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.

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.

On Hiking Alone in Korea

 

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  I’m not intending to make this blog a “hiking in korea” blog, yet lately, I’ve felt really drawn to the mountains here. It’s a combination of interest and need. Lately, I’ve been looking for quiet outside of my single apartment. I’ve felt a yearning for nature and real contact with the earth. Sometimes life in Seoul can get to me, and I either clam up in my apartment for a day or two or take to the mountains or parks. As a naturally introverted person I simply need that time away from all the crowds to decompress. In Vermont, I often found hiking to be an escape, to simply find some time to myself. Of course, I’d bump into people along the way and strike up a conversation, but I’ve found hiking alone in Korea to be an entirely different experience.

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   I hadn’t thought a lot about it when I started to get more serious about making hiking trips apart of my weekly life here, but from my brief experiences so far, I’m learning that there are unique obstacles to hiking alone as a foreigner that present a new set of challenges to navigate. Mostly, it’s that I stand out. Back home I blend in on a hike. I’m tall, relatively thin and white. I don’t stand out on a Vermont mountain as looking particularly unusual. I’m a Vermonter like many others on the trail. My styles never radically different and it’s common to see other people hiking alone. I’m typically greeted with a slight nod or a passing comment.

Korea’s been a different beast. I stand out, a lot. It’s rare I see many other foreigners on a hike, and especially rare to see a foreigner hiking alone. I get a lot of curious looks from other hikers, words of encouragement, invitations to talk…I do anything but blend in. During my last hike up Ungilsan near Yongsu-ri I rounded a corner to hear a man exclaim loudly to his group “Wow! A foreigner!” There was nothing mean spirited in his words, nor racist, just to him, a surprising sight. We talked and he was perfectly friendly and helpful and wished me on my way. Yet, afterwards, I got a bit lost and couldn’t find my way to the temple. An old man came on the path and said “수장사에 가요? 같이 가요!”, “Are you going to Sujangsa (temple)? Let’s go together” and went charging onwards, ushering for me to follow, waving his hand in motion to continue behind him. As I didn’t know where I was, I chose to follow his lead. I tried talking with him in Korean, but either he didn’t understand my speaking or wasn’t wanting to talk…my guess the latter, as he had a pretty serious demeanor.

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  When we arrived at the temple, I stopped to take photos and he yelled at me “No, come this way! Come now!” I said, “Wait, I want to take pictures” but he persisted in his yelling. I wasn’t sure what to do. I knew I needed to leave him behind because I was getting irritated by being told what to do. I came to realize that he automatically expected me to follow his lead and go at his pace. He didn’t at all seem to appreciate my speaking up and telling him to wait. I guess he had a strong sense of his pace and wanted me to adjust to him. I started feeling annoyed and realized I needed to say goodbye. He was barking at me to hurry up, and I kept thinking “he doesn’t even know me” Yet, he really wanted to hike with me. His behavior felt very rude, yet, behind it, for some reason he really wanted to hike along with me. I’m new here, so there’s a lot I don’t understand and probably never will understand, but this confused me. My only guess is that as the older man he expected me to follow along at his pace and respond deferentially to what he said. Anyway, I found a way out when I noticed two guys I met earlier on the hike in front of me. I waved and said hi and they came over and said hi. The older man kept yelling “빨리 와!” “hurry up” but I ignored him and he got the idea.

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  They were both in the 40s, middle aged Korean men. Earlier on the hike, they expressed interest in me, saying “Tired? Do you have enough water? Keep fighting!” and both gave me high fives upon reaching the summit. We spoke for a while on the summit in Korean and they suggested I meet them at the temple. So, having reached the temple, we met and I was able to leave the older man, much to his dismay. The three of us walked together and continued speaking in Korean. We walked together through the temple (Sujangsa), but it was a quick pass. In retrospect, I wish I’d stayed longer, but I was enjoying their company so I continued on. They suggested we eat lunch together and offered to share the lunch and makgeolli. I was hungry, so I took the offer and a short ways down the trail we set up a place to eat. We talked over a bottle of rice wine and duenjang jjiggae (soy bean stew) with rice balls. It was a tasty and healthy meal and I enjoyed talking with them. They were funny and kind, showing me photos of their wives and children. Yet, the more we talked, they began slapping me on the back and saying “We’re good friends now! Great friends” in Korean…And I agreed, I was having a fun time, but it felt a bit odd. I felt there was something else going on, and not so surprisingly the next thing he said was “Let’s hike again next week, and please come to my home and teach my daughter english” I said “wait, wait a second. I’m not ready to agree to that” He told me repeatedly to think hard. It occurred to me that having established our friendship by word, he felt comfortable then expressing what he’d like from me. I’m a native english speaker and I can be of help for his daughter learning english. This is how a lot of tutoring jobs happen for foreigners. Sure, it could be a source of money, yet I was hesistant to make any deeper commitment, and instead simply changed the course of the conversation.

