Chuseok: Circumnavigating the Seoul Fortress

For Chuseok this year I headed to Seoul with Angel formerly known as Disley but now Chungju‘s Fabulous Feline Catwoman. We were staying at Daelim Residence in Guro some 25 minutes by metro to downtown Jongno. Our mission this year was simple, to circumnavigate the Seoul Fortress! M suggested it was possible in a day but my prior knowledge told me if we attempted that she would quickly shed some of her nine lives. With this in mind we set a more realistic 2 day target starting day 2 of the Chuseok holiday. The total length of the official Seoul fortress wall walk is 18.2km and consists of four main parts. Many visitors divide the path into smaller sections and take a number of day trips, as the trail can be steep at times, especially for those not used to hiking or taking life at a more leisurely pace.  We set ourselves the task of completing the 3 northern sections in one day followed by the southern Namsan section.

For now we’d just arrived in Seoul and deposited our bags with the friendliest old lady in SK.  The plan was to visit the Han River park and then head south to Bangbae for a walk across the 3 hills that dissect Seocho. It was a beautiful morning as we navigated the Seoul traffic and traversed the underpass to the park emerging under Banpo Bridge at the floating Islands.  The area was littered with Ninja cyclist planning mass advances along the Han flood plains. Two saxophonists serenaded M under a seated canopy, of course they both assumed we were of American descent but seemed ingratiated by our interest. We crossed over to the spectacular islands and for the first time in any of my visits they had been opened to the public. In the first of the larger pods a photographic exhibition showcased the history of the area from uninhabited swamp to a prime residential habitat and leisure destination. The second island housed a contemporary exhibition of monumental colour prints some short and others long exposure. M bought a set of postcards of her favourite canvasses. Leaving the artificial islands we crossed over to a narrow natural atoll inhabited by walkers, grasses and butterflies.  Fishermen sat with their 5-10 rods awaiting their own personal Moby’s; a huge fish covered in flies rotted on the embankment. Two girls enjoyed a picnic under the gazebos and an old lady promenaded with her two pink-eared pooches. We trudged towards the Marina area navigating our way into the car park in which sat a number of Airstreams of differing era’s; one day I’ll be “on the road” traversing the American highways in one of these! Legions of professionally clad cyclists were on the move as we took the lift to the roadway on  Dongjakdaegyo (bridge).

There are two cafes here with great views west towards the 63 building and east towards Banpogyo.  I’ve read they are particularly fond courting destinations in the evening. Taking the 5 minute walk along the elevated walkway to Dongjak Metro station we then boarded the line 4 to Sadang switching to line 2 for Bangbae. Emerging here we cut through the expensive real estate to climb the footpath behind Cheonggwonsa Shrine (closed for refurb). This is a steep climb but the hardest part of the three hills walk (see earlier post Trois parcs à Seocho y compris Montmatre). This is one of my favourite strolls in Seoul and as M commented, it was like “you are not in the city”, it would be a good area to live and work if resident in Seoul. The walk undulates and rewards with cool shaded paths, wild flowers and fungae. Dog owners welcome interaction while kids try and practice their English on you. Older folk take advantage of the many exercise opportunities at areas such as “Grandad’s Rest”. It’s a great to sit and devour that novel you always promised yourself you’d read. We emerged at the last park after crossing the Silkworm Bridge which offers view down the monumental avenue that leads south to Seoul Arts Centre and north to Express Bus Terminal. The steep descent leads to another modern bridge which offers access to the terminal.

After retrieving out luggage and pondering which Sauna to visit we settled on Silloam “Fire Pot” spa near Seoul Station as it was on the number one line to Guro our place of habitation for the duration of Chuseok. This was a great way to end day one, the Salt Scrub steam room and the powerful jet sprays followed by the Jade steam room and Mugwort bath really left us feeling relaxed after an active day.

