Saturday, August 11, 2012

The quite good wall of South Korea

Have you ever failed to spot something that's right under your nose?

Maybe it was a boy or girl who was into you, but you assumed you'd never have a chance. Or only realising how arbitrary the religious convictions people live their lives by really are, when you take a wider look at the world and colonial history. Or finally getting that the name of Sonic the Hedgehog's fox sidekick Miles Prower was a rubbish pun on 'miles per hour' when you're 23.

Or that most Koreans wear glasses, something I never clocked the first time I was here, but which I haven't been able to stop noticing since I came back. I don't know if it's genetic, a combination of Korea's notoriously heavy-duty schooling with its heavy-duty gaming culture leading to a general lack of sun exposure, or if looking like a stock 1980s nerd character is popular right now in this conformist and fashion-subjugated society. Whichever way, it makes me feel more at home in the land of the visually impaired.

There's also the massive wall that surrounds Seoul, 18.2 kilometres in length, which I spectacularly failed to notice in all the time I spent here last winter, despite even taking a couple of photos of its gates when I came across them. What did I think they were attached to? You can see the southern section of the wall in my cloudy Namsan photos too, where it was literally right under my nose, but I must have been too busy squinting at the buildings in the distance. There might be some sort of meaningful analogy there.

That'll teach me to travel on the subway rather than letting my feet guide me. Walking around Seoul's perimeter did wonders for my psychogeography and gave me an idea of how the different parts of Seoul I've visited fit together, much like the very similar wall in Suwon last week, and it's more prep work for the inevitable mid-life crisis where I decide to walk across China or some similarly pointless feat. Let's see if this blog's still going by then.

Seoul Fortress Wall

I got as far as the Malbawi Information Centre last time I came here, only to be forced to turn back before I'd even really started because I didn't have my passport with me. What new obstacles had they prepared for me today?

Bugaksan (North)

In the neighbourhood: Bukchon Hanok Village

Luckily, they decided I wasn't a North Korean spy, and gave me a pass that gave me free reign to explore the Bugaksan mountain area, which as far as I gather is basically the president's back garden. Maybe I'll pop in to say annyeong, and see if he's more accommodating than the Japanese emperor last month

Sunsukjeongmun (north gate)

Oh, I probably should have warned you - this is mostly going to be pictures of wall. Again.

I had plenty of energy, water and audiobook to see me through the day, but on the descent from Bugaksan it was disheartening to see the next uphill stretch winding its way over Inwangsan. Even more so when I checked my map and saw I'd only done something like 30 degrees of Seoul's perimeter in an hour.

Why can't all cities be cosy and cramped like Suwon?

Inwangsan (West)

In the neighbourhood: Gyeongbukgong, Seodaemun Prison, Museum of Natural History

Changuimun (north west gate)

I think I've hit that uphill stretch now

At least N Seoul Tower (up on the hill) and the half-way point of this Seoul searching seems to be getting closer, that must be a good sign

This is a less good sign, and if I'd been able to read Hangul I would have known the next section of the wall was closed for renovation or something, and could have saved myself from reaching a dead end and having to go all the way back down

But then you wouldn't have this lovely, endearingly crap panorama from the summit.
I'm getting better - there's hardly any join on the right side

I'll spare you the next pedestrian hour or so. Road is even less interesting than wall

Namsan (South)

In the neighbourhood: N Seoul Tower

Sungnyemun (south west gate) is under reconstruction too, but the rest of the wall is nowhere to be seen. We're in the heart of modern Seoul now, and it had to make way

Things get back to normal in Namsan Park, when civilisation sods off

Shameless half-way victory shot (the opposite of this view). I was satisfied and tired

I accidentally came across N Seoul Tower again. I'm not here for you this time

After sliding downhill, the physical wall is usurped by modernity and I have to follow it in spirit

For a while, the walking route passes through the grounds of a health spa. Like they're hoping hikers will spontaneously decide they need expensive thalassotherapy or something

I hung around with a non-descript bird for a while, that didn't fly off immediately like they normally do when I try to be their friends. Birds are the squirrels of Seoul

And we're back for another sporadic stretch before...

I knew it was too good to last

Naksan (East)

In the neighbourhood: Dongdaemun History and Culture Park, it turns out

Gwanghuimun (south east gate) inaugurates the final stretch

Recycled Haechi (lion/dog thing) at Dongdaemun History and Culture Park, which looks pretty interesting. But there's no time for interesting when there's a tedious wall to follow

Bustling Ogansugyo bridge. I bet these people haven't just walked three quarters of the way around the city over uneven terrain. They probably get enough satisfaction from their lives that they don't need to do that sort of thing to give it meaning. The contended fools!

Heunginjimun (east gate)

The route soon left the hectic world of wage slaves and suggestible shoppers behind for quiet, residential Naksan. I was expecting another steep mountain trail like Inwangsan, but they let me off. This is definitely Seoul's simpler side

Hyehwamun (north east gate)

Back up to Bugaksan, my 18.2-kilometre (plus a few extra kilometres of backtracking and getting lost), inconvenient circular tour of Seoul was at an end

If you come to Seoul, I'd recommend doing the first, stealthy bit in the mountains, but don't bother seeing the whole thing through unless you have a penchant for pointless, time wasting tasks. But if I didn't have that sort of personality, this blog wouldn't exist and you wouldn't have been able to waste a few minutes looking at pictures of the same wall in slightly different locations. I think I've proven my point.

Today's irrelevant soundtrack: Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife (Chivers)

South Korea route map, part II

That's it for Korea for now. I didn't see many entirely new places this time, tending to re-tread old favourites in nicer weather and come across obvious things I should have noticed the first time, but Suwon can take its place in the ongoing list. I'll definitely be back.

H Suwon

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