In celebration of Gay Pride Month, Seoul recently hosted the 15th annual Korea Queer Festival. For the first time ever, the embassies of the U.S., France and Germany participated by hosting informational booths at the festival. As part of a separate US Embassy cultural exchange program, Star Trek and Internet star and gay rights activist George Takei also visited Korea.
LGBT rights and gay awareness are still relatively new "concepts" in Korea. According to a recent Pew poll, only 39% of Koreans said they have no objection to homosexuality, but that's up from 17% in 2007. Technically, there is no law barring gay marriage in Korea. In Korea, gays can even change their legally change their gender on official government documents such as their passport. However, objection to gay rights is still high, as evident by the large number of protestors who tried to halt the Queer Festival and parade.
Mrs. Crab is the "Green Thumb" in our family. Mr. Crab, not so much. But since arriving in South Korea, we've both found a new passion for gardening together. This includes regular trips to Seoul's famous Yangjae Flower Market and even the AAFES Four Seasons shop.
But most of our flowers and plants -- and many of the ceramic pots -- have been gifted to us by friends and colleagues who are PCSing (permanent change of station) from Post. Thank you friends, and rest assured your flowers and plants have found a good home!
Our front and back yard are now blooming with fresh tomatoes, lettuce, celery, basil, watermelon, green beans, eggplants, cucumbers, strawberries and rosemary! And most of all, beautiful flowers everywhere.
Korea is currently in the middle of its rainy season, so everything is quite green and flowery right now. For those curious, Korea's climate is very similar to Mid-Atlantic region - four distinct seasons with hot, humid summers (but rarely over 85F), and cold, dry winters (rarely below freezing). So pretty much anything we could grow in Washington DC, we can grow in Seoul!
A few scenes from our Seoul garden, along with some notes on the origins of various items in our yard:
Above: All the pots are from our friend who sadly just PCS'd back to the States. The wrought iron chair in the background was found by a longtime friend next to a dumpster in Alexandria, VA!
Above: The ladybug lantern was a birthday gift to Mrs. Crab from a friend. Most of the pots above were purchased here in Seoul. The red pot was purchased by a visiting friend at a Salvation Army thrift shop in London for 50 pence. The metal cat sculpture is from Mrs. Crab's sister in Baltimore.
Above: The terra cotta pot was purchased at a pop-up flower market in Islington Green, London, England. The lantern is from Mrs. Crab's brother-in-law.
Above: The far left pot came from Bahrain, as did the clay lantern on the right. Note our HUGE tomato plants in the right plastic pot!
Above: Mr. Crab bought the bistro table set in Virginia for Mrs. Crab just a few months after we were married. The umbrella was from AAFES Four Seasons in Seoul...it has built-in solar lights and BLUETOOTH SPEAKERS! The colorful hanging white and brass lamp on the right came from Istanbul's Grand Bazaar.
Above: This gorgeous blue peacock pattern pot came from Seoul's famous Yangjae Flower Market, purchased for just $10! The silver lanterns are from Ikea in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The incense burner on the right came from a traditional market in Bahrain.
Above: The bushy plant on the left is lavendar. The oval pot in the middle was a gift from a friend in Bahrain. And to the right is our trusty charcoal grill that we've carried all over the world since we were married!
Our little back patio. Note the wood pile in the back for our fireplace.
Above: Lettuce, cherry tomatoes, and celery growing on the side of our house.
Merry Christmas from Korea! Actually, since about mid September, it's already started to look a lot like Christmas. For better or worse, Koreans have embraced every aspect of the holiday season, from over-the-top consumerism to holiday decorations, music, gift-giving and other traditions. Religiously, South Korea is about 33% Christian, 25% Buddhist and the rest are secular or no religious affiliation. But nearly all Koreans - Christian or not - have embraced some aspect of Christmas. Downtown Seoul is decorated in lights and tinsel. The grounds of Seoul City Hall have been transformed into Korea's version of the Rockefeller Center -- a Winter Wonderland with a giant Christmas tree and ice skating rink! A few scenes from around Seoul:
Shinsegae - Korea's most high-end department store, decorated a la Macy's or Harrod's.
Giant Christmas tree in front of Seoul City Hall.
Mr. & Mrs. Korean Frosty, at Incheon International Airport.
Scenes around Itaewon, Seoul.
A snowy day last week outside of Gyeongbokgung - Seoul's main palace.
