Summer Vacation Seoul, Busan and Gyeongju


I am back at work today but starting this evening will endeavor to provide an update of the past two weeks experience in South Korea, the ups and downs, the trials and tribulations, the sugar and the *****!

And so it came to pass….a holiday, the cries of “no Englishy, hello. goodbye” were extinguished for two whole weeks. I arrived in Seoul on the morning of the 28th with a spring in my step and the realisation that I had escaped disorganisation, poor communication and minor frustration for the summer fortnight. Navigating the Express Bus Terminal for only the second time was a breeze and I headed to Windroad and Flower arriving at 9.10am in plenty time for a refuelling breakfast and a first day walking for “England”. I had arranged to meet Frank later (nearer lunchtime) as he hadn’t walked around Seoul for ages and fancied becoming a tourist for a couple of days. First, I had read about Marronier Park and Naksan Park and decided to stroll across and upwards for some great views of Seoul. Naksan is located near Hyehwa station on line 4, inside the Seoul Fortress Wall. During the Japanese occupation of Korea most of the mountain was destroyed to make way for urban planning. On June 10th, 2002  Naksan was designated a park in order to save any natural beauty that was left. In January 2011 a new trail was opened on Naksan Mountain. A section of the Seoul Fortress wall was rebuilt and repaired making the total length of the wall 2km in this area. Approaching the park is really interesting with street art on every spare bit of wall, on stairs and doorways. I observed camel mosaics, abstract paintings and even a dog going about its business. The park was alive with joggers, casual walkers and people exercising their dogs, some folk were practising T’ai Chi to Bing Crosby; surreal but peaceful in the midst of such a large metropolis.

I arranged to meet Frank at Sadang station as my camera was playing up and he had called a service centre for me so I could get it checked out. The service was excellent and it turned out there was little wrong with the camera other that the mirror having become locked because of a knock.

#601, Eunhae building, 441-1, Nangbae2-Dong, Seocho-Gu, Seoul

Nikon Service Centre, Sadang
Tel: 2-598-6668

The guy cleaned the camera inside and guess how much it costs? NOTHING, excellent!

After lunch we headed for Gyeonghuigung Palace. Here beginith the lesson, Frank is Korean but had 25 years to re-engineer his spatial awareness in the USA……………he failed! Always use your phone GPS when with Koreans’ otherwise the Wild Goose Chase becomes One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; you WILL go mental! Medically speaking the definition is  “A temporary or permanent state of confusion regarding place, time, or personal identity”. After wandering past a park, navigating through a tunnel and emerging into 38 degrees Celsius we realised we were experiencing all of the above. After prolonged discussions with some elderly Korean’s we headed back towards whence we came, thankfully engaging with the Sat Nav to ascertain the Palace’s TRUE location. A minor detour to a Cafe Bene for a Smartphone re-charge and a delicious blueberry iced smoothie was particularly well received by me. From here a meander in the RIGHT direction brought us to the Palace. The palace itself is initially a little disappointing, less grand and ornate than others. At the rear is a spring and a weather worn rock and looking back the contrast between the ancient buildings and the modern Seoul is striking. This would be a great place to take a picnic.

Strolling back through the grounds we turned left to  head in the direction of City Hall, Seoul Plaza and Deoksugung Palace from there we would carry on to Namdoemun Market (Exit 5, Hoehyeon Station, Subway Line 4). On the way to City Hall on Sejong-daero we came across three sights which juxtapose to sum up what makes a big city interesting. Kids playing in a fountain with not a care in the world alongside protesters complaining about food shortages and a whole army of God botherers making a cacophony of noise, give me a Buddhist chant anytime! Touching the edge of the Cheonggyecheon Stream and passing a multicoloured cone that resembled a cast off from Madonna’s “Sex” tour, we stopped for a few minutes.  The scene here, with families enjoying the reclaimed heart of Seoul, is worth taking in. The landscaped stream is claimed to have had a huge environmental impact on the quality of air in central Seoul. A couple of minutes walk South in Seoul Plaza a stage had been constructed and impromptu vocal performances, which I sensed had a religious flavour, were the order of the day. This particular atheist was not for being turned and headed swiftly past men bearing rather feminine umbrella’s to the gates of Deoksugung.

