Was Van Gogh mad enough to satisfy Korea?

The weekend forecast was good for Saturday and poor for Sunday and so I headed for Seoul with plans to walk from Supyogyo (bridge), Jongno, along the Cheonggyecheon (stream) to Seoul Forest Park (SFP). I had booked into Apple Backpackers (sister to Banana Backpackers) in the heart of Jongno, some 5 minutes walk from the stream.

Unfortunately the dodgy knee curtailed the desire to take the 12 km stroll: it takes about 3 hours. I therefore took the subway line 2 from Jongno 3 to Ttukseom Station, Exit 8.  It is a 15min-walk from the station to the park entrance (well-signposted, coffee shops along the way).

It was Pepero Day and shops had monumental displays of the said confectionary to tempt the Romeos and their Juliet’s into parting with their Won. Pepero Day is another example of Koreans celebrating something nonsensical. The 11.11 (11th day of November) is deemed special for some reason. The number “1″ represent the Pepero stick, apparently. So Pepero day has become the Korean Valentine’s Day as couples (and also friends) exchange or give Pepero to their loved ones. Teachers sometimes get gifts from their students.

Seoul Forest, opened on June 18, 2005, and is situated on Ttukseom (Ttuk Island). In the past the area had been a royal hunting ground for kings and had also served as a military inspection facility. More recently it served a wide variety of functions including; a water-treatment facility, a golf course, a horse racing track, and more recently a sports park. There are five parks linked by footbridges each with their own individual theme. Seoul Forest Park is the Seoul governments attempt to capture the essence of Hyde Park in London and Central Park in New York. The publicity declares “Seoul Forest is your Garden, Seoul Forest is your Health, Seoul Forest is your Family”, hardly worthy of Saatchi and Saatchi but GHF it is! Further marketing gold suggests, “you make your way to Seoul Forest, Seoul’s urban hideaway!” My only problem with Seoul Forest is its name, forest it is not, family park; yes it is, and a pretty good one.

The Cultural Art Park is adjacent to a dour concrete public swimming pool which is significantly enhanced by a colossal shimmering silver dial adorning its facade.  The park entrance is overshadowed by two huge edifices of real estate; aquamarine curtain-walled glass seen at its most exquisite on this cool autumnal but sunny morning. The visitor kiosk afforded me a colourful and well thought-out map of the five areas to explore.

In the shadow of the twin towers I heard some laughing and some crying as I encountered kids participating in a roller-blade lesson. Is this yet another nail in the coffin of Korean culture and its gluttonous receipt of American culture across its society? Maybe it’s just kids having fun? Apparently the planet is experiencing a Rollerblade renaissance, are they (the roller blades) returning on a tsunami of 90s nostalgia and re-entering the mainstream? We shall see. The kids seemed cheerful if reticent, the parents invisible, but as an alternative to the Hagwon Saturday culture I applaud this activity. It would be nice for parents to share the experience; the laughter; the bumps and the bruises with their kids.

I passed photographers embracing the final opportunity to sample the sunlight transitory illumination of violet leaves. An army of children running around in teams participated in a park-wide treasure-hunt. I stumbled upon the sculpture park and found some awesome reflections to capture for my digital portfolio, my Tumblr and Instagram galleries. Passing a reflective pond, a walkway revealed a small amphitheatre home to the treasure-hunt trophies and a host of picnickers. Beyond here, up a rising walkway to the left was a visitor centre. In SK this generally means “the poshest bogs in the park” and zilch else; this was spot on again.  The front of the VC was decorated with resplendent coiffeured cabbages and a “tile wall” with some charming kid’s artwork, Korea is good at this! I scaled a sloping pathway, emerging at a bridge which crossed the Yongbigyo highway into Park 3. I had arrived, as indicated on the map, at the Yeongju Apple Road; it was appleless in November needless to say.

I had entered the Nature Experiencing Study Field (Park 3) which occupies the infrastructure of the former Ttukseom Water Treatment Facility; this refurbished educational area is domicile to an insect botanical garden, a wild flower garden, a themed flower garden, an event ground and is surrounded by an embryonic forest (still in its infancy). On Saturday the flowers had all but faded and the trees had by and large shed their leaves. After Vitamin water and a visit to the exceptional WC I climbed up to the observation deck (behind the shop and toilet block). I came upon a legion of volunteers helping to collect fallen leaves and trim back dead foliage prior to the onset of winter. Walking on, passing a stream on the left, plus a myriad of treasure hunters and masked marauders, I wandered under the Seoungsudaegyo Bridge into Park 2, the Eco-Forest.

