Bugakasan mountain and all that jazz: Seoul, day one

So: me and Euan are on holiday in South Korea and China over the next few weeks, so I shall attempt a daily blog post to document the trip since I have no physical journal with me, due to an administrative error.

For reasons I don’t fully understand but something to do with Euan single handedly propping up western capitalism with his credit card spending, we managed to get business class tickets to Seoul. Business class is something I unlikely to ever experience again, so I tried to savour the endless champagne, decent food and fully reclining bed / seat thing, despite having a pretty nasty cold. Euan is impossible to be in a bad mood around.

Trying to sleep between viewings it Whisky Galore and Inside Out, it felt like I was in a cryogenic pod on the way to Mars in a doomed attempt to restart the human race. Or, to put it another way: like a marginally less comfortable night train.

Euan slept like a man-sized baby in his pod behind our plastic and electric controlled dividing screen. I slept much less well, which meant our early morning arrival into Seoul was just as surreal as the one into Tokyo five years ago. Descending over the islands to the west of Incheon, I watched the plane’s reflection on the water and the satisfying curve of the muddy tide, before we landed with a small bump and it was time to gather up all physical things.

After dropping our stuff off at the hotel and with five pre-check-in hours to kill, we headed west along Cheonggyecheon, a restored stream through the middle of the city which had once been an elevated highway. We saw fish, a heron and an old man in a parental advisory: explicit content baseball cap.

Arriving at the stream’s overground end, we turned to see hills and a big-ass brutalist building. Both of these made me happy: a city with at least the illusion of geographic limits feels much less claustrophobic; and I really like concrete.

Heading up past the courtyard of the restored palace of Gyeongbokgung, we saw lots of kids in traditional garb and a cafe called cafe metaphor, which was closed, but not metaphorically.

Heading further up the hill we found lots of security men with suits and earpieces, so I think we might have been near the president’s residence*. We passed a square full of solo protestors silently brandishing placards we could not understand.

The hill loomed behind the theoretical president palace. There was plenty of razor wire and watchtowers, so it was clearly some kind of military instillation.

But I really wanted to be on that hill, and we passed a pensioner with a professional plastic walking stick, so we pushed on, hoping it became public at some point.

We got lucky. Half a mile further up, we were able to access a path as part of the old Seoul city wall. It was still part of a military installation, so we had to fill in a form, shown our passport, and wear a tag around our neck to stop anyone mistaking us for an invading army.

It turned out we were right. All the military stuff was indeed due to the proximity to what we correctly assumed was the president’s house. And my joke in the previous paragraph isn’t very funny either: on Jan 21 1968, 31 armed North Korean guérillas infiltrated into Seoul to attack the presidential “blue house”, Cheongwadae, but were beaten back by South Korean police and military. There’s a pine tree that still bears the traces of bullet marks.

We didn’t see the pine tree, or any North Korean guérillas. But we did see some nice vistas of the city, and ignored the signs telling us not to photograph them.

After accidentally ordering enough fried chicken to feed an army at a nearby restaurant, we headed back to our hotel for a nap and confusing Korean television. There was a boy band walking around doing nothing in particular while a panel of matriarch commented on them from the studio, which is better than Tommy Walsh’ eco house.

In the evening, we met a robot and had dinner in the Dongdawmun market. Dumbling soup and kimchi for us, though the multiple mung bean pancake stalls did look enormously tempting. Or “very delicious,” as one lady put it, coaxingly. Next time.

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