The initial ascent up Mount Dobongsan was literally a walk in the park. In step with Koreans of all ages decked out in expensive hiking gear, I saw families picnicking along a river that twists through idyllic Bukhansan National Park, and couples cozying up in shady hideaways just off the main walking path. The air was crisp and floral-scented, and as I pressed on deeper into the park, the crowd thinning out as the trail narrowed and gradually began winding upwards, I felt more and more alive.
You know that feeling? Deep breaths. Complete quiet except for leaves rustling in the wind and the crunch of dirt underneath your shoes. A smile shared with nobody but yourself. Taking Ferris Bueller’s advice and stopping to look around. It’s a beautiful day in a fairy tale forest just outside of Seoul, South Korea, Brian. You’re lucky to be here. (Now stop being a pussy and keep climbing.)
Legs aching and stomach growling, I thought I reached the summit when the trail opened up to heartbreaking panoramas of the area, the somber drone of Buddhist chants drifting down from a small building on the side of the mountain above me. I investigated, scaling a 125-step stone staircase shaded by pink, blue, yellow, red, and green paper lanterns hung from above. At the top I found a secluded temple/shrine with nobody around. Nobody: just me and the looping Buddhist chants and that stunning view of rolling green valleys, pointed mountains and, sprawled out in the bowls between them, a maze of city like white dominos. It was here in front of the temple that I pulled out and devoured my packed lunch of foil-wrapped sushi, waxy corn on the cob, bag of roasted chestnuts, and a bottle of water.
A little over 1 kilometer later, after conquering a stretch of trail that went nearly straight up, around massive boulders and through streams of small rock, I grabbed onto a rope and hoisted myself up to a small viewing platform at the real peak of Mount Dobongsan. This was my reward for completing the second-most grueling climb of my life so far (the first being a knee-buckling slog up and, stupidly, back down Vancouver’s Grouse Mountain):
I came to Seoul with few expectations other than perfectly prepared bimimbap, so I left with all of my expectations met. It was a short visit, just four nights and five days, but we packed in as much as we possibly could into those five days, eating, drinking, sightseeing, experiencing. To me it felt like a weird mix between Taipei and Tokyo, falling somewhere in the middle of the two in terms of culture, people, food, and urban environment.
The Koreans here seemed friendly and easygoing compared to the insular society of Tokyo (which I had visited a month or two before Seoul) — and hyew boy is there ever a drinking culture here. You rarely see groups of totally sloshed girls barhopping in, say, Tokyo or Bangkok, but it’s commonplace in Seoul. Bars are packed, particularly in Hongdae, and many of the convenience stores — G-25, 7-11, Buy the Way, Family Mart — even have tables and chairs set up on outdoor patios where you can enjoy a can of Cass or bottle of soju and watch people drunkenly stumble after cabs or drunkenly puke in the street. (I saw that happen at least twice.)
Packed markets like this one reminded me of the labyrinthine market mazes in Bangkok:
Korean food, in general, felt heartier than the everyday diet in other major Asian cities I’ve visited — and you can, ahem, see that difference manifested in the populace — though of course it’s still much, much healthier than in many Western countries (namely the dear old United States of America). Meals such as this one at Gogung in Myeongdong are usually accompanied by a series of banchan (side dishes) that often includes bean sprouts, kimchi, some type of soup, roots and vegetables.
Korea is also famous for its hanjeongsik, which is essentially a huge spread of banchan. The one below cost 14,000 won (about US$12) and included about 20 dishes, 75% or so of which I’d never tasted before. Some were really good — like a creamed and curdled silken tofu served warm, mixed with soy sauce and spooned over rice — some were fairly straightforward, and some were a bit bizarre, like the spicy and sour root basted in hot sauce that felt and tasted like biting into a dish rag soaked in cleanser.
There are plenty of fun tourist attractions, such as this changing of the guard ceremony at Gyeongbokgung Palace, though I didn’t see many Western tourists during my visit.
The Noryangin Fish Market, entirely presided over by women (at least during my visit), isn’t quite as impressive as Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Fish Market, but then few fish markets in the world are. It’s still well worth a visit, and there are a few seafood restaurants on the second floor where you can eat some of the sea creatures you ogled on the first floor.
At night, after you’ve had a drink or five and want to burn off some drunken steam before heading home, some districts are littered with walk-in indoor batting cages and air-rifle shooting ranges, like this one (there was also a batting cage here, not pictured, in an adjoining room to the right). Drink prices generally ranged from cheap to reasonable, though many bars and restaurants seem to make up for the cheap drinks by charging what feels like slightly inflated prices for the food.
These are just fleeting impressions of a short visit to Seoul. Quick snapshots, not sweeping generalizations, and certainly not a comprehensive report of everything we packed into our four-night, five-day introduction to South Korea. Seoul seems like a fun, modern, surprisingly jovial city with friendly locals and just a tiny trickle of Western tourists. It’s also a gorgeous city, particularly on the outskirts — bucolic Bukhansan National Park was a short train ride away.
If you’re anything like me the question you ask yourself after visiting a new place for the first time is this: Would I live here? In this case, I think the answer is yes, though perhaps only for awhile. Good show, Seoul.