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Jeonju, Jeollabuk, South Korea: Bibimbap Town

Directly south of Seoul, is the small town of Jeonju. There is plenty of history in this town, I’m sure, but this trip is not about history but about eating. No, I have not sold out yet, it is still a travel site, and not another “foodie blog”. Back to the topic at hand… Jeonju is just 3 hours away from Seoul, enough to get there in the morning, have lunch and dinner and then come back before midnight, which is what I’m going to do.

At the Express Bus Terminal, the bus leaves from Central City terminal about every 10 minutes. There are two classes of bus, but I’d go for the more expensive service that cost 17,900W one way. According to the map, it is just about 200km away, but as usual, traffic jam plus heavy rain means that the trip took 3 hours. There will be a break half way to Jeonju, and the rest stop i surprisingly well equipped. There is a small supermarket, and plenty of shops selling sit down meals or korean junk food. They even have toebokki and sundae (korean blood sausage, not ice cream).

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Last days of autumn, Seoul

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It is now middle of november, and trees are shedding leaves as winter nears. The trees in Seoul are no exactly the ones that are giving the red coloured leaves, more likely brown then red, but there are some maple trees around too. The weather is starting to dip down below freezing in the early morning, so there is not too much more time to go around looking for something to take pictures of before having to wait for the next autumn.

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I have two favourite macro lens. Today I have my Nikkor 70-180 and this situation is where it shines. This versatile lens allows me to crop close, or to zoom out to 70mm for more coverage. When zooming using that lens, you do not lose focus at all, the only thing is that you change the cropping on the picture. Nice. Too bad this lens is not that easy to find either new on the second hand market. When used properly it is sharp at infinity and as a macro lens. For someone who doesn’t bother with shooting sports or models, the 70-180 is my lens that cover the 70-200 range. When shooting leaves in autumn, look around for contrast in colours. Look also possibilities to isolate foreground and the background. When the leaves are close enough to the camera, even at f5.6 you will be able to get nice enough blur in the background for isolation. And it is lucky I have the option to crank up the ISO on the D3s, and typically I will be using ISO1000+ up to ISO12800 when the skies turned dark. Normally I would use up to ISO 1600 only for critical shots where noise free photos and maximum detail is required, but today I wouldn’t call it a critical day, so for cases lke this, I’d go up to ISO12,800. I can remove some of the noise later when I get into Lightroom.

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*end*

Munsubongsan, Seoul, South Korea

I’ll make this post the laziest one that I’ve had so far. Rather simple. North Seoul. Mountain. No map, just follow those usual old Korean hikers and live to record GPS paths and pictures. It was a bright day, so it made taking pictures boring.

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So lets do it quick: 1. Line 3 Metro to Gupabal 2. Bus 7211 to 진관사 3. Munsubong 문수봉 727M ( 37.632133°, 126.971909°) 4. Down to Daenammun thru ilseonsa temple

Trip Statistics: Odometer 11.4km, Moving Average: 3.6kmph Moving Time: 3:11 Stopped Time: 1