Day two arrive and this heralded the start of our Seoul Fortress walk. We took the metro to Dondaemun and took the side of the wall as far as Iwha-dong (Previous post) passing through the gate which then provides great view across the northern Seoul palaces and Dondaemum. We continued through Naksan Park skirting the wall thinking this would lead us directly to Samseon-dong and the next stage of the walk, unfortunately half-way down we realised that this was a false hope as we’d failed to cross back under to the walls east side so we carried on down the steep staircase into Donsung-dong and followed the main road around. We past some remnants of the Filipino market and a vivid blue piece of street art before rejoining the walk at Dongsumun gate. I’d covered this part of the wall in my earlier posts (A Military Frisk & a Dead Dong) but for M it was her first time. The climb is steep but slowly we climbed to the station where the badges are issued; remember a passport or Foreigner ID card is necessary to gain entry. On this clear day the views were spectacular but because of Chuseok it was pretty quiet. It’s forbidden to take photographs on some areas of the wall for fear of breaching national security 🙂 and so I was careful in only snapping M on areas free of military personnel and “no photo” signs. We climbed stopping occasionally for some respite until we reached the mountain ridge were the hike levels out. Here the wall is well guarded by boy soldiers and other security and the ancient fortifications are additionally insurmountable because of crumbling metal fences and barbed wire. There are of course areas foe soldiers to practice basketball which would put fear into any alien invaders. remember we are situated directly behind the presidents house she must feel extremely safe! From here the last climb takes you to the peak of Bugaksan but before we attempted the last push we were challenged by a young gun who asserted that we were putting his nation in grave dangers by the many photographs I had taken.  Severely admonished but not detained we continued our climb passed by a cohort of boy wonders and acknowledged by a team of pensioners. On reaching the summit M felt rightly proud of her achievements as we settled for a break chatting to a German family, residents of Seoul. He was reluctant to divulge his career so we assumed secret service, diplomacy or at least a 00 label. The descent here is so steep and placed great demands on my knees as well as M’s vertigo. The reward was the dumplings that we’d ravish on our arrival in Buam-dong.

Exiting at Changuimun Gate and passing behind Cafe Expresso we crossed over the road to the always busy dumpling restaurant who’s name cannot be discovered anywhere. Reasonably priced and consistently excellent do not miss these delights. So it is true you cannot Google everything! After a splendid fill we ascended the stairs to Poet Yun Dong-ju before following the trail and crossing over to start the ascent of Inwangsan. I’d done the climb before (Exhilarating, Intoxicating and Invigorating Bukhansan) but on a clearer and less crowded day I was really looking forward to reaching the summit. M posed for a snap at a military pod and we started the climb, this climb also has military protection but here they’re slightly less rigorous in their interrogation of faux mountaineers. We stopped to talk to a Scottish lady who was descending the opposite direction and were passed by another band of juvenile militia. We stopped halfway to soak up the views across Bugaksan and the Blue House but also to imbibe some O2. The final climb is preceded by great views down Gwanghwamun Square and across the Palaces. The traffic glowed gold reflecting the early afternoon sun as we took the last climb to the summit. We were afforded glorious view on this late summers day, the crowds were skeletal and so friendly. We both posed for pics on the summit rock, M looking precarious as she pushed aside her vertigo and claimed the defeat of Inwangsan, she also posed horizontal as she “flew” over Seoul with the city and Namsan as a backdrop.

The descent here is steep but my favourite vantage point of Seoul, people picnic here and the atmosphere is always affable. Food and drink are often shared and pleasantries always proffered. By this time our knees and what pass for muscles ached but we pressed ahead. On the lower reaches the walk levels out undulating like the back of a Chinese dragon, we’d broken the back and felt tired but elated. Day ones adventure was drawing to a close, rewarding it had been, disappointing it was not. One last surprise awaited us on the final stretch a promenade of wild flowers awash with butterflies. This was truly memorable and one of my summer in Seoul highlights The violet and white flowers danced in a sallow breeze as the multi-coloured butterflies danced between them in what can only be described as a  lepidopteran utopia. Home time day 2.