The Ecological Forest, once an area submerged under the Han River, has been transformed into an eco-forest linking the Han and Jungnang-cheon (Jungnang stream). This natural habitat for wildlife is the residence of Fallow deer, Formosan deer, Elks, Chipmunks, Mandarin ducks, Mallards, Spot-billed ducks and Moorhens. The locale directly after the bridge is alive with activity as kids love to feed the surprisingly un-shy deer. Adjacent to the feeding ground is the elevated walkway which links the Han to Yongbigyo roundabout and the epicentre of the park.  I climbed the stairs, taking an immediate right along the suspension bridge towards the Han. I was joined by masked walkers, cyclists (even though a sign clearly said no cycling), treasure hunters and couples out for a stroll on Pepero Day. The bridge crosses over the Gangbyeon Expressway in order to give visitor’s access to the Han River Park (Park 5) and the Seoul Forest Wharf jetty. The walkway affords great view across the river to south Seoul and to the west towards Namsan Tower and Itaewon. Walking back ingesting the zoo like aroma (no more detail) I passed through a garden of ornamental grasses before coming to the behemoth like roundabout to return to park 1.

I stopped for coffee at the community restaurant as SK residents gorged on American Hotdogs and Coke.  Next door was an art gallery but whilst interesting the quality was less than breathtaking. Still this spot adjacent to the lake is a great place to relax and picnic before finding a quieter seat to read a book. I departed after 30 minutes and to my left was a gorgeous coppice of trees still holding onto autumn as the yellow leaves shimmered in the morning sun.  This was a popular spot for photography, the forest path clad in the leaves already shed. As the wind kissed the trees, fresh showers of leaves floated across the sky to settle on the ground, as if mourning the passage of autumn and showing disdain for the onset of winter.  The forest walkway opened up to reveal the equestrian centre, the Sungsu Middle & High School and another bridge, under the bridge the landscape revealed was the Wetlands Ecological Field. (Park 4).

Making use of the old local reservoir’s natural environment, the Wetlands Ecological Field contains the wetlands ecological management office, an ecological playground, an outdoor nature classroom, a bird observatory, a wetlands flower garden and a botanical garden fed with local waters. On my arrival I passed the playground and to my left was a huge outdoor classroom inhabited by 4 examples of Korean wildlife (see picture). The wildlife had a variety of coloured plumage and was adorned by layers of cosmetics and carried an assortment of soft toys and other paraphernalia. I strolled beyond the outdoor classroom and engaged with a triumvirate engrossed in a photo-shoot. The models were dressed as sailors and clung to each other in a variety of homo-erotic poses.  They appeared to be two lasses clad in the same gear but one role-playing as a boy. Bizarre! A few steps away a lilac clad maiden thumbed through a novel, her copper coloured hair dazzling against a grey concrete backdrop. I felt I was in a 70s Star Trek episode or a scene from U.F.O and that Jim or Straker would appear at any second! I trekked across the boardwalk of the Marsh Plants Garden meeting three more protagonists, a photographer, a make-up artist and a model; this time with silver birch hair and a red ensemble. The wetland foliage contrasted with the backdrop of encroaching city apartments, reflecting how the creation of this park after many years of Seoul searching (pardon the pun) had rescued the area for the people from developers.

To sum up SFP or GFH as I will now call it; a tremendous day out providing the weather is good but certainly NOT a winter destination in the mould of Hyde Park or Central Park. Seoul Forest Park is still in its infancy in terms of the development of the flora but is highly worth the visit for the open space, the variety of the parks scenery and other attractions.

Returning to the subway I took line 3 back to Jongno and defied any sense of taste by taking up the offer of two Burger King XLT burgers for the price of one, 5700 won! They were surprisingly tasty and substantial, enjoyed in the historic surroundings of Tapgol Park. Weary I returned to Apple B for a restorative shower and snooze.

