An Urban Trek through Seoul

The road that led uphill insisted we were just over a kilometre from N Seoul Tower. The other seemed to wind like a loose grey curl of hair, down the western shoulder of Namasan Mountain.

’Do you need direction?’ An old man warmed to us. It was our first day in the capital of South Korea. We were just looking to have an easy day in Itaewon checking out the fabled antique street. Counting it as only three stops on the subway map, I was coerced into walking. We mimed uncertainly towards N Seoul Tower, the great half way mark of our unmapped path. The road we had mercilessly brought us high over a steep green ridge. We agreed Itaewon was still only three stops away and scampered on, deeper into the thick city park.

P1140099 copy

So close yet so far…

‘The air is more fresh up here.’ Our new old friend’s eyes gleamed. ‘Where are you from?’ We parted with our narrative. ‘Scotland!’ he exclaimed. ‘I have been there once, but only to Ullapool’. Distracted by the lively fellow, we followed his footsteps. ‘Itaewon… yes, this way!’ He directed us down the long curl, explaining the virtues of city green spaces. Our friend, for half of the year, lives in Orange County, USA dealing in rental estate. In America he misses the easy freedom of the outdoors. Particularly freedom supplemented by well manicured paths.‘Do you know what this is for’ he asked, pointing at the yellow paving stones. ‘They are for the blind. cars are not allowed here, it’s very safe. It is a park for everyone’.

He walked us a couple of kilometres down that road. Stopping at another gap in the bushes, he reached into his pocket, pulling out a scrap of paper. He started to scribble. ‘You see, if you followed the road that way then it will take you 20 minutes longer. But this is a short cut…’ he began to ascend the tight wooden staircase. We popped out on the other side, at an identical junction. ‘I must leave you now.’ he burst, suddenly. ‘I am old and the stairs are too much for me.’ He continued ‘it’s not so steep. This path takes you to Seoul Tower. When you get there, just walk over to the other side, there are three paths. Take the one on the right, follow your eyes to the Grand Hyatt.’

DSC_1096 copy

First impressions

We parted. The directions were intentionally simple. The stairs took us much deeper into the luscious hillside. The mellow steps escalated quickly, morphing into a painful succession of Escher paintings, punctuated by steep muscular gradients. Not so steep, he said. Our brisk footsteps slowed to a clomping crawl just as the trees began to break. A swarm of reflective windows began to bloom before us. We clambered on. Beads of sweat were briefly birthed on my chin, slipped, and splashed on my toes. My trusty Birkenstocks campaigned uselessly against the rubble beneath my feet. I was just glad one of us had brought a bottle of water.

We reached a plateau supporting a small wooden deck. A few older Koreans sat on stone benches. Each carried a small rucksack containing their lunch. They chirped quietly, pecking their food. We blundered on scene like lumbering yetis, underdressed, dripping in sweat, and fighting thirst. Rather than suffer the embarrassment, we aped gracelessly over to the remaining steps.

The end was in sight. A new opening revealed a new road, high above the city of Seoul. A chain of electric buses swanned along the final hundred meters leading to the N Seoul Tower. The tourists disembarked. They buzzed around in a haze of selfie sticks, bemoaning the heat, unaware of the soaking cretins that walked among them. Together we pushed on over the final hurdle. A family marched downhill with ice cream trophies, the hard earned spoils of their 50m ascent.

On top of that viridian oasis, set between a doughnut ring of skyscrapers, we came upon an observatory. Through the window, two men mended the paintwork suspended, mid-air, by thick cables. Behind them tiny cars hustled between glossy bricks and mortar. The even smaller humans bustled through a great silver ant farm. The noon sun had begun to wane, casting stretched shadows across the city. We slurped on ice creams bigger than our fists. A mirage of peace blanketed the city. Over three hours since we first set off from Myeongdong, we arrived at the half way point of our ‘three-stop’ pilgrimage. And, it was up there that we fell in love.

DSC_1099 copy

View from the top

DSC_1107 copy

Love Locks at N Seoul Tower

P1140125 copy

Seoul Food: Top 5 Eats of South Korea

My arrival in Korea was a gastronomic breath of fresh air. Seoul has an incredible range of treats on offer, although is bit of a vegetarian’s nightmare, focussing mainly on meat and rice in various forms. Each meal is served with a hearty portion of kimchi and various side dishes, often pickled vegetables. Here’s a run down of the best five things I ate in Seoul.

