LYT, Michelle’s mum was arriving this weekend for her 3rd sojourn to Korea and M had kindly invited me to be part of the welcoming party alongside E and KW. On Friday evening we departed Chungju and after an extended journey due to traffic complications we arrived at Express Bus Terminal around 8:20 PM. As Shinsegae department store sits adjacent to the EBT we picked up vino, bread, cheese and wine at prices suited to a Lotto winner.
Our hotel, some 5 minutes walk from Gangnam station exit 5 was the Art Nouveau, and very grand it was too. After a quick shower we sampled the elegant bar for a shuftie or three before opening our plonk and snacks in the well-appointed rooms.
LYT arrived on time but needed a nap so M and I took the chance a posh coffee and cake just outside exit 4. After this we strolled down to Sinonhyeon Station before crossing the road and doubling back.
Gangnam Station is the busiest subway station in Seoul and also a transfer point between two subway lines (2 and 6) and buses to all corners of Seoul including Incheon airport. The Samsung Global Headquarters is here along with several other architectural monoliths. There are also many shops catering for a youthful visitor profile in the subway station below ground. The area also has the highest concentration of Hagwons and private education institutes in Korea. Everywhere you’ll see students walking in and out of buildings carrying textbooks or sitting in one of the many cafes studying for their next toefl or sat exam.
Saturday afternoon not wanting to kills off LYT’s visit before it had begun proper we made the short journey to Seolleung station and the nearby Royal Tombs.
The Seolleung and Jeongneung tombs are the burial grounds of two Joseon kings and one Joseon queen. The westernmost tomb (at far left on the map) belongs to King Seongjong (r. 1469-94), the ninth king of the Joseon dynasty. His first wife, Queen Han, died at age 18 and is buried near Munsan, north of Seoul. Another wife, Queen Yun, is buried here because she gave birth the the king’s second son (the future King Jungjong) in 1506. Queen Yun outlived her husband by 35 years and was buried in a splendid tomb to the east of her husband (image 5). Her grave has a stone fence encircling the mound, whereas her husband’s tomb, on the left, has a retaining wall as well. Statues of civilian and military officials and their horses stand to attention in front of the graves. South of the tombs is a single T-shaped shrine of the type commonly found at Joseon-era royal tombs. There are also several ancillary buildings for storing material used in sacrifices. Queen Yun was passionate about Buddhism and founded the nearby temple Bongeunsa which is situated on a hill behind the Co-Ex shopping mall.
The other tomb on the site is Jeongneung tomb, located at the far right of the site plan. This is the burial ground of King Jungjong, the 11th king of Joseon (r. 1506-44). He was a son of Seongjong, and was originally buried at Goyang near Munsan, north of Seoul. However, his third queen thought it would be better to have him re-interred nearer his father. She expressed a wish to be buried alongside him, but this wish was never carried out, and his tomb stands alone. In front of it is another T-shaped shrine.
The grounds are a pleasant diversion from the high rise concrete and endless traffic, many elderly locals use the park to practice their fitness regimes or simply a place to escape the oppressive summer heat.
I made my way to my hotel the IMI near Yeoksam Station which delivered a king sized jacuzzi and the usual complementary condoms and face mask. At my age the face mask is the most useful item after the bubble bath which un-monitored filled the bathroom with a metre or so of flotsam.
Joined by Emma and KW we spent the early evening finishing off the spicy salami sausage and cheeses before ravishing a Korean barbecue. On the way back to my hotel I wandered through neon lit streets surrounded by a legion of men with wires protruding from their ears. On raising my phone to check messages I was verbally interrogated about “why picture”. I’d obviously raised some kind of suspicion as to my motives in passing through the area, the fact was my hotel was around the corner. My only conclusion, brothels and pimps!
After rising early for a spa bath, I ventured out into the sunlight, the area by now was free of aggressors. Heading through the maze of streets west towards Gangnam a number of Koreans were engaged in landscaping, recycling, trash collection, construction and renovation which they describe as re-modelling. All these jobs are attended to by people usually 40 plus, but often much older. In my neighbourhood, Bongbang-dong in Chungju-si, there are old geriatrics walking the streets during the early hours collecting recyclables and pushing huge carts full of trash. I watched an elderly couple of Korean war veteran age; one lugging crates of beer up the hill the other dragging the empties. Behind them was a man who looked even closer to God hauling onions. Why are old people doing these jobs? Because the youngsters won’t, they’d rather peddle cosmetics and trainers aspiring to life as a celebrity. Does this remind you of your own country? For me the obsession with celebrity maybe but the other jobs have a wider demographic.
I took the subway to Dongak, at Exit 6 is Jangchung Park (장충공원), a relatively new and well-landscaped park. The 27.5-meter granite Supgyo Bridge was constructed during the reigns of Kings Taejong and Sejong, originally spanning the Cheonggye Stream. When the Cheonggye underwent its postwar redevelopment the bridge was moved, then moved again to its present location in 1965. At the end of the bridge I grabbed a bus to the North Seoul Tower, the journey punctuated by the enormously shrill voice of an expectant Korean mother. Thankfully the ascent is short but at the terminus she was replaced by an army of banshees who believe it is their mission in life to destroy ear drums. The terminus was alive with legions of overly clad cycling enthusiasts, all bulging thighs, belly’s and a huge desire for isotonic potions.
On the top plateau the circus continued around the “love token” trees, coffees were spilled, ritual poses were overused and kids frolicked in the steam “fountain”. Further towards the Beacons a scene was played out were uniformed “Joseon” soldiers lit the beacons, this form of staged authenticity seems to delight the domestic tourists but slightly less so the international ones. A mammoth “best burger in Seoul” was downed with aplomb before I took the scenic, much quieter and palatable trek down the mountain to Dongak. During the hour long hike I passed by the outdoor gym populated by the same types that do the difficult day jobs. Beyond here was the archery range (Seokhojeong), this archery range was created by the government in the Joseon Dynasty, and it was the site for military service examinations. However, it was also open to the public for archery practice. Hence, many famous poets and writers of that time often went to Seokhojeong. I have to say it was impressive to see the participants endeavors with traditional bows rather than the high-tech contraptions used in high level competition.
I completed my walk descending the steep granite steps into Jangchung Park stopping for “well being” tea at Dadame Garden. Here you can enjoy simple dishes such as bibimbap, noodles, and as mentioned traditional tea, I had elderflower. The most popular room has a wooden-floor room, where the breeze passes through and the back door provides a view of the faux waterfall. After pottering along the landscaped stream and passing under Supgyo Bridge I re-entered exit 6 and headed to EBT for the ride back to Chungers.