And a few scenes from the Two Crabs' Christmas tree and our collection of ornaments from around the world. And in case you're wondering, the U.S. Passport ornament came from Pottery Barn's travel ornament collection. The Union Jack on the Maryland Blue Crab shell was handmade by my awesome brother-in-law.
Yesterday, the Two Crabs and friends took a hiking trip to experience one of the most amazing sights in Seoul - the Golden Buddha of Bukhansan. Located in Bukhansan National Park just north of downtown Seoul, the Golden Buddha of Bukhansan is the largest sitting Buddha statue in East Asia.
We have been looking forward to experiencing this attraction since reading about it several expat blogs like this post. Dubbed the Golden Buddha by foreigners, the Korean name of the statue is 국녕대불 - The Grand Buddha of Guknyeong, named so because it is part of the larger 국녕사 (Guk-nyeong-Sa), or Guknyeong Temple.
Curiously, the Guknyeong Buddha is not mentioned in any of the usual English travel guides. We found the exact location only after scouring through detailed images of Bukhansan National Park on Google Earth.
The Guknyeong Buddha is located on the west side of the park, at 37°38'47.96" N, 126°57'46.80" E.
To get to the trailhead by public transportation, take Seoul metro Line 3 to Gupabal station, exit 1. Then look for the bus stop just outside the station. Take either the #34, #704 or #8772 northbound bus for about 10 minutes and disembark at "Bukhansanseong Information Center", one of the main entrances to Bukhansan National Park. The announcements on the bus are usually Korean-only, so if you're not sure, just follow all the other hikers when they get off!
We had the day off for the Hangul Day holiday. The weather could not have been more perfect for hiking, 72 degrees and sunny. Unfortunately, half of Seoul had the same idea, so we could not even get on a bus! So we ended up walking about 45 minutes from Gupabal station to the park entrance.
Here's some Bing maps of the route we took. The green line was our "uphill" route; the red route was the return downhill trip. In the first photo, the blue circle in the lower left is Gupabal metro station; the blue circle on the upper right Guknyeong Temple. If you take the bus, it would drop you off just past where the red and green lines meet. The trail head is approximately where the red and green lines diverge. Click on the images for the full-sized photo.
Here's a more detailed map of the actual hike. The blue circle is the temple & Buddha:
By foot from Gupabal station, we walked along the main road for a while until we saw English & Korean signs for the Bukhansanseong Information Center, one of the park's main ranger stations. That road led us down a residential road past some small shops and convenience stores, then onto the trail that parallels the main road. Follow the signs for Bukhansanseong Information Center.
After a short while, we arrived at the ranger station. The area was buzzing with activity. There is a large pay parking lot here too (I drove once here and vowed I would never do it again due to nightmare traffic). The neighborhood around the ranger station is a hiker's paradise, lined with outdoor supply stores (including The North Face), restaurants and cafes. At the ranger station, you can pick up a not-very-good map of the park (much better maps are available at Kyobo book store chains). Some of the rangers spoke English and were assisting the way-gooks (foreigners).
About 200 meters past the ranger station, you'll get to a fork in the road. Go right (the trails actually reconnect, but the right is easier and paved). The first mile or so of the trail is a steep but paved road, which is wheelchair and stroller accessible...sort of. You'll eventually reach Daeseomun, the Great West Gate of the old fortress that was located within the park.
After the gate, you'll pass a small temple on the right, then see a public restroom and a parking lot.
From here, the trail will fork. Take the RIGHT trail, marked by an English sign pointing towards "Daenammun (Castle Gate)" and "Bukhansan Shelter." A silver sign on the right of the intersection shows "국녕사", your destination.
Once you see the statue above, the pavement ends and the trail starts becoming quite steep! After about 20 minutes, you'll reach an intersection next to what looks like some old guy's shanty house. It's actually a small monastery/temple. The main trail and most hikers will continue straight. Don't follow them. Instead, turn right into the "shanty house" courtyard!
Above: The "shanty town". Go through the red arch! Do NOT follow the other hikers. (IMPORTANT UPDATE: An alert reader has informed me that as of May 2017, the red arch in this photo is GONE. Keep an eye out for this intersection and the house #266 blue sign, seen above on the stone wall).
Follow the sidewalk through and around the shanty house and you'll emerge onto the trail and Korean signs to Guknyeong temple (국녕사).
Just past the shanty house is this small temple:
The entire trail from the shanty house to the temple is very well marked -- in Korean. As long as you keep following signs for 국녕사, you'll end up at the Golden Buddha.
