Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Seoul....is everybody's playground

My name is Alphonse, and I am a Seoulite.

What is a Seoulite, you say? Well, let me explain. A Seoulite is a citizen of Seoul, someone who lives and breathes Seoul, someone who appreciates the experience of daily life in this City, and most of all, someone who enjoys the pleasures and the convenience Seoul has to offer - be it a simple bus ride, a short hike up Namsan, a day of shopping in Myeongdong, an evening stroll along Cheonggyecheon or the banks of the Han River, or even a quick stop for a bite of kimbap in a food stall on a Seoul street.

I have been a Seoulite for a couple of years now, although I am from another country. And even though I am not well-versed with the Korean language, I am happy the City has helped me adapt to its character. All this time, I have enjoyed living in this City, making it into my playground to experience and enjoy life, and I have been telling friends back home about it. One of those friends was so impressed with my stories that she decided to come and visit Seoul. Her name is Maria.

So Maria came to town, as they say. But in this case, she came to the City, bringing along her husband, Angel.

When they arrived, I met Maria and Angel at their hotel near the Seoul City Hall, and I told them that their hotel’s location is quite convenient and near to the business district and tourist spots like the Deoksugung Palace. And as I promised them before they flew in, I introduced them to the city and city life.

Here are the fun places we went to:

City Hall Plaza
Beside the City Hall is a huge mosaic made up of hundreds of individual photographs which, after pasting them together, looked like the ASEM Tower, juxtaposed with Seoul highways. Maria and Angel thought this whole mosaic was very unique and interesting, and excitedly posed in front of the mosaic.

I explained to Maria and Angel that decades ago, there was a stream on this same place but was buried under highway structures. The city government then planned to revive that stream in 2003. So after a couple of years and about US$400 million, the restoration is complete and is considered a huge triumph in terms of environmental impact and urban planning. So that day, Maria and her husband, enjoyed a cool stroll, like any other Seoulite would, along the Cheonggyecheon, where the temperatures around the stream have been proven to be cooler.

The Korea Tourism Organization Center
I also brought them to the Korea Tourism Organization center, whose building is alongside Cheonggyecheon. This center is a one-stop shop for tourists where they can get information and maps of places in Korea, watch Korean movies with English subtitles, buy some gift items at its souvenir shop, pose for pictures wearing the Korean traditional costumes, and ogle at the life-sized photos of Korean actors and actress. So, being a fan of Korean dramas, Maria was ecstatic to see photos of her favorite celebrities. She even posed with the poster for the movie, The King and the Clown, playfully replacing one of the characters’ faces with her own.

The first thing Maria did when we got to Myeongdong was, of course, shop! And like grasshoppers on a garden, we jumped from one store to another, where brand names abound and cheap bargains are everywhere. And when we got hungry, we visited a restaurant famous for their spicy chicken cooked in soy sauce, garnished with sliced potatoes and angel-hair noodles. This delicacy was a lot of joy that we finished the whole platter!
And before leaving Myeongdong, Maria, Angel and I walked up to the Myeongdong Cathedral, where a short prayer for their safe and enjoyable stay in Seoul was said. The three of us, by the way, are Roman Catholics.

Namdaemun Market, Sungnyemun or South Gate, and Namsan
A visit in Seoul is not complete without shopping for cheap buys at Namdaemun Market. There, Maria and her husband bought souvenirs and toys to bring home. After Namdaemun, we hopped over to Sungnyemun or South Gate, which is just nearby. I told the couple that this monument is Korea’s National Treasure No. 1.

From Sunyemun, Namsan or Mount Nam is a good and healthy hike. It took us a half-hour lazy walk to reach the Namsan Park, where a beautiful fountain’s backdrop is the NTower, that pine-needle structure at its peak, which can be seen from almost anywhere in Seoul and in most Seoul postcards. With children playing, birds flying over, and couples strolling around, the Namsan Park was like a world away from the busy life downtown. Maria and her husband both loved the atmosphere of the park as well as the aura of Namsan, abound with nature, cool breezes and great view of Seoul. And Maria and Angel would have wanted to ride the Namsan cable car going up its peak, but we could hardly believe our eyes when we saw the long lines for the cable ride! The couple then realized just how popular Namsan is.
During their stay, while I brought Maria and Angel to places around Seoul, riding taxi cabs, Seoul buses and even subway trains, I think I have successfully turned them into Seoulites. They too have walked the streets of Seoul, savored Korean food, experienced the Korean culture, mingled with local Koreans, shopped around the city, and most of all, realized what a fun city it is, a playground of sorts for both young and old, Korean or foreigner, local or tourist, where there is always something for everyone: shopping, sightseeing, dining, hiking, watching cultural shows, or attending festivals.

