Category Archives: Korea

Yeti Hikes: Dragonfly Mountain

DragonflySCULPTURE

Distance: 8 km Time: 2 hours

Built in 2014 in an obscure part of the city, the trail that ascends Dragonfly Mountain (not its proper name, of course) wends past apartment buildings and Buddhist temples alike.

You discover it quite by mistake, first by ascending a long set of stairs that you had never noticed before and then by ascending more stairs. Suddenly you are above the city, looking out at the Han River and Namsan. A Korean woman will chat with you for a bit, explaining that when she was a child there was no smog and everything looked a lot closer.

There is major construction on one end of Dragonfly mountain. They’ve destroyed many old buildings and it looks like a new apartment building is going up. Less than 500 meters from that hole in the earth is a modest Buddhist temple (apart from the Golden Buddha statue of course), guarded by a dog and a friendly homeless man with a dog of his own who offers to share his makkoli with you.

There’s no stopping though and your feet carry you forward, past ceramic tiles painted with images of Deadpool and Totoro, Kakao and Pixar characters alike. You may pause at the workout equipment–do pull-ups or sit-ups or any of another dozen exercises. Should you continue, fear not–there will be plenty more stations along the way.

You walk through grass and through what feels like jungle and, later, a gloomy forest. There are side trails down to apartments on one side and the city on the other. This is part of the city you have never been to, and the lull to explore somewhere new is strong, but you continue along Dragonfly mountain.

You pass the trail to another Buddhist temple, this one half-hidden in dense verdant foliage. Now you see a dome that looks like an observatory. But it’s really an emergency services– 119. Just past here the trail forks, and you eschew the paved road and climb again, past what appears to be a deserted university and up a flight of stairs that keep climbing long after the novelty has worn off.

You reach a badminton court, skirt around it, and find a wooden platform with a view of the city stretching all around you. Below is a wooden swing and a rose garden.  There are no elves frolicking in the garden, but you think that there probably should be.

The trail splits again, and again, and you emerge by a subway station. It’s not a long walk back to your house, however, and thus you finish the trek amongst a myriad of people. Dragonfly Mountain, so close to you, is no longer visible; hidden behind rows of apartment buildings and smog.

It matters not. You know you will return. In the meantime…

Your memories look like this:

Advertisements

Yeti Hikes: Achasan

Mount Acha

IMG_20170701_173943

There are at least 43 mountains in Seoul, but surely none of them are as accessible and easy to ascend as Achasan. The highest peak on Achasan is only 287 meters, so it’s not exactly a trek through the Himalaya, but in addition to the requisite views of the city and Gyeonggido there are three elements that really make it stand out among Seoul’s myriad of mountains.

Easy as (RedBean Paste) Pie

These are for charging your phone and taking selfies, replete with instructions.

For me, no mountain in Seoul compares to the scope, beauty, and grandeur of Bukhansan. But it’s a real slog up to the peak(s) and there are always thousands of other hikers toiling their way up with  you. Achasan, on the other hand? From the subway to the peak it takes about 45 minutes (your times may very based on how turtley or roadrunnery you hike). Once up there, there are gentlemen selling socks and drinks, plus solar panels to charge your phone. All the amenities a person could hope for, really.

The hike to the top is short, yes, but from there you can continue along the ridgeline to Yongmasan, another 10 K. (I haven’t done this yet but hopefully will this summer.)

There very well could be a mountain in Seoul with a better effort-to-view ratio, but if so I haven’t found it.

 

The Path Rocks

rocks

There are staircases that go most of the way up, because that’s kind of how Korea rolls. But the funnest way to go up (and down) is by clambering up (and down) the sheets of rock. It’s never scary and the rock gives good grip. I haven’t seen another mountain with this texture and it makes Achasan a bit unique.

 

Historic Koguryeo Ruins

IMG_20170701_171605

Most people know about China’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but Korea had its own Three Kingdoms period. (BCE37~CE668) This war pit the Shilla, the Baekje, and the Koguryeo against each other. It was a pretty even fight until eventually the Shilla enlisted the help of China and the rest was history, but for some time the Koguryeo held on. Many of the forts they built were located here. They’ve found remnants of 20 forts from the Three Kingdoms era, and the ruins of one of them is still visible ll fort of the Goguryeo era.

There’s also the Daeseongam Hermitage, a Three Kingdoms Tomb, a Cremation Site, and a Beacon Signal there, so those with an interest in history or culture get more than mere mountain.