The evening held a great attraction, the Seoul Lantern Festival, but prior to that my body was in need of further rejuvenation and so I headed to the famous Dragon Hill Spa.  For regular readers you will already know health spas have become a minor recent addiction of mine.  I was reticent about Dragon Hill as it seemed to be the “must visit” spa destination for foreigners in Seoul. Lonely Planet has a listing for the spa.

“The spa is spread out over seven floors. In addition to outdoor baths, charcoal saunas, crystal salt rooms and ginseng and cedar baths, there is a golf driving range, cinema and rooftop garden with an Indian Barbeque Village. The outdoor unisex pool is perfect for families. The spacious interior is a beguiling mix of gaudy Las Vegas bling and Asian chic – there’s a sauna shaped like the pyramids but also a bamboo forest lit up with neon green lights. There’s always a smattering of foreigners – Russian models, Filipino migrant workers and Western English teachers. The staff speaks basic English and many signs are in English. Exit into Yongsan train station, leave by Exit 1, turn right past IPark Mall and look for the signs. The entrance is through the bamboo grove.”

I really have little to add; on my visit 50/50 foreigners and Seoulites, soulless, uninspiring, Disneyfied, gaudiesque, annoying, ostentatiously or tastelessly ornamented, extravagant and outlandish, NEVER again! For anyone wanting an authentic Korean experience head out of Seoul to Ansan.  In Seoul I have read recommendations for Siloam Fire Pot Sauna, website: www.siloamsauna.com. Maybe next time?

Returning to Jongno, I had been pre-warned by Angel 1, alias Ms Jaffrey Heighway that last year’s event was choca and inaccessible.  Local knowledge prevailed; I headed downstream to gain entrée close to Seabyeokdari Bridge (adjacent to Gwangjang Market & Bangsan Market). No queues, trouble-free access and an anticipated one hour meander to the plaza or so I hoped. Yes they were there and in their masses; families with belligerent uncontrolled kids, happy couples celebrating Pepero, old folk battered by the tides of bodies and moi. I shuffled my way through the jungle of Koreans clinging to my iPhone and Nikon with an insurance claim close to my innermost thoughts.

There were some impressive and imposing lanterns and those less so, a Blackpool illuminations without the restraint, chaos was the order of the evening. It was a carnival of failed protocols, mores and manners, a maelström of aggressive pushing and discourteousness, a tornado of selfish passion!  As I trundled along, increasingly battered and bruised, the desperation to escape increased. Yes I got some lovely snaps and the large-scale lanterns were terrific, it was experiencing the failure of humanity to behave in a greater than animalistic fashion that irritated.  Once I had been liberated onto the upper deck the experience was much more invigorating and enjoyable. I had felt like a Man U supporter in the Etihad, now I felt like Hilary as he sat atop Everest!

I looked for a Thai restaurant that I’d seen earlier but after entering and being offered additional services, I realised that Pad Thai was not on offer but many other kinds of Thai were! I settled instead for the Potala, a Nepalese restaurant supplying exquisite Chicken Makhani, beautiful Garlic Naan and flavoursome Jeera rice, immaculate! A couple of beers later I was ready for the land of nod with the uninspiring footnote that rains were forecast during the night.

On Sunday I woke to the sound of a dog barking (hopefully not on its way to Boshintang) at 4.30am, yes I was in a rear room, extensive but at the rear, with no double glazing.  I tried to re-employ a comatose state without success, so then edited some pictures on the iPad. I love the Autostitch App to the extent that when using the iPhone camera I continually look for panoramic shots; combined with Photoviva and the iPhone camera you do not need much else for good travel snaps. Whilst listening to the rain pelt down it seemed inevitable that Sunday would be a washout.  I tried the usual Internet searches for “things to do on a rainy day in Seoul”; predictably shopping, jimjilbang, noraebang and eating were the only offerings.  I decided (as it was close) to head for the Namsan Hanok Village (two stops from Jogno on line 3) and later the Seoul Art Centre (SAC) for two exhibitions Van Gogh in Paris and Korea Tomorrow 2012 (again line 3).

