A Bigger and Better Hill

photo: A house in the Inwangsan area

a tile roof with yellow flowers growing from it, and a patio

This morning I followed Lonely Planet's "Inwangsan Shamanist Walk," which takes you up into the hills around the Inwangsan peak. I didn't really see much in the way of shrines, part of the reason LP sent me up there - I think the doors were closed and I wasn't too worried about it. I'm also not entirely sure I followed the "correct" path, although I saw most of the things and was very happy with the walk ... ergo, it was correct. I've mentioned alleyways before? Well, they twist and turn and they're hard to map or describe and of course the local signage is in Korean. As I say - doesn't really matter. Namsan was a warm-up for Inwangsan, which is steeper and more wild. Don't get me wrong: this is still hiking in the middle of a city on groomed trails - but this was strenuous and gloriously beautiful. And no cars or bikes today - too steep. Lonely Planet commented that if I did go hiking, I would feel under-dressed as all the locals would be totally outfitted in the latest high-end hiking gear. They were serious. A pet peeve I've had in the past, even on fairly difficult trails, is people who show up unprepared (commonly flip-flops on harsh terrain). NOT a problem here.

LP told me to turn around when I got to the peak of Inwangsan and go back down the way I'd come. Like hell: we've just reached the top of a spectacular hill and are following the old (and almost entirely restored in this area) city wall and I can see there's at least another kilometre of superb hiking and views ahead of me - and you want me to quit? Not a chance. Pine forest, exposed rock, incredible views over the city in nearly every direction, that was an excellent walk.

Something I haven't mentioned, although I've been meaning to: I did end up bringing my cellphone on this trip, and I'm very glad I did. Even without data it's proven to be a life-saver: I've installed Metro apps for both Tokyo and Seoul (if you haven't looked at their metro maps, you should - I'm currently at a count of something like 300 stations for Seoul, and I haven't finished yet). That's been hugely useful, and then there's "maps.me" (as they're currently styling themselves). It's a map application that uses Openstreetmap's free map data. I probably would have used Google Maps in offline mode, but Google Maps won't let you do offline for Japan or Korea (something about licence agreements). So maps.me it is. It also does routing - for cars, bikes, or pedestrians. The latter has been interesting, educational, and (mostly) very good. It knows you're a pedestrian and can use those tiny alleyways - and that you probably want to be off the road. As I say, educational.

So maps.me got me out of the hills and into an area that calls itself Sejong Village. It's part of Seoul, it's in the centre of Seoul ... and it feels like another world. They're in a narrow valley over a kilometre long trapped between two of the parks surrounding two of the city's "guardian mountains." So no through traffic, no major roads at all (the "main road" is about a car and a half wide). So that was a great walk too. I finally found my way out to the Gyeongbokgung subway station, but I stopped at an Isaac for what they refer to as "toast." I got the "Bacon Best" sandwich, which consists of bacon, scrambled egg, and cheese on - you guessed it - toast. But wait! There's more. That sounds too ordinary, right? Here's where it deviates from North American tastes: it also includes a large serving of shredded cabbage and a fair bit of corn. Now you can throw corn at me any time and I won't complain (hrm, I guess I did when they made it a dessert in Thailand - wasn't too keen on that), but not a huge fan of cabbage. Happily not a strong taste, and I quite enjoyed the sandwich.

By the time I'd finished the meal, I'd registered a couple things: I was the only guy in the place nearly the entire time I was there (perhaps nine other customers) ... and most of the rest of the guests were tweens. I don't know if that's Isaac's demographic, or if it was just a coincidence. I'd also noticed that "Gyeongbokgung" is the name of the largest palace in the city (there are something like four of them), and that it was the very large grounds I'd seen from up the hill. So I should probably go to that, right?

I didn't have a lot of interest in the palace, but I went. Going to Deoksugung Palace a couple days ago had reinforced that lack of interest. Not big on Asian palaces: to me, they're immense grounds - usually, like here, barren gritty sand (sometimes stone), between large empty buildings you can't enter. Yes, the architecture is interesting, but I feel like the houses are much more interesting as a whole. Houses put beautiful gardens in the empty spaces, and they feel lived-in inside. There was one lovely building in the palace grounds, a reception hall surrounded by water on three sides. That made for some pretty photos. I also got considerable entertainment from the very large number of people who had decided that renting Joseon era formal-wear to wear around the palace was a good idea. It wasn't just the impracticality of the clothing, but the rather jarring contrast of the clothing with the cellphones, the running shoes, and the braces on the teeth. The clothes were actually rather pretty, if you can get me to stop whinging about the historical inaccuracies.

I then took a relatively long metro ride to Olympic Park (Seoul, 1988 - remember?) because I believed LP that SOMA (the Seoul Museum of Modern Art) was open until 2000. When I got there, I found out that SOMA was 1.2km from the entrance - a fact that my blistered toe wasn't particularly happy about (I acquired that blister yesterday - that I did this morning's very long hike at all should suggest that this isn't a world-ending injury). I then found out that three or so of the park's venues were hosting the Seoul Jazz Festival yesterday and today. A lot of acts were playing (and a lot of people attending!), the biggest names I can recall being the Brantford Marsalis Quartet and Lauryn Hill. I went on by them, and found that - as promised by the guidebook - the park is absolutely littered with large scale sculpture installations, some of them quite entertaining. It seems rather haphazard, but it's also pretty cool. Sadly, SOMA was NOT open. So I made my way to another subway station, and back to Dongdaemon Design Plaza. I went there with the intent of walking another part of Cheong-gye-cheon, but DDP itself is very interesting: it's a particularly whacky building Zaha Hadid - all curves and aluminum panels, not a right-angle in the entire place. And taking up most of a large city block. Not only that, a mystery was solved: I've seen an ad on the subway since I arrived for a show, "Wallace & Gromit & Friends" but that's about all I could read of the ad. I'd been meaning to enquire at tourist info. But there it was, at DDP and open late (2100) so a good place to go of an evening or if it rains. (I've seen nearly all of the Aardman pictures - which means this is of interest to me, but also that I probably know a lot of what it's going to tell me, so not a top priority.)

photo: One of the sculptures at Olympic Park

The bones of the human foot, stood vertical and enlarged to about two metres tall

On the way to Cheong-gye-cheon I encountered not one but two musical shows. One was outside right at the mall, a trio of K-pop girls singing (and dancing) their hearts out on a brightly lit stage with a lot of cameras pointed at them. And then another in the middle of Cheong-gye-cheon. Literally in the stream. A stage had been set up like a catwalk down the middle of the stream bed, with their staging area hidden under the bridge I crossed to get to the stairs down. So weird.

Sadly, if there are paper lanterns, they must be at the head end of the stream (I've seen pictures from previous years, and they were in the very concrete section). I was too exhausted to walk that far, but I did get to see another good chunk of Cheong-gye-cheon. A lot of people are on it in the dark at 2030 at night (families with kids, couples). And so, in fact, was a grey heron - standing in the stream perhaps two metres from a bunch of us gathered to watch. This is right in the middle of Seoul - amazing.