Getting There

IMG_20170701_163521

Start at Achasan Station, naturally. There are several ways up the mountain, but all them are accessed by leaving the station via Exit 2, then walking through some colorful old neighborhoods. Just keep the mountain in front of you and you’ll get there.

If you want to go via Hwayang Temple (pictured above), turn onto Yeonghwasa-ro and then keep going up.

Final Note

2017-07-02 15.03.26

You don’t need hiking boots for this hike, but sneakers are very helpful. Make sure you bring enough water as well. It’s better to hike in the spring and autumn, when temperatures are cooler and views are clearer, but this is nice hike any time of year.

The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls

2406451_image_1

When asked about their favorite things about living in Seoul, both expats and Koreans frequently cite the subway system as one of the best parts of the city. Which sounds a little like damning with faint praise, but the subway is truly remarkable. It’s cheap (about a dollar to tap in and then an increasing amount based on how far you go, but never more than 2 dollars), covers a vast area (over 350 kilometers of track), and oh-so frequent (on most lines it takes some bad luck to have to wait more than 3 or 4 minutes for the train.)

There are more than 10 lines and over 350 stations, connecting 25.6 million people. The stations are always announced in English and Korean (and many popular stations in Japanese and Chinese too) and there are maps in each subway car (and free ones for your phone) so it’s easy to get around. One of the lines, the Sinbundang, is driven robotically. And they play jingles and songs at transfer stations, which pleases foreigners so much they make songs like this.

That’s not all. In the winter, the seats are heated so you no longer have to worry about contracting a case of cold bum. And many of the subway stations—Wangsimi, Jamsil, Gangnam, Express Bus Terminal, and others—are veritable malls, with shops, restaurants, aquariums, movie theaters, even theme parks. You can recharge your subway card at any station or in any convenience store. And if you need help in the station, you press a button that plays Fur Elise until a subway worker will come help you.

Now that’s not to say that it’s perfect. Rush Hour is VERY busy. Connecting between 2 lines can sometimes take a 25 minute hike. You will almost certainly be shoved by adjumas , people crowd in as soon as the doors open without letting other passengers disembark first, and the trains stop running surprisingly early, especially on weekends (By 11pm-12am).

However, my favorite part of the subway is one that isn’t much mentioned. Each line has a sort of advertisement about the stops on that line. You get to see a few words and an image, ranging from as-cool-as-a-mountain to as-boring-as-picture-of-ginseng. Like little teaser trailers about the areas, this photos give a tiny glimpse into that subway stop and the area around it. Here are a few examples, taken from lines 6 and 7.

 

Seventeen Weird Things That Aren’t Weird in South Korea

16562286577_98f531b3d1_z

This entire post is going consist of generalizations and over-generalizations (if those are even two different things?) Of course all of us know that weird is relative, and one set of cultural norms isn’t objectively less strange or more weird than any other.

That said, there are a lot of things found in the daily life of your average Seoulite (which is really the only part of Korea I can speak to) that might be surprising to your average westerner (or at least North American.) And with that in mind, I present the following list.

Thanks to Nahid for helping me come up with some of these items.

919mq5tx0zL._SY355_Ramyeon (also known as ramen) is popular, as you’d imagine. But it is maybe even more popular than you can guess, possessing perhaps the social cache of coffee in the west. Banks give you ramyeon gift sets when you sign up. popular Kpop stars endorse particular brands, optometrists and phone shops give away ramyeon too.

 

  • Crazy, Shut Up. Due to stigmas against mental illness, crazy isn’t really said much. In the west, or at least in the US, crazy is a very common description: “Last night was so crazy,” “That’s a crazy song,”  etc. Not so in Korea, and calling someone crazy is considered rude. (This is changing though and it’s becoming more acceptable.)
    However, telling someone to be quiet or, much worse, to shut up, is considered the height of rudeness. I taught little kids who would swear in English, “Oh my god this shit” but they wouldn’t dream of telling someone to shut up.