Leaving Chungmuro Subway Station, Namsangol Hanok Village (NHV) only 200 metres away is set among concrete towers, with the Seoul Tower and Namsan Mountain as a backdrop. Entering the gate I was drawn to the attractive ornamental pool and the Chunugak Pavilion, beyond this are the five traditional transposed buildings representing the Hanok Village. It was constructed in 1998, where an army base had been located. The village contains houses of diverse classes including those of a royal family and of ordinary folk. On this rainy day two coaches of Malaysian Tourists inhabited every doorway, sheltering from the rain and expecting others to wait for what seemed hours whilst they took photos. After 4 sessions patiently waiting for them to finish, I gave up on the politeness in order not to drown. I entered the house of Park Young-Hyo which had a demonstration of a traditional Korean wedding every day. On my visit, two eccentrically dressed ladies (twins I believe) sat in the rain earnestly waiting for the performance to start, I was not that enamored and so moved on. Perhaps they wanted to be the bride, they looked like confirmed spinsters though. Beyond the village is a small landscaped park, rising at the foot of Namsan, which still had some vibrant leaves to snap and add to the autumn portfolio. The rain became heavier and I took shelter in a pagoda at the foot of the park waterfall; as the weather improved I made the 10 minute dash back to the subway and line 3 to the SAC.

The SAC is around 10/12 minutes walk from the subway station at Nambu Bus Terminal, there’s also a number 11 shuttle bus to the door (I discovered later). The SAC has been operational since 1988 and plays a key role in celebrating world as well as Korean culture. The Vincent exhibition focused on his time in Paris and contained some important self portraits though none of the blockbuster works of art that characterise the major exhibitions in Europe and America. Whilst lacking an inspirational quality the exhibition gave a good account of VG’s journey from realism to modernism whilst living in Paris. It also included a wide variety of self-portraits and I had never seen so many in one VG exhibition before. On my visit it was very busy with the gift shop doing a roaring trade, it was also disappointing that supporting signage and explanations were only in Korean.  I am loath to use the accompanying electronic devices for reasons that I have explained in previous posts. Adjacent to the major exhibition was a smaller gallery which seemed to have no visitors but which I found fascinating, the Cho Dong-Up Visual Design Exhibition. Again the signage was poor but the artworks were presented on high quality photographic paper and incorporated animal imagery in an individually stylised form.  Some works were visually stunning.

The fourth annual “Korea Tomorrow” exhibition is anticipated to provide an insight into the universal trends in SK’s contemporary art landscape.  This year’s show features 38 artists specialising in a multiplicity of genres. They include sculptor Chun Sung-myung, photographer Koo Sung-soo, painter Min Song-sik and media artist Lee Lee-nam.  The exhibition is divided into five sections – “Hyper Narrative,” “Conceptual Color,” “Live Painting,” “Border Space” and “Craft or Design and Art.” Whilst I found some of the exhibits predictable, some I found addictive. The beautiful hand crafted modern furniture pieces, lacquered and inlaid with mother of pearl were manufactured using traditional techniques; they were awe-inspiring. The glossy “plates” relating to the pop music industry were witty and beautifully created; an installation (film) showing a whole “paper” city crushed by a ballet dancer was both beautiful and disturbing. I would recommend this exhibition to anyone visiting Seoul but next year as it closed today.

From the exhibition space I left the SAC turning right and up the road towards Mt. Umyeonsan.  It is named thus because rumour has it that it resembles a sleeping cow.  Daeseongsa Temple was a 20 minute hike through fast deteriorating woodland and was in short extremely lackluster. My mind returned to Seokbulsa Temple in Busan, this place could not be farther removed. On the route down from the temple I noticed a reservoir flanked by a seating area with some vibrant vermillion and fuschia coloured leaves so I stopped to give my knee some respite.

I re-entered the SAC complex at the rear revealing a large open public square adjacent to the Opera House, the skies were dull but the falling leaves lifted the atmosphere. I was hungry, it was 3pm and I hadn’t eaten since 8am.  I think I lost my senses this weekend because on my return to the subway (and after yesterdays Burger Kings) I fell into a KFC Zinger before returning to Apple BP to pick up my dirty laundry.

I arrived back in Chungju around 7:40pm slaughtered with an achy knee and a need for R & R.  I read through two editions of Wired UK and fell comatose ready for another week at Chungwon.

3 thoughts on “Was Van Gogh mad enough to satisfy Korea?

  1. Pepero Day! never heard of it before!
    Is it a “real” holiday or is it something made up by Hallmarks or the confectionery & sweets industry?

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