A Military Frisk and a Dead Dong!


Having woke-up pre-sunrise on Saturday I made a quick sprint (exaggeration) to terminal for the 7:05am to Seoul, I made the 6:35am arriving in Gangnam at 8:10am. I’d made a last-minute overnight booking at Dondaemun Hostel and so headed there to drop my bag before heading North along the now familiar Mount Naksan old city wall, passing Iwha-dong and making a coffee stop near Hansung University Station on Line 4. adjacent to Hyehwamun, the “small east gate.”

Following the wall northwards through Heywha-dong I passed a school and an impromptu spectacle of a 15 a side soccer match, old houses cling to the remnants of the wall and more modern residences sit in its shadow.  I chatted to a former English teacher about Seoul, travel and how modern Korea is a place of contrasts and contradictions. The wall was broken by a main road which signalled the entrance to Waryong Park, marked by a map of the old wall and a collection of hikers. One guy tried to compete with me on the number of countries we had both visited, his wife seemed ecstatic when at some 15 year younger, I seemed to have won.

DSC_0394The path rose steeply through the park the dipped and rose again as I came across a staircase of around 90 steps which took me up and over the other side of the wall, here there were great views across Seongbuk-dong towards Gilsangsa Temple a popular temple stay venue.nSome 200meters further is the administration office (Malwabi Information Centre) which was on this beautiful day awash with hikers and army recruits. Here I had to show my passport or Foreign Residents Card, so I had brought both to ensure smooth passage into the restricted area of the wall. There was a fishwives fight for forms which needed completion before I was furnished with a visitors pass. The Koreans adopted the same system of queuing as they do at bust stops ie none. Once the fight for freedom was over I headed quickly past the military to start my ascent of Bukagsan Mountain.

After a few minutes I cam to Sukjeongmun Gate or Bukdaemun (large Northern Gate). This is one of the four main gates of old Seoul together with Namdaemun, Dongdaemun and Seodaemun. The gate was originally called Sukcheongmun but was renamed as Sukjeongmun during the Joseon Dynasty. It seemed bizarre to me that this was once a main thoroughfare because of its elevated position and on the inside the geography falls away sharply at an angle greater than 45 degrees. I found out later that the location of this “great north gate” meant it was not used much but in times of severe drought, Sukjeongmun was open and Seodaemun shut apparently in order to block yang energy and boost the flow of yin which it was hoped would dissipate the forces causing the drought! So the geography did kick ass!

DSC_0410The elevation of the wall climbs steeply from here following a ridge of Mt. Bugaksan, I passed juvenile soldiers at 200 metre intervals, all I suspect were still wearing nappies and straight out of high-school.  I felt the threat of a North Korean invasion evaporate as I exchanged pleasantries with these tadpole terminators. I came to a Chi or turret littered with “no photo” signs which of course no one heeded, A young sentry marshalled the area with a not-so-serious demeanour but paid lip-service to his masters by chastising any photographers and hastening them on.

DSC_0413I managed to take a few shots with no intention of espionage and imitated a geriatric Bond as I shuffled painfully back down from the Chi in need of water and Tylenol! Turning right the area was well manned and secured with high fencing and barbed wire as I passed through the wall and walked upwards along its outside face.  At the top of a rise a sentry station sits atop a staircase which led me over the wall and gave access to a stunning view across Jongno towards Namsan Tower.  Unfortunately this prize view is not in the blog as 3 young tadpoles made sure cameras were kept under wraps.  From here a steep staircase leads up to the summit of Mt. Bugaksan and more spectacular views to North, South, East and West. At this point I was straight behing teh Blue House, the Presidents official residence.

DSC_0428The wall here falls steeply for a kilometre towards Buam-dong. I was relieved that I had taken this route East to West and not visa versa. I stuck up some sign banter with an elderly pair who stopped regularly to perform patella massage and take on water. On reaching the end of this part of the great wall I emerged once again at the head of Buam-dong and Changuimun gate, one of Seoul’s smaller intermediate gates. From here you can continue the walk towards Mt. Inwangsan and down to Jongno.  I’d covered this part of the wall during my Winter vacation (see earlier post) and will again with FOBY and Angels C & D the weekend after this.

I doubled back on myself walked up towards Art is Life café, for the third time it was closed.  They really need to get their act in order, it  quite a trek up the hill and mildly irritating when the doors are locked. At least furnish the front door with opening times and the telegraph pole at the foot of the hill. Just before the main road falls downhill into Buam-dong is a Chinese Dumpling restaurant, it’s well recommended as they’re made fresh and come with a delicious Soy and Chilli dip. From here I took the bus back down to Bosingak Belfry and strolled past Jungak station before turning right towards Cheonggyecheon stream. The stream is barren at this time of year but shelters you from the winds and can be a sun trap. The walk along the stream returned me to Dondaemun and my hostel.

