Sunday, August 7, 2011

Walking the Seoul Fortress

This is something that my friend Maria and I have been trying to do for a while, but weather and our schedules had not cooperated until yesterday. We were very lucky with the weather.

I won't write a great deal about the history of the Seoul Fortress Wall here, except to note that it is effing big, and effing old - but not Great Wall big or Great Wall old. The Seoul Fortress Wall was initially constructed in 1396 in an attempt to safeguard the city residents and protect various shrines and temples that had been built in the city. To put things in perspective in Korea terms though, the walls of the Suwon Fortress reach a total length of 5.74 kilometers with it's one true climb being that up Paldalsan to the bell tower (143 meters). By comparison, as far as city fortresses go, Seoul's is massive - just under 19 kilometers in length with 3 notable elevations: Ingwangsan (338 Meters), Bugaksan (342 meters), Naksan (125 meters), and Namsan (262 meters). In early August with temperatures in the low 30s and 70% humidity for the majority of the day, it could have been worse, but it was tough going at times.

Just to admit it right off the bat, we didn't complete the full fortress walk, but stopped short by about 5 kilometers, leaving the Namsan portion of the wall for another day.

What I really love about this hike is the variety of scenery one can take-in in a day.

Maria and I began early in the am (7:00) at the old south gate (Namdaemun) which is still under repair from arson damage suffered in 2008. There are observation points where one can view the progress of the construction, which will still take some time as the powers that be are insistent on using specific materials and processes accurate to the time of the gate's original construction. I applaud their efforts.

From there, large sections of the wall are entirely missing or simply "suggested" by markings on the sidewalk, or signage through parks. With the expansion of the city in modern times, entire sections of the fortress were blown-out to make way for traffic thoroughfares and above-ground mass transit lines. It was a fun little adventure however to use our various guidebooks and maps to follow the old line as best we could. The city's missing West gate (Seodaemun) is now represented by a stylized wooden wall topped with green glass and a plaque explaining the significance of the landmark. From there - it was the beginning of the NW ascent of the mountains that surround the top end of the capital.

I won't bore you with a step-by step description of our hike, but what began at 7:00 PM wrapped-up for us around 10 hours later after a great deal of climbing, exploring, and sweating - I'm pretty sure that I went through approximately 6 liters of water during the hike and I only visited the casa de pepe once. The Davey needed constant replenishment.

If you've lived in Seoul for any length of time and haven't done this hike yet - do. You'll see sides of the city (mountain forests, historic neighbourhoods, and military installations) that you never knew existed. It was a treat to be surrounded by greenery - flora and fauna while the concrete spread-out beneath us for kilometers in the distance on all sides.

One particularly interesting portion of the hike is the section behind the "Blue House" (Cheongwa-dae), the residence of South Korea's president which sits at the southern foot of Bugaksan. Maria and I met-up with Andy at the NW gate to begin this climb. For this section, foreigners need to provide their passport or Alien Registration Card to obtain an ID tag to be worn for the 2.2 kilometer journey up the mountain and down on the NE side near Hyehwa. The main reason for this is that Bugaksan was the location for a failed presidential assassination attempt by North Korean soldiers in January of 1968.

This was pretty nasty stuff, and the fact that 31 North Korean soldiers were able to make their way to a point only 800 meters from the President before being driven-back by police forces caused the country to go into a new era of high alert - creating a reserve army and closing Bugak Mountain to non-military personnel until 2006. All along this portion of the Fortress Wall, one can look over to the North side to see double fences that appear to be both electrified and covered in razor wire (and likely armed with mines between them).

There are also military posts nearly every 100 meters. A lone tree stands not far from the path, marked with bullet holes from where a shoot-out occurred between the Northern Commandos and the South Korean defensive forces. It's some pretty weird stuff. That being said, the portion of the mountain which was only 5 years ago off limits to most everyone, was yesterday crawling with families.

We broke for a much needed lunch and rest in an air-conditioned hanok house just outside of Waryong Park before continuing south to Hyehwa, up Naksan, and down into Dongdaemun where we cooled our feet in the Cheonggycheon. We finished our day walking through the partially completed Dongdaemun History and Culture Park on the former site of the Dongdaemun Stadiums and then we trained it West to Andy's place for dinner. We could have made it up Namsan, but we were content to leave our day as a happy memory, rather than one that ended on one more hot and humid ascent. We might have been bitter and hateful people after that climb. I actually headed to UNIQLO to get some new boxers, a $5 T-shirt, and then stopped at a market by Andy's house to buy a hard scrubbing cloth for a quick shower before dinner. There were layers of filth, my friends - layers.

For those considering doing the hike, I would caution you against doing it in the summer. Wait until fall, unless you feel like losing your entire body weight in sweat. But, if you go, look for your "stamp tour" map available at any of the 4 stamp points: Namdaemun (the burned gate), Seodaemun (the missing gate), Sukjeongmun (The North Gate at Bugaksan), or at Dongdaemun (the East gate) - usually at a guard house found near the gate. If you get all four stamps, you can exchange the completed map for a commemorative button. I'm guessing that rarely in the world's history has a trio of adults ever been as excited about earning a button.

Alas, ours will have to wait as we neglected to get stamps at our first two locations. This will be tops on our priority list for next week when we complete the Namsan climb.

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