Dumpling soup

P1140189 copy

One big dumpling, one tiny bowl

I was starving. I’d skipped breakfast and at 2:30pm was beginning to regret it. I strode into the first open restaurant. Having tried some handmade soup dumplings the day before, I was excited for more. Spotting a delectable photo on the wall, I ordered. Minutes later I was greeted by a portable stove. I’m Asian enough to know this only ever means great things. Arriving at the table was a massive steel pot loaded with the biggest dumplings I have ever seen, perched perilously on top of a garden of vegetables, simmering in a belting kimchi broth. Served with the best kimchi I have ever tasted. Gorgeously garlicky, and piquant to taste. Soup, only better.

Oodles of noodles

P1140474 copy

Ali enjoying his cold noodles

My love of noodles stems from my time in Japan. On hot days there are few things better to eat than a refreshing bowl of cold noodles. The buckwheat noodles in Seoul have a chewier texture and have a glossiness that Japanese soba generally doesn’t have. The broth and toppings were kept simple, allowing the noodles to do the talking. Partnered with a spicy bean paste and julienned vegetables, this dish is a summer treat. I ate a few kinds of noodles in Seoul, thin wheat flour ones, thick knife cut ones, all of them are awesome.

Chicken and beer

P1140274 copy

Too. Much.

Chicken and beer is a winning combination anywhere, but never have I been to a place where entire streets are dedicated to the cause. The place I stumbled into wasn’t quite as outstanding as I had anticipated, but, you know, it’s chicken and beer. There’s little not to like. The chicken was marinaded in something intensely sugary, which post-fry caramelised and was left to perspire into the basket. But the thick crisp rice coating was bone crunchingly good, a great entry point to the serendipitous moist chicken. The portion size (there was only one) was stupendous. One and a half chickens had been butchered for the cause. I never ever imagined there could be too much chicken. But Seoul beat me. Extra points awarded for a solid range of tasty beer, and remember, Pale Ales are particularly good for degreasing.

Bibimbap

P1140471 copy

Bad photo. Couldn’t wait to tuck in…

Undoubtedly South Korea’s most famous dish is bibimbap. Previously I’d only seen the dish served in a heated, heavy set stone pot. Bibimbap consists of a steamed rice base, topped with a plethora of vegetables, raw and cooked. This is topped with spicy red bean paste and an egg. I opted for a metal bowl serve; it was too hot for a heated stone pot. This one was topped with a gorgeous sunny side up-er, and resembled a salad more than a hot pot. Just what I needed in the heat.

Chicken gal bi

P1140503 copy

Definite winner

I try not to go back to the same restaurant more than once, unless I really need Wi-Fi from them. But in a country where free Wi-Fi is almost a requisite for a building permit, I had didn’t need to do anything twice. But there was one restaurant we went to twice in Seoul, specialising in chicken gal bi. Much like Korean barbecue, we were seated at a table with a large hot plate. The vegetables; cabbage, pumpkin and onion, were fried first. The chicken followed, marinaded in a wonderful spicy red bean sauce. The staff do the cooking for you, all you need to do is don your bib and relax. The gal bi was delicious, but noted that most tables around us were enjoying a rice based dish. Curious, a couple of days later we returned. The chicken and rice were fried together in the same bean sauce on the same hot plate, but at the end a layer of shredded mozzarella was buried in the rice. The cheese melted and provided a creamy gooey contrast to the full on flavours in the rice. Delicious.

By now you’ve possibly noticed an lack of Korean BBQ on my list. I really enjoyed BBQ but it wasn’t one of the great experiences I had in Seoul. I have had barbecue of that calibre before. Contraversially I’d even say that (for me) nothing will beat barbecue at the Sapporo Beer Garden in Japan. Flavours are more important than hunks of meat, and there are better elements of Seoul cuisine which have much more going on.

Same Brain, New Look

I’ve been a little quiet for the last week or so, partly a result of location; good Wi-Fi is difficult to come by in paradise, but also because I’ve been busy. We crammed The Philippines and South Korea into just over two weeks which has been exhausting and, more importantly, I’ve been working on a new site! (Wahey, she’s not so lazy after all!) I admit, it’s a WordPress template which I picked from a list. The major time consumer was choosing a photo to summarise my current travelling situation. The photo I picked is pretty old, I took it when I first got my camera four years ago in Japan. But it seemed fitting as I will be returning there tomorrow.

Anyway. Nothing has really changed, I’m the same old crazy bat writing from my laptop. Just with a touch more class.

EDIT: Just a little update, rather than just letting my old writing rot I have hashed together a wee archive compiling the best of the old side. Find them in the links menu at the top of the screen.