– Seoul, South Korea –
Today was our last full day in Korea. Tomorrow we will be heading back home. We have been on so many trips this summer and early fall that home is starting to feel like a myth. I miss my dog, especially. Luckily this is the last trip she won’t be able to come along for this year. Five days after we get home from this trip, we are going to turn around and head to Utah and Colorado with my parents to try and see some fall leaves and visit some of the pretty red rocks in Utah. That’s definitely a Ripley-friendly trip.
Our morning today started as usual. We were up at 6am, went down to our treadmills for our run, then came back to the room for some breakfast and a shower. We were moving a little more quickly this morning, since our trip out to Bukhansan National Park via subway was going to take around an hour, and we wanted to get our morning started.
The train ride really did take an hour, and we had to do a little train hopping. It was a little busy this morning, but not too bad, and we lucked into seats early on, so we were at least comfortable on our ride out to the park. It would have been pretty miserable if we had to stand the whole time. In fact, the train ended at the station we were getting off on, so by the time we arrived, the train was very close to empty.
There are multiple entrances to the park in Seoul, several of which require riding a bus over. Different entrances have access to different trails and stuff. We chose the one that only required the subway, since we did not want to have to learn to use the Seoul bus system on top of the subway. I think one of the other entrances was likely the main one, though I am not sure which.
The instructions online about getting to the park from the bus station all basically say, “follow the Korean people with backpacks.” It sounds like weird advice, and we were a little skeptical, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t true. As soon as we reached the road outside the subway stop, we saw a number of middle-aged Korean people with backpacks, and we were able to follow them to where we needed to go.
Eventually, we also came to some tape on the ground in multiple colors, which you could follow through the streets on the various different routes up into the park. It was still early yet in the little city area there, so not everything was open, but there were already a number of people. And yeah, many of them were wearing backpacks. The hikers here get very seriously dressed for very light hiking, we’ve noticed in the parks we have visited so far. Way more gear than you’d ever need for what they are actually doing.
The first part of path up to the park is lined with little shops in tents that mostly sell food and knock-off or cheap hiking gear. I guess its working, since so many people had way more gear than they needed. The little food stalls were mostly still closed, but a few were already open and out grilling fish. What a delightful smell to start the day. Blegh.
As you get closer and closer to the park, the density of shops selling hiking gear increases. Soon every one of the little tents around you is selling gloves, sun hats, hiking poles, puffer jackets, or packs. A lot of them are specialized and only sell a handful of those things. All of the pants look comically short next to Mark. I think we could only find capri pants for him here. It’s good that our luggage didn’t get lost.
Finally, as you get closer to the park entrance, the little shops turn into real stores for the various outdoor brands that all of us would (mostly) recognize. Patagonia. Columbia. Outdoor Research. Merrell. It’s actually pretty funny. I have never seen such a concentration of outdoor stores altogether anywhere else I’ve been. Not even outside national parks in the U.S. or Canada. The shops seemed popular too, even in the early morning. They were also selling a suspicious amount of warm coats for a place with a temperature of 85 degrees.
Actually, many of the people around us were wearing coats and pants. And I am not exaggerating about the temperature. I don’t know how they stand it. Mark and I were getting warm walking around. Maybe we are just too delicate and air-conditioned? I don’t know. The only thing I know is that it was definitely too warm for all of the gear people were wearing.
Finally, we made it to the park sign and took a photo. Nearby, we were flagged down by a couple of Korean gentlemen working from a van. We weren’t the only ones: they seemed to be surveying everyone coming into the park. Apparently they worked for some sort of government council on aging, which you might think would be focused older people, but they told us it was really meant for anyone from 20 years old and up. They wanted the park visitors to complete a survey, then they would give them a free coffee or tea.
They knew we couldn’t complete their survey, of course, as they were only looking for residents, but they still wanted us to come and get some free drinks. Mark had a coffee. I asked for a tea, and it turned out to be very, very sweet. It was so sweet I couldn’t drink it. Mark tried it too and made a hilarious face. The guy that gave the drinks to us asked how it was, and Mark mentioned how sweet it was. The man told us it was good for our health. I thought that was hilarious. I wonder what was in it, since it didn’t taste like just plain black tea that they had sweetened.
Bukhansan National Park is home to several mountains, some forest, and a number of temples. It is full of hiking trails, and is one of the most visited national parks in the world, with an average of 5 million visitors annually. Since the park is so close to a city of 25 million people, I do not find that very surprising. According to Wikipedia, the park is so popular that the trails that are open are periodically rotated to allow the trails and the nature around them to get a rest from foot traffic.
One of the most popular trails in our section of the park was a several kilometer trail that went up Dobongsan Mountain, specifically to the Uiam Peak. There are several peaks to visit, and the paths up to them are on other sides of the mountain from where we were. Once we had finished what we could of our drinks, we went and got a park map and tried to figure out just where we wanted to go. The park employees were very interested in helping us, and several came by at different times to offer suggestions of what to do in English. It was very kind of them.