Maria and Angel already left the city, but having so much fun and great memories of their stay in Seoul, they promise to be back, this time with their kids.

And wherever they may be now, Maria and Angel, like me and countless others who have lived, enjoyed, savored and experienced Seoul, will always be Seoulites, and Seoul will always be their playground.

As it is easy to love and easy to enjoy, Seoul is and will always be everybody’s playground.

Monday, 27 July 2009

The Pug-ak Mountain in Seoul: The history, the view, the fortress

It was a bright sunny Saturday when a group of foreigners from the Philippines (ehem), Brazil, Bolivia, U. S., India, Italy, Hong Kong, China and Canada, met up at the Seoul City Hall for the bus ride to the starting point of the tour, near the mouth of the Samcheong Tunnel in Seongbuk-dong.
Pug-ak-san, or Pug-ak Mountain, one of the mountains lying around the city, is on the northern side and is only 342 meters high. There are actually several trails along the mountain, but the organizers chose the easiest one for us, thinking that it should be an enjoyable hike, and not a cardiovascular workout. The hike around the mountain is monitored and controlled, requiring hikers to make a reservation and submit proper identification beforehand. Why? Close by is Cheong Wa Dae, or the Presidential Residence. So, the military tightly secures the area to make sure the incident of 1968 does not happen again
The trail around the mountain runs alongside the ancient fortress walls built by King Taejo of the Chosun Dynasty in the 14th century. The original length of the fortress was about 18.2 kilometers, but today, only 10.5 kilometers remain. I learned that most of the fortress walls’ destruction was done by the Japanese during their occupation of the country, and of the remaining length, 4.3 kilometers, aptly named the Pug-ak Fortress, run the trail around Pug-ak-san. But even with the destruction, King Taejo still would have been proud of his achievement as the fortress walls snaking around the mountain, which look like a mini-Great Wall to me, still stand strong and solid like the indomitable Korean spirit. The Fortress has gates, the Sukcheong-mun and Chang-ui-mun, through which hikers pass through.
At the highest point, we were able to enjoy the amazing view of Seoul. Though the day was a bit muggy, we were able to identify the downtown buildings and avenues, Nam-san and its pine-needle landmark, and even the structures south of the Han River. Had the day been clearer, the daily class struggle would have been conspicuous as well.
The mountain also has its violent history. A pine tree along the trail still bears the bullet holes from the exchange of gunfire between the authorities and North Korean assassins who, on January 21, 1968, made their way through the mountain to kill, though unsuccessfully, then sitting president Park Chung-Hee. A monument for the policeman who died during that gunfight can been seen near the Chang-ui-mun Center.

Pug-ak-san was actually closed to the public for about four decades but was recently opened in April 2007. And I am glad I was one of the lucky ones to have enjoyed the trail, the history, and most of all, its view!

Sunday, 26 July 2009

The Jeonju Bibimbap and The Hanbok

Joining a trip with a bus full of foreign tourists down south of Korea, I travelled down south of Seoul to the city of Jeonju in the North Jeolla province

Our stop in Jeonju was the hanok village, where, from a vantage point, we saw that a good portion of this part of Jeonju still boasts itself of well preserved hanoks, or Korean traditional houses, even though the surrounding areas have been transformed by modern culture and industrialization. From there, we strolled down into the village to prepare our lunch. Yes, we ourselves had to cook and prepare our lunch – which is the popular Jeonju bibimbap! (I didn’t even know the types of bibimbap in Korea. But it’s better knowing how to make at least one).
We divided ourselves into groups and were provided with the ingredients to make Jeonju bibimbap – all 25 of them! We were given aprons and a table with a stove, plates and kitchen knives. Since we were preparing real food, we needed a real kitchen!
While most of us may not be into cooking (me included), a real Korean cooking teacher had to lead us step by step into preparing our own Jeonju-style bibimbap. I personally expected that it would all be fun. While we took turns in slicing, frying, and slicing some more, everybody was just giggling, taking photos and excited as to how our bibimbap would look and taste like after. After everybody was done, our Korean cooking teacher inspected each table and chose the best looking bibimbap. Unfortunately, the best looking one was not from our table.
After all the cooking, we even had more fun enjoying our bibimbap, sitting under a tree, on a cool autumn day, exchanging stories and laughing as we recounted our cooking, if you can call it that.
After lunch, came the lessons on the Korean traditional way of bowing.
After everybody changed to wear the hanbok, our Korean teacher lead us into the hanok and taught us two bowing styles – the big bow and half bow – explaining to us in the process where and how the bows should be used. This was also a very interesting part of the Korean culture, as the Korean hierarchy of the past is manifested on the way bows were given. Too bad, though. I can never be able to use my big bows as they are only given to kings.
Learning how to prepare bibimbap (and enjoying it after), learning how to wear hanbok (and bowing to a king) or just enjoying the sights of the North Jeolla Province are a few fine reasons of going down south of Seoul, in case you want to discover more of Korea.

