High Upon A Mountain Top

For the first week and a half of my time here in beautiful South Korea, I have been pretty well fenced in my little town of Jeongok.  Besides taking the bus 30 minutes to my school every day, I don’t really get out too much during the week.  Most everyone I talk to expresses a least a touch of concern about living in such a rural area of Korea (a choice I overtly made).  From the very beginning, my job placement agent was concerned with making sure I lived somewhere “I wouldn’t be bored”.  (Though… I am wondering what the difference would be between living in Jeongok <30 minutes from work> and Yeoncheon <15 minutes from work>).  One of the first things my ESL co-teacher expressed to me was his concern about being bored because I didn’t have internet or TV in my little apartment.  I don’t know if it’s simply because I am American and everyone thinks I expect the finest things in life (or, perhaps the inverse, and everyone in Korea expects to have all finest things and no one can imagine living without internet or TV for a few weeks), but either way, it seems that people have a different semantic prototype for ‘bored’ than I do.

Moving on.  Luckily, I do have some friends who live in South Korea and my second weekend they wanted to do something in the Big City, Seoul.  After I figured out the subway, it really isn’t that big of a deal heading down to Seoul, and it’s not all that expensive.  Though, because of some confusion as to where exactly it is I live, my friends had a hard time figuring out a way for me to make it down to Seoul and due to some unexpected communication failures (meaning, failures with the devices themselves) I ended up hopping on the subway only tentatively knowing where I was going and hoping that at some point, someone would give me a call and we would figure it out.

I decided to go to a stop called, “Seoul Station”, mistakenly thinking it would be cool place to be.  Don’t get me wrong, anything new is cool and there was a cool park around there, but what Seoul Station really is, is a connecting Imagestation.  It connects the metro with the other high-speed trains.  The station itself is huge and from there, you can pretty much go anywhere in South Korea in about 2 hours.  Pretty convenient.  Though, after a few walk-throughs, not very interesting.  I was still waiting for a phone call, so I sat down by a Baskin Robins and rested for a moment.  That moment turned into an hour and after a while, I started to get concerned that this communication failure might be more serious.

After waiting a little longer, I finally decided to go walk around the area near the station.  It quickly became the same kind of thing I see around my house every day.  Korean restaurant, Korean restaurant, pool hall, Korean restaurant, Lan house, Korean restaurant.  Time for a new street.  I crossed over and started walking perpendicular to my previous line and saw a sign for a park nearby.  After about 20 minutes of being painfully reminded of walking around downtown Porto Alegre, I finally found the park.  Which also required that I walk, even more steeply, up another two hundred yards or so.  When I got to the top, I was greeted pleasantly by grass, something I hadn’t seen in a while.  However, the park itself was a little bit of a disappointment.  The trees didn’t provide much shade and, you know, as a tourist.. seen one grass field and you’ve seen them all.

The more I walked around (unwillingly of course, I was tired by this point) the more interesting the park was.  There were some statues of important people in Korean history, mostly late 19th century, and WWII era people.  There was a big wall that circled around a part of the park.  It was, apparently, the outer wall for the city that Seoul now sits upon, during the Joseon Dynasty.  Kind of cool.

At this point I was a little worried.  I had walked around the whole park and was a little concerned about what I was going to do with the rest of my time.  Walk back down to the station? Continue walking down another street?  I was a little worried about getting lost, I was close enough to the train station that I thought I could find my way back easily enough at that point, but I wasn’t sure I could keep track for too much longer.  It was then that I saw a sign for a library.  Well, hey, I love libraries!  I started up the path.

The path did not take me to a library.  I’m not really sure where it took me to best honest.  There were a couple of buildings and a parking lot, but nothing looked like a library and I didn’t really see anyone going in or out of any of the buildings (so.. kind of like a library).  But, once I was up in this little parking lot, I could see further up where the path lead to a water fountain! Also, the amount of people started to increase quite a bit.  I walked in that direction.  The path winded around the water fountain and continued up to a restroom.  After some standing around, I noticed that the stairs that I thought just led to the second floor of the building the restrooms were in, actually kept going up.  Now we are talking!

I started up the path and it was then that I realized I had found the key attraction.  People were walking up and down the path and at one point, a tram filled with people wooshed by me, further up and further in!  The path way was steep at some points, but easy enough to climb.  It was completely paved in stone, with steps to help you climb.  Getting to the top wasn’t too difficult.  I knew I was close when I hit the tram station.  A lot more people coming and going, and also.. people were selling food and water.  Keep climbing.  On the very top of Namsam Park, there is a huge pavillon where all sorts of things go on.  When I got to the top, I sat down and just watched the people for a moment.  Hundreds of people coming and going, looking over the edge at the city below.  Just finishing up was a performance by some actors.  Their dress suggested they were doing a period piece from what I’ll assume is the Joseon era (considering the wall in the park below).  When I got there, they had just finished and were sweeping up the area with some very old-fashioned looking brooms.

Because this particular hill is pretty much the center of Seoul, they put a TV tower on top of it.  And luckily for everyone, they put an observation deck in that tower.  I contemplated just going back down, but I realized (once again) that I actually had no where to go, and I was still alone, may as well go up the tower, I’ll probably never go there again.  It’s a cool ten Korean won to get access to the tower which is.. I don’t know.. probably an ok amount to charge.  I kind of feel like if you hiked all the way up, you ought to be able to get in for free, but.. I won’t complain.  The view from the tower is pretty similar to any view you’ve ever had from a very high point in a big city.  (here’s some pictures if that is not your experience).  The city truly is gigantic.  From the tower, you are very clearly higher than anything nearby, but even so, at some points the horizon is still created by sky-scrappers.  I’ve never seen anything like that before.  It kind of looked like a really pixelated mountain far off in the distance.

I made a few rounds around the observation deck and then headed out.  I wasn’t interested in any trinkets or memorabilia, photos are well enough.  I meandered for a few minutes more through the crowds of tourists, Korean and foreigner alike, and finally headed back down the trail.  Back through the water fountain, through the park and retraced my steps back to the train station.  And at that point, I was exactly where I was 3 hours earlier.  It was getting close to 5:30pm, and I figured if my friend hadn’t called by then, it wasn’t going to happen that day.  My first reaction was annoyance, but then I realized they might have had some trouble, or gotten hurt, or something else equally undesirable, and that I would withhold judgment until I knew better.  I sat down once again at Baskin Robins (I had wifi access at that spot that only worked for the Facebook application on my Iphone) and waited for another few minutes.  Finally, I got up and boarded the train heading for Soyosan Station.

The train ride back was more packed, but equally pleasant.  A nice young couple started a conversation with me.  They were both middle school teachers, the woman happened to be her schools English teacher.  The man and I talked, I think he appreciated the opportunity to practice some English, and I am more than happy to help, but I need to figure out how to also practice Korean in those situations.  We talked about our personal situations and at the end, exchanged phone numbers.  I got two contacts without even trying (Eat that missionaries!)  It’ll be nice to have some friends from around the area I live.

I tried to gauge my feelings about the day and came up with, “not too bad for a first trip solo”.  Next time, I’ll keep a secondary idea in mind, in case my primary plans fall apart again.  The guys at Mok Dong studios are waiting for me to show up and watch some pro-league Starcraft one of these days!