Breakaway

Breakaway by Robin Nystrom
Breakaway, a photo by Robin Nystrom on Flickr.

The carefully placed clay figures that ornament the rooflines of palaces around Seoul are known as japsang (잡상).

In this instance it looks as if a novel inspector – a very large butterfly! – has come closer for inspection, or perhaps it is just one of the guardians coming to life and breaking away…

To make up for the Chuseok rains, the sun god smiled on Seoul

Once the storm passed, the rest of my stay in Seoul was blessed with gorgeous sunny weather. I took advantage of it to stroll along the Han river, like many other Seoulites (me being a temporary one). Bicyclists whizzed up and down the path in droves. I also sprang for a short river tour too.

Hangang1

Along the way I couldn’t help but try and spot a favorite police sergeant and a female embassy staffer who just happened to be the president’s daughter*, or some heated exchange between some individuals in their car, parked under a bridge along the river**, but to no avail. Just a nice day, nothing exciting.

 

* You know I’m talking about our protagonists from “Lovers in Prague,” right?
** You know I’m talking about countless scenes from any number of K-dramas and movies, right? Oh hell, I couldn’t even spot a place where a car might be able to drive near the river, let alone park there! So disappointing…

Black tiles and whitecapped streets

Yesterday was one of those weird weather days in Seoul but that doesn’t deter the dedicated traveler. Thousands and thousands of Koreans took to the roads, buses, and trains to make their way back to their hometowns to celebrate Chuseok with their families, coping with long delays and flooded streets.

Rainy1

With the seasonal exodus, many parts of Seoul were a lot less crowded, leaving the way free and clear for the intrepid. The day began with occasional drizzles so a walking tour of Bukcheon (North Village), a historic part of Seoul where the traditional style of homes known as hanok still survive and are being lovingly maintained and restored.

Bukcheon2

I’d registered for a guided walking tour of the area through the Korea Tourist Organization and expected to join a few other like-minded explorers. To my surprise, I was the sole participant and was grateful to learn that neither this nor the weather discouraged my guide and the tour was on! Kim Sang-jin sshi and I began with a tour of Unhyeongung (Unhyeong Palace) and proceeded from there through the back streets, up and down the steep hills of Bukcheon.

Bukcheon3

We finished our tour and spent a pleasant hour over coffee taking refuge from the increasing rain, talking about our mutual love of travel and exploration. We parted and so did the skies, with rain coming down in heavier and heavier waves. Tired and drenched, I opted for a taxi back to the hotel, rather than make the longer walk in my squishy shoes. A wise decision!

 

If you have the chance to visit Seoul, make a point to wander Bukcheon and maybe, just maybe, stay in a hanok. A number of guesthouses are available, ranging in price from very reasonable to high end and they offer a chance to experience a very different way of life.

Taking the "11 Bus" around Seoul

While Seoul has a fabulous metro and bus system, it never fails that I end up walking miles while I’m here because the station to this place or that is just a little shorter (I think) than my ultimate destination. Yesterday was one of those days where I took bus number “11*” much of the day – wandering first around Cheongyecheon, then through the immense Gyeongbukgung, then the cable car and hike up to the North Tower observatory on Namsan.

Cheong Gye Cheon on a sunny day

Along the way I saw families and friends delighting in the warm sunny Saturday weather and many tourists. And once again I am left to wonder why it is that Taiwanese tourists (judging by their accents) want to have me pose with them in their photos. Somewhere I figure in the souvenir photos of the Blue House (the official residence of the Korean president) of several charming young women. I repay the favor by taking their photos, and those of interesting people I see, like these two skater boys – actually a Korean “mobile” police team, on rollerblades, stationed in front of the Blue House.

Skaterboys

The 11 bus was lagging after strolling through the immense palace grounds of Gyeongbukgung…

Kyeongbukgung

So I flagged down a taxi to take me to the elevator that leads up to the cable car and joined the throngs up the mountain. Squished into the car was not like the experience of many a drama character (who inevitably have it to themselves, or darn close!), but it’s an impressive view and much easier than letting the 11 bus take me up the long hike that many more athletic types take as a form of exercise. Maybe if I lived here… At the top I enjoyed the view and imagined the view of the watchers who manned the signal beacons years ago. On a clear day you can see for miles around.

On a more sentimental slant, I enjoyed looking over the many “locks of love” left by young lovers over the years.

Namsanlocks

The 11 bus was close to breakdown after the trek back down the mountain so she hopped a taxi back to the hotel and took a brief rest and enjoyed some television (“We Got Married” live and unsubbed!) before taking yet another stroll – this time to the Gangnam CGV to take in a movie, “Cyrano’s Dating Agency” or 시라노 연애조 작단. Even without captions the comedy sparkled and gave the 11 bus energy enough to stroll back to the hotel, to shower and collapse gratefully into bed!

*11 bus. Think about it. Two legs = 11

I feel like I’m living a drama character’s life

I knew from the photos that the decor of my chosen hotel in Seoul that it would be a complete 180 degrees from the traditional hanok style lodgings of my previous stay in Bukcheon, but photos did not fully prepare me for how I would feel walking in the door to my room.

Automatic light sensing someone in the foyer going on (then conveniently turning off shortly when not in the area)? Check! Now why don’t US hotels do this? I’ve seen this feature in the homes and apartments of many a drama character and thought how practical that was and now for the next 10 days I get to enjoy that feature too!

A place inside the door to slip off my shoes and slide into house slippers? Check! And there’s a shoe closet right next to this area with enough room to be an Imelda Marcos of travelers (were I that crazy). If I had a shoe closet by my door, I think I’d do the “no shoes in the house” ritual too, but for now, I get to slip off/slip on to my heart’s content.

The combinations of gilt-edged mirrors, crystal chandeliers (modern, two of them), almost Victorian-ornate wallpaper with a bed spread and upholstery covers in similar hues and style but nonmatching patterns, wood paneled walls, marble topped surfaces? Check! I feel like I’m living in the houses of one of the wealthier (though generally noveau riche) families. Okay, maybe it’s only comparable in size to a studio apartment, but if I can imagine a series of other rooms can I also not imagine it populated by a shrewish mother-in-law, parcel of disaffected children, and a suit-and-tie-wearing husband with perhaps questionable ties to organized crime? (Note: I’m not sure why, exactly, I would want any of those, not when I’ve got a perfectly good MIL and husband at home, just that it seems to fit with the place.)

The bedroom can be separated from the sitting room by pocket doors, in case I want to sit around and eat peeled fruit with the aforementioned family after dinner, making it seem more like an apartment. And the bedroom is pretty nice too, with bedside environmental controls at my fingertips and a set of closets with features like drawers for my watch collection (note to self: must get a watch collection) and a rack for ties.

Artnoveausleep

Even the bathroom gets special mention. Not only does it have an interesting use of nubby little tiles on the wall (grouted in the shower, not outside the shower), but it has one of my favorite Asian inventions: the shower toilet, to wash those unmentionable areas and leave you feeling daisy fresh!

To complete the homelike feeling, there is even a Pullman-style kitchen with washing machine/dryer tucked conveniently behind trim folding doors – with a rice cooker! Yes, I think I’m going to like it here!

Gangnam Artnoveau City
1330-4 Seochu-dong
Seochu-ku, Seoul
011-82 2580-7300 (from the US)