Whirlwind tour of Seoul

I enjoyed a day off today courtesy of Arbor Day.  When was the last time you were given a paid holiday to celebrate Arbor Day?  The Sierra Club would be thrilled.  Sometimes I really love living in Korea, and today was one of those days.  South Korea has more public holidays than any country I know.  I’ve heard that it’s because once upon a time the Korean government chose to set aside additional public holidays in lieu of allowing two-day weekends.  As it stands now, most Koreans still work half days on Saturdays.  I am very lucky, because I get time off for both Korean and American public holidays.  Korean holidays seem to fall in the middle of the week and are not contiguous with the weekend.  For example, the last three Korean holidays all happened on Tuesdays.  I guess it gives people an excuse to take a vacation day on Monday in order to have a four-day weekend.  Tomorrow is Wednesday, and I only have to look forward to three more days before next weekend.

Today a colleague from Guangzhou, China joined me for a whirlwind tour of Seoul.  If you recall, I have hardly toured any famous sites in Seoul, and I’ve been here for well over one month.  I made up for lost time today.  We managed to “power tour” today, squeezing in four popular sites in just under six hours.  We started the morning by taking the subway to Gyeongbok Palace (경복궁), the former home of Joseon / Chosun (조선) Dynasty royalty.  Unfortunately, the palace was closed today due to Arbor Day (darn, holiday hours).  We took a few photos and walked around the palace exterior.  In the distance we observed the roof of the Blue House, Korea’s White House, and we admired the mountains of Jongno (종노) District in the distance.  Gwanghwamun (광화문), the southern palace gate, was spectacular.  Bukhansan (북한산) and other mountain peaks rise gracefully overlooking the palace and downtown Seoul. 

We took a short walk to Insadong (인사동), one of Korea’s famous street markets.  Insadong is a great place to buy Korean arts and crafts, although it is a bit expensive and touristy.  It has a quaint Asian market atmosphere, albeit more orderly and tidy than other Asian markets.  We wandered around a few side streets and discovered a bit of the “real” Seoul—the part of the city that caters to locals.  People milled about casually, and the elderly gathered to chat on benches.  Vendors sold household goods instead of souvenirs.  From there, we took the subway to Seoul Station and walked around Namdaemun Gate (남대문) and Namdaemun Market.  It seemed as if the entire city of Seoul had descended upon Namdaemun Market to shop for bargains.  It was very crowded today.  Namdaemun is a functional market specializing in clothing and accessories.  We mingled with locals and soaked up the familiar feel of walking through an Asian bazaar.  We walked to the top of one street and looked down upon a sea of heads.  Ah, Asia.  I missed you.

We ended our tour at the YTN Seoul Tower situated atop Namsan (남산), or South Mountain.  Seoul Tower is arguably Seoul’s most famous monument.  Although not too tall, it is one of the world’s highest structures when measured from the base of Namsan.  The tower fits Korean culture well because it is surrounded by the scenic beauty of Namsan, and it beckons you to hike up to it (hiking is an integral part of Korean culture).  The tower is inaccessible by subway, so we drove up Namsan instead.  The tower’s parking lot is located far below the tower, and you must either ascend by cable car or walk about 15 minutes uphill in order to reach the tower.  We chose to climb rather than ride up the cable car.  I needed the exercise and enjoyed the hike, although it made me feel mortal.  It is not an easy hike for the casual walker.  If you hike a lot, it’s not a problem.  If you don’t like stairs, I highly recommend taking the cable car up to the tower.  Along the way I was bemused by well-dressed Koreans hiking up to the tower, especially by women who insisted on climbing Namsan in high heels.  It looked painful.  I would never hike in high heels.  Once we reached the base of the tower, we were disappointed to find out that the tower itself was closed for Arbor Day (darn holiday hours).  Still, we did not regret going to Seoul Tower.  Namsan featured many great vistas overlooking the city, and the hike was great.  The sky was a bit dusky today because of lingering Yellow Sand, but we could easily see the city for miles.  The mountains surrounding Seoul were clouded in dust.  On a clear day though, you might just be able to see the DMZ.

Tonight I went to a short Association board meeting and took over secretarial duties.  It’s not a glamorous job, but someone has to do it.  It will help me learn more about the Association and stay inform about the goings-on in our community.  The board seems like a motley crew.  I think we will all work well together as long as we don’t let our egos get in the way.  We have a lot to do in the coming year.  Quizno’s Subs will open soon, and we need to find a new vendor for our cafeteria.  For now, everyone at work must eat on the local economy.  We want to reopen the in-house cafeteria as soon as possible.

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