Friday, 24 July 2009

The Naganeupsong Folk Village in the South Jeolla Province

The city of Suncheon in the South Jeolla Province hosts the Nakaneupsong Folk Village – a well preserved fortress of Korean-style houses, complete with thick straw roofs, clay walls, dirt backyards and stone-pile fences. I felt I was transported into another period of Korean history when I entered the village gates.
The houses in the village have been well preserved and I was really impressed by the effort. We were told, as we saw for ourselves, that there are families actually living in these houses. And they are not for show. They actually eat, sleep, cook, and in the case of the children, play, in these traditional Korean houses. I walked around the village and went into certain open houses and discovered for myself the interiors of the homes as well the life these families lead. Some houses also open their doors to those who want to stay for a night or two and experience the traditional way of Korean living centuries ago.
Around the village, there were clay pottery lessons and old Korean tradesmen showing off their skills in making traditional Korean footwear and tools out of straw. They made it look so easy and simple. A couple of the tourists tried to get their hands into duplicating what the old men did, but they were not even close. As a foreigner and as somebody used to the daily conveniences of technology, I was able to truly appreciate the skills of these old Koreans as well as their ingenuity of turning what is indigenous to the place and making them useful tools for daily living.

Lucky for us, there was also a food festival featuring all the delicacies and dishes of the South Jeolla province. We were able to get inside the pavilion to see for ourselves the most popular of the Jeolla-namdo dishes which all looked amazing and meticulously prepared. Not being able to cook myself, I can just wonder at the gargantuan efforts these Jeolla nam-do women, or perhaps men, have put into while preparing these featured dishes which, not only looked enticingly delicious, but also delicately decorated with all the colors of the South Jeolla province. The very long queues of people trying to get into the food pavilion just proved that it was a must-see for everybody. But I was thinking, with all the food paraded before my eyes, I could only get hungry.

And speaking of hunger, my prayers were answered. After experiencing and enjoying the Nakaneupseong Village and its food festival, we drove to and checked into our hotel in Suncheon, after which we sat down in a Korean restaurant where we had a feast of Korean dishes – from fish to octopus, to beef and pork barbecue, to jjigae (stew) and dried seaweed, and a tableful of vegetables and side dishes one can only think that this was not an ordinary Saturday night dinner, but a celebration of Korean food, specifically from South Jeolla province, and a tribute to the people who kept them true to the traditional Korean taste all these centuries past. With every inch of table space occupied by a dish, and with all the colors, aroma and flavors overwhelming one’s senses, it was, indeed, a feast fit for a very hungry king.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

