In Seoul II: Mountain retreat

One of the things I was keen on doing in Seoul was to get out of Seoul. Not substantially, but enough to satisfy an idealised Zen-like image in my head of rugged mountains cloaked in forest with the occasional temple perched upon a rocky outcrop. The kind of scene you might expect to see on the front of a guide book, probably in the midst of a multicoloured autumn. A throwback to times past, to tradition, to a world before Samsung, M*A*S*H and Kim Jong-Un being weird across a border.

Thankfully I noticed the presence of Bukhansan National Park literally on the northern and western doorstep of Seoul. My guide book with idealised images told me you could reach here on the metro and offered a walk from one station to another, via winding trails, mountainous ridges and occasional temples. It also advised avoiding the weekends, because half of Seoul would be here.

So it was a Friday and unbeknown to me a public holiday. The train to Dobongsan was suspiciously bustling with people in sturdy shoes, sweat-proof tops and the kind of trousers with 12 pockets and 20 zips. From the station it was not at all difficult to find the park entrance – just follow the backpacked mass past more food stalls and stores selling outdoor adventure wear (should you decide you look conspicuously out of place in everyday shorts and a plain T shirt).

km01The stream of people continued along the first, generously wide and paved section of a trail, thinning slightly with the introduction of a junction. Before long, an incessant parade of steps appeared, the upward thrust causing pockets of walkers to pause and congregate in clusters for water, snack bars, some even breaking out a stove and cooking up a soupy concoction. Barring a handful of souls, almost everyone was Korean and I received the odd, surprised, what is he doing here look. One old guy offered me a boiled sweet in broken English, proclaiming them as the elixir to conquer Jaunbong. In our stilted conversation, he deduced that I was from Austria, noting his love of Mozart and possibly proclaiming the hills to be alive. For an Austrian, such climbing as it was here should be a breeze. For an Australian: faaaaaaahk.

km03There was no breeze and it was tough going…particularly given it was the day after I had arrived on a plane from England and then gorged on fried chicken. Some welcome respite came at Cheonchuksa, a small detour leading away from the upward procession and revealing a temple and its various ornaments snuggled into a cliff. Simultaneously serene and vivid, offering fresh water to refill bottles, to take a break, to tread briefly on level ground and tiptoe in a suitably reverential hush. I could have lingered and napped.

km02

km04But apparently the path to enlightenment continues up and up, past increasingly frequent groups pausing for food and water, wiping sweating brows, recovering breath and looking somewhat abject. Eyes silently pleaded when would this end, how much more of this would there be? Signs that were once in Korean and English had reverted to Korean but I deduced there was something like a kilometre to the top. And it probably took an hour, but after that time a rocky crag appeared above the forest. Bedecked with yet more picnickers, convivial and relieved, catching hazy, smoggy views of the hills and occasional snatches of suburban apartment tower sprawl.

km05

It was more like a series of mountaintops here, some reached via slick rock faces and chains, others by more sedate steps and switchbacks. In fact, there were paths leading off in any number of directions to various places unknown. The two information signs I could find were practically unfathomable and after an enthusiastic and accurate start my guidebook had given up the ghost. I’d like to say it was through rational deduction and decision-making that I made the right choice, but it was 90% luck and 10% checking the compass direction on my phone.

Beyond the top of Jaunbong the trail became blissfully less populous and delightfully more even. It broadly followed the Podaeneugsan ridgeline through a patchwork of fragrant shrubs and shady trees, pierced by a series of rocky platforms with more murky views to Seoul. In the lull between two of these outcrops, a path dropped down towards Mangwolsa Temple, where I finally found my nirvana.

