After an afternoon concert of traditional Korean music played by my charges I arrived at Chungmuro station on Friday evening. Temperatures had started to fall and I was glad to reach the hotel for a mollifying shower. My inn for the night was the Astoria Hotel which is situated adjacent to Namsangol Hanok Village at the foot of Namsan mountain. My weekend plan was to conquer (a mild hyperbole) two mountains (Namsan [Mount Mongmyeok] & Bugaksan), hibernate for a while in an Apple store, gormondise some street food and sample the trendy area of Samcheong-dong.
Saturday, after a breakfast muffin I took line 3 from Chungmuro Hangangjin Station changing at Yaksu, Subway Line 6, to Hangangin Exit 1. Down the hill and on the right was the Bogwang Reservoir Walking Trail which led to Sowolgil Road and a pedestrian foot-bridge in front of Hyatt Hotel. The weather was particularly cold and the sky overcast but having left my “couch potato” lifestyle back in the UK I forged ahead into the Wildflower Park and the Paldo Pine Tree Groves. I came across a team of arborists manicuring the foliage. Alongside a legion of pensioners took advantage of the outdoor gymnasium to a backdrop of colourful winter foliage. Obviously this is not the pre-eminent time to visit the area but the park is beautifully designed and I will return again in Spring.
From here I followed the route along Subokcheon Spring Walking Trail and then deviated to the right passing a discarded surgical mask and then headed upwards following the sign for North Seoul Tower. I passed an exercise area and then ascended a steep 200 metre long staircase that led to some incredibly well-appointed public lavatories. A woman passed me wearing Joseph’s multi-coloured dream coat and then followed the road that the electric buses use to take people to the tower. The local government have appointed the parallel walking trail with the same surface that’s used on running tracks, it has some give and is considerate on the knees.
The walking trail offers spectacular views across southern Seoul, but on this occasion the weather was unforgiving of anything approaching a good photograph. There were good view of the War Memorial of Korea, the National Museum of Korea and the US army garrison sandwiched between. This massive area will become a new city park a soon as the US army jumps ship and relocates elsewhere in SK (see previous post). To the right of this is the Yongsan Area, I visited the Dragon Hill Spa previously but I haven’t been there in daylight hours and will take a shimmy down there during winter vacation (w/c 5th Jan 2013).
I knew that if I stuck to the road, from here the walk to the top was around 30 minutes. I passed numerous mature exercisers clad in the ubiquitous range of attire. I took a couple of “off piste” wanders, one particular trail led me along the Namsan part of the Joseon city wall. I saw a number of “rogue” exercisers who until I arrived may have felt they had found private places to stretch their limbs. One point I have to make is about the propensity to clad dogs in pink coats, ribbons and booties, Korea cannot possibly be usurped.
On reaching the tower it was like valentines day, love was everywhere, a loving bear, the love amulet walls, the love Christmas trees and a huge sign adorning the tower proclaiming “promise our love with”. Overwhelming so much love in one place! It was hot chocolate time, at “Cold Stone” ice cream café the young guy serving was the happiest Korean this side of pluto. He was well versed in Englishy and even asked me if I could give him alternatives to his line of questioning. David Dimbleby beware! As usual his beverage was tasty but too sweet. I surveyed the roof terrace “love locks”, passed the “Teddy Bear Museum” and then strolled across the piazza towards the pagoda.
The beacons beyond this were used in Bongsu, a communication system that was used to notify the city elders of the approach of enemy forces during ancient times. Bongsu was used to send messages across the peninsula by using smoke during the daytime and torch lights at night, a more convenient and rapid messaging method than horse or messenger. “Bongsu” is a combination of the words “bong” meaning torchlight, and “su” meaning smoke.
Namsan Bongsudae was established after moving the capital city to Hanyang (present day Seoul) during the third year of King Taejo’s reign (1394) during the Joseon Dynasty period.
I skirted the beacons and passed the Cable Car station to make my descent of the North side of the mountain. The 38 capacity cable car takes only 3 mins to ascend or descend the mountain but the well constructed stone and granite staircase route is more enriching. If the cable car is your preferred transportation you will be deposited on the lower slopes of the mountain atop one of the three road tunnels that pass through the mountain.
From the cable car station there is the Namsan Oreumi, a short 140 m funicular railway that deposits you, in a minute, onto Sogong-ro and a short walk from Namsan Plaza and Namdaemun Market.
The walk down was a little treacherous as the well trodden snow was compacted and slippery. Just before reaching a the landscaped park at the bottom, I passed an exercise area which again was the preserve of older gentlemen. The park entrance houses the Namsan Library an observatory and to the left the Ahn Jung-geun Memorial Hall.
