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!

Seoraksan National Park, Day 2.1

This pinkish-orange fungus seemed to be in season.

A view of the eastern approach to Bong-jeong-am (Bong-jeong Hermitage), in the central heights of the park. The jutting rise behind the hermitage is Seok-ga-bong - Sakyamuni Peak -, so named because of what looks like a human face in profile on the side of the cliff. The face looked more Apache than Indic, but who knows? Perhaps it really is the Buddha's likeness?

On the way to Baekdam Temple. 

Wall of a Korean seon [zen] hermitage.

Encounter with a serpent.

Seoraksan National Park, Day 1.5

Korean hospitality always seems to be at its best on the mountains. The man in the left of the picture - a veteran public school teacher - invited me to join for dinner. Considering that we were near the highest peak of the national park, they did a pretty good job of brewing up some kimchi-ji-gae (kimchi soup), with plenty of side dishes. As always in such situations, flavor was the best sauce.

The twilight view of the geoids on the hill.

In the fading light of the ridge, I took a few experimental shots of the grasses blowing in the fierce wind. The inspiration came from a particular scene in Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Seoraksan National Park, Day I

Seoraksan National Park is undoubtedly the most spectacular national park in South Korea, and is only rivaled by the Geumgang Mountains in North Korea, which are part of the same range and are very close to Seoraksan. The two mountain clusters are rather unnaturally separated by the demilitarized zone (DMZ), separating the north and south Koreas, and splitting Gangwon province into a north and south section.

Seoraksan National Park is accessible from the East Sea city of Sokcho. Most people enter Inner Seorak from the west, and pass by a cluster of grave monuments for ancient Buddhist monks. Here is a detail from one of these.

Some classical graffiti. 

A protypical Seorak view.


The summit of Dae-cheong-bong, at around 1700 meters. Dae-cheong-bong translates as 'Wide Blue Peak.' The hiker who reaches this marker stone has braved a brutally steep climb. With luck, there will be a sea-of-clouds view, or (rarely) a view of the East Sea/Sea of Japan; or, perhaps a view of North Korea.

The Great Korean Loach

My travels having come to an end, and my career pursuits having resumed their course in Seoul, South Korea, I have decided to transform this travel blog somewhat. For the time being, new postings will focus on Korean foods, traditional restaurants, and travel in Korea. 

As the first of the Korean features, I would like to focus on a subject of great mystification to foreign visitors and residents: THE KOREAN LOACH. Most important in this matter is not to confuse 'loach' with 'roach.' A loach is a small fish-like creature that lives in the muddy waters of rice paddies. It is not a slug. Nor is it an eel, really. I suppose that only a biologist could settle the question of exactly what type of creature a loach is.

But the most important consideration in the subject of loaches is that they taste delicious. Loaches are commonly served as chu-ah-tang in Korea. Another - more colloquial - name for this soup is mi-kuh-ruh-ji-tang ('mi-kuh-ruh-ji' means 'slippery'!). 

This is one of the excellent chu-ah-tang restaurants in the heart of Seoul: Nam-won Chu-ah-Tang. (Nam-won is a small provincial city.) A bowl of loach soup goes for 7,000 won here, which is typical. (Conversion Rate: around $6 US).

In the olden days, the loaches were dished up whole, but the present-day Korean has become a bit more squeemish, and the loaches are now blended and pureed. Loaches are also served deep-fried, or in dumplings.

The ingredient presentation outside of Namwon Chu-ah-tang.

Loaches in an aquarium.

Portrait of a loach. 
Incidentally, I have heard that a village cure for the hiccups used to be to force the hiccuping child to swallow a live loach. YIKES!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Last of Nepal

My brief stay in Nepal came to an end over a week ago now, but the images remain. (The final five images, that is).

The Tibetan community in exile rallies around the Boudhanath stupa. Not far from this site is the Hyatt Hotel.

Viewing the world through prayer-flag tinted glasses.

Three details of Boudhanath:

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Caterpillar Fungus and Mt. Everest

The Mountain Museum in Pokhara, Nepal, is a bit over-hyped, in my humble opinion, though there were plenty of huge mountain posters on the wall, including this Everest shot.

For those who have kept up with the caterpillar fungus craze in China, or seen the related pictures in the Golmud posts of this blog, the Pokhara Mountain Museum may be able to shed more light on the mysterious phenomenon.

Here we find out that caterpillar fungus's scientific name is Cordyceps sinensis.
The CF is gathered in 4,500 - 5,200 meter alpine meadows in the Himalayas, and in Tibet.
Diagnostic Characteristics: "Club shaped parasitic fungus, later becomes saprophytic on insect larva after its death. It comes out of the anterior end of the larva of the caterpillar (swiftmoth) during the monsoon."
Use: Tonic and aphrodisiac