km07The path to enlightenment is never easy and after a long slog upwards all day it was only when gravity was on my side that I fell completely ass over tit. A winding, gravelly descent was more competent than my footwear and I received a very nice caking of dust over one side of my body. No-one else was present to witness this event, something I was actually pleased about in terms of embarrassment management. It’s kind of like if a tree falls in a forest and if no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Unharmed and dusting myself off as best I could, a few more corners led to the reveal of Mangwolsa Temple. This was the kind of place I had imagined before coming to South Korea, the idealised image within forested mountains far from the madding crowd. Yes, for a guide book cover the sky could have been clearer, the foliage more autumnal. But this was pretty much exactly as I had imagined (making me wonder if somewhere, subconsciously, I had viewed such an image). Featuring a bonus water fountain in which to clean myself up and refresh, this pause, this retreat was worth the hike, including the looming, endless shin-jarring descent back into the confines of Seoul.

km06

asia Green Bogey Photography Walking

In Seoul I: Bright lights, giant Samsung flat screen city

Jong-no and Cheonggyecheon Stream

It’s hard to top that incredible sensation of arriving from a gentle, orderly place like England all tired and drained from jetlag and plunging headfirst into a blurry concoction of street food odours, flashing lights, unfathomable signs, and sapping humidity. Adrenaline, impatient curiosity and a freshly imported Double Decker propel you into the night, occasionally trance-like but always, slightly stupidly, with a smile on your face.

kl01

kl02I was staying roughly in an area listed as Jong-no, in what turned out to be a rather charming, peaceful small hotel (Makers). Exit lobby tranquillity, turn left past food stalls and weave through an animated stream of people enjoying the night air as you head towards the Cheonggyecheon Stream. This is an urban regeneration project par excellence, once a muddy, stinky waterway transformed and landscaped into swirling pools and cascades, lined with footpaths and sculptures and light projections, and populated with the whole gamut of Seoul society. A Korean busker croons, tiered steps along the water plead you to sit down, and free wifi penetrates the air, everywhere.

kl03The stream is in close proximity to alleyways filled with neon signs and sizzling aromas. In fact, it seems anywhere is in close proximity to food. The choice is bewildering, especially when you are tired and indecisive but also very, very hungry. In this state it seems the best option is for some Korean Fried Chicken and a beer. This is a staple, and as staples go, I’m sure down with it.

Namsan Mountain

Seoul is huge but sometimes it doesn’t seem that way. Over ten million people supposedly call it home and the population density is twice that of New York (at least according to Wikipedia). Yet I never really felt crammed in or suffocated here. I think this is in part because of the large, palatial open spaces and the visibility of forested mountains, providing the sight of wilderness from downtown (and also from my hotel room window). Indeed, the jagged hills shield the city’s spread from the viewer, particularly the case for tourists like me who largely stick to the main sights concentrated in a bowl north of the Han River.

kl06

It is only when you head to Namsan Mountain – marking the southern limit of this bowl – that you grasp a whole new expanse of a city stretching east, west, and south. It also registers that atop this peak is a pointy needle called North Seoul Tower and this is south of where you have been mostly milling about. Which by a process of deduction must have been North North Seoul, meaning there sure is a lot more city out there.

In this context, comparisons to Canberra may seem rather silly. But there is a similar concealed quality to both cities, thanks to the hilly terrain. And Namsan Mountain is just like Black Mountain, complete with a summit road, walking tracks and that concrete syringe reaching into the sky on top. One added feature of Namsan though is the attraction of a cable car. For which there are mammoth queues late Saturday afternoon, impelling a sweaty, breathless hike instead. A hike which is a procession of people, several, pleasingly, struggling more than you, despite looking to have youth on their side. That Canberra hills training comes in handy sometimes.

kl04

Along the climb, alternative aspects open up and other high rise clusters emerge in different directions. Finally, with a healthy dose of perspiration, the mountain top offers a view south and glimpses of the Han River. On the other side a whole new city left and right, Gangnam style and beyond. Here, you suspect, stand Samsung Tower 20, 21, 22, 23 and more. Apartment blocks where millions of people live and work and maybe even get dressed up and perhaps dance rather stupidly.