The trail is very narrow and steep in some parts, but not super difficult. After hiking for about 40 minutes from the shanty house, you'll suddenly emerge from the woods right into the face of Buddha!
According to the signage, the temple dates back 1,000 years. The modern temple was built in 1711. It's unclear when the 24-meter tall (79 feet) Grand Buddha itself was built, but the signs note that the entire complex was renovated in 2004. The Grand Buddha is surrounded by glass trophy cases containing 10,000 (!!) smaller Buddha statues, ranging in size from just two inches to two feet tall.
In addition to the Buddha, you can spend some time exploring the Guknyeong Temple complex, which includs a restaurant where you can grab a spot of lunch. A set of stone stairs leads up to two smaller temples and the bell tower.
After some spiritual enlightenment and a quick lunch of packed sandwiches and fruit, we began the trek back to town. The return trailhead begins just to the right of the Grand Buddha. It's a short but steep climb to the mountain peak, providing a good opportunity to look back for a birds-eye view of the Buddha and temple complex.
After a short but VERY steep climb, we reached the peak, where you'll come across the old fortress wall and some fantastic views of Seoul below.
The hike back down was quite challenging, because he terrain is covered in roots and boulders. This requires a lot of dexterity and close attention to where you're stepping. Eventually the trail levels off across some flat rocky and exposed terrain.
We eventually made it back to our original starting point, which is the Dulegil trailhead. Glad we didn't go counter-clockwise to the temple!
The roundrip hike from Bukhansanseong Information Center (ranger station) to the Guknyeong temple and back only takes 2-3 hours, depending how much time you spend admiring the temple.
Back on the main road, we were finally able to board a Bus 704 back to Gupabal metro station. Bus 704 actually goes all the way to Seoul Station, but expect to spend an hour on the ride.
One last tip: If you go to the Grand Buddha, time your visit so you arrive before midday or after 2pm. We arrived about noon and the sun was directly behind and above the Buddha's head, so it made photography difficult.
Hiking is one most popular pastimes in Korea, not surprising considering that Korea is 70% mountainous. And that includes Seoul, home to South Korea's most popular National Park, Bukhansan. Every weekend, thousands of Koreans head for the hills, most folks kitted out in expensive designer hiking clothing and equipment. Not wanting to feel left out, we donned our REI hiking shoes and clothing before heading to Bukhansan on Day 3 of the Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) holiday.
Bukhansan is a HUGE park, with hundreds of miles of trails ranging from easy to crazy steep, criss-crossing the mountain peaks, streams, forests and Buddist temples. The day before the hike, we spent considerable time planning where to hike and how to get there. For foreigners, the main problem with hiking in Korea is the lack of English-language information. The Korean National Park Service (KNPS) English website is barebones. And information from English tour guides is scant; Lonely Planet Korea guide has only a small box of information about Bukhansan, and curiously there is no mention of Bukhansan in the Lonely Planet Seoul city guide. Most of the English information about hiking in Korea can be found in blogs, like this one.
But if you can read even a little Korean, your options increase 100x. The KNPS Korean website is fantastic. If you click on the Google Earth icon on the official Bukhansan Korean website, it will download an app that you can install on Google Earth, featuring 3D trail maps. The labeling is all in Korean but it's pretty self-explanatory.
Given that this was our first time hiking in Korea, and the fact that we haven't hiked since our last trip to Shenandoah National Park, we opted for a short hike on the periphery of Bukhansan. We decided to head to 족두리봉 / Jukduribong, with a peak of 370m (1,213 feet).
Here's the route we took, thanks to Bing Maps, which has some of the best street maps of Korea, including elevation contour lines. Green was uphill, red was downhill:
To get here, take the metro Line 6 to Dokbawi station. The trail head at the Boolgwang Ranger Station is about a 15 minute walk from Dokbawi. When you come out of Dokbawi metro station, turn left. Walk about 5 blocks and when you get to the main intersection at the traffic light, turn right. You'll pass a middle school. Veer left at the fork in the road, passing a few restaurants, hiking shops and a dirt parking lot until you read the Boolwang Ranger Station. Unfortunately, the station was unmanned on our visit. But fortunately, a nice gentleman gave us a copy of his pocket trail map.
The first major attraction you'll reach is this gorgeous Buddhist temple, 불광사 / Boolgwang-sa.
