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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Inwangsan's Great Wall and Seoul's Royal "T" Time

Seoul mountains represent a unique feature for a major metropolis. Even from downtown, you can enjoy great daylong walks across picturesque sceneries.

If you think traditional paintings of royal palaces look too stylized to be true, just take a two-hour hike up Mount Inwang (Inwangsan) and along its fortress walls, and enjoy the best view over Seochon, the Gyeongbokgung, Cheong Wa Dae, the city center and Namsan. As you rise, parts of Gangnam and such landmarks as the COEX or the 63 Tower join the party in a memorable panorama.

Let's zoom out for a minute or two. I've been following very closely the dramatic changes under way in the heart of Seoul and particularily around its main axis Sejongno. If you consider the "T" leading to the Gyeongbok Palace, the upper bar doesn't look as nice as it should since both sides lead to ancient royal shrines. But change is coming.

The Eastern part, Yulgokno, can leverage on major assets : the Anguk hub linking two touristic areas (Insadong and Gahoe / Bukchon, both expanding), and soon to be re-connected UNESCO World Heritage twins (see "Jongmyo-Changdeokgung reunited"). Much has already been done and who knows, some day, Seoul city shall also decide to remove the two miserable gas stations guarding the beautiful entrance of the Changdeok Palace...

The Western bar of the "T" draws much fewer tourists, but hides different kind of treasures. Sajikno leads to Seodaemun and Dongnimmun, but both lie on the other side of the Sajik Tunnel. And synergies between Sajik Park and Gyeonghuigung are limited until a much needed Northern entrance to the Gyeonghui Park is opened*...

On the other hand, today's shortest way (cutting through Shinmun-ro 2 Ga - the double street called Gyeonghuigung-gil) is full of art galleries, nice cafes and fine restaurants, and it will drop you at the feet of the Seoul Museum of Art... Speaking of which : Tongui-dong is welcoming a growing number of art galleries and decent eateries. Seochon is not Sogyeok-dong yet, but at last there is some echo this side of the Gyeongbokgung walls...

The past few months have seen dramatic changes along Sajikno. Just last month, a derelict pedestrian overpass connecting both sides of Naeja-dong has been removed, and soon, a crossing shall dramatically shorten the walking distance between Gyeongbokgung Station and Sajik Park... which is itself undergoing a spectacular lifting : exit the giant concrete platform, enter a new gentle slope towards Inwangsan-gil and the mountain.

Marked by Hongsalmun (홍살문), the gate of Sajik-dan (사직단), Sajik Park itself may not look very spectacular right know, but it does hold a special significance (as fundamental as Jongmyo and Gyeongbokgung for the King) and host many cultural events, most notably the traditional rites at Sajik-dan and Ye-dan. The small squares where almost shamanic rites were performed in favor of food and agriculture stretch peacefully without really leaving ground. And neither Hwanghakjeong (archery pavillion) nor Tangun Shrine (devoted to the mythical founder of the nation), both behind the park, open their gates every day to the public.


Just meters away from the shrine, the hulk of Jongno-gu's Cultural and Sports Center can help locate the beginning of the Inwangsan fortress walls. Considering the clearing being prepared just across the street, I guess a more specific building shall welcome hikers and tourists in a not too distant future.

For the moment, the most convenient landmark is this shanty drugstore one block away from the Cultural Center.

Behold, You Who Cometh to Ascend the Great Wall : as I write these lines (this may change soon), this ruin happens to be your last chance to purchase a snack or a bottle of water, and the Center your last opportunity to empty your bladder indoor. On the way up, no facilities can be found except a few trashcans, and a couple of army sentry boxes.

Note that you are entering a formerly restricted area overlooking the Blue House and sensitive bases. The Inwangsan park was closed after the 1968 assassination attempt of Park Chung-hee by a North Korean commando, and reopened in 1993. Taking pictures of Cheong Wa Dae, littering the place, or firing a missile on the Government's HQ are stricly forbidden.

The first portion of the ascension remains a civilian area, and is turning into a pleasant neighborhood park, with a small wooden platform overlooking the city. Here, the XVth century wall separates Sajik-dong from Muak-dong. It goes all the way up to the summit, and its restoration is now almost completed ; higher up, you can see a temporary rail running along it, probably to carry the heavy concrete stones.

This part was restored earlier, and the Gu is now focusing on making the place an ideal place for families to rest or picnic. Gardeners are cleaning the bushes, planting new trees, and removing most weeds or detritus. Unfortunately, the authorities, felt compelled to add the usual gym equipments, and I'm afraid I know where they plan to install them : the small wooden platform may become a large concrete terrace, ruining the charm of one of the cutest spots.

These days all trees are blooming, and later in the year, you can pick apricots while strolling. But March-April has its advantages, particularily since the view isn't blocked by vegetation.

I was surprised to see many families with very young children go all the way up, which includes a vertiginous walk on a rock at the top, and the second section of the ascension, marked by a grilled gate leading to a narrow and steep staircase (the only unpleasant part of the journey, and it doesn't last long).

The third section leads to the granite top of the hill, along the serpentine wall and a not too demanding slope. To the left, the view improves from apartment buildings to Inwangsa, and then to a pine forest. To the right, Bukhansan's majesty becomes clearer as the vegetation grows thicker. Behind you, Seoul keeps revealing itself step by step.

From the rock, next to an army barack, you can see Gangnam even behind Namsan (274.5 m high, compared to 338.2 for Inwangsan). This is the intersection of Muak-dong to the South, Hongje-4-dong to the West and Nusang-dong to the East. It could be the perfect spot to finish the ascension but then, just on the other side of the rock, you discover the fourth section : a welcoming clear path leading to the round dome of Bukhansan.