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 The peace and quiet of hiking in Vermont, with an occasional adventure mixed in, has not been my experience here. I mean, it is calming and relaxing and always rewarding, yet I’m more on the spotlight, and the likelihood of side-adventures happening is much higher. I can’t really complain, as I’m having interesting experiences, yet some quiet time alone, it seems, can quickly become an invitation to drink and eat. It’s really just the difference between being a local and being a foreigner. I’m learning that when I hike alone I need to be prepared to have people try and talk with me, invite me along for their hike, ask to take pictures with me, etc. Some days I’ll go with friends, other days I’ll wear my headphones, but mostly I’ll learn how to navigate this new role and find ways to enjoy my hikes in whatever way I choose.

 

 

 

A fifth hike with Kyeong Han: Bukhansan

IMGP1520     Two weeks ago, I went for a day hike, one of 5 hikes I’ve done every other Sunday with Kyeong Han. If you’re unaware, Kyeong Han is an older friend of mine I met a few weeks back. He’s 56, I’m 25. We’re from very different worlds, but it’s always an interesting outing. Since I first arrived in Korea, I’ve wanted to hike Bukhansan, Seoul’s largest and most famous peak. For really no other reason than laziness, I hadn’t hiked the mountain until this hike. To my disappointment, our hike was less of a hike and more of a walking course, as we didn’t reach the peak. I looked up at the jagged ridges and asked Kyeong Han in Korean “거기에 갈까요?” (shall we go there?), he responded quickly in broken english “No. Danger, too much danger”. The hike, still, was interesting.

IMGP1513   We met up early in the morning around Anguk station, near the city center, and went by bus to a small burrough of the city – a trailhead providing a few of many ways up. At the base of the trail were vendors selling a variety of hiking supplies, from hats to walking sticks to hiking shoes. More alarming were police and multiple ambulances. We found out shortly after that a search for a missing body was in progress. 4 or 5 days earlier a woman died on the mountain after falling off a ledge. Kyeong Han’s warning of the danger did, afterall, have some validity.

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The way up was nothing so unusual, we passed many crowds of korean ajumas and ajooshi’s (middle aged men and women) in large groups, brightly colored hiking pants and jackets, always hiking with some real energy. We stopped along the way to hydrate and eat some sliced melon prepared by Kyeong Han’s wife. During the walk we practiced our english and korean and learned a little more about each other’s lives. I discovered that Kyeong Han has 6 siblings and is the youngest of them all amongst other things. The hike didn’t get really interesting until we reached the point of descent.

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   As I mentioned earlier, I anticipated we’d be hiking to the peak of Bukhansan. Towards the top it becomes rather rugged terrain, with grip holds and ropes to ascend the rock face. I’m afraid of heights, but this was the experience I was hoping for that Sunday. To my surprise Kyeong Han suggested (or rather, proclaimed) we head down. I hadn’t realized he had another plan in mind to introduce me to a small, famous mountainside restaurant.

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   We turned off the path to a small house, with a small porch, full of many potted plants and flowers. It resembled a home more than a restaurant, very casual yet with tables and chairs and jars of fermented foods stacked on top of each other. We were directed to a seat by a large Korean man and Kyeong Han began to tell me about the place. He told me that this spot serves the finest Makgeolli (Korean rice wine) in the country, a particular brand called 부산금전산 (Mountain Forest Makgeolli). He enthusiastically told me this brand was a personal favorite of Park Chung Hee, Korea’s “President” but in reality military dictator, from the early 60’s to the late 70’s. Kyeong Han, who prefers the title 삼촌 (uncle), is very conservative as are many from his generation, and speaks highly and proudly of Park Chung Hee often. I learned later from my girlfriend that his hometown 안동 (Andong), famous for it’s preserved traditional korean character, is also one of the more conservatively minded areas of the country. I personally, from what I know, don’t think very positively of Park Chung Hee…yet for the sake of the relationship and lack of common language I nod my head and smile slightly. He also told me that the food at the restaurant is the best in Seoul and that the owners live and work at the house and are originally from Busan, Korea’s second largest city, a port city in the southwest of the country.

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   The makgeolli was as delicious as he suggested it would be. We were served makgeolli traditional style in a metal kettle, and it kept flowing. Despite his insistence he’s a lightweight, the spirits were high and we shared 2 or 3 bottles together along with kim chi/seafood korean pancake(김치해물 전), fresh kimchi (김치), tofu with gochu/pepper sauce and a nicely marinated salad. The pajeon (korean pancake, made from wheat/rice flour and kimchi/vegetables/seafood) was delicious, and also true to Kyeong Han’s word, one of the tastiest pancakes I’ve yet had in Korea.

