the top and found a nice little perch to sit on overlooking Bugaksan, through the tree brush. The wind was relatively strong, providing a nice chill against the humid summer air. Birds were chirping and I could hear the activity of some small animals in the woods. I noticed someone coming and turned around. An older man was looking at me. He asked in english “What country are you?”. I said “I’m from America” He smiled in return and approached me and to my surprise began to tell me his story. He said “I’m 82 years old….In the Korean war, I fought for the Americans in Pyeongyang, North Korea” I just looked back at him with interest, silently encouraging more. He continued “I fought with chemical weapons…..you know..Napalm?” I nodded and said yes, I do. He motioned like spraying napalm. Continuing on he told me “America is good. I like American music” and handed me a tape from his portable walkman. It had on it the names of old American pop and rhythm and blues artists, the likes of Dwayne Eddy and The Temptations. He said “I don’t like Korean music, but American is good” and continued asking me what I thought of his country. I replied that I love Korea, especially the mountains and food. He shook my hand in response saying “thank you” repeatedly, with a large smile on his face. We shared names, and I offered to take his picture. 

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   We parted ways, and I sat in silence on the top of the rock, looking out over the foggy air. I felt a peace there, just a sense of quiet and release, listening to the birds. The man’s story was fresh in my mind. He was smiling and so kind, yet carried a sadness in his eyes. I felt calm and quiet inside and after a bottle of water, decided to head back down the hill. Along the way, I bumped into him again and he offered to help me find my bus. I knew where to go, but accepted his invitation to help. He led me to the bus stop and gave me a dollar for the ride. I ran to catch the bus, got on, and from the back seat saw him out the window smiling and waving happily as the bus drove away. 

Yangsu-ri

 

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Yangsu-ri is a small, quiet town about an hour outside Seoul by metro. It’s close enough to make an easy day trip, yet far enough to get some peace. The air feels tangibly cleaner and the town sits directly along the opening of the Han River. I wasn’t able to spend as much time here as I wanted, so I plan to make a trip back.

After finishing my hike up Ungilsan, I took the metro one stop across the river to Yangsu Station. I expected a larger town when I exited the station. Instead, I exited to a street full of bicyclistics with colored uniforms. It’s a nice area to rent a bike and cruise around with friends/family. I walked towards Yangsu-ri Dumulmori, considered the most scenic spot in town. This is where the Bukhangang and Namhangang rivers merge into the Han River, the river that intersects Seoul into north and south areas. Along the river were many water lillies and beautiful lotus flowers. I walked along, eventually settling in a cafe to study Korean. I’m hoping to get back and try the Sundubu Jjiggae (Tofu stew), see Semiwon (a famous garden) and catch the morning sunrise. Yet, for now, my trip was adequate.