Later that evening I walked back along the stream towards Jongno, it was a warm beautiful evening with some good opportunities for iphoneography. I settled for Atari and the famous fried chicken before heading back for a cramped nights sleep in my broom cupboard of a room.

I woke and wandered down to the breakfast room which it seemed had been raided during the night, no tea, no coffee, stale bread and an empty jam jar were all that greeted me. All this did was inspire me to head towards the nearest Paris Baguette for breakfast.

After a fuelling I wandered past the old gate of Gwanghuimun, the Southeast Gate is also known as Namsomun, “ South Small Gate”. It was originally called Sugumun “Water Channel Gate.” The gates situated south-east of Dondaemun History and Culture Park.  This gate and a 200 metre section of the wall have been restored and mark the beginning of the fortress walk that takes in Namsan mountain. Ten minutes walking brought me to the area near Sindang Station where south of the Cheonggyecheon there is a lively second-hand market.

DSC_0437As I came to the stream the Seoul Marathon was underway , its amazing how so many people let this physical and intellectual “puzzle” get under their skin. The event favours thinkers, planners. The ability to develop and execute a training plan, to monitor and adjust to changing conditions, to set an appropriate pace, and to concentrate for hours on one task, all contribute more to marathon success than leg speed.

Passing over the stream the trash market continued and further north I came to Dongmyo Shrine. The main road had been closed to traffic AND pedestrians for the Marathon and after listening to a gaggle of Korean matriarchs commit a verbal assault on the officials I retired to a new coffee shop for respite. After a 30 minute recuperation I looked for passage across the thoroughfare without success, every major crossing point was fortified to stop the public having right of way.  More arguments ensued so I wandered some 150 metres down the road and made a dash for freedom, dodging the athletes as I flung myself across the road.  I could make out gesticulating officials and uninterested tadpole police officers but managed to scurry up an alley towards my next destination, Anyangam Hermitage (Dongmyo Station, Exit 9).

DSC_0468The temple houses a stone buddha carved into the rock-face around 1903.  The buddha looks like a Korean down to its moustache and beard.  The temple is a quiet oasis and I had the chance to chat to the monk in residence as well as a lady who lectured me (in Korean) for some 10 minutes.  I think she was talking about the carvings history but who knows, it doesn’t matter she was lovely. The temple also had an old caretaker who shuffled through his duties while I just sat enjoying the atmosphere for a half hour. Doubling back on myself I headed to Myogoksa Temple.

DSC_0486Myogaksa Temple is located in the Sungin-dong area of the Jongno district, on the foothills of Naksan Mountain. I climbed the winding road and as I entered the temple I realised it was part of the Korean Temple-stay Programme.  The Daebulbojeon (Main Buddha Hall) and other smaller Dharma Halls lie in the shadow of the figure of Gwanseumbosal, carved into the natural stone of Naksan Mountain. When I visited I met the head monk who ushered me to witness his service with the guest visitors, all of whom were Korean. On leaving the temple I climbed a staircase to the park that sits atop Naksan. I came across a man on crutches doing somersaults, a chappie lifting weights and a wandering minstral who proffered me to partake of his 11%, 2005 vintage, Korean Champagne, he had a box of 12!

DSC_0491I declined and headed down the hill, to my right was wall of plastic with some gaping holes, I obviously peeped through. I was shocked by the sight before me, I could have been in 80s Beirut! Sungin-dong was undergoing transformation, re-development, gentrification or whatever adjective you use, it was shocking on the eye. Where have the displaced people gone? Have they been re-housed or sent out to the country-side? I have never seen anything like it in the 32 countries I’ve visited. Kids played on rooftops amid the carnage, a lady hung out her washing, another ant like figure staggered through the rubble, a lady walked her dog, a man drove his scooter over the potholes and as I reached the far end of the devastation a man walked his two daughters on a Sunday stroll.

DSC_0548Emerging at the other side I headed down a steep stairway eventually reaching a large circus where I found solace in a drink of V water, all the dust had dried my throat. I was now within 5 minutes of Seoul Flea Market, a cornucopia of humanity wheeling and dealing to make some pennies. I wandered around the stalls; this bazaar has a multitude of stalls with extremely laid back vendors. The origin of the term “FLEA MARKET” is practically impossible to trace, it is a mystery. The first reference to the term “Flea Market” appeared in relation to a location in Paris, France in the 1860’s known as the Marche Aux Puces, translation, “Flea Market”, a place I visited for my 50th! I spent an hour or so pottering around before heading back to the stream and a return to Dondaemun. It was late afternoon when I climbed the stairs from the stream and after taking coffee in in the bowels of Ms Hadid’s developing masterpiece I headed to Gangnam for my journey back to Chungers. Another great 36 hours in Seoul!

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