Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mid-Week Respite at Bukhansan National Park

South Korea's most visited national park, Bukhansan in the north of Seoul, hosts far less hikers and picnickers in the middle of the week. Since it's prime hiking season (on account of autumn leaf viewing mania), I took an opportunity to do an afternoon hike on Wednesday, October 21.
No other national or provinical park in the country has so many trails, temples, and hermitages. There are also a considerable number of "workout stations", badminton courts, and vegetable plots sited at the beginning of the trails.
Starting from Dobongsan Station, I stopped to take a look at Dobong Temple. The 1,000-year-old iron Buddha, dating from the Goryeo Period, was not in evidence, though there were some intriguing temple details such as this white elephant.

Before I took a lesser-travelled route down to the Banghak-dong neighborhood I rested at the top of Ui Peak, from which I contemplated the city's smog level. Visibility was decent.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

An Outing at Bugak-san

After Nam-san, Bugak-san is arguably the most conspicuous mountain in or around the downtown Seoul area. Every pedestrian heading north on Sejeong Road, toward Gyeongbok Palace and the presidential Blue House, is facing the bald, streaked crown of Bugak-san.

I tried to hike Bugak-san during the last period when I was living in Seoul. Not knowing that the mountain was closed off to the public and patrolled vigrously by heavily armed soldiers, I had to beat a hasty retreat.

In 2006, however, the mountain was opened up to hikers, who may now follow a strict course along a rebuilt fortified wall. The gates close at 3 pm and all visitors must bring an identification card (or passport) for signing in.

Here is Sukjeongmun (Sukjeong Gate), the most northerly of the gates of Seoul's old wall.

There are ten semi-wild deer living on Bugaksan. After years of hiking remoter Korean peaks without spotting a deer, I never would have expected to see three at the same time within the Seoul city limits.

This is the statue marking the reason why Bugaksan was closed off to the public. Police Chief Choi Gyu-sik was the one who led an attack on a band of North Korean guerillas who had made it into the south. They were well on their way to the Blue House to assisinate President Park Chun-hee.

The spot where the gunfight showdown took place. Now the Chung-un Silver Center (read: an old folks center).

One of the many fine views of Sam-cheong-gak, a former kisaeng (courtesan) mansion for top-level government business. These days it functions as a restaurant-teahouse.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

First Statue of the First Korean Astronaut

Returning briefly to my old stomping ground, in front of Chungnam National University (at the Dae-hang-no and Han-bat-dae-no intersection of Daejeon, South Korea) I was surprised and delighted to see a new statue standing where some prodigiously kitsch seasonal monuments had once graced the dreary edge of cityscape.

This was a statue of first Korean astronaut, Yi Soo-yeon, who rode with the Russians into space last year (2008) to conduct various tests. There was controversy at the time over whether Soo-yeon really was an 'astronaut,' or simple a 'space tourist,' as the Republic of Korea paid handsomely for the spot on the flight mission. (The history of space tourism began in 2001, with multimillionaire Dennis Tito's jaunt in space -- see There was also controversy upon her selection for the job. A male candidate named Ko San was actually granted the job, over Soo-yeon, until his disqualification by the Russians for some rather murky business.

The weather was drear on the day of the statue sighting. Soo-yeon's likeness was still wrapped in bubble wrap.

I will have to ask my rocket scientist buddy who works at the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) in Daejeon just what the hell Soo-yeon is carrying there - a vacuum transformer box? A further question - what is the significance of the missile behind and to her side?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Berlin Wall - In Seoul

I came across this section ofthe Berlin Wall during my recent ramblings around Seoul. The wall segment was presented as a gift from the mayor of Berlin. The Cold War separation of the Korean peninsual into a North and a South is often compared to the division of Eastern and Western Germany. Though there are a great number of differences between the two cases, guidence for Korea's future is sometimes sought through analysis of the successful reunification of Germany.

Now that you have passed a solemn moment of reflection, I urge you to indulge in some '80s nostaliga by watching this video of David Hasselhoff singing on the Berlin Wall. Check out his lit-up jacket.

Bo-shing-tang --- Korean Dog Soup

Not far from Seoul Station is an interesting looking dog meat soup (보탕) restaurant. The middle character, , has been substituted for by a pair of old-time rubber shoes (고무), making a witty play on words.

The restaurant also serves hearty chicken soup, 삼계탕.

Seoraksan National Park, Day 3

On the morning of my third day in Seoraksan National Park I was awoken at the ungodly hour of 4 AM by a Gangneung University student who had befriended me. He was keen to view the sunrise from Dae-cheong-bong - the highest peak of Seoraksan. The sunrise could be expected at 5:20AM; we were at the peak at around 5.

The lowlands were thoroughly veiled by a sea of clouds. The East Sea/Sea of Japan, the city of Sokcho, the North Korean territory nearby - all were there somewhere below the clouds.

We had brought a portable boombox with a tape of Strauss's 'Also Spake Zarathustra' and, as the crimson sun pierced the cloud bed, we blasted the opening piece into the heavens, the timpanis blaring. The spirit of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey lives on in South Korea.

On the way to Ma-deung-ryeong (마등령) Pass. This was a tough slog. Not recommeded for the faint of heart, as the course involves at least 6 extreme descents and ascents. 'Ma-deung-ryeong' means 'Dinosaur's Back' - so I was told.

Back in Sokcho. The Sam-ho Park Hotel owner had allowed me to store my baggage in the hotel stairwell. Here is a small glimpse of his rock collection. The lobby is full of interesting finds from the seashore and the slopes.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Seoraksan National Park, Day 2.2

The Sari Pagoda, on a rock ledge above Bong-jeong-am. Sari is a Korean Buddhist term for the white rocks that are found in the cremated ashes of enlightened monks. The sari are said to form in the brain, and are considered holy relics, to be enshrined within pagodas or stupas. 

This primal rock is typical of the Seorak mountains.

A typical vista of the park.

One of the mountain god (san-shin) shrines. The mountain god can be recognized by the tiger that is always by his side. The worship of mountain gods dates back to the days of Korean shamanism. Tigers are now extinct in South Korea, though rumor has it that a few are still alive in the North!