As the plane touched down in Seoul my left foot was asleep and I was feeling like I needed a good shower. Twenty-four hours of travel is exciting but it can also be a bit tedious so needless to say I was glad to finally arrive.
After some wandering I came face to face with Therese and so begins our adventure together.
Therese had only been in Seoul a handful of times so the two of us put our heads together to figure out the complex subway system in the city.
We would be staying in the Hongdae district of the city and would need to take three different trains. Without too much trouble we managed to figure out where we needed to go and made it to the BeBop House – the hostel we would be calling home for the next five nights.
The hostel was cozy, run by a quirky and kind pair of twenty-something Koreans, MK and Olive. It had two floors with three dorm style rooms and three private rooms, as well as two bathrooms, two common areas and a kitchen, each plastered with world maps, magazine clippings and artwork done by the hosts and the guests.
While in Seoul, Therese and I kept ourselves busy taking in the rich history and beautiful natural landscapes the city has to offer.
A highlight was visiting Gyeongbokgung, the largest of five royal palaces in Seoul built over 600 years ago.
It was the home to the Joseon dynasty and features what I think of as typical Asian architechture, a pagoda style with ornate painting and beautiful detail.
During our visit we also experienced the traditional changing of the guard. Although the ceremony is strictly tourist in its purpose today, we still enjoyed the bright colours and almost Arabic sounding music that accompanied the procession of royal guards and flags to the palace’s front gate.
Next to the palace is the National Palace Museum, which we then spent some time wandering through. The museum gave some context to what we were seeing and had countless artifacts on display. I was most interested in the display of science artifacts from the Joseon dynasty. The exhibit included sundials and massive stone tablets used to chart the cosmos, as well as early globes and counting tools.
That same day we also made the trip to Namsan Mountain, a small mountain in the heart of Seoul which is best known for being the home to N. Seoul Tower. The tower is primarily a tourist attraction and looks like a smaller version of the CN Tower. To visit the landmark you must first hike up the mountain, a hike our trusty Lonely Planet guide suggested was best done in the evening.
Therese and I followed the guide’s advice and we trekked up the hill as the sun set, arriving at the top to a beautiful view of the city lights.
So far my favourite parts of the trip is the time we spend outdoors, walking and wandering the streets and park of South Korea. The best example of this was January 21, when Therese and I spent the day hiking up Bukaksan mountain in Bukaksan National Park. We got an early start, leaving the hostel in good time and riding two subway lines and a bus to the entrance of the park.
We started our ascent on a beautiful, although very landscaped, trail winding its way up to a wall built in the 14th century to protect Seoul during conflict. The wall is sometimes refered to as the great wall of Korea and joins the four mountain peaks of the city: Naksan, Namsan, Inwangsan and Bukaksan.
One thing you should know about Koreans is that appearances and material goods are very important. Women are constantly applying make up on the subway and no matter the time of day stores are packed with people purchasing clothing, cosmetics and accessories. As we got off the bus to walk up to the national park we passed numerous hiking stores and Korean men and women decked to the nines in hiking gear: boots, backacks, poles – you name it, they’ve got it.
Now I must admit I was scoffing at them as we passed in running shoes and jeans, walking up the manecured paths to one of the wall’s gates. I must also admit I was eating my words as my temperature rose, the pitch increased and my breathing grew heavy. I thought I was in shape! Maybe those hiking poles weren’t such a bad idea?
When we got to the wall Therese and I took a moment to take it all in before becoming quickly distracted by a person off in the distance on the mountain’s peak. It looked rocky, scary and right up our ally.
“I want to go up that,” I said to Therese. She just nodded and started heading off in that direction.
Now this is when our adventure got a little more complicated. The paths were gone and the pitch had increased and I think we (and some of the hikers around us) realized pretty quickly we were a little out of our league.
Luckily a kind fifty-something Korean man who couldn’t speak a word of English took us under his wing and lead up us the mountain’s ridge to its peak.
The view was spectacular and, to be honest, the photos just don’t do it justice. We could see all four mountains from our perch as well as a good chunk of the historic wall. While at the top we celebrated with a rice cake one of the other hikers offered to us, the perfect soy-cinnamon concoction to consume before descending the opposite side of Bukaksan.
That mountain adventure has given Therese and I hiking fever and we’re already planing our next big adventure when we’re in Southeast Asia. We’re working on trying to get permits to climb Mt. Kinabalu in Malaysia.
While in Seoul it was Lunar New Year, a holiday that marks the start of the Korean calendar, much like Chinese New Year. (In fact, it is the same holiday and is celebrated on the first new moon of the year.) This holidays sees Koreans leave the city and flock to their hometowns and much of the city shuts down.
We were nervous at first that not much would be open on the holiday but managed to find some fun activities to occupy our time including a visit to Namsangol Hanok Village. This is a folk village in Seoul that had activities and events for the holiday including traditional mask, flute and kite making, games, song and dance.
Therese and I took advantage of everything carving our own bamboo flutes and making prints of the new year’s tailsman, a Korean symbol for very good luck.
Now we have taken a bus ride four hours South of Seoul to Pohang, Therese’s hometown. We’ve settled into a comfortable routine in her cozy apartment as I plan for my next adventure in China and she finishes up the final 16 days of her contract to teach English.
Stay tuned to hear about life in Pohang- until then I hope you’re all well and keeping warm. I imagine the weather we’re having here (-5 and sunny) is pretty similar to what you’re experiencing at home.