I've visited Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul a number of times. It's one of the main tourist destinations in the city and is located right by so many other amazing places. I had a feeling I'd get see some great fall colors this week, so I paid the ridiculously low 2,500 won ($2.36 USD/€1.77/¥231) entrance fee and wasn't disappointed.
Just north of Jongno, sitting between the Bugak and Inwang mountains is Buam-dong. At a funny little intersection inside this neighborhood is coffee shop built into a house, Club Espresso. By all accounts it is one of the best coffee shops in Seoul. They have more coffee on their menu than I have seen anywhere else in the world. They source their beans from all over the world and roast them in-house. A radar chart is printed on each brown bag giving information on the roast's flavor, sweetness, acidity, aftertaste and other criteria. Being a valley is unique within Seoul and keeps it a little secluded from the typical city crowds, but still attracts an interesting mix of cyclists and families from around the city and coffee enthused tourists.
After picking up some coffee for the apartment, I wandered around the area. Nearby are a few art museums that bring in a small number of Chinese toursist buses (when talking Chinese tour buses in Seoul, less than 3 coaches is "a small number"). I spotted a large information map of the region. Most of the locations featured on the map were places I had been to a number of times and I quickly lost interest.
But then I found my interest again in the mossy steps next to the map. Mossy steps? Leading off up a hill? Is this a British children's fantasy novel? The stairs led up a little, into the trees and ended into a small park where I was treated to this view.
This is Jongno, the center of Seoul's festivals, subway network, tourism, many historical buildings, palaces and more. From this vantage point it's easy to see that Seoul is one of the biggest cities in the world and just in the other direction it looks like a quiet mountain town.
From here I saw Inwang-san. With no plans for the rest of the day, I set off on a hike to the top for a better view of the city.
Seoul sits amongst more than a few mountains, none are huge, but their smooth stoney surface makes them incredibly spectacular. It's easy to forget they exist while going about your day in the city, buildings usually block them from sight. I can go weeks without noticing them. But they are there, waiting to be hiked.
Right as the hike gets going, you ran into something not normally seen when hiking, police outposts. A dozen or more on my way to the summit. A reminder of the fear and readiness that comes from living south of The North. At certain parts of the hike, mostly those that offer the best views of the city, photos are strictly off limits, and fresh-faced boys about to finish their teens, fulfilling their conscription, are there to see that you obey these signs.
As annoying as it can be, it is entirely understandable. Seoul is the capital of South Korea, and from this mountain you get a clear view of the Blue House, the President of South Korea's residence, other major administrative government buildings, many of the foreign embassies in Korea (including that of their most important ally, the US) incredibly important cultural buildings, World Heritage Sites, palaces, Seoul City Hall and museums holding important artifacts (all of this located in Jongno). The police presence doesn't detract from the hike, and in the event of rain getting under some can keep you dry.
Sometimes, I get a little numb to the sights of Seoul and think that the neon and the mountains are normal and not all that interesting. They have become a part of my everyday life. Moments like these remind me that Seoul's mountains are absolutely gorgeous. I love their distinctly Asian cragginess. There are not many cities in the world where you can take a hike on a whim and get an unrivaled view of downtown.
Looking back at my time so far in Korea, I have had a good time, but I often feel I haven't done a heck of a lot. Seoul is a self-contained city and with more than half the entire country's population living within the metropolitan area, it's too easy never leave. Tourists that come to Seoul for a week will possibly have seen more than I have in my year plus. So with this in mind I've set out to do more, scheduling myself for fun excursions on a regular basis. First up, hiking in the city.
Seoul is a city that sits amongst eight mountains. While it's easy to lose sight of them with all of the high-rise buildings, you are never far from one. Hiking is a popular pass-time, especially with the pass-middle-age adults. It's somewhat of a stereotype that retirees love to hike. Groups of people wearing the latest in synthetic hiking equipment are easy to spot, if only because of how much the women love outrageous neon fuchsia colored gear.
Meaning "Dragon Horse Mountain," Yongmasan is in the northeast reaches of the city, primarily home to residential areas. It was still cool from winter and the sun was shining, creating the perfect temperature for hiking.
Seeing Seoul from this vantage point really put into perspective the city's density. There is very little in terms of space. There almost no green spaces in this part of the city, something clearly needed.
A moderate to easy hike, certain routes seemed to have stairways all the way to the top. Along the way there are even public exercise areas, complete with hula-hoops and a bench press. At the top a number of couples set up a picnic, a great place to do so. With Seoulites never ceasing to enterprise, there were a makeshift rest areas at the top selling instant ramen, soups and beer at the top.