Deoksugung, sometimes called Deoksu Palace in English and meaning “Palace of Virtuous Longevity”, is one of the “Five Grand Palaces” built in Seoul during the Joseon Dynasty. It served as the residence for various members of the royal family from the fifteenth century through the end of World War II and the Japanese occupation. Its architecture is notable for the wide variety of styles employed, especially compared its sister palaces. In addition to the main buildings, there is also an art museum, a small forested garden, and a statue of King Sejong the Great. The changing of the royal guard can be observed at the main gate daily. There is a really peaceful (or what should be peaceful) area of the compound with an ornamental pond and inspiringly cool café. On this particular day the noise from Seoul Plaza distracted us from enjoying this spot at its best. Strangely, despite the “danger” signs that the path around the pond was perilous, life jackets had not been provided on this occasion. In the café they had some surprisingly tasteful “craft” souvenirs and a brilliant ginger and honey tea that would satiate any thirst, fantastico!

We wandered from here passed restaurants, gentleman’s juice bars and café’s towards Namdoemun but by this time any (Indiana Jones style) thirst for further experiences with antiquity had been drained from us. Our 10 minute sojourn into the market was cut short by a desire to shower and recuperate. I, being the plonker I am, suggested we walk back to the guest house as it was probably only about 25 minutes away. As it happens this was true if you own a micro-light, unfortunately it was nearer to 75 minutes a pied!  After the energy draining exploits of the first day in Seoul the most we could muster for the evening was a feast of Mexican Taco’s and some beers in the nearest “quiet” bar to the Windroad.

On day two the first destination was Jongmyo Royal Shrine (Jongno-3 Station), which seemed around 15 minutes walk from Windroad but became closer to 40 minutes when the Korean signage and well hidden entrance entered the equation.  The Jongmyo Daeje (Royal Shrine Ritual) is only performed once each year, in May (designated as Cultural Property #56). Dozens of descendents of the royal family gather in court costumes appropriate for the Chosun period. The rituals are accompanied by traditional court music (Chongmyo Cherye-ak– Intangible Cultural Property #1) played by the Royal Court Orchestra. Whilst the history of the place makes you feel a certain reverence the lifeless buildings fail to render this a class one experience.  It seems to me that the event described above is the only time that history can come to life and evoke an appropriate response in the visitor.  The World Heritage listed site can only be accessed by guided tour and frustratingly we were either an hour too late or too early (I can’t remember) for the Englishy tour so we had to tolerate the lemming like Japanese who gladly did not mention the Dokdo Islands or even worse the Takeshima Islands. A massacre may well have ensued!

From here we headed for the Cheonggyecheon Stream stopping to admire the clarity of the water and the huge fish that inhabit it’s waters. It was getting increasingly hot and taking a cue from the many families walking the stream we settled for a while under a bridge, plunging our feet into the comfortingly cool stream. The artwork, fountains and the waterfalls make this a great summertime destination, an oasis among the glass and concrete temples to capitalism. We left the stream opposite Insa-dong, failing to navigate a way past Cafe Bene and those moorish blueberry smoothies. As it was Sunday Insa-dong has no cars. At the start of the main street a performance of traditional dance was in the process of taking place but we didn’t stop as in SK the “process” can take forever. We were looking for the Beautiful Tea Museum as I thought it would be a good place for lunch. There were lots of expensive “beautiful” teas and tea making vessels but a limited menu. Desperate for sustenance we selected a Vietnamese noodle venue called Good Morning Hanoi and the food was excellent. The antique shops in Insa-dong are clustered mostly in the alley stretched from Sudo Pharmacy to Unhyeongung(Palace). By this time Frank only had around 4 hours left in Seoul as he had to head back to Cheonan for work at his academy on Monday, the last destination we had was Namsan Tower and Park, (Shuttle No.2 from Exit 2, Chungmuro Station, Subway Lines 3 and 4/Exit 6, Dongguk University Station, Subway Line 3).