The Boseong Tea Plantation

It's a famous green tea plantation in Boseong-gun in the South Jeolla province, on the lower western part of the Korean peninsula.
I have only seen the plantation on travel magazines, but being there for the first time was like inside a postcard itself. From afar, the rows and rows of the green tea plantation, which start from a valley below and ascend uphill, were like giant forms of the Korean rice cake, ‘ttoek’, in elongated forms of dark green, all arranged like frozen rounded waves.
I think everybody in the travel group was so enamored by the scenery that, for a moment, we all forgot that these plants forming a labyrinth on the hills of Boseong-gun are the green tea plants, famous for its fragrant aroma and therapeutic characteristics. We all wanted to stay longer to meander and enjoy the dream-like view from up the hill, but we had to attend a tea ceremony at the tea center.
After strolling along the rows of tea plants and taking a bundle of photos, we headed down to the tea center for a tea ceremony. With tea being a part of the Korean culture for centuries, tea drinking is elevated into an art form, complete with the intricate steps, utensils and rules on how to prepare, pour, serve and lastly, enjoy a hot cup of tea. I would encourage any foreigner, either visiting or living in Korea, to at least experience a tea ceremony while in the country. The ceremony would make one realize that in the Korean culture, a tea ceremony is not only about sharing tea as a royal beverage, but also paying homage to the drink while honoring those who are served with it.
After the ceremony, I had to buy three boxes of Boseong’s green tea, not as souvenirs (although they were really cheap), but as presents to my parents back in the Philippines, so they, too, will be able to enjoy the rich flavorful aroma of this famous drink, minus the tea ceremony, of course.
And we didn’t leave Boseong-gun without tasting a different flavor of Korean barbecue, samkyeobsal, one of my favorite Korean dishes.With all the tea available, the locals have come up with, you guessed it, green tea samkyeobsal. Unlike the other samkyeobsal varieties I have tasted before, this one has a hint of green tea flavor, bringing a different taste and aroma to one’s palate. Though we still enjoyed the deliciousness of barbecued pork, absent was the unwelcome smokey smell usually given off by the dish.
The four-hour drive down to Boseong was worth it. Green tea, barbecued pork and lots of postcard-ish photos - all in one Saturday morning.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Bungee Jumping in Korea!

       (That's me taking the bungee plunge!)

We need to find ways to cool off in summer! Splashing on a beach? Snorkeling in the sea? Been there, done that. But rafting and bungee jumping over a river are uncharted waters (pun intended) to me!

So, on a hot summer weekend, we ventured out to the northern countryside of Korea to look for the source of the Nile River, er, rather Han River. We found the Hantan River, instead, on its path meandering across the sleepy rice county of Cheorwon, which is located at the South-North Korean border. As the bridge crossing the river was high enough for a bungee jumping stall to be set up, somebody did just that. A brilliant idea....to the ones who fear no heights, that is. So, for an equivalent of US$35, you have the chance to duplicate the act of flying without wings. Or, perhaps, to duplicate Nadia Comaneci's flight over the uneven bars, without her perfect score of 10, of course. Not everybody signed up to bungee jump though.

     (Whatever goes up, goes tumbling down)

If you think too much, your excitement to bungee jump usually gets the better of you because once you are standing on the ledge, about to take the plunge of your life and looking down on the empty expanse of space and height, with nothing but murky waters (and a man on a small boat to fish you out after) awaiting below, you suddenly will say, "What the eff was I thinking?!" Ha-ha-ha!

Not one, not two, but almost every other bungee-jumper, froze in shock, unable to move, looking down in fear, or perhaps looking up cursing the heavens, overwhelmed by a sudden fear of experiencing the emotions of not knowing what would transpire if he or she took a step off the ledge to let the law of gravity apply. I was one of those frozen jumpers. Ha-ha-ha! Frozen, for just a silly moment.

                       (When I say jump...)

I did not let fear get the better of me, but for a moment, it did, though unwelcome. I was there to have fun and to experience flight without having to buy a plane ticket. Presence of mind was key. 'Fun', 'fun', 'fun' was always juggling in my mind, although two other 'F' words were playing along, too. One of them was 'Fear'. The other was ....you know what the other was. Ha-ha-ha!

For the hapless jumpers all prepped and ready, but who suddenly went numbed and muted, a simple funny question from the bungee equipment staff saved their day, or in this case, their jump: "Do you want me to push you?" Though shocked and embarrassed as they were, a single-syllabled response from their throats choking in fear usually emerged: "Yes". And most often, they forgot to say "Please". Ha-ha-ha!

One guy, stood there for about five minutes, unable to move, unable to decide, unable to say 'Yes', though we all knew he wanted to. It was very easy to poke fun at and tease him, but alas, we were next in line and we wouldn't know if the same gargantuan terror would eat us up and rob us of all faculties. Luckily, none of us duplicated his scene. Whew!

And it was not at all quiet, as the bungee-jump stall had loudspeakers blasting dance music all day long. The music was so loud it drowned your prayers, and along with it, your thoughts of backing out.

And ………..I jumped!

Embracing the empty expanse with open arms, I felt my heart skip a couple of beats and saw the horizon, the houses from afar and then the murky brown river below, which got closer and closer to my face. Then boing! I became the subject of the tug-of-war between the bungee cord and gravity, pulling me up and down, then up and down again, several times until the latter eventually won. Like an outdoor laboratory experiment, my jump proved once more the law of gravity: whatever goes up, must come down, with or without a bungee cord. With the exhilaration of an F1 driver and the free-falling sensation of a skydiver, not to mention the fear that if the bungee cord snaps, off I dropped into the brown river to get a taste of that dirty water. Yikes!

