북한산

Bukhansan is the highest mountain in Seoul at 836 meters, or a little over 2,700 feet. Not monstrous but respectable, especially because it’s the heart of a national park on the fringes of one of the largest cities in the world. If you give it a second, you could probably divine what shapes make the ‘a’ and ‘n’ sounds–and therefore the others too. Maybe.

Anyway, on Saturday I was invited along with a couple friends to hike up the highest peak of Bukansan, Baegundae. The trail started out ‘moderate’ for about an hour, then was ‘advanced’ for about the same, and the final twenty minutes or so were ‘expert’. In this case, moderate referred to a pretty normal trail on a mountain. Advanced meant rough piles of rocks tumbled together in a steep, vaguely stair-like fashion. Expert, which certainly no one there was, consisted primarily of large bare rock faces at extraordinary angles with a rope handrail along one side. I’m probably exaggerating a little because of my relative inexperience, but it was quite a slog.

My goodness, though, the view. I may have mentioned this before, but Seoul is a ginormous city and standing on the summit (a tiny rock surface crowded by a memorial, flagpole, and selfie-takers) was an experience. It was a remarkably clear day and we could see well past the river, something the haze normally bars even from much closer vantage points. That meant the whole park lay like a rumpled green gown beneath us and the city itself showed its off-white endlessness as its claws dug into the small islands of treed hills scattered across the horizon.

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It was a beautiful view, and the mountain was absolutely gorgeous. But it was also kind of hideous to see this human behemoth blanketing what once was certainly an incredible and natural vista. Even the summit itself sported signs of humanity, from the fortress (which seemed silly, no army was going to climb directly over the top of the tallest mountain in the area) to the radio antenna to the power lines that followed much of the trail up. Even the noise–we ate lunch just under the peak facing into the park and when we went back up to go down we suddenly realized the dull roar we had hitherto been tuning out.

But I digress. Yes, it was beautiful. I would recommend it and I would return. There was an amazingly clear stream that followed our rocky trail. We even encountered a pair of mountain kittens on our way back down–we happened to be carrying some tuna leftover from lunch so we watched delightedly as they deigned to come a few steps closer to devour it.

IMG_20170902_132453849 Like I said, it was wonderful. The mountain kittens might be one of my favorite experiences in Korea. But it also just made me sad. You couldn’t escape the city in any direction, on any peak, in any park. Obviously there is plenty of land in Korea outside of cities–it’s maybe even better than in the US since more Koreans live in cities and they generally lack the urban/suburban sprawl that so afflicts North America.

I don’t know, I think I have some oddly complicated feelings about nature. I don’t need to go into them here, it’s whatever.

Anyway, the rest of the week held very little for me. Some more reading, dipping a couple toes back into Netflix but at a more reasonable rate, and not much else. Last week we had Wednesday off, the first in ages, and this week I had phone classes. This time, though, it was the early class and we only had a half day so we finished as seven. And I would ten times out of ten choose phone classes over a one-on-one. But this term is different insofar as I don’t know that Wednesdays will be regular like they were first term. So who knows what I’ll do next week. But they have been promised to be half days except for make-up tests.

Other than that, just settling nicely into the term. Here’s hoping it stays nice.

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Long in City Pent

I kid you not, our guide on Jeju was a Russian from Vladivostok. His name was Viktor, which was also my name in Russian class. Obviously, I’ve gotten way ahead of myself but I had to tell you about him straight away since I was literally taking about Vladivostok in last week’s post. Anyway. Allow me to backtrack a sec for you.

This week I have some family visiting: my younger brother, step-mom, and her mom who is Korean but has been living in the US basically since the Korean War. So we’ve done a bunch of touristy things (including a number of things I’ve been meaning to do but had been to lazy to do alone). It’s been great so far.

We started on Monday with a pretty full schedule of running around Seoul and seeing as much as we could. We visited Gyeongbokgung Palace (the main palace of the Joseon Dynasty), a number of mountains around Seoul, Namdaemun market (where I had actually been before), and a variety of little sights around the city. Lots of driving. Like I said, very full.

Now they had booked an actual tour deal, but it was just us. This meant basically that we had most of our time fairly scheduled, but that we got a cool, personal guide. It is very different from how I usually travel–I also usually travel alone–but it was great. Our guide in Seoul is rad and it’s nice to have someone who knows where they’re going and can take you there witout much ado.

On Tuesday, we flew out to Jeju Island, which some have called the Hawai’i of Korea. It was absolutely lovely. As I’ve stated, our guide on the island was actually Russian, do that was neat. But mostly, Jeju is just wonderful. We visited natural wonders: waterfall, lava tube, cliffs, crater, beach ect. We also saw a wonderful temple (all the way from the 1980s!), historical governor’s palace thing, a stone park with lots of cool rocks and stuff, and a traditional folk village. We had some tangerines, for which the island is famous, and some fried chicken, for which it is not. I got sunburned (thankfully not too badly) and we climbed a mountain in torrential rain and strong wind.

Nothing we did was actually super impressive or absolutely amazing (not to disparage it at all) but the thing I loved most was just being out of Seoul. It was astounding how much I reveled in being surrounded by green. I guess not astounding because of course, but still. Sea breeze. Trees that are actually true green. Everything so, so lush. Driving along country roads with the windows down.

Everything was made of black volcanic rock. There were some columns that looked like a baby Giant’s Causeway, some cliffs that reminded me of Carrick-a-Rede. There was a crater on the coast that, from a distance, looked like Howth, even with the little low-lying isthmus connecting it to the main island. So basically I was in a hot, Korean Ireland.