The beauty of this hike that at each station, you can either enjoy the view and call it a beautiful day, or venture one step beyond.

Seoul Village

* the Southern flank of the park is getting ready for Gyonam New Town : the block of small restaurants separating the Gangbuk Samsung Hospital and the Gyeonghuigung entrance will be replaced by a public garden, which has already been partly opened along the newly restored wall.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Welcome to Pimatgol

This will probably be my last snack in the old Pimatgol. A nakji bindaetteok on a wooden bench in a poorly lit joint covered in graffiti. This stretch of the alley will not be closed before a few weeks, but most doors are closed and the mood is already depressing enough. Actually, I'm only paying a last tribute to this site before having a real lunch in one of the restaurants already relocated, a few sanitized blocks away.

This thin path marks the start of Pimatgol, just opposite Kyobo Bookstore's main entrance. The rotten corny wooden sign is here to prove it and as usual, its feet are littered with puke and junk. To the left, the blue three story hulk of Burger King has already been closed. To the right, large felt panes and posters mapping new locations of local businesses cover the empty eyes of the buildings giving on Jongro.

Pi-ma-gol, literally "avoid-horse-alley", was a back alley parallel to Jongro where commoners would walk freely all the way to Jongmyo, without meeting V.I.P.s riding their horses on high street (passers-by would then have to step aside and take a big bow). The place grew into a lively maze of paths full of eateries.

Pimatgol is progressively being replaced with high rise buildings. Towering over the crossroads between Jongro and Jongno-gu-cheong-gil, the street leading to the Gu Office (an area also under complete renovation), Le Meilleur managed to attract a few big names - early bird catches the worm! -, and even built an arcade with a wooden Pimatgol sign on both ends... but it hosts gift shops and cafes, pushing old restaurants backstage. Furthermore, this officetel atmosphere cannot be compared with the joyful mess of yore.

Take Cheongjinok, for instance. I don't think their haejangguk tastes any different here, but I simply don't feel like entering their new non-descript lair. Part of the fun was to enjoy the place, where old timers and white collars would cohabit like Cosa Nostra dons and wannabes in a traditional Napolitan trattoria.

Le Meilleur Jongno Town can easily be spotted thanks to a most amazing bronze sculpture at its feet. I can't describe this lad rodeoing on a horse in front of a giant coin... probably one of the most vulgar in a city that hosts more than its share of similar pseudo-artistic monstruosities.

To be fair, it does shine, and doesn't stink the way the old Pimatgol could (a more literal way). The buildings about to be destroyed are on the verge of collapsing and only a few hanoks survived in a sea of quick-and-dirty constructions. But that place had a soul.

The new section opposite the Kyobo will set the tone for decades to come. I'm bracing myself for Le Pire, but who knows... ?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Haemil - a Think-Tank or only a Tank ?

Now that I know what's growing up right next to Gyeonghuigung and for which purpose, I understand how such a massive building could get an authorization just meters away from a supposedly protected cultural heritage.

Picture this : overlooking the beautiful roof of the palace, a big green glass building covering 6 levels.

To be fair, 3 of the said levels are basements... but that's according to the builders : actually, the first basement is above ground so 4 levels will rise above the ground. Worse : the new building will not only be higher than its neighbors (claiming a unique view on the interior of the palace), but also cover much more space than the previous constructions (confirmed by satellite pictures)... which is theoretically impossible if you respect local real estate regulations.

Considering the very strict construction rules in Shinmunro area*, Mayor Oh Se-hoon's repeated pledges to protect downtown Seoul, and the official public ambition to regain the parts of the Gyeonghuigung claimed by colons during the Japanese occupation, such a monster should never have be allowed on the very grounds of the palace.

I guess there was some debate, or even archeological findings, because the ground remained bare for months (small Caterpillars came and went, and that was all). But if they happened, those debates were not made public. And the project was OKayed by Seoul City.

So this green hulk will be built.

Its purpose ? Hosting Chung Mong-joon's think-tank, Haemil.

I don't know if this green tank will think, and I don't know if the 30 or so experts meeting there will come up with a new vision for Korea... but for sure they won't have to come all the way up the building to enjoy a beautiful vision on Korean heritage !

Alright, other architectural atrocities have been committed in the area, but the Seoul Museum of History and the Seoul Museum of Art Annex (SeMa GyeongHuiGung) are not that close to the palace itself, and they belong to the public.

The Haemil Research Institute owes its name to an old expression translated by "the clean, blue sky after a heavy rain shower'' or "serenity after the rain". This shouldn't be misunderstood as a tribute to his founder's legendary hot temper, but as an ambition to find sensible solutions to today's political and financial tempests.

As a matter of fact, Chung Mong-joon plans to become the next Korean President in 2012. And Oh Se-hoon, who seems to be waiting for the next wave (2017) after a second term at the helm of Seoul, probably doesn't want to interfere...

Chung could also target the presidency of FIFA... in which case building a second launching pad in the same area as the KFA headquarters make perfect sense.

I sincerely wish him and Haemil the best, but I also wish their rising were not that literal.

* particularly here, in the middle of a thin band with the most restrictive rules according to official maps (category one).

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Seoul Haechi Taxis - Orange Cabs

The first passenger of the new Seoul cab is a lion. But Haechi, now the official city mascot*, will limit its presence to the luminous roof signs and the side doors.

According to city officials, the orange color will become as memorable as yellow for NYC cabs or black for London hulks. Nevermind the fact that Seoul taxis will not be orange but white with an orange lining.

It will take nine years to replace all cabs (nowadays white and blue). And I presume the black taxis (premium fares) will survive for a while as well.

Anyway, some color won't hurt these days.

* see "
Goodbye HiSeoul, hello Haechi"

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