We briefly considered going up to the peak, as the climb is not difficult. It takes 3-4 hours though, so in the end we decided we didn’t really want to do all of that. Instead, we decided to just wander around in the paths around the entrance, which wind through a number of small temples and some forest. This was all based on the map, of course, so our plans weren’t too concrete though. It is one thing to look at a map and decide what to do, and another to start walking and realize what you do and don’t want to actually do.
Near the entrance, you come upon a nature center and an alpine museum, which we marked as things to possibly visit later. Next, we came up to the first temple on the path, which we went ahead and visited. The first one was called Gwangnyunsa Temple, and it had several buildings inside a small, walled-off area. The temple was cute, and they were working on it, so clearly it was well taken care of. Off to one side of the temple was a statue of what I think might be a female bodhisattva. According to what my google-fu has unearthed, that means that she is likely Tara. I do not have proof of this, though, as the temple did not have signs about it, so I can’t swear that I’m right. You can see the statue a few photos above and make a judgment for yourself.
After the first temple, we started up the path that leads to the Uiam peak, though we did not really intend to go up that far. The path was quite steep, honestly, and we started to get a little hotter than we wanted, so we stopped a ways up to sit on a big rock and enjoy the surroundings. Once you start walking up, the trees start to block the view of the mountain, so it isn’t as nice for pictures as you might expect. We also eventually started to see tiny mosquitoes, which were very interested in chewing on Mark in particular, so eventually we moved on.
We actually had a bit a trouble locating the correct paths based on our map, even though we’d been given the English version. The paths did not seem to behave the same way they were portrayed on paper, and we kept messing up turns and walking past places where we had intended to go. We spent around 45 minutes cruising, stopping at one other temple and just generally hiking around before we found a spot that we thought might take you up to a view of the mountain.
The spot included a portion that was wheelchair accessible, so we really though when you got the wheelchairs to the top, there would have to be something for the wheelchair-bound visitors to see. Unfortunately, that was not the case. When we got up there, all we could see were more trees. I suspect that once upon a time, you could see through the trees, but by now they had mostly grown into the spot where the original view had been. I’m glad I wasn’t in a wheelchair when I found that out. What a waste of effort.
Back down from that path, we found another temple near the entrance that was a little unusual-looking compared to many of the others we have seen on this trip. Most of the other temples have been green and red, but this temple was red and gold, and the gold really made the place stand out. The temple had a large bell, a parking area in front, and a sort of entrance pavilion with guardians near the gate. Behind it, you could see the peak of the mountain. It was a pretty cool view.
After a while, we got a little bored of the lower trails. This park was not as interesting as Seoraksan had been, and we hadn’t planned to spend all day in the park anyway, so as it started to get later, we turned back to leave the park. On our way out, we stopped by the Alpine Museum, which houses a ton of items used during mountaineering expeditions. We saw stoves, boots, knives, crampons, ice axes, and a number of other things people use for ice climbing in their display cases. Many of the items are described and dated, though the descriptions are only in Korean. The English on the signs inevitably is just what the item is:
ice axe.” Not helpful. Some of that gear may have been taken up Everest and we wouldn’t know.
When we came out of the Alpine Museum, we considered visiting the nature center but eventually decided that it wasn’t worth it. The signs probably would’ve been in only Korean, anyway. We stopped in the nearby shade instead to try to connect to their WiFi to see if we could find anything for us to eat on this end of Seoul. We should have looked before we left, but we don’t always remember, and it is so weird to be somewhere that there’s just nothing that you can eat. We didn’t find anything, but decided to look at the shop menus as we went by to try to be sure.
We definitely looked into a ton of little restaurants on the walk back down into the city, but we never did find anything we could have. It was fun to look through, even though we were not successful. I can’t help but think this would all be easier in India. Not only do I know many of the food words thanks to all of my visits to Indian restaurants, but they are also incredibly vegetarian-friendly. Maybe I will go someday. Mark has been, and one of my fellow grad students really wants me to go with her the next time she returns home. One of the big projects in our linguistics department is in Manipur.
Anyway, since we didn’t find real food, we stopped instead at a convenience store to get something to snack on. I don’t know why we didn’t pack granola bars today, since Mark had his backpack. We definitely had room, and Mark needed his granola bar yesterday, so we should’ve thought to do it. Apparently our preparations for today just were not done with an eye for detail. At the convenience store, Mark got some potato chips made to resemble French fries, and I got some dried banana chips, though they were shaped into little banana rolls. They weren’t sweetened, and were delicious. Mark’s chip things were a little strange. We also had gatorades, which really hit the spot, since we had been feeling a bit warm and sweaty. We sat around and had our snack at the little tables in the convenience store.
We walked to the subway post snack and got back on a train heading for the center of Seoul once again not long after. The ride back into town actually took a little longer, since our destination was not our hotel, but was instead the National Museum of Korea, where we had decided to spend our afternoon. It was air-conditioned, and I love a good museum. My favorite is typically the natural history museum, but the internet tells me that most of their exhibits are only described in Korean, which makes it really hard to enjoy a natural history museum.