As always, hiking together, we gather a lot of curiosity…an older korean man and a younger foreign man. Our meal was no exception, as the owner and his wife took an interest in us. I was curious too as haven’t met many Busan people. My girlfriend’s family, mother and father, are both originally from Busan/Busan area…Since we started dating and my life in Korea began I’ve heard many things about the people from this region, most memorably a conversation I had with an older Korean man on a plane ride from Tokyo to Seoul. We began talking and the conversation went in the direction of Busan. He told me the people there are very tough, the toughest people in Korea. I asked why and he responded “During the beginning of the japanese colonization, the Japanese army had to enter Korea through Busan. The first point of entry was through that region, so the first people to fend the japanese forces off were those from Busan. For this reason, they are the toughest in the country” The man fit this image to me, generalization though it is. He was large in stature, a loud voice and a very strong direct way of communicating. Him and Kyeong Han hit it off and talked enthusiastically over Makgeolli. I was asked many questions about my time here, my intentions, my goals and did my best using my broken Korean and developing ear. By the end of the meal, he offered Kyeong Han a free bottle as a gift but Kyeong Han vehemently turned down his offer.

In a light headed, tired stupor we left the hillside restaurant to go on our own ways. The end to another interesting day exploring with my new friend.

Hiking with Kim Kyeong Han

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A few weeks ago I met Kim Kyeong Han, an older korean man, during a hike up Bugaksan mountain. I was hiking solo as I often do and so was he. We ended up walking past each other a few times, eventually acknowledging our pace was comparable. We began chatting and what followed was a 2 hour hike together followed by 2 bottles of makgeolli and plates of korean pancakes. To this day we’ve remained in touch and go hiking together every Sunday every other week.

I never thought I’d befriend someone twice my age, but it’s been refreshing and a great way to improve my comfort with the language. Despite our language gap, it works, and Kyeong Han is clearly eager to improve his english…nonetheless he’s said in broken english many times “let’s take our time with learning, no rush”. Kyeong Han has taught me a lot already and i consider him somewhat of a teacher for me. Recently I told him in korean that these days I’m pretty tired from a lot of studying. He said, in english “Health..1…study..2”, holding one finger then two in the air to demonstrate his point. I nodded, “right”.

Kyeong Han clearly understands the need for health. I’m half his age and breathing harder each time we hike together. He tells me to hurry up if he feels our break is too long. Honestly, the guys got better endurance than me and typically leads the way.

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Last weekend we chose to hike Bugaksan again, the mountain directly behind Korea’s most famous palace gyeongbukgung and the president’s house (the blue house). The mountain was closed to hiking for many years but reopened to the public in 2006. The seoul fortress, a long wall that stretches across many mountains and hills in seoul, was closed for security purposes. Since the wall is built along the ridge, the mountain was off limits as well.

Along the way up, you reach a checkpoint where you need either a foreigners identification card or a passport to continue. Later on, towards the top is an 200 year old pine tree with painted dots indicating where the tree had been shot. The story goes that on January 21st, 1968, the tree received 15 shots during a standoff between north korean and south korean forces. 30 soldiers from north korea were making an overnight attempt to attack the blue house and assassinate the president when they were caught. I took a picture of the tree intending to pass by but kim Kyeong han insisted it was a photo opportunity. I felt awkward, not knowing whether a serious expression or smile is more appropriate. I felt even more so when he suggested we both pose next to the tree for a photo, but nonetheless, it’s not everyday you meet a tree with such a history.

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The view from the top was gorgeous. The skies been pretty clear lately, a refreshing change from the frequent smog, and it provided a clear view of Seoul’s most famous mountain, Bukhansan. The way down followed the fortress wall and was a steep decline for about 30 minutes. Many groups of older korean hikers were coming up this path…Kyeong Han gave me one look and said “bad trail”. Brutal to hike up, sure, but incredible views on the way down

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We ended up at the base near the trailhead to inwangsan, a shaman’s mountain to the east of gyeongbukgung. From there Kyeong Han took me for Chueotang, a soup made from mudfish and known for its health benefits. I told my girlfriend what we were eating and she said “oh I hate that! That’s ajooshi food (middle aged man food)” Nonetheless, it’s considered to promote beauty by creating glowing skin, a bit counterintuitive at first seeing that mudfish are known for being dirty and burying themselves under mud in the wild.

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The soup was dark brown and not particularly inviting but i liked the smell and it came with a generous offering of banchan (side dishes) including fresh kimchi and twigim (fried veggies/seafood). We ordered a bottle of beer to split and began to eat. The soup was actually fantastic, in my opinion. I can’t quite recall the flavor, but it had a nice taste, especially with a few added dashes of pepper. We ate and talked and Kyeong Han told me a bit more about his daughter whose working for a major, but controversial paper, and the expectations he has for her. I got some insight into my girlfriends life and other girls here from what he said. His daughter is 30 and still living at home. Despite her independence in her work and working a professional job she’s still expected to be home every night around midnight. Staying out for longer would be questioned. I’ve heard it’s not uncommon for these expectations to be me maintained even for a woman that age, but still surprised me.

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I’m hoping to be able to talk more in the future with Kyeong Han, to get a better  grasp on the culture and his generations way of thinking. After all, he’s around the same age as my girlfriends parents…and when dating in korea, you’re dating a woman and her family. The family is always in the picture, despite location, but often in korea they play a very active role in your relationship. I’m hoping to learn more about the older generations experience so as to learn more about my girlfriends parents and to therefore navigate this new relationshop dynamic in a smart way.