At each park entrance, you'll find a Korean/English trail map, like this one taken at the end of our route:
A few steps after passing the temple, you'll reach a 3-way intersection. Your choices are to go straight on the more level but longer trail, or take the shortcut up the steep set of stairs. We went up! Eventually the trail levels off a bit, but it's still a very steep climb. The climb to Jukduribong was a steady climb, but it was relatively easy. Much of the trail features rock or wooden steps, handrails, ropes or paving stones. This uphill trail is forested and shaded from the Indian Summer sun. Most intersections are marked by signs in Korean & English.
We started our hike about 9am and the trail was relatively empty. As we slowly pushed our creaky bodies uphill, the crowds picked up. Scores of well-trained hikers quickly passed us, including several ajumas (older women) and ajoshis (older men) well in their 60s or 70s!
By the time we reached the top, we just followed the sounds of people making their way to the peak. The trail opens up to flat granite area where many folks were having a picnic lunch. A side trail leads up to the peak, reachable only by scaling large boulders. In some sections, you need to use both arms and legs to pull yourself up to the top! The Jokduribong peak is a bald granite mountaintop with 360 degree views of Seoul and the northern reaches of Bukhansan.
Yes, that's a cellphone tower with branches. Which means 5 bars of perfect reception even in the woods for your smartphone GPS (download NAVER maps!).
After posing for obligatory Rocky-style photos at the top of the peak, it was time to make our descent. We headed back to the open area where folks were having their picnics. Scouting our map, we could see there was a more direct trail leading back down to Bulwang metro station. But unlike most trail intersections, there was no sign for this particular trail. We wandered around in circles for a bit and finally found the trail; If the Jukdoribong peak is to your back, walk just past the open area and the trail will be on your left.
Thank goodness we didn't walk UP this hill because it was WAY STEEP. Unlike the previous trail we took, this trail was open to the sun, and no stairs or handrails to help you down. There was a surprising number of folks climbing UP, but nowhere near as crowded as the easier uphill trail we took.
This scenic trail featured some amazing geographical features.
Here's a view looking back to the top. Holy crap, we climbed down that spine! And you can't even see the bald top of Jokduribong, which is beyond the top ridge of this photo.
Eventually the trail levels off into the woods, past some more big boulders, finally emerging in a neighborhood of small apartment buildings.
When you reach the street level, turn right and follow the street until you get to the main road. Turn left and walk a few blocks until you get to Bulwang metro station. Before the metro, you'll pass a few shops and restaurants. After a long hike, it was time to celebrate our accomplishment!
Day 2 of our Chuseok Korean Thanksgiving stay-cation. Today we took a short walk off the base to the Korean War Memorial Museum. As the name implies, the museum traces the history of the Korean War with lots of interactive displays. Unfortunately because it was Chuseok, the museum was operating on a skeleton crew so all the fun "4D" attraction rooms were closed.
This is a very family-friendly, hands-on museum, featuring tanks, planes, artillery pieces and even a boat that visitors can actually enter. Some of the more interesting vehicles on static display include a B-52, and the Bell H-13 Sioux helicopter, which fans of M*A*S*H will immediately recognize.
The museum is free to enter and is open 0900-1800 everyday except Monday. A few more scenes from the museum:
Today is the first day of Chuseok, or Korean Thanksgiving. For foreigners, this means a 5-day weekend. For Koreans, it's the busiest travel day of the year. According to Arrirang News, 400,000 cars departed Seoul today. Highways are parking lots, and every train and plane ticket is sold out. Bad news for travelers, but great news for those of us opting for a stay-cation in Seoul. This city of 10.5 million is practically a ghost town now!
Today, the Two Crabs took a day trip to N Tower, better known as Seoul Tower, the most prominent landmark in South Korea's capital city, located atop Namsan mountain. The tower is some 777 feet tall and features several restaurants and bars at the top and base, and even a teddy bear museum (??).
We decided to take the Gondola up and hike down. We took the metro to Myeong-dong station. Riding a practically empty metro car to our destination.
Leave the station at Exit 3, and turn left down the road with the CU convenience store. You'll see Pacific Hotel. Go up the steep road to the right of Pacific Hotel for about 15 minutes until you reach the Gondola station. A one-way ride is 6,000W, and roundtrip ride is 8,000W.
Then the sucky part: apparently every Seoulite and tourist decided to visit Seoul Tower today.
We managed to get there at a decent time that we only had to wait about 20 minutes for the gondola. But soon after we arrived, the line grew until it stretched twice as long as when we started. The ride itself was only about 3 minutes long.
