I came to describe the feeling as “hiker’s blue balls.” We had come somewhat close to the mountain; we had been tangential to the mountain. We were in the mountain’s neighbourhood. But we barely made it up the subway steps before bailing, the weather making it abundantly clear that we were not to make it to the peak that day. But I was determined. I would hike this mountain, and on my Chuseok vacation, because I wanted to feel like I achieved something. Without the ability to go away, I needed spectacular views on a commuter’s budget, and I wanted to walk vaguely uphill to get them.
We took the subway to Gyesan and stood around, unsure of ourselves. We had at least made it up the stairs out of the Incheon metro, but my only inclination was that the mountain was north. Using my compass, and following in the path of some sporty looking Koreans decked out in backpacks and those hiking poles, we eventually found the base of Gyeyangsan.
It was not terribly hot, especially considering the temperatures reached during the first few weeks I was in Korea, but it was enough. We began the hike which, for the first half-hour or so, was through gently uphill, forested inclines. It was a loping, easy sort of hike, one so untaxing we assumed it would take us five pleasant, boring hours to reach the top. Eventually we reached a mini-peak: there were exercise machines, a two-floored gazebo, little rock faces to ascend. I scrambled up one face, with the grace one would expect of a rhinoceros, and felt an overexaggerated sense of achievement. As I often do.
From the gazebo’s shade we could see the actual mountain, and we began heading towards it. Nancy and I at least had an excuse for our quickly encroaching exhaustion, as we had hiked around the graveyard mountain only the day before. However, you can’t really escape the sense of embarrassment you get when you sit on the sidelines to take a break and several industrious, bustling elderly people power walk by you in their matching tracksuits. Small children climbed in their sandals. Dogs gambolled gaily about. My sense of victory evaporated as quickly as it arrived.
With humorous amounts of sweat and effort, we eventually made it to the top, and could see out over the Korean landscape. We could see all of Incheon and beyond, and the mountains enclosing all sides. Dragonflies swarmed, and sellers tried to hawk their fruits and bizarre juices. We wondered if these vendors made the trek each day with their coolers and parasols in tow. They probably did not feel the sense of accomplishment we felt if it was actually their regular walk to work.
The descent was considerably easier, and once again, we were confronted by abundant Korean outdoor exercise equipment. We hopped on, snagged street food, and wandered down back into Gyesan, finding a small temple, and eventually a place to gorge.
For whatever reason after hiking a mountain, I then decided to tag along to Hongdae. The area around Hongik University, Hongdae, is notorious for its clubs and bars, and is usually rampant with university students, foreign workers, and American military. The custom, as the subway closes at 12:30 (more on that in a later post) is to party until sunrise, and catch the first, shameful train back out. As such, many of the bars are open until 6 a.m. or beyond.
I made it to a restaurant and approximately 2 bars (hilariously, there is a chain of bars called “Ho Bar,” each with numbers or subtitles to differentiate them) before having to bail. I knew I would return to Seoul the next day, and I also knew I would eventually fall asleep in the gutter from exhaustion and an overload of oontz, so I got lost in the streets, eventually found Hapjeong station, and tried to make it home.
The next day was to include a large group excursion to the 63 Building, the tallest office tower in Seoul, but as many of its participants had stayed out in Hongdae, I decided to skip the big group. I met with Adam, Nancy, and Kin, and we headed up to Yeouido. The problem with all tall buildings like this, and the CN Tower, and countless others, is that there’s not much to do. You poke around, you look out the window, you nervously toe your way onto a glass floor, and then you leave. You reach the top floor from an elevator, and you look out upon the vast skyline, and you nod to yourself, and then you walk to another window and repeat the process. While 63 Building also had an aquarium and a wax museum, there was precious other tourism to engage in!
We went back to Yongsan to slake Adam’s relentless thirst for burned DVDs, but the selection was limited, featuring a bizarre menagerie of 80s B-films, British children’s television programming, and movies I had simply never heard of, nor could I develop an interest in. Yongsan at least offered a plethora of fancy cameras for Nancy and I to drool and yearn for, dreaming of a day when we would both put in the research and the money to pick them up and take slightly enhanced amateurish photos.
From Yongsan we headed up to the Insadong area to check out Jogyesa temple. As we exited the subway, we were confronted by a Korean band playing music for charity, singing entirely in English, covering Jason Mraz. He was even impressive! Slightly less impressive, of course, was when we passed by a half-hour later and heard him playing the same song to a still massive, politely appreciative crowd.
Jogyesa, an enormous temple and the Mecca, essentially, for the Jogye sect, sat nestled just off a busy street, and despite the large, impressive parking lot, it felt serene, and away from the city. I discuss it more here, but I was paralyzed by a waffling indecision over whether or not to take photos, and thus I did a lot of standing around and looking, and trying not to disrupt any of the ongoing enlightenment around me.
Night soon fell, and Nancy and Adam decided to head back to Incheon, what with being exhausted. Caring little for my own health or ability to get up the next morning, I marched bravely and stupidly on, navigating to the Seoul Drum Festival, a multinational competition featuring teams from around the world (but mostly Korea). We met with others and piled into government provided lawn-chairs in Seoul Forest, and people around us were already applauding, tapping rhythms, and being a ready, willing crowd.
While the drumming was spectacular, the highlight was Tammy Park, the English-speaker hired to slavishly translate the Korean emcee’s every charming, non-sequiturish utterance. Without any apparent direction or awareness for the schedule for the evening, Tammy translated on the go, often throwing caution and sentence structure to the wind, providing a sort of out-loud, ongoing Google Translate read-out of whatever it is the man was talking about. One assumes it had something to do with drums.
The night in Seoul Forest was probably the last real one of the vacation, and I tried to assess things. This time off had been sprung on me: had I spent it well? I was exhausted, my camera was full, I had eaten and drank weird, inexplicable things that I didn’t know the name of, and I had spent time with good friends. For something thrown together so haphazardly, it was an excellent Chuseok vacation.