The next question is: will I do it again? Hmmm...maybe. That jump was just about 50 meters. I would like something higher. Like 51. Ha-ha-ha!

(Two of the photos above courtesy of Adventure Korea)

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Climbing Mount Seorak, the 3rd highest mountain in South Korea

I could not believe I actually made it! And that was sooooooooooooo tiring! Whew! Reaching the peak of the third highest mountain in South Korea, that is.

On one breezy day in May, amidst gasping breath, dimming vision, thinning air, wobbly legs, dry throat, dwindling water supply, and worst, a growling empty stomach (!), I finally reached Daechongbong, Seorak-san's peak!

And this is how I got there.
Our office has a mountian climbing club, which regularly organizes climbs on mountains in Korea. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), I wasn't able to join their hikes up Jiri-san, the second highest mountain, and Halla-san, the highest one, located in Jeju Island. Yes, these mountain-climbing addicts would get on a plane just to climb a mountain.

On a bus full of sleepy climbers, we left Seoul Friday night at around 11, and reached the foot of Seorak-san, Gangwon Province, on the east side of Korea, at around 2 A.M. (Yes, 2 as in early freakin' morning when I should be snoozing soundly in bed). After our organizer announced the last-minute reminders (which was spoken in Korean and which I totally did not understand) and distributed bottled water and packed breakfast, we all got off the bus and gathered around for some stretching. After that, my journey began... 'with a single step'.

As we walked up the rocky path in total darkness only lit by our 'head' lights (literally - lights strapped around our heads), I told my fellow mountaineers (I hesitate to call myself one, actually) that I grew up in the lowlands and climbing mountains was not part of my childhood. (I only climbed trees then!) They all tried to give me encouragement even as my feet started to ache and my bad back (mild lumbar scoliosis) started to complain.
There were 32 of us and I was in front of the pack along the trail, when I realized that, one by one, they all started to overtake me. The aching feet, thinning air, a rocky path, a very dark trail and lack of fitness dragged me behind the pack. I could not keep pace with the rest and I surrendered to the reality that climbing the 3rd highest mountain in Korea was not the same as climbing Namsan in Seoul, either on a cable car or on a bus!

As a Korean mountain tradition, everybody must be at the peak at 6 A.M. to catch the sunrise and make a wish! And at 6 A.M., the pack was at the peak, taking photos, resting and making their wishes. Except one. I was only able to make a wish....two hours later.

At 8 A.M., I reached Daecheongbong, the peak at 1,708 meters, and made a wish that I be immediately transported to a deluxe room at the Shilla Hotel with a warm bath and an intercontinental breakfast! But nothing happened. I take it that any latecomer's wish would not be granted. I was still standing at the peak exhausted, hungry, thirsty, legs wobbly with thoughts of jumping off the mountain. And with the freezing breezes blowing from the north, south, east and west, I decided to get off already.

I consoled myself that the hardest part was over. I was now ready to eat my packed breakfast and hurry down the mountain with camera in hand to capture the views.
At the Jungcheong Shelter, about 600 meters down the peak, other climbers were there: resting, eating, mingling and sharing the restroom. I spent less than an hour there to digest my food, catch my breath, rest my legs, re-hydrate and visit the loo.

Since we were traversing the mountain, we climbed from one side and go down the other. Now, the enjoyable part was about to begin. As I climbed up with sleepiness and torture, this time, I climbed down Seorak-san with interest and adventure. As it was summer, most of the flora was green and the only fauna I saw were squirrels. And on the steep cliffs, hand-railed ladders were constructed to aid climbers.

How I wish it was all about climbing down! Though the strain were on my thighs as I went down, chatting with other climbers, crossing a stream, watching a waterfall, running after squirrels, and befriending Korean 'ajummas', who mistook me for a Korean, completed the whole adventure.

And what a relief when I finally realized I was walking on level ground. No more ups, no more downs. I started the climbed at about 2 A.M. and I arrived at the foot at 3 P.M.

As I sat there at a small store drinking an iced cold 'Powerade', my feet rested, my back relaxed, my breathing relieved, and my shirt required changing.

And although there was no deluxe hotel room waiting for me at my 'finish line', I had something pricier than an overnight stay at a 5-star hotel: A sense of achievement and a fulfillment of an adventure.

Would I want to climb again?