BillboardPlastic Surgery. In the west, there’s still a slight taboo against plastic surgery. Not so in South Korea, which is number one in the world (just beating Brazil). It’s a common gift to 16 and 18 year old girls as a coming-of-age present. Plastic surgery tourism brings tens of thousands of visitors every year. And when I was teaching Buddhists, all of the women (in their 50s+) said they had or would consider getting plastic surgery.Subway stations, especially in affluent areas, have many, many ads on the walls

  • CCTV Other than in your house and (possibly) in the the bathroom, you’re always on tv. Perhaps this is the reason crime rates are relatively low. Thieves and muggers both have been caught, weeks later sometimes, by police who followed them over a long series of surveillance videos.

soaponastickWashing hands after using the bathroom. Women and men alike use this time for a variety of purposes–to examine their reflection, possibly re-apply makeup or straighten their hair. Almost never to actually wash their hands. Culturally hand-washing is almost a non-existent concept. (I brought a bar of soap to my school bathroom during the MERS scare, and it lasted for 11 months.) This can be frustrating when you have to line up behind several people absorbed in their own reflections waiting several minutes for the chance to reach the water that no one else is using. (When there is soap, it’s a cool blue soap on a stick)

  •  Not just for the Toilet. Rather than use a discrete system of paper products–toilet paper for the loo, napkins for the table, tissue for runny noses, paper towels for the kitchen, etc, South Koreans have all those things, but they use toilet paper for all such purposes. Which makes sense, but for many westerners it’s odd the first time to see toilet paper on restaurant tables or clutched in student’s hands. Toilet paper is so useful that it is mostly sold in large packs–18, 24–and is a common housewarming gift.
    Additionally, toilet paper itself often isn’t for the toilet. Much of the plumbing in Seoul is old and not built to handle 25 million people’s bathroom needs. So you have a separate “used paper” trash in your bathroom that you take out with your regular trash. I know what you’re wondering and, yes, Seoul does smell very bad in the hot summer sun.

    8024956668_4fe644297a_mPigeons Admittedly, pigeons in Seoul can look incredibly manky, as close to the pigeons that you know as Gollum is to, say, Merry or Pippin. Both Koreans, especially women, act like they’re in Hitchcock’s The Birds when a Pigeon even gets close. They scream, run away, wave their arms and flee in the other direction at the approach of a pigeon.

  • Movie Snacks. Koreans have adopted the large cineplexes of the west and even improved them, with things like 4dx being standard options for new releases. Instead of popped corn with artificial butter (which is also a pretty strange snack if you think about it) they prefer dried squid as their go-to movie snack. Like popcorn, it’s also popular at amusement parks or really anytime.

mr pizzaHis and Hers food.  I have been to a few health food restaurants where they serve one kind of rice to men and one kind to women. There is even a pizza chain dedicated to serving women’s pizza (although for some reason it’s called Mr. Pizza). And it’s not as simple as women are assigned diet foods and men get more substantial portions–I think it ties into traditional medicine.

  • Packaging. When you buy a box of ten cookies, the package is wrapped, as are each of the cookies. Even fruit is shrink-wrapped as a matter of course, even BANANAS, which drives me, um, bananas.

trashTrash cans/Rubbish bins are a scarce sight indeed around the city. You can walk hours without seeing one. Because of this, there are piles of trash on the street that become defacto trash piles. Anyone unwise enough to have a basket on their unattended bicycle will likewise find it full of trash. Many foreigners fill their pockets or purses until they finally encounter a receptacle.  (Why are there no trash cans? It is said  because that way North Korean Agents can’t use them for bombs, but it is also said that the real reason is that there used to be many more but too many people used them for their personal trash to avoid paying for trash pickup at your home.)

  • Funny. Never does this mean something that makes you laugh. No, it’s simply a form of the word fun, and can be used like “so much fun.” It actually is more intuitive than the way we use the word, so I’ve stopped correcting my students.

5596039b-905b-4076-ab27-785fcf5a74b9PDA. It’s really not okay to hug or especially kiss your significant other in public. But holding hands is okay! And not just couples, but same-sex friends. Old men, little girls, teen guys, business men, mothers out shopping with other mothers, it’s just kind of a cool thing here. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s not a strange thing to happen.

  • Unique Situation It’s become a bit of a meme to mock this, but for some reason this is something that many Koreans say. Something like “I will be late today. Please understand my unique situation.”  Maybe the closest expression in English is “bear with me” but then again maybe that’s not very close either. It’s a weird bit of Konglish that doesn’t really make any sense but that many people use.

facemaskFacemasks You wear a facemask either when you are feeling sick, or when you are not sick but everyone else is. Other times are in spring (Yellow Dust Season, when the winds blow sands from the Gobi desert throughout the city) or on a high pollution day or when biking along the river. In other words, any day is a good day to wear a mask. The one time I wore one, back when I had the swine flue, it was really hard to breath and vastly uncomfortable, but I guess its something you get used to.