Day 3 saw a return to Dondaemun to begin the south section of the wall. Entering near Dongak University station and behind the Silla Hotel the walk provides views across Seoul towards the mountains of yesterday and across Dongholo-dong. The footpaths here are narrow and less willing to accommodate large numbers of hikers, its obviously a dog walkers destination going by the number of No Poo Poo signs. We had lots of time planning to meet FOBY at around 13:00pm on the other side of Namsan. Today I’d explore the last section of wall that I’d never visited, that beyond the National Theatre of Korea. We reached the top of the initial section in around twenty minutes taking the sky path adjacent to the Golf Driving Range integrated into the Banyan Tree Spa and Resort. We cut through the complex and headed down towards to theatre and then upwards to the “new” section. It was a steep climb, a Korean woman was carrying out her Buddhist chanting and had a number of food offerings laid out before her. As we skirted the wall the climb became steeper. We could both feel the stiffness in our aching limbs as we mounted the final staircase that provided access over the wall, here local hikers offered us food and drink we politely declined. The previous nights cocktails had affected out disposition and taken its toll. We passed a hermit on the pathway which rose slightly and then fell steeply into a narrow valley before climbing a footpath which 10 minutes later landed us at a familiar spot. This was the main roadway up to the Namsan Bus Station and the short ascent to the tower.

At the top we stopped at the gift shop were M purchased some more cards before passing the Beacon point descending the stairs past the Cable Car Station. Some 30 minutes later we emerged at the new section of wall that leads down to Sungnyemun Gate where we were due to collect FOBY for lunch. As is usual he had re-invented the meet instructions and assimilated them into Franks World, both M and I agree that this inhabits a parallel universe to ours. Despite not bothering about the official meeting time, this was confirmed in a number of text messages on the previous day, he seemed keen to hurry us along during our final tumble down Naksan.  He had deposited himself on the other side of the gate in his favourite Holly’s. Unfortunately for us this meant a further 15 minutes journey, not because of the distance but because of the infantile Korean traffic like system. The car is king and we are its serfs!

FOBY true to form suggested lunch and after the usual “wander” we stopped for a traditional pot of Korean Budae Jjigae Stew. A delicacy developed in the years just after the Korean war, it’s carcinogenic credentials are not in question nor when hungry is its ability to satisfy.  What is it? Well, you could say it’s fusion food, East meets West or simply a poor mans sausage casserole.  What does it entail? What is its history? This dish emerged from Korea’s painful past. During the Korean war, and for a time afterwards, people had little to eat. Most people had to fill their stomachs with the food distributed on the street called Kkulkkulijuk (meaning “pig’s gruel”). People made this dish by combining left-over Spam and hot dogs from U.S. Army restaurants and whatever else was available. All the left-overs were put into pot with water and boiled. These days, restaurants usually use ramyeon noodles, ddeok (Korean rice cakes), sausages, meat, and goch’ujang paste for a hot and spicy taste, which Koreans like the most. To get the right taste of this dish, Spam sausage should be added. I defy any Masterchef contestant to serve this up for Greg and co.

After this hearty and fulfilling spicy fair we headed for Gwangjang Market, unfortunately the textile vendors were still celebrating or suffering the effects of Chuseok and only the food providers were in residence.  We therefore headed down the Cheonggyecheon to dip our feet in its cooling waters. The stream was awash with colour; minstrels,drummers, pipers, the old and young folk in traditional dress (Chuseokbim), courting couples, bohemians, all manner of folk. Many were enjoying picnics or just promenading under shade of their parasols. One old lady dressed traditionally sang along her guitar strumming partner. At Cheonggyecheon Square, people were engaged in trying 15 popular folk games, including tug-of-war, yunnori (a traditional board game), jegichagi (shuttlecock), and neolttwigi (see-saw). Meanwhile, at Seoul Plaza, visitors were enjoying games of tug-of-war and making gotgam (dried persimmons), there were demonstrations of the ancestral rite performed by families every Chuseok, called “charye.”