N Tower Seoul also know as Namsan Tower or Seoul Tower is located on Namsam Mountain in downtown Seoul.  The Tower was built in 1969 as a Television Communications Tower and then opened to the public in 1980.  The tower is 236.7m high and the total height above sea level is 479.7m. In 2005 N Tower re-opened after some renovation. Once leaving the bus there is a relatively steep climb to the base of the tower which is well served with café’s, restaurants and shops and is a favourite location for young people to declare unadulterated love for each other; even the SK adulterers I am sure do this before retiring to their love motels! After buying a ticket you join the queue to be subjected to the ubiquitous tourist photo with bogus selected background of your choice. This station is manned by young attractive Koreans who seemed perplexed at my unwillingness to succumb to their solicitous endeavours. The picture is “free” why would I refuse? Why, because it looks shit! Frank also failed to participate and we entered the super fast lift to the top.  It was a beautiful clear afternoon and the 360 degree views of the metropolis that is Seoul are spectacular. It is said that 23 million souls live within 30km of this tower and it is easy to see why! On leaving the tower, we took the bus which passed Seoul station so Frank could connect with his train and I headed back to Hyehwa to recuperate after another day of foot annihilation. I picked up some noodles and Merlot on the way back to Windroad and had a great night chatting with the other residents who came from New York, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Missouri and other cities; so many that I can’t recall.  The Windroad is a great place to meet travellers on a budget and the atmosphere is great when you need to wind down after a long day on the road.

On day three my plan was to head down to Yeouido ParkSaetgang Ecological Park and 63 Building to enjoy some cycling by the Han river (Bikes can be hired for 3,000 won per hour from rental stations at the southern termini of both Mapo Bridge and Wonhyo Bridge, on the northern shore of Yeouido). I travelled by subway during rush hour which was relatively un-painful and much different to London. Why different? The pushing is the same but the subways seem less crowded, the cars are air-conditioned and wider, mobile phones work underground and generally the trains seem to be more frequent. On arriving at Yeouido I was too early to rent a bike and black clouds congregated overhead, the forecast had changed and was not good. On walking round the park I saw many inhabitants had decided to have a siesta on the way to work, others drank coffee by the gallon presumably to avoid narcoleptic episodes, some were engaged in filming a TV soap opera. Then……………the heavens opened, monsoonal weather similar to Delhi, Bangkok or Hong Kong.  I was party to a major geriatric rush for cover in a humongous 300 metre long bus shelter.

My plans were likely to change and so I (having seen a coffee deluge in the park) decided to find a coffee shop to eat breakfast and take stock. I discovered the coffee shops were located within the skyscrapers (by sheer accident) as I entered one to ask for bladder relief! After having coffee and an excellent onion and cream cheese bagel I settled on the National Museum of Korea (Line 4 / Jungang Line (Deokso-Yongsan), Ichon Station Exit 2, in the direction of Yongsan Park) and Yongsan Park.

Inspired by Korea’s mountain fortresses, the National Museum of Korea—designed by Junglim Architecture and completed in 2005—integrates several cardinal rules of Korean traditional architecture. In accordance with pung su (feng shui), it faces in a southward direction, with a mountain (Mt. Namsan) to its rear and water (the Hangang River and the reflecting pool) to its front. The museum is set back deep in the property, and typical of Korean architecture, it strives to harmonise with the natural landscape. Most spectacular is its use of the Korean landscaping concept of chagyeong, or “borrowed scenery,” an architectural principle common throughout the *Far East. The gardens and building itself incorporate the background landscape, most notably Mt. Namsan and Mt. Samgaksan (a.k.a. Bukhansan National Park). The “main”attraction which dominates as you enter is the 10-story marble pagoda of Gyeongcheonsa Temple. Unlike most Korean pagodas, which are noted for their minimalist beauty, the Gyeongcheonsa Pagoda is extremely ornate. It was carved by Chinese artisans in 1348 during the reign of King Chungmok of the Goryeo Dynasty and placed at Gyeongcheonsa Temple in Gaepung County, Gyeonggi-do. By the beginning of the 20th century, the temple had long since disappeared, but the pagoda was still standing and in 1907 it caught the eye of Tanaka Mitsuaki, the Japanese Minister of Imperial Household Affairs, who was in Korea to attend the wedding of the Korean crown prince. A keen collector of Asian antiquities, Tanaka essentially stole the pagoda, brought it back to Japan and had it places in the garden of his private residence. This led to an uproar in Korea, led in part by British journalist Ernest T. Bethell and American missionary Homer Hulbert, who launched a media campaign to denounce the theft.  The pagoda was eventually returned in 1918, quite possibly due to the efforts Japanese archeologist Sekino Tadashi. Damaged and in pieces stored in crates, the pagoda was finally re-erected in 1960 on the grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace. With the opening of the new National Museum of Korea in 2005, the pagoda was moved indoors, safe from the elements, and given a place of honour at the far end of the main exhibition hall.