  • Names in red. As a teacher, I have a red board marker, a blue one, and a black one. Never, never never can I use the red to write a student’s name. The reason: Traditionally the names of the deceased were written in red on registers, gravestones and plaques to ward off evil spirits so now  using red to write a name means they will die soon or you want them to die.

adjummaGetting shoved. Personal space is fetishized in the west, but isn’t much of a thing in Korea. If you are in between an adjumma and her seat on the subway, she won’t even think twice about shoving you out of the way to get to her seat. For you to react to this shove in any way would be considered very rude indeed.

 

There are lots more things I could cover but I think that’s good for now. If you want to add any, please tell me in the comments.

Budget Yeti: Veggie Shopping in Korea

That old myth about going out in Korea being cheaper than cooking at home keeps cropping up and it always bothers me. Granted, many food items here are expensive, and costs keep going up. But it’s still cheaper almost every time to cook at home.

In Seoul, it pays to shop seasonally here. Unlike North America (and probably other places) there is a seasonal shift to produce prices here. Apples are super cheap in September, for instance, and now is Hallabong season. I think this is a good thing, environmentally of course but also habitually. Now some of these seasonal surpluses are strange to my eyes (why oh why is strawberry season in January?) but overall it’s a good system.

The area I live is kind of adjumma central–there aren’t really any bars or even noraebongs. In their place are lots of little markets though, and many good places to stock up on fruit and veg.

And stock up I do. The below list was all purchased at a biggish mart, which isn’t the very cheapest place around but it has good selection. Here’s a look at a week’s worth of veggies for two people. The total price is a little high because it’s a big bag of garlic but even still you can see how cheap it is.

Now this isn’t a complete meal, of course. You’d probably want to get a carb like rice (around $5 for a kilogram, or maybe $7 for 800 grams of brown rice) or udong (about 50 cents a package) or pasta (about 2.50 for 450 grams) or if you venture into Itaewon you can even get something exotic like basmati rice or couscous, though those start to get more expensive.

img_20170105_021602

A Typical Vegtastic Meal

The shiitake give you a little less protein than your standard mushroom, but not to worry. A big block of fresh tofu is about 2 dollars or the smaller, packaged ones are usually around 1 dollar.

Add it all together and a big, healthy meal with local produce is only a couple of dollars. There’s just not any restaurant that can compete with that. The cheapest comparable is a bowl of kalgooksu, which at a cheap place is around 4 dollars for a big bowl. For less than 4 dollars, this equals 4 bowls so it’s quite a bit cheaper.

20170101_150901

By contrast, this meal from Osegye Hyang, which had mandu, soup, and a gluten/rice dish (plus banchan) costs about 22 bucks.

Now I understand most people want a little more variety in their lives than daily iterations of the same meal. And not everyone is willing to make the effort to cook every night, even when they’re tired. Those are different reasons, though, from the tired old falsism that it’s much cheaper to eat out than cook at home. (And not very good reasons, either, in my opinion, although that’s neither here nor there.)

Yes, things are considerably more expensive now than they were 5 years ago but it’s still possible to cook for yourself and still not break the bank. That’s all for this installment of my rant. Thanks for listening!

Best of 2016 in pictures

Just like last year, I spent almost the entire year in South Korea, with a short trip to Japan constituting my only traveling. (And other than a trip to Seoraksan in the spring, I haven’t even traveled around Korea much this year; my weekends are filled with writing, playing RPGs, and writing.)

If 2015 got me back on my feet, 2016 sat me down at the table and fattened me up. It’s been a great year of urban wanders and veggie cooking. I’m still trying to figure out what’s in store for 2017, but it seems like it should have a bit more travels.

Anyway, here’s a picture from each month for the year.

January 2016

jan-1

January – The Frozen Wasteland of Yeoido

January – Yeoido gets quite a few visitors for the fall leaves, a lot more for the spring cherry blossoms, and even more in summer time for riverside picnics. Winter is, by contrast, empty and silent. Which is perfect for stark, chilly winter strolls.


February 2016

feb-2

February – Ice Turtle

February – For Sollal (Lunar New Year) I went on a writer’s retreat at a little area outside Seoul called Petite France. Petit France is kind of an underwhelming mini-theme park (with no rides) dedicated to The Little Prince.