The memorial hall is configured as a cluster of 12 columns that rise up from a sunken base. The number 12 symbolises the heroes of Dongeui Danjihoe (a secret society whose name roughly translates into the Society of Patriots) that was originally organized by Ahn. The members severed their little fingers in 1909 in a demonstration of their loyalty to the underground liberation movement. The hall has landed a number of architectural awards and it is a pleasant change in both design and finish from many modern buildings I have come across in SK. The building has a ambience that facilitates contemplation of the deeds carrie out by one of Korea’s great patriots who died at the age of 31.
On exiting the museum the park opens up to reveal a renovated section of the Joseon wall which snakes down towards the rennovated Nandaemon gate which is yet to be revealed after the 2008 arson attack. The park is barren at this time of year but the newly rennovated wall is impressive.
I double back to follow the “ox-bow” that is Sopa-ro which leads to the cable car station. The station sits atop one of the 3 Namsan dissecting tunnels, this one Sogong-ro. From here I took the Namsan Oreumi and crossed over passing through the underground Hoehyeon Market to Namdaemun market. I stopped to queue for Corn Ho Tteok at 1,000won each a bargain. These come with a filling of rice noodles and vegetables and are shallow froend until crisp and golden, the vendors create a gourmet home made chill/soy dipping sauce to enhance them. In the line I was joined by a couple of facial surgery victims, 2 nuns and a boy/girl or whatever he was!
After wandering around the camera shops I headed into the market at Gate 1 opposite the “soon” to be unveiled Korean National Treasure #1. It’s a colourful place and busy even in sub-zero temperatures. Amongst the pink tat it still offers the visitor a chance to really barter for a bargain. After a 45 minute wander it was time for a brew in Ediya coffee before strolling back to the hotel.
I met FOBY for dinner and we went to “in my opinion the best Pho restaurant in SK, that is “Good Morning Hanoi” in Insadong. The Tom Yung Kum was excellent and liberally sprinkled with coriander. A few beers in Owoo (Jongno) and a good nights sleep followed.
In the morning We visited the re-constituted Namsan Hanok Village and the ice sculptures before heading up to mid-Jongno tosee some snow-clad palaces. The first Built in 1483, Changgyeong (Flourishing Gladness) Palace was one of the “eastern palaces” along with the second, Changdeok Palace because they sat east of Gyeongbok Palace. In the last years of the dynasty, the Japanese occupiers built a zoo, botanical garden and museum in the palace compound with a view to symbolically undermining the royal status of the dynasty. The palace was restored in 1984 with the removal of the structures added by the Japanese. I had visited here in the summer and though admirable it infinitely more beautiful in the snow.
Changdeok Palace is accessed through a rear gate and is always spectacular but again in winter, it is (in my opinion), more beautiful; the coloured woodwork has greater zip and ping. Changdeok Palace was the second Chosun Dynasty palace built in 1405. Meaning “prospering virtue,” the palace replaced Gyeongbok Palace amidst political struggle over the throne. It suffered arson during the Japanese invasion but was rebuilt in 1609 to be used as the state palace. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, and the back garden, the beautiful and lush, “Biwon” is a Seoul must.
After FOBY left for Southern Seoul, I continued my walk to the second mountain of the weekend Mt. Bugaksan. I first took the beautiful Yulgok-ro towards the area of Samcheong-dong with its bohemian, if gentrified feel. The many small restaurants around here are cheap and always busy at weekends, the whole area has a youthful vibe. Further along, crossing Bukchon-ro 5-gil into Bukchon-ro 5ga-gil, there are more boutiques and eateries before you finally emerge on Samcheong-ro.
It was time for lunch, I entered one place that said at 1:40pm lunch was “finishy” and then saw Cook’ N Heim up some stairs on the right of Samcheong-ro. Fast food hamburger joint it is NOT. My idea of a burger changed for time immemorium after I sampled my first Cook’ N Heim Gorgonzola Burger. Burgers are large enough to need a knife and fork, it’s not cheap, but a treat! .
After lunch I headed towards Samcheong Park, passing very agile Santa’s, a beautifully decorated fire-hydrant, a lovely white Chow dog and an “owl” museum. On entering the park the trails are well-marked and the hike to the top, “prospect Point”, whilst steep is well worth the spectacular views served up at the top. The climb takes around 40 minutes. I passed a number of Ninja’s including one flying past in a full black body suit. I searched for the Milk Tray but could’t find them.
The summit has the welcoming vista of a military bastion complete with mega-gun and soldiers poised for combat sat atop the Joseon City Wall. To the left the wall rises up alongside the main vantage point known as “Prospect”. Three over 70’s sipped tea and ate tangerines, I admired their fitness in climbing to the top. Below, on this fantastically clear winters day, I was treated to the whole of North Seoul laid out before me and in the distance yesterday destination Namsan. I made out the three main palaces of mid-Jongno and the Blue House, the seat of presidents.
The descent was quick but my knees were feeling the strain. I headed back through the park past the Vietnamese Embassy and then into Bukchon Hanok Village, finally emerging at Anguk Station. From here I returned to Gangnam Express Bus Terminal and Chungju. To say I slept well on Sunday night would be a minor understatement!