Friday, May 27, 2011

Seoul's Historic Walks and why you should avoid them and do something else

Last weekend while Anna was at some lame amusement park I decided to explore Seoul on foot. I've had Seoul's Historic Walks sitting on my bookshelf for a few months so I thought I'd do  couple of their walks. The book was written by a Korean architect and an expat who's been here about ten years. There's some interesting stuff in there, but it's let down by some vague, unhelpful maps and a lack of direction in the walks themselves, which are really just overlapping clusters of destinations.

After a bit of Seoul searching (sorry), I decided to explore the area around Inwangsan, a big mountain in the northwestern part of the city. This started with Sajik park, which includes the altar where the Korean royal family performed Sajikdaeje, one of the most important religious rites in the Joseon era. The altar was closed, but I did get to see the Main Gate to Sajikdan, described by Seoul's Historic Walks as "a wonderful example of mid-Joseon-era wooden architecture", and by Karori to Korea as "just another fucking wooden gate." Not listed in the book were these two huge statues. I can't tell you much about them since there was no information nearby, even in Korean. I also accidentally deleted one thanks to my crippling technotardation, but here's the other.

I kept going up the mountain, thinking I might climb it if it wasn't too far. I got to a road and must've taken a wrong turn because I found myself walking downhill. Looking up at the mountain I thought perhaps this mightn't be such a bad thing. The whole thing seemed to be fenced off anyway. This was not as strange as it might've been; I figure if a beach can be closed in Korea there's no reason a mountain can't. Down the road I followed a path through the fence that lead uphill to a mineral spring. This was underwhelming, just a tap on an old metal drum with a couple of plastic scoops hanging beside it. I didn't know if I was supposed to drink the water or bathe in it, so I played it safe and did neither. Leading up from the spring was a steep path along the fence line marked by white painted rectangles every couple of metres. This looked like it might lead to a lookout so I figured  I'd follow it until the fence cut it off. After a few minutes I was treated to this view.

The path kept going and so did I, fairly certain by this point that not only was I climbing the mountain, I was climbing the steepest part of the mountain

I eventually scrambled up to the ridgeline and realised it was part of Seoul's old  fortress wall. The wall is in the process of being restored, although a decent chunk of it is still used by the military because of its strategic importance above Seoul. According to one government website on the subject: "in 1968, thirty-one North Korean assassins were discovered just 600 metres  from the president's house." That would explain the fences then. There was still a huge staircase to climb up, but eventually I made it to the summit.

I jostled with the dozens of Koreans all trying to stand on the small rock at the very top of the mountain; the downside of hiking being Korea's favourite activity is that even the great outdoors is really crowded.

After chatting with a Korean student who was hiking the length of the fortress walls (gasp), I followed the wall  back down the mountain, and got a good look at the old and new parts of the wall.

Later that day I visited the Joongang Daily News headquarters, recommended by my guidebook for its architectural significance. The building itself was unremarkable, but it included a cultural centre showing a cool art exhibition celebrating the friendship between Korea and Australia.


A Study of the DPRK's Self Image as Projected by its Propoganda  by Sally Kim

Nightfall Pyongyang by Ian Howard

In conclusion, my writing skills have regressed to about Standard Four and I'm writing things like "In conclusion. . ." But in conclusion, Seoul's Historic Walks is a good way to spend a day or two walking around Seoul, as long as you avoid everything it recommends. 

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