After the conference, Nahid and I wandered around the area and climbed a small hill, where we discovered this frozen turtle fountain which was just above an ice festival.


March 2016

mar-3

March – Best Cake Ever!

March – Continuing the tradition of a birthday hike, a small group of friends took a quick jaunt up Namsan. Once there we ate some incredible Cookie Cream Pumpkin Spice cake from Plant before heading back into Itaewon and HBC for some live music. Good birthday!


April 2016

april-use-this-one

April – Suwon Hwaseong Fortress

April – This spring went by quicker than ever, but a visit down to a friend in Suwon meant a day of walking around the fortress walls followed by an immense feast of Indian food and a round of Game of Thrones the board game. You can’t really see in this picture, but the trees were just bursting with blossoms. I’ve been to Suwon several times but this was the most beautiful of all.


May 2016

may

May – Seoraksan’s Buddha

May saw my only trip out of Seoul, a return to my favorite part of Korea. We hiked up to Ulsanbawi, which was everything you could ask for: foggy, stark, dramatic, and squirrel-infested. But it was this friendly Buddha on the way up that really encapsulates the Korean mountainside.


June 2016

june1

June – Cozy vegan restaurant nestled in Insadong

June – With the dearth of vegan restaurants in Seoul, the discovery of Ose Gye Hyang was a beacon in the wilderness. It’s not a Loving Hut, but it’s owned by the vegetarian food company Vegifood that supplied Loving Huts with their supplies. I’ve been back a few times and for my money it’s the best vegan place in Seoul. (Plant is awesome but doesn’t really do Korean food).


July 2016

july

July – Abandoned Bball Court in Children’s Grand Court.

July was hot as balls, and yet Nahid and I spent the weekends wandering far from the safe confines of aircon. One day led us, loaded with books and portable water coloring kits, (respectively) to Seoul Children’s Grand Park we spent a sweaty few hours wandering around and listening to the chorus of cicadas before sitting down to read and paint (respectively.) The discovery of this post-apocalyptic basketball court was just a bonus on our way out.


August 2016

august

August- Toyoma Restored Castle

July – I’ve blogged about my disappointment with my big summertime trip to Japan, but the more time that goes by, the better the trip gets in retrospect. I guess that’s how it always works. Anyway, wandering around Toyoma was great practice in exploring a place I had no expectations of.


September 2016

september

September – Mini Hike in the hills behind Insadong

September – Insadong keeps on popping up as my favorite place, month after month and year after year. It must be my favorite part of Korea, or at least one of them. This little hike is just an amendment to the proper one but the views from here are pretty cool.


October 2016

oct-2

October – Olympic Park and Lotte Tower

October was hot and autumn never really arrived. On the night before Halloween, I took Nahid to Olympic Park where I read “Shadows Over Innsmouth” to her as it slowly got darker and colder. Spooky! The Lotte Tower is doomed to collapse in ruin and tragedy, but for now it looks pretty cool.


November 2016

nov-2

November – Forest Temple

November – Fall went by oh-so-quickly this year, though I got out looking for leaves every weekend. This photo from a hill behind my house is one of my favorite views of Seoul.


December 2016

dec

December – Yeoinaru Station

December traditionally is kind of let-down in this series, but this picture was taken while we were filming a Cyberpunk short film that I wrote. A great entry for one of my best Decembers yet.

Past years: 2009, 2010, 2011,  201220132014 and 2015.

Yeti Eats: Vegetus

There’s a new vegan restaurant open in Seoul, and it’s even conveniently located in HBC.

The space is nice, and compared to Plant, it’s positively palatial. There is a beer/cider fridge for those who want to wash down their meals with something intoxicating. The service is great too.

But for me it’s not a very good value. The prices are high and the portions are low and unlike Plant, it mostly tastes like stuff I can make. Take the Burrito Bowl, which at 12,000 won is not cheap. It’s almost entirely rice and lentils, with a little bit of sauce and cut up cilantro. For that price, it would be nice to have seitan or tempeh or well anything other than literally the two cheapest foods in the world.

I hate to be negative about any place, especially a vegan place, especially here in the land of omnivores. And the veggie burger was good. But I don’t know if I’ll go back, not when Marrakesh has a vegan sandwich for 5000 won just 5 minutes down the street.