kl05

Clearly being Seoul and not Canberra, the North Seoul Tower is obviously more than that, with a multi-level mall, numerous eateries, a giant gift shop and I think even a cinema. There is also the classical 360 degree, glass-encased viewing deck, which offers pretty much the same view as from the base, only higher and with a greater degree of photo-degrading reflection. Still, milling about here winds down some time for the sun to set and the city lights to flicker on, to twinkle, to glow. And a place to eat before embracing the cooler air, gazing out over the lights, and walking down, back down to just a tiny part of Seoul and bed.

kl07

asia Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography Walking

Advance to 2016

The best way I can describe a thirteen hour flight from Europe to Asia is that it feels like one elongated sigh. Tentatively sidestepping countries that may be a tad hostile to flying objects creates a convoluted route, and ample time to mull over life’s little niggles. Like why won’t my seat fully recline? And what possesses airlines to have one hundred movies, all of which are at best mediocre or at worst starring Tom Cruise? Worse than that, the selection of ‘comedy’ contains no trace of wit whatsoever, churned out direct from Hollywood with copious amounts of canned laughter. Six hours in, zigzagging the Middle East, I can understand why the Scotsman in front of me downed wine after wine. And never shut the f**k up.

So I was undeniably a bit delicate and frazzled arriving at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, but pleased to be on solid ground. It was now – somehow – eight in the morning on New Year’s Eve. Usually I would march through various sterile checkpoints and stride ten miles by travelator to board a plane for a further nine hours of frustration at 36,000 feet. This time, though, I was embarking on the luxury of a stopover, and a new spot to see in a new year.

You know you are no longer in England when you are whisked at high speed in spacious and air-conditioned futurism to the middle of a city somewhere over the horizon. All sleek glass and swish whooshing noises as stunted palm trees and suspiciously golfy-looking estates flash past in a blur. You also know you are no longer in England when you turn into a gasping pile of sweat traipsing through an inner city jungle. Despairingly unable to check in to hoped-for luxury so early, KL had me bright, hot, and early.

So, I clambered up steps and dawdled down hills and crossed roads that were of questionable safety, unexpected u-turns being a favourite of hundreds of mopeds per minute. Eventual refuge emerged in one of many shopping malls, wonderfully air-conditioned and extravagantly Christmassy. And to think I had the naivety to assume Christmas was done and dusted; here it was bigger and more opulent than ever, and with a mosque or two just down the road. Still, grand extravagance seems to have been all the rage in KL over the last decade or so, encapsulated in the shiny Petronas Towers stretching into the sky above Santa’s grotto.

kl01

Extravagance of a kind was waiting for me back at my hotel once I could – with the utmost relief – check in. There was a pool and gym and chandeliered lobby with lots of people in red uniforms and gold buttons feverishly milling around seeking tips. There was a water feature and sweeping driveway for parades of taxis and eight elevators to propel you to the 27th floor. A floor with city views but the most famous of the towers obscured. A floor with room and king bed and satin sheets and probably the most deserved afternoon nap ever…

……………………

…the city was still there and still in daylight when waking and I calculated that any New Year’s Eve fireworks would largely be obscured from this spot. Thus the option to see in 2016 in my pants with a bag of peanuts lost some of its appeal, and meant I had to put in the effort to go outside again.

kl02In the end I’m rather glad I did, because I saw a few different parts of the city and discovered a more chaotic and odorous KL, more befitting of one’s expectations of being in Asia. Luminous signs and satay sticks on smoke, bars with Bintang and bang bang, street sellers trading in ancient arts and iphone cases. I was offered a massage on at least fifteen occasions in the space of twenty metres and a tacky umbrella at every alternate shop. It was raining now, and threatening to dampen the wait until midnight.

When in KL, do what it looks like many of the Lumpens do. Head to a mall, never more than half a kilometre away. Revel in the cool, dry air and twinkling diamonds of Christmas. Take five escalators down to a gargantuan food court and then another hour to decide which sublime looking bargain concoction to eat. In the end I chose Japanese, content to fulfil my Malaysian quota over the course of the stopover.

