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.

Hongje Stream (홍제천)

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Hongje Stream flows through the western side of Seoul, notably past World Cup Park (the site of the 2002 World FIFA World Cup) and Peace Park. Since I first came to Seoul, the stream’s been a regular place I return to to walk and take some time for myself, to breathe and unwind. On a sunny, clear day it’s a gorgeous. Each side of the stream is lined with greens, flowing over into the walking paths and the stream below. Every so often along the trail are stones set in the water allowing you to pass, the classic Korean stream bridge. On the weekends when the weather’s warm, the walking path is full of bikers, kids on scooters, roller bladers, and couples taking strolls. And despite the weather, there’s always older Korean men riding their bikes, classic trot (the oldest form of Korean pop music) from the 60s and 70s blaring from speakers on their side.  It’s a place, like other streams scattered throughout the city, to get a taste of nature and reconnect with the surroundings…A good place for a bottle of makgeolli (korean rice wine) with friends, or a stroll at night for a couple.

I remember distinctly, during a run  there back in Seoul in 2013, running past a group of elderly Koreans..a large group, both men and women, sitting alongside the stream…Trot music was blaring from a boombox while the older women (probably in their 70’s-80’s) danced passionately without shame, as the men sat around watching sharing drinks. I remember being surprised at the time to see people that old behaving just like kids…But that’s something I’ve come to find true of the older generation here…A while back I asked a friend why that is and she said, “I think in Korea, when you’re young, you have no time to just be a kid and have fun like Americans…So, once people get old, they celebrate their wild 20s then”. Whatever the reason, it’s an admirable sight…A reminder to stay active and and to keep having fun. For me, Hongje stream is one of those places…Where I can just unwind, relax, and connect back to the earth. Today was a bit cloudy and muggy, and my best camera was at home charging, but it was a nice walk nonetheless.

Sanmotoongi (산모퉁이)

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Looking across towards the western ridge of Mt. Bugak, Seoul, from Sanmotongi Cafe.

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Winnie trying out the telescope, looking across towards Mt. Ingwan.

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Balcony seating, offering a panorama of Northern Seoul, nestled amongst the hills.

    I’m back in Korea after a little over a month in the states. My trip home was great, affording enough time to reconnect with friends and family and enjoy far too many burgers, yet it’s good to be back in Seoul. Arriving back in Seoul in mid July, I was suddenly reminded of just how hot it can get here…each day since I’ve been back has been humid and damp. Outside, it feels like a sauna and I’m perpetually sweating. So, while I expected I’d be out exploring every day as soon as I got back, in reality I’ve been taking it pretty easy and enjoying air conditioning whenever and wherever it’s available.

     The day after my arrival was date day with Winnie. We spent it wandering around Buamdong, a quiet neighborhood north of Gyeongbokgung palace and saddled between Mt Bugaksan to the East and Mt Inwangsan to the West. We made our way to Sanmongtoongi (meaning, “corner of the mountain”), a small cafe up on the hills offering views of Seoul, particularly the neighborhoods spread amongst the valley below. The cafe’s famous as a location where a famous drama was shot (forget the name), and for it’s unique location, off the well worn path and described as one of the harder cafe’s to find in Seoul by some. Spent most of the time chatting with Winnie while sharing cups of tea, rather than taking shots, but here’s a few I took. The cafe itself is cozy and welcoming, with a rock wall exterior and wooden floor interior, with wide wall sized windows facing south. Outside was a patio space, where Winnie and I tried the binoculars there…surprised to find we could watch people hiking alongside Inwangsan in the distance as well as people sitting inside there offices through the binocular’s view.

    When there, you might feel like you’re far removed from downtown Seoul, but it’s really only a short bus trip away from Gwanghwamun and the city center. Besides this cafe, Buamdong is full of other cafe’s, restuarants and galleries…all warranting more trips back. Definitely worth a trip to see a quieter, yet sophisticated side 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.

싱숭생숭 (Singsungsaengsung)

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You might be asking, “what’s that title about?”. To explain it shortly, it’s a Korean mimetic word meant to capture and evoke the feeling of restlessness, particularly around the change from spring to summer. It might be this feeling that brought me back to writing on this blog after such a long hiatus. Whatever it may be, this change of seasons, through spring and the gradual shift into summer has got me thinking of new projects new ambitions…contrasted with the desire to retreat and turning in, so characterised by winter. Short story is, I’ve been in a creative space lately, feeling a renewed sense of energy, as the vegetation around the city, too, wakes up from its long winter slumber.

The picture above was taken in Busan, during a walk in Dongbaek park before sunset. This was my first time down to Busan, a short getaway from Seoul in between school quarters here. Busan wasn’t quite what I’d expected. I’d heard Seoullites describe Busan as “시골” or “countryside”, and it certainly isn’t that…as Korea’s second largest city, behind Seoul. Nonetheless, while Busan readers might be upset to read this, I understand the joke. Busan’s a beautiful, impressive city, but lacks the energy and intensity of Seoul…It certainly can’t compare in breadth, but struck me as a relaxed place to live, offering more space and quiet than its northern sibling. I like the pace of Seoul..I like the craziness of the city, but the quiet and peace I felt in Busan was a welcome change from the bustle of Seoul. It wasn’t just that there were less people, but the city feels more spread out and the vibe felt more relaxed. While a short trip, it provided a brief respite from Seoul life and a chance to eat some fresh seafood at the same time.

I came back to Seoul feeling rejuvenated, ready to start up a new quarter…and here I am, approaching the end of my final quarter in my school’s language program, entering a new phase of life in Korea and the start of a new, squelching hot Seoul summer, feeling this restless anticipation for new experiences around the corner…More to come!

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.

Tapgol Park (탑골 공원)

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Street next to Tapgol Park, full of pojang machas (street food vendors)

   Across the street from the language school I’m attending is Tapgol Park, a famous area for it’s history as the starting point for the Independence Movement against the Japanese Rule. I first came here years ago but since then I’ve visited often. I’m usually one of the few younger people there as the park is a popular hang out spot for ajooshi’s and halabeoji’s (korean middle aged men and grandfathers). Why it’s so appealing to that group I don’t know. My guess is just that it’s a quiet, peaceful spot with a history honoring the break from Japanese rule, a time that hits closer to heart for the older generation. I, too, find it to be a really nice break from the busy streets outside. Having a predilection for quiet spaces, I often like to visit here to take a pause from study and relax my mind. Despite being in the midst of one of the busiest area’s of the city, due to it’s size, inside is a preserved quietness. What makes Seoul a great city to live in, for me, is these little outlets of calm spread across the city. Being someone easily fatigued by crowds, these spots are my frequent getaways to recharge and re-enter the hustle and bustle.