It was a humid night on Friday and I was glad of the Shiraz that cosied me to sleep. Rising at 5:15 am I couldn’t face repeating another Chungers bike ride so I took the 6:35 am to Seoul. The morning was hazy but the day promised much, on the way I’d booked the Kimchi Myeondong for 35K ( Double room) my hostel for the night.
Leaving the bus station I gulped fresh air to avoid death by passive smoking and headed North towards Banpo Bridge. I decided the most inexpensive way of spending the day (this is a bloke who now without tenants cannot afford his UK mortgage) was to trek along the Han River with no definitive plan other than to be at Euljiro 3-ga by 4pm. I knew I could cross the river at 3 points but the decision as to which had not yet been made. On entering the underpass below Banpo I pressed through a crowd of lycra clad velominati, whose poor fitting attire highlighted their addiction to fried chicken and beer. It’s difficult to communicate either verbally or using facial expressions with these cycle sniffers due to the bonding of gear over face and eyes. One can only assume that they salivate over the reflections of each other generated by their mirrored goggles.
The low quality graffiti that graces the underpass is not worthy of digital capture so I quickly made haste to the floating islands; which to my surprise were being treated to some re-modeling. These island which have architectural merit were the brain child of the former leader of the Seoul government and have remained unfinished for a couple of years. The signage suggested a World Luxury Brand Expo but as the majority of the signage was in Hangul I was unable to decipher it. There was a lot of activity and a new bridge to the river side appeared under construction. The Banpo Floating Islands have their critics but I’m not one of them, they seem and ideal location for some kind of media school; film, drama, art or architecture.
I strolled along the waterfront east of Banpo bridge and arrived at a small island sitting in the river. Opposite a legion of cyclists assembled for what seemed like a fund-raising event. Under the bridge to the island nicotine addicts sucked heavily on their coffin nails as their partners straddling cycles appeared glued to mirrors and make-up bags. It was still a gloomy day as I crossed over to the island passing more overdressed folk engaged in power walking or jogging and others taking their dogs for a Saturday stroll. Along the edges of this lush oasis, fishermen sat under the shades of weeping willows, while a couple of girls picnicked under a gazebo.
Reaching Dongjak Bridge Observatory I climbed the concrete steps to the café above, the hazy weather disrupted the views and offered a mere glimpse of the 63 building silhouette but I can imagine they are quite spectacular on a clear day. Returning to highway level I followed the signs to the National Cemetery which sits in the shadow of Dongjak Bridge. Dongjak Bridge carries road traffic and Seoul Subway Line 4, and Dongjak Station is located at the southern end of this bridge. It is a blue truss bridge constructed of steel and concrete.
The National Cemetery founded in 1955, covers 343 acres and commemorates the 160,000 soldiers and other patriots who died in the Korean War. In front of the main entrance stand the Hyeon Chung Tower and Gate. Under the tower, more than 102,000 memorial tablets have been laid for those warriors who are missing in action from Korean War.
Families picnicked among the stones and school parties were herded noisily between the plots. I saw military personnel in uniform and solo visitors depositing flowers to remember their relatives. It was particularly busy as the 6th of June is Memorial Day, like our Poppy Day, and is also a national holiday. I chatted to a family who were surprised an Englishman would visit, I’m not sure why as they couldn’t explain?
I crossed over Dongjak bridge to head towards Namsan and Yongsandong. At the North end of the bridge I was able to return to the Hangang River Park. After another 20 minute stroll I left the river turning right and heading for Ichon Station and the National Museum of Korea. I’d visited twice before and so I just took in the lake and the grounds stopping for the fabulous Turkish fella’s chicken Kebab wrap. From here I hopped on line 4 to take the 4 stop journey to Sookmyung Women’s University and Huam Dong. Huam Dong sits on the steep lower slopes of Namsan Mountain and along the significant American Army Base. I wandered upwards through the dong passing a number of small interesting restaurants and some simple but colourful street art. Eventually I came to the Namsan South Circular road which provided some welcome shade because of the lush canopy of trees. I knew from here it was a simple 10 minute potter past the Goethe Institute to Namsan park proper and the re-made section of the city wall. I stopped on the terrace adjacent to Namsan library before walking upwards past the Memorial to Patriot Ahn Jung-geun and downwards towards the wall. A group of mountain biking enthusiasts had decided this a proper venue to practice their “downhill” skills as they took turns to descend and film each other.
If you take a right before the park falls away you will come to the cable car station after a 10 minute walk. Downhill and exiting at the north end of the park the main road turns sharply to the newly renovated National Treasure No. 1 Sungnyemyun Gate. It was this section that the “biker hells angels” were using to hone their skills. I passed the smiley building and its longtime friend the buddha and took to the newly opened plaza in front of the gate. The ancient gate was destroyed in an arson attack but the restoration team conducted historical and investigative research and repaired it using traditional building materials and techniques. They fired hand-made roof tiles in a traditional kiln and used traditional instead of artificial paints for the dancheong, the multi-colored Korean decorative colouring, this took over 5 years. The walls on both sides of the gate, which were demolished during the 1910-1945 Japanese colonial rule over Korea, have been rebuilt as well. The team also broadened the width of the stairway on its east side and lowered the ground around it by 30 to 50 centimeters to restore the gate to its original design. At the moment it all looks a little Disneyfied and too polished with only one entrance, which is also the exit, available to visitors.
