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.
‘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.’
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.