Namhansanseong (남한산성)

14242326_10154090021724125_5448327700340479524_o

14231328_10154092375289125_6990289850447200355_o

14289927_10154095074739125_5019305642483319167_o

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)

13662073_10153974122709125_295829633790521705_o

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.

Dalmaji Park (달맞이 공원)

IMGP5814

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.

IMGP5807

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)

IMGP5683

IMGP5681

IMGP5659

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.

Saturday out with Samchon

IMGP5199

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.

IMGP5213

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.

IMGP5256IMGP5258

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.

Hiking with Kim Kyeong Han

image

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.

image

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.

image

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

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.