Before meeting the pagoda I entered a room of ancient antiquities that hosted some unique eggs! They were coffins!  The museum was full of kids, most well-behaved, but there was at least a cohort behaving in a wildly dysfunctional manner. Lacking the standard spacial awareness and left unchallenged by their uninterested parents they ran amok. Observing them in the gift shop would have made TV gold as visitors struggled to stay upright in the maelström of juvenile activity. As I took to the second and third floor, enjoying traditional korean tea, the numbers dwindled and it was easier to appreciate some of the more special exhibits such as the 5th Century Silla Gold Crown, the 7th Century Pensive Bodhisattva, a 12th Century Ceradon Openwork Incense Burner and the Great Bell of Bosingak.

I left the museum building stopping to see an American Church Choir joyously capturing everyone’s attention with their OTT behaviour and then headed to the ornamental gardens at the rear. Some kids engaged with me having a game of hide and seek around this capacious architecture. The ornamental garden was a respite from the industrious goings on inside the building. From here I headed for the tranquility of Yongsan Park which was essentially vaccuous except for a few sleeping gents, one family and some eccentric sculptures including a giant hand and a Gormleyesque bronze mail figure. I decided to head to Myeondong as I heard they had the nearest thing to an Apple store there. On arrival it was a “me” nightmare, shopping hell, bodies cheek to cheek. To me it represents an annihilation of any sensible grey matter humans may possess, though I am sure many people love it! I found the Apple store which was in effect an technological oasis of calm in the purgatory that is the high street. Yes I know its the biggest company in the world and I know they exploit the chinese but at least their products are not made to throw away after the weekend. I enjoyed another great evening chatting to the residents of Windroad, it was the Frenchmans birthday and he cooked Spag Bol, whilst we all shared some Chilean Shiraz and Makgeolli (only one)!

On day four I headed for the National war Memorial which in fact is a museum in itself. When you enter the first monument you see is the State of Brothers statue. The upper part of the statue depicts a scene where a family’s older brother, an ROK officer, and his younger brother, a North Korean soldier, meet in a battlefield and express reconciliation, love, and forgiveness. The lower tomb-shaped dome was built with pieces of granite collected from nationwide locations symbolising the sacrifices made Koreans. The crack in the dome stands for the division of Korea and the hope for reunification. As war memorials go I believe it is exceptional and clearly demonstrates a long term wish for re-unification between South and North Korea. I visited the walls of remembrance which clearly records the scale of American involvement in the conflict and then I spent the next part of my visit pottering around the mass of armoury from the Korean War that is exhibited in the museum grounds. I don’t intend to describe the exhibit as I think the images are self-explanatory. It was poignant to notice grandparents taking their grand children around the grounds relaying to them I am sure the atrocities and pain that the war inflicted and continues to inflict on families separated still by the DMZ.

After lunch I headed to the Bongeunsa Temple. Located just next to Samseong-dong’s COEX, Bongeunsa Temple is a spectacular example of how the ancient and modern coexist. (Exit 6, Samseong Station, Line 2. Walk past Asem Tower and you’ll come to the entrance of the temple). Originally established in the year 794 by the Shilla Dynasty King Wonseong, it was rebuilt in 1498, and later moved to its current location in 1562 by Queen Munjeong, who as Regent led a resurgence of Buddhism after over a century of official repression. Located near the royal tombs at Seolleung, the temple initially played a major role looking after the tombs, but it really earned a name as a center of Korean Zen.