From here only one place was on the agenda, a return to the spa, a well-earned kip, a meal at the hotel owners restaurant and a beer in a soulless Guro Ikalian themed bar which seemed like a set from “Benidorm”. The dust here was as old as its decor!

The next day after breakfast we headed for Seonyudo Park, the former sewage treatment plant sitting in the Han River. We had a stroll then rested in the shade, the trekking endeavours had taken their toll. Again I’d visited before you can read more in the post Frogs, Toads, Salamaders, Newts and Caecilians. Continuing through the park and ascending Yanghwadaegyo and crossing over to Hapjeong. We were constrained by the mammoth triple carriageway and so stopped for a cooling smoothie. After navigating our way across at the next major intersection we headed into Hongdae and headed for the students Craft Flea Market.

A little park across the street from Hongik University transforms into a marketplace for arts and crafts on the weekends. My friend the internet reveals that it’s called the Free Market on Saturdays and the Hope Market on Sundays. The Free version is said to focus on artwork, accessories and clothing, and the Hope version on arts a crafts, however a bit of everything can be found at both.

The street bordering the graffiti covered park on one side is lined with Mapogu licensed vendor stalls; mostly selling watches, multi-coloured hand-painted Converse, jewelry and accessories. The park itself has a variety of stalls selling hand crafted hats and beads, paintings, hand dyed t-shirts, hand bags and purses, picture frames, notebooks, wallets and hand painted Zippos among other things. Kids entertained themselves on the ink clad slides and there were artists sketching portraits and caricatures inspiring inquisitive crowds. On the back side there was live entertainment in a small amphitheatre adjacent to the awful lavatories.

As we headed back to the south of Hongdae for lunch at the Design Museum I had an altercation with and oversized cockerill (note I didn’t use the shortened version) and we stopped to browse at one of my favourite shops at the Hongdae Cultural Centre, Sansang Madang. At the aA Design Museum FOBY and I had calzone but M’s steam seemed finally to have expired!

Another rejuvenation at Daelim saw us head into Jongno for Korean Barbecue.  We ate at an outdoor place near exit 6 and were treated like royalty by the owner. 3 hearty meals of prime griddled pork loin, soup and extras plus 5 large shared bears for £8 a head, tremendous.  We did our usual sophisticated mini pub crawl of Friends and Lovestar before returning for a fantastic nights sleep.

After home manufactured breakie on Sunday (our final day of the Chuseok break) our destination was Seoul Grand Park. FOBY could get line 4 home from their and we had easy access to Gangnam Terminal. We secured our luggage in lockers and headed down the boulevard that meets the station. having capitulated at my intention to walk up the hill M and FOBY decided that the chair lift to the top of the park was the way to go. After refreshments we clambered aboard with chunky boy in the centre. It is the best way to see the expanse of the park but be warned the two-part ticket does not get you literally to the top! When you reach halfway you have to change chair lifts and to gain access to part 2 a zoo pass needs to be purchased.  It’s not expensive but in typical perverse Korean logic why do they not feel the need to sell this 3 part ticket at the bottom. I am sure many overseas visitors have fallen victim to this heist. What if you don’t believe in zoos? Even if your morals allow this you may want to avoid the screaming Korean kids who invariably inhabit them. If your disabled chairlift two is the only way you can get to the top of the park even if you wish to descend through the botanical garden and not the zoo.

Anyway M wanted to see Giraffe’s so we paid and took lift 2 and after some more spectacular scenic views and baboon’s bums we arrived at the top. The Siberian Tiger enclosure was closed for remodelling but this hadn’t deterred the crowds of screaming banshees who I quite happily could have fed to the bears. We ventured into the Peafowl enclosure which was covered by a cavernous tent emerging along the deer and then the big African beasts.  After stopping to view the Meerkats we strolled over to the Giraffe feeding and then observing I had a continuous sniffle FOBY negotiated me some antihistamines. Finally we watched a Flamingo fight before heading back across the lake towards the exit, a stop for coffee, fond farewells and home.

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