When you come out of the gondola, you have two options: turn left to go up to Seoul tower, or turn right to head to a library and Namdaemun (more on that later). Turn left and walk up the stairs to the base station, featuring a gazebo, kitschy souvenir shops, kids games, and a few snack shops and a few bars.
By far the most popular attraction at the base station are padlocks. Yes, padlocks. It is a tradition for lovers to place padlocks on the fence around Seoul Tower, as a symbol of enduring love for each other. There are so many locks that some have been removed and used to create sculptures.
For us, the main reason to visit Seoul Tower are the amazing views of the city below:
To actually go up to the top of Seoul Tower, you'll need to shell out 9,000W per person. Or 20,000W for packages that include admission to the Teddy Bear Museum (why??). We opted not to go up this time, because the thought of waiting in another long line was not our idea of a good time. But we did make an obligatory stop at the base station bar for a tasty beverage!
Afterward, we walked back toward the gondola station and followed the stairs down, following the signs for "library." The trail down this path is shady, and we noticed there are lights along the trail so presumably you can hike up & down even at night. There were only a handful of people on the trail, as most visitors opted to ride the gondola up & down. The trail runs alongside the old city walls, part of which have been reconstructed since the were originally built in the 14th century.
TIP: When you get to the Y intersection, go LEFT toward "library" to reach Hoehyeon metro station / Namdaemun market. The right trail returns to the parking lot.
At the bottom of the left library trail, you'll emerge at a little park and main road. Turn RIGHT, you'll pass said library, and walk about 200 yards until you get to a road tunel. Don't go through the tunel. Instead, cross the street at the crosswalk to reach another park, where you'll find a large section of the old city wall.
We continued down the stairs until we reached the Hilton Hotel, turned right and continued walking until we reached Namdaemun, one of the largest traditional markets in Seoul. By the time we got there, it was after 7pm so most of the market stalls and shops were closed, but the food stalls were just getting started. This was the reason we came to Namdaemun: Street Food!
The Crabs have always been huge fans of street food, and Asia has some of the best in the world. We dined on bbq chicken, steak, and stir-fried octopus with glass noodles, washed down with way too many bottles of cheap Cass beer. Our total bill for food & booze was about $30 USD.
For desert, don't miss eating a "hoteok" (호떡), a Korean doughy pancake filled with honey & peanuts and covered in cinnamon. A perfect ending to the night!
Mr. & Mrs. Crab share an common love for biking. When we lived in London, Mrs. Crab commutted to work daily by bike along Regent's Canal. And back in Arlington, Mr. Crab commutted daily to FSI (Foreign Service Institute), uphill both ways. So we were thrilled to learn that Seoul is a very cycle-friendly city. So we sent our bikes in UAB.
One of the great pastimes and pleasures of living in Seoul is biking. There are hundreds of miles of bike trails in South Korea. You can even bike from Seoul to Busan on the southern tip of Korea in about 4 days, most of it along off-road, paved bike trails.
In Seoul, a 25-mile long bike trail runs along the north and south banks of the Han River. Compared to DC, the bike trails in Seoul have wide "Kramer Lanes!" Even better, there is a separate trail for joggers, walkers and mums with dogs & prams, so no worries about cyclists dodging pedestrians. The trial is lined with extra-curricular activities like outdoor gyms, picnic areas, restrooms, and buskers (street musicians) performing at the many outdoor amphitheaters along the trail. Parts of the north bank is covered by a freeway, shading riders from the blazing Seoul summer sun.
The best bit about biking in Korea? Seven-11! Along the north banks of the Han River, you'll see a handful of Seven-11 convenience stores. Unlike in America, Seven-11s in Asia are more like neighborhood bars & cafes. Many have outdoor table areas where you can enjoy cheap beer, coffee, ice cream, ramen noodles and other snacks.
First-time bikers will not feel out-of-place. Bikers in Korea come in all ages, shapes & sizes. You'll see everyone from cyclists in full professional kit, families in shorts & t-shirts and even folks carrying dogs in their baskets! Also, crime in Korea is extremely low, so no need to worry if your bike will still be there when you return.
We have one major pet peeve about biking in Korea: Korean bikers do not follow standard biking etiquette such as giving audible warnings when passing. In DC or London, you'll get an earful if you fail to ring your bell or yell "on your left" when passing. In Seoul, Lance Armstrong-wannabes have no qualms about flying past you within inches and cutting you off. But then there are other bikers who you can hear coming from afar because they are blaring music via speakers attached to their handlebars!