We were starving when we finally got off of our last train at the stop for the national museum. The subway station there actually has a long tunnel that leads you over to the museum, including those moving sidewalk things that make you walk faster. I bet the museum is very busy some days. We popped out from underground only a short walk away from the museum, which was incredibly nice.
In fact, not only were we close to the museum, but we also happened upon a little series of shops right outside: a convenience store, a restaurant, and a coffee shop. We excitedly ducked into the restaurant, since it seemed to serve hamburgers, and would you believe that we saw a literal “vegetarian” menu option for the first time since we have been here? They had a veggie burger! We were so excited.
We ordered our sandwiches, noticing that they had an egg on them, but figured that the egg wouldn’t be too weird, so we left it on. It’s a good thing that we did, too. Would you believe that the vegetarian burger didn’t actually have a meatless burger patty at all? The egg was basically the “meat” of the sandwich. It had everything else a burger would: ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion, and cheese. And it was all on an egg. It was surprisingly delicious, as the fries (which we split) were great. After we’d been so hungry, finding a meal that we enjoyed that much felt wonderful. Why can’t all of the restaurants here just have an obvious vegetarian option? Or maybe even just enough of them to feed us, like back home?
Anyway, after our sandwiches it was nearing 3pm, and we worried that the museum might close at 5, so we hurried over, only to discover that it was open much later than that. Out in front of the museum, workers were setting up a huge stage as part of the last two days of the music festival going on here in Seoul, which ends on Saturday night. We didn’t see any musicians yet, but the stage was mostly complete and they were putting out chairs. They were also doing a sound check as we went by.
The National Museum of Korea is enormous, and it houses a number of exhibits, including a children’s museum and several traveling special exhibitions. The building is very cool looking, with tons of glass and gray stone. You can walk up to it through a pathway of potted bamboo trees and misting water. We decided to start with just the main exhibit hall, since that part was totally free, and see how far we got. Judging by the museum’s size from outside, we weren’t expecting to get through the whole thing in a single short afternoon, anyway.
In the end, all we managed to see today was the first floor, and that took us about two hours. I think we will go back tomorrow to see more, since it will be a relatively painless, and air-conditioned, thing to do while we wait to head to the airport. Our plane doesn’t leave until after 7pm, so we will have a lot of time to kill between checking out of our hotel and heading to the airport.
The first floor of the National Museum of Korea is home to the Prehistory and Ancient History Gallery, which are filled with a ton of interesting artifacts that are very much like what you could find in early human exhibits at a natural history museum. I was stoked, as that is very close to the kind of thing I wanted to see anyway. The exhibits begin with stone tools and arrowheads and work their way up through the Bronze Age and end sometime in the Middle Ages. Even this single floor, which is only the first of three in the main exhibit hall, is enormous. We were getting pretty tired by the end of it.
One of my favorite exhibits was essentially over-sized sideways pottery. I really liked it because I couldn’t immediately identify what it was, and given that it seemed so crazy-looking, I was excited to find out. So, I rushed over to the signs to see what they kept in their clay pill capsules, only to discover that the silly things were coffins. Coffins. Isn’t that wild? I love it when I can’t figure out what things are just by looking in museums. Another mystery, which still stands to some degree, is the water sprinkler. They were just little pots with a tiny hole meant to sprinkle water. But why? I don’t know. I mean, I read the signs about them, but none of them told me what they are really for. All I can gather is that they have some religious/ceremonial significance.
We finished up at the museum after 5pm, having only completed the first floor, as I said. There’s so much to see, and the National Museum of Korea has plenty of English translations for their signs, so we were easily able to enjoy the museum’s exhibits. The other two floors don’t have be as excited as the first floor did, but I think they will still be fun. We only have one other stop for tomorrow, so I hope it will keep us occupied for a reasonable amount of time.
We left the museum and got back on the subway to take us back to the Express Bus Terminal station near our hotel. We still needed some things for dinner, so we decided to stop by the slightly fancier grocery store in the mall there at the station to buy a few things for our dinner. On our way in, we spotted a pet store, which was the first we had seen, so we ducked inside to see if we could find a souvenir for little Ripley. On Ripley’s instagram, she has a few Brittany friends that live here in Korea, and they all seem to have these doggie onesis that have long sleeves on their front and back legs, and we thought it would be hilarious to get one for Ripley. Unfortunately, here in the city, she is way outside the normal tiny size range, so they didn’t have anything that would fit our big girl. Alas. She didn’t get a souvenir, but it was fun to look.
After our little trip into the grocery store, we walked back to our hotel with dinner and a small dessert for the evening. It’s funny to say goodbye to all of the places we’ve spent so much time in on our trip, since we had the chance to frequent particular shops while staying in the same hotel for 6 nights. We waved goodbye to our grocery store as we left, knowing we won’t be back anytime soon.
Tomorrow we have plenty of time to run and whatnot before we need to leave. Checkout is at noon, but I think we are going to finish up our packing and get out of the room as quickly as we can. The hotel can watch our bags while we run around to the museum. We shouldn’t have to come back and picked them up again until 2:30 or so, since our flight is so late. I’m glad we get to enjoy our last day, instead of rushing off to the airport at an ungodly hour of the morning.