Warning: lots of oriental palace pictures looking almost exactly the same. It’s a similar phenomenon to being new to Europe and snapping away at every single church spire and stained glass window. Or migrating to Australia and taking a picture of a kangaroo every time you see one. Novelty and entrancement that only dwindles very incrementally. (In the case of the kangaroos ten years, and even then, the odd roo shot is not outside the realms of possibility).
Anyway, yadda yadda yadda. Palaces and temples. Seoul has a lot of them and as well as offering an insight into ancient South Korean culture and tradition they are housed within expansive grounds, providing contrast with the built up city environment bordering their perimeter. Enclaves of space and peace and gentle ornamentation, where the modern world disappears and you can find yourself all contemplative and meditative. And / or snap happy.
Changdeokgung and the Secret Garden
The first thing to note about Changdeokgung is that you can arrive early, buy a ticket for the Secret Garden English tour and realise you have some time to kill, thereby finding a coffee place that proves reassuringly good. With the first sip I could sense I was getting closer to Australia and this plus the caffeine infiltrating my body gave me quite the buzz.
So I was already in a strangely contented state entering Changdeokgung where I didn’t really read that the palace was originally built in 1405 and acted as Seoul’s principle palace from the 1590s to 1896. Instead, I was heading off towards various buildings, all seemingly interlinked with perimeter structures and interwoven courtyards. Apart from some of the enclosed spaces, you were pretty free to roam, enabling that random meandering which proves the best form of discovery.
The purported highlight of Changdeokgung is the Biwon, or Secret Garden. What forward-thinking pioneering marketing by calling it a secret garden. I mean, how alluring does that sound to the 21st century Anglo traveller looking for some respite from the late summer heat of a busy Asian city? The fact that you could only access it by a tour in which numbers are controlled (admittedly to a not-so-serene one hundred) can only add to that appeal.
Well, the Secret Garden was certainly agreeable, all lily ponds and curvy-roofed wooden structures, circling pathways and blissfully shady trees. I suspect it would be stupendous in the full burst of autumn and without one hundred other sightseers becoming progressively weary and disinterested as they are shepherded from one ornate compound to the next. I think the best way to appreciate the secret garden would be if you were employed as a gardener. What fabulous picnic lunch breaks there would be on the cards, and some supremely pretty sheds for your tools. Plus good coffee down the road once the horde of foreign zombies descend at two hour intervals.
Bukchon Hanok Village
On the western flank of Changdeokgung is Bukchon Hanok Village, an area of traditional Korean housing now a little bit touristified. Nestled amongst hilly terrain there remains a sufficient network of maze-like lanes to get completely lost and stumble upon a spot that you had previously walked past. Possibly. The dwellings are single storey and – for the most part – look small, though I suspect some of this is an optical illusion and beyond those walls the interior opens out tardis-like into light and airy rooms and hidden verdant courtyards.
On the busier strips – one ascending lane in particular seemed to be significantly more popular than the others – locals patrol with signs invoking the masses to “Please talk quietly”. It’s a reminder that this is just a regular neighbourhood with regular Joes trying to get on with their regular lives. I observe no noticeable hush, and can only deduce that the more expensive properties would be away from this major thoroughfare. But the view at the top is why so many tread this way. Looking towards the CBD and North Seoul Tower, it’s the classic juxtaposition of old and new, emblematic of this city as a whole.
Moving further east from Bukchon, it doesn’t take long before another royal palace comes into view. Gyeongbokgung ticks similar boxes – aesthetically at least – to Changdeokgung so I decide to keep my Wan in my wallet and have a cursory look around outside of the barriers. If anything, the site appears more imposing, with the main entrance gate at the northern end of a long thoroughfare adorned with statues and memorials. There is a greater sense of power and status here, brought to life by the presence of ceremonial guards in traditional costume. Guards which you can find in greater profusion by following the thoroughfare south…
The palace at Deoksugung may look similar to the others. I have no idea, because I never really ventured beyond its exterior walls. The main attraction here is a changing of the guard ceremony with more men in colourful costumes and garnished with stick-on facial hair. Sure, it feels like a bit of a show for visitors but – heck – I’m a visitor and expect some easily accessible semblance of traditional Korean culture, right!
I thought I may be late for the ceremony and while there was something stirring by time I arrived, I was pleased to find a space near the front. Only as the show progressed did I understand why I had secured such a premium position. Oh, that’s a big drum in front of me is it? Oh, that hastily shouted Korean was a plea to cover your ears. Oh. Ouch.
As well as the abundance of stick-on facial hair it was funny to see this taking place in front of a Dunkin Donuts. There were also a couple of pauses in proceedings for people to come up to the guards and pose for selfies. And when it seemed like all was over, there was the sight of the ceremony heading across to City Square but – before doing so – waiting patiently at the traffic lights for the green man. For me, this was the perfect encapsulation of that inescapable (and overused term of) juxtaposition. A country moving rapidly into the 21st century while trying to hang on to its traditions. Here, progress and reverence in at least some kind of harmony.
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).
The 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.
There 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.
But 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.
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.
The 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.
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.
I 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.