On the walk to the temple I reminded myself (with difficulty) that It’s amazing when you consider that just 40 years ago, the area around the temple was rice paddies as far as the eye could see. Before entering the temple I stopped to “hate” the monstrosity that is Co-Ex that contrasted with the poor people selling a few of their self-grown products and the unkempt lady outside the temple who’s origin I could hope to identify. The interesting icon are the Sacheonwang (사천왕), or Four Heavenly Kings statues. They are located inside Jinyeomun (진여문), meaning “Gate of Eternal Reality”, at Bongeunsa’s entrance, and so these statues are the first thing one sees when entering the temple grounds. Most temples have them at least in paintings, later I would see some carved in rock at Seokbulsa in Busan. The 23m tall statue of Mireukdaebul (미륵대불) “The Future Buddha” is striking. According to Bongeunsa’s website, it is the largest in South Korea. If you are interested there is also a short temple stay program for foreigners available. There is no need to make a reservation and you can sign up on the spot. The tour is about 2 hours . The program offers temple tours, meditation and conversation with monks, tea ceremony demonstration and the chance to make a lotus lantern. This is held every Thursday from 2pm to 4pm and costs 10,000 won.  Every year on September 9th the Buddhist ceremony called Jeongdaebulsa is held. This is a festival where people walk around the temple grounds holding wooden blocks of Korean Buddhist scripture on their heads, I may make the effort to go back to Seoul to see this.

From the temple I walked through Hades, sorry Co-ex, low ceilings, overcrowded, poor signage a recipe for suicidal tendencies to emerge.  I finally came across the Hyundai Department Store which had high ceilings and a magnificent food hall, reminiscent of Harrods or Selfridges. Making my escape I decide to head home for another relaxing night only to be accosted by the French and transported to Hongdae for “hangover and chips”.

On day 5 complete with minor head buzz I returned to Hongdae to ascertain if it had anything to offer the daytime visitor. Hongdae, the neighborhood around Korea’s number one art school, Hongik University. The streets surrounding the college are flush with clothing shops, trendy cafes, 24 hr bars, plus a whole gamut of restaurants catering for every conceivable taste. For the flaneur wander down any of the alleys and you’ll discover vibrant street art. The students of Hongik University have taken the area and turned it into a hip artists enclave in the middle of a traditional, conservative city. Every Saturday from March to November the neighborhood plays host to an eclectic flea market in Hongdae Playground. Local artists, many of them Hongik University students, set up tables in the park or mats on the ground and sell their wares. The pity is this was Wednesday but I will return for a weekend before the summer ends.
From here I returned by the Gimpo Airport fast train into the city and made for City Hall to take another wander down the stream heading for Dongdaemun (East Main gate) and the Market (Dongdaemun Stadium Station, Line 2, Exit 1, 5 minute walk). The area was packed with all ages, it’s not my cup of tea but it is a major Seoul attraction. The old city gate is particularly impressive and I did find some hidden gems. Bangsan Baker’s Market is located in a hidden corner of the larger Bangsan Market and contains everything you need to start your own SK patisserie. The ingredients available here (such as dried fruits, nuts, molasses, various flours flour, purees and extracts) may be difficult to find elsewhere. Baking equipment and tools are sold here, too and baking utensils that aren’t commonly found in other kitchen supply stores or markets. From Jongno 5-ga Station (Line No. 1), go out Exit 7 and cross over the Cheonggye Stream. From there, you’ll see the arch for the Bangsan Market entrance. From Euljiro 4-ga Station (Line No. 2 or 5), go out Exit 4 and turn right at the first intersection. From there, you’ll walk until you see the sign for Bangsan Market and turn right into the market, where you’ll find 20 to 30 baking supplies shops clustered together. I also came across Exotic Pet Store Row in Dongdaemun, I will not promote this as I don’t hold with the enforced captivity of rare animals! Don’t go but protest if you like!!!!!
With this I took the 40 minute stroll back to Windroad as on the next day I had my KTX to Busan booked for 11am…………………….to be continued!


One thought on “Summer Vacation Seoul, Busan and Gyeongju

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