I truly had a wonderful time there, in all the different weather. It really felt like a vacation. But I’ve just flown back from Jeju tonight, a couple hours ago, and I’m sort of pooped. So I’ll write more next week, I promise, and maybe include a few pictures. Tomorrow we’re going to the DMZ and I probably won’t say much about that, but we have a few more things to see on Saturday, and my brother and grandmother are leaving on Sunday and my step-mom is leaving on Wednesday.

Anyway. I know I talk a lot about city/nature but golly. I really needed this green. If you have green around you, please appreciate it on my behalf. I won’t be leaving Seoul (at least not for more than a day or two) until March. So read some Keats (that’d be the title) and nature as much as you can.

The Cheese

This Wednesday was another day off and I was determined to enjoy myself. So, naturally, I decided to climb a mountain. Just for reference, I will continue to say mountain here but I fully acknowledge it to be a Seoul ‘mountain’ (similar to an East Coast mountain) as it is only 338.2 meters tall–that’s about 1,100 feet for us Americans. Also, in the common fashion for Korean mountains I’ve seen thus far, it’s very steep. 인왕산 (Inwangsan) is pretty close to my apartment. Just on the other side of Ansan, where I’ve been many times. So I figured it was a good candidate. The rub was that Google Maps gave no indication as to how to get onto the mountain. I could see it, a big brownish blob with no roads, but couldn’t find an access point. But how hard could it be, so I decided I’d just wander around until I found something going up.

As luck would have it, there was no difficulty. Long before I got to my best guess for a trailhead (though still after about half an hour walking along the side of the mountain) I saw a sign that indicated this road went up the mountain. Good news. So I walked up this road for a while, going steeply uphill, but was still among apartment buildings and was wondering when the park part would start when suddenly it started. I’m still not sure what to make of the ‘park’ qualification so let me tell you a bit about what I encountered.

First, it is not marked as a park like Ansan and other places I’ve been. Not in Google and not in the real world. However, the signage was essentially the same. The major difference was that this one had gates and, it appeared, was not open all the time. Additionally, there were police guards and watchtowers quite regularly all along the trails. This was to ensure that no one took pictures facing certain directions. I discovered, reaching the first of like three summits, that there was some kind of (military?) installation, very small, running along part of the ridge. No idea what it was about, but no pictures of that. Also no pictures looking out toward the city in the direction of the river and one of the main palaces. I learned today that apparently from that one angle, you can see the president’s house and they weren’t taking any chances.

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One small glimpse

The view was spectacular. The haze wasn’t particularly bad yesterday so I had a decent line of sight across the city. I could see all of Ansan park, Seodaemun-gu, Jongno-gu, and the truly picturesque Bukhansan park in the distance. The trees and rocks were gorgeous and the sky was blue and the air mostly smelled of flowers and pine, for once, instead of city. And, I nearly forgot, the old city wall of Seoul, which has huge chunks still intact across the city, goes straight up the mountain and the trail follows it a goodly way. Parts of it have been restored over time, but I think a reasonable amount of it is original and, like in Exeter, you can clearly see the different phases in its construction spread out over centuries.

All told, with a quick nip into Paris Baguette on the way home, it was a four hour excursion. I would call it an unqualified success, which is something of a rarity for me. So I went home and just basked in the lovely day. There remained something irrefutably (and sometimes inexplicably) urban about everything and I couldn’t help but wish that I was on some other mountain, far away from Seoul, and the view was only of further mountains and wilder forests. Nevertheless, the fragrance of certain flowers and the texture of hearty bark under my hands did assuage, in some small part, all the city unpleasantness.

Now for this week’s thoughts from Keegan.

Quirkily, I’ve been singing The Farmer in the Dell kind of often since coming to Korea. In the metro, there is a little song that plays when a train is approaching and the beginning sounds just like it. I don’t ride the metro all that often, but the song has wormed its way back into my brain and it plays ad libitum, ad nauseam.

It’s a strange sort of song. As a person who is very much interested in and appreciative of cheese, the final verse is of particular note: the cheese stands alone.

And I’m not the only one entranced (haunted?) by that line. Robert Cormier, writer of controversial young adult novels like The Chocolate War, wrote a novel entitled I am the Cheese based on the concept of the main character feeling alone. It sounds hilarious but the blurb is very serious, sort of a teen spy mystery thriller vibe is what I was picking up.

But why does the cheese stand alone? I always picture a hefty slice of Swiss sitting regally on a little hillock in the bottom of a lushly planted valley, a few farm buildings in the distance. Who would see such an alluring enticement and just pass it by? In what universe is the cheese not the main character of the song? In an effort to avoid the grimness of last week’s post I will not suggest that the reason is because this universe is just a dark cesspool of poor, unfortunate souls. Nevertheless, the mystery is confounding.

Then again, maybe it’s not such a problem that the cheese stands alone. I often have difficulty describing to parents or other concerned parties that I don’t mind being alone for extended and repeated periods of time. I feel like I’m almost inundated with Buzzfeed posts or articles on Facebook about introverts and I guess I assumed that people just generally got it. But it is not so.

Introverts don’t mind being along for extended and repeated periods of time. We’re not anti-social, just differently social.

So there you have it. Who’s to say cheese can’t be introverted. Maybe the cheese likes standing alone. Maybe it’s having a great time just so. Maybe I am the cheese, too. Wow, I hope so. What a life. And what a great mantra.

I am the cheese.

I am the cheese.

I am the cheese.

Are you?