I headed east through Nandaemun market, this large old-style export market has been functioning for over 500 years, it’s renowned for it’s clothing traders, wrapping paper, flower market, fashion accessories, art supplies, china and glassware. Namdaemun is also a superb place to find ginseng, medicinal mushrooms, seaweed, beans and local herbs and spices. There’s also a great ‘import’ food market, as well as a small fish market and other produce merchants. Claustrophobics; Namdaemun is NOT the place for you! It’s estimated that around 500,000 people visit this market every day! I emerged in Myeongdong and then some 8 minutes later at my Kimchi Myeongdong Hostel to check in.
After a much-needed shower I did a circular walk of inner Jongno taking in the park in front of Jongmyo Shrine, the narrow streets of the Hanok area north of Jongno-3 ga and the over-populated shopping mecca of Insadong before having a paddle in the Cheonggyecheon.
After a quiet evening of austerity I awoke early and walked over to yet another giant of a statue at Eulijro 3-ga.
Seoul Dream Forest rose from the remnants of a former theme park. The landscaped part of this 4th largest of Seoul’s parks sits between two relatively small mountains (Opaesan and Byeogosan) which have their own sets of walking trails. The link above gives details of the parks attractions and it’s well worth a half day excursion. On a Sunday the cafe’s and restaurants don’t open until 11 so don’t expect an early morning coffee once your in there, grab one before. It’s also a sad indictment of the authorities in Korea that wherever you go there’s a multitude of water features that in all probability will be switched off! I have to say I’m tired of seeing promotional literature that displays and eulogises about “water features” that are barren of water! Its also a consequence of this that the water that is in-situ is often dirty and less than picturesque and is nothing more than a theme park for mosquitoes.
Rant over, start your circumnavigation of the central landscaped area by visiting the Deer Garden. To the right is a rather disappointing and poorly stocked botanical garden. Further on there are some steps that afford a stunning view across the park. Go down the steps and the main lake is in front of you, alongside is a beautiful walkway of Iris’s (when in season). There’s a huge expanse of lawn and beyond that the restaurant Cafeteria La Foresta. I had the meat pasta here which was excellent. I strolled through the Maple Forest before crossing the kids play area towards the Observatory. Before accessing the Observatory I enjoyed an exhibition of photography in the Art’s Centre (subject the DMZ).
Reaching the top of the observatory involves a couple of funiculars and additional lifts or staircases. From the top, on a clear day, downtown Seoul can be seen and to the north, Bukhansan (Mt.), Dobongsan (Mt.) and Suraksan (Mt.) give a tremendous panoramic view. To the south, is an awesome view of Namsan (Mt.) and the Hangang (River). I speak figureatively of course as my visit co-insided with an atmosphere reminiscent of Makeoli.
This park is worth a visit but wait until a clear day before hoping to enjoy the views from the observatory. It is a beautifully designed and landscaped park and on my visit the friendliness of the people was worth the trip in itself. I spoke at length with a guy and his trusty labrador, a former guide dog and a lady taking a Sunday constitutional with her daughter.
Directions: Take line 4 of the Seoul subway system to the Miasamgeori station. Take exit 1 to street level, then take bus 9 or 11 to Dream Forest. It’s about a 10 minute bus ride, and stops right in front of the Dream Forest. Bus 149 goes to the Dream Forest from Seoul Station, while bus 144 stops at the Dream Forest from the Gangnam station area.
Returning to Hyehwa via bus 11 and line 4, I decided to get off a stop early and walk from Hansung University station through Hyehwa Dong to Seoul Munmyo. Located just north of Changdeokgung Palace is the oldest university in East Asia. Sungkyunkwan University was established in 1398 at the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty in honour of Confucius. For 600 years it served as the preeminent school in Korea. Remarkably, the university remains, with its humanities and social sciences campus still residing here in Seoul. in the complex sit two huge ginkgo trees, they themselves are designated National Monument No. 59, higher than Munmyo itself!. Planted in 1519 by Yun Tak, the chief of the school, they are situated just behind Daeseongjeon inside a protective gate.
I knew I was in the location of Windroad and Flower Guesthouse, the first place I stayed in Seoul, this meant I was also in the vicinity of Cafe Bene and the lure of the Blueberry Yoghurt Smoothie. Enough said.
It was mid afternoon and I was to leave Gangnam at 6 but I just had the time to head for the cooling shade of Changgyeeong. Built in 1483, Changgyeong (Flourishing Gladness) Palace was one of the “eastern palaces” along with 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 to symbolically undermine the royal status of the dynasty. The palace was restored in 1984 with the removal of the structures added by the Japanese. It is my favourite of the palaces in Seoul because of the garden and lake, beautiful in winter and summer alike. It also seems less crowded and popular, all good in my eyes. It’s a great place to take a picnic and book, find a shady spot and enjoy a relaxing afternoon. You would have no idea you are in one of the worlds mega cities.
I passed through the gate to Chandeok. 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 was also burnt during the Japanese invasion but rebuilt in 1609 to be used as the state palace. A must-see in the palace, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, is the back garden. The biggest of its kind from the Joseon period, this beautiful and lush garden was favoured by the royal family.
On leaving the complex I crossed over to Unhyeon Palace, this was the private house of Heungseon Taewon-kun (Lee Ha-ung), the father of King Kojong (the 26th monarch of the Choson Kingdom). Born here, Kojong also lived here until the age of 12. While Lee ruled as regent from 1863 to 1873, the attached houses (Noan-dang and Ajae-dang) and main wings of Norak-dang and Iro-dang were built. The shrine to Lee’s ancestors Unsin-Kun and Namyon-Kun were also constructed during this period. Kyonggun-mun and Konggun-mun were gates for the exclusive use of King Kojong and his father, respectively, through which they could go to nearby Changdeok Palace. Here there was a cultural show of music and dance with some very active elderly participants, an enjoyable end to yet another fruitful and enjoyable walking weekend in Seoul.