By ten the rain had stopped and I ventured back out into the night air to establish exactly where to watch fireworks. Logic dictated somewhere around the Petronas Towers, and I practically circumnavigated the perimeter of its adjoining park to suss out the opportunities. Eventually I came to a halt, joining an amiable throng of people lining the banks of a feature lake. Music was playing and coloured fountains were bubbling and projections were being beamed onto buildings, one of which handily had a giant digital clock. There was enough space and a clear view and even a little cooling breeze and I immediately thought this would just not be possible in Sydney at 11pm on 31st December.

kl03Only with ten minutes to spare did locals and visitors rise to their feet, counting down the final minute of the year. Phones and tablets floated above heads, forever capturing the last ten seconds of 2015 and the first few of 2016. Almost everyone pointed shiny screens at the towers, waiting for the bangs and sparkles. The clock struck twelve, the bangs rang out and the sparkles were, oh, behind you.

kl04

Now very happily in 2016, the first hour of the year was spent trying to avoid inadvertently photobombing selfies while taking a very gradual, processional walk back to my hotel. What was an easy entry became a more congested exit, but there was a jovial aura, strangers were friends, the crowd was cosy and the blaring of cheap plastic horns was incredibly annoying. My mind said SHUT. THE. HELL. UP. But good manners and New Year cheer ought to persist for at least an hour, I feel.

I enjoyed the final day of the year immensely and was glad to have made the effort to see in 2016 in a different place. The first day of the New Year commenced uneventfully – subdued even – and I was in no rush to check out early and embrace the mugginess. Farewell five star comfort and hello hours of walking and pausing and dodging traffic and cooling off in every mall stop available. First mall for iced coffee, second mall for lunch (a highlight-worthy Nasi Lemak), third mall just for the hell of it. Across from this, the monorail took me laboriously to a further mall, acting as a glorified transit tunnel towards the Botanic Gardens.

kl05Any city worth its weight in Ringgits can only be judged by the quality of its Botanic Gardens. Here they were – for the most part – divinely lovely. In spots shadily cooling, tropically exotic, elegantly coiffured. A few quiet roads intersected with meandering paths and crossed ornamental streams. Most welcome though was the relative peace and calm, a sanctuary in what can be a busy, noisy, pungent place. And surely that is all you can ask of a city’s Botanic Gardens.

kl06Heading back down into humid chaos and occasional grime of the city I unexpectedly stumbled onto Kuala Lumpur’s Central Mosque. I like it when random stuff like this happens in places you have never been before. I may not have chosen to go there, but here I was now, and appreciative I was of the geometric architecture and alignment and symbolism crossed with a concrete styling worthy of Plymouth city centre post-war brutalism. You were welcome – as a non-Muslim – to visit inside and be guided around the place. The only stumbling block was the thought of taking of my shoes, and subjecting an entire religion to the smell of my by now equatorial flavoursome feet.

So I pushed onto the frequently touted in guidebooks but underwhelming Merdeka Square, crossed a very brown stretch of water, explored the Central Markets disappointing lack of food stalls, struggled to cross complex road intersections and eventually ended up back in Bintang. Daytime was quieter and generally devoid of satay sticks. Massages appeared to be a thing of the night. Only ambling tourists and opportunistic traders lingered, while everyone else must have been at the mall.

With seemingly little left to see and do and weariness now set in, the mall became my refuge as well. I still had five hours until my flight departed, but time for some dinner and a sit on a bench and a potter around a bookshop. Endless arrays of escalators from an M.C. Escher fantasy took some strain off the feet. Christmas was still out in force, perhaps for just a few more days, but I was quietly accepting of this by now.  For all that I was starting to tire of malls, it still beats being cooped up on an aluminium tube, fighting a losing battle with headphone sockets and movies featuring Tom Cruise. I was ready to leave but also wasn’t. The tedium of the tube awaits, but at least it would deliver me – at last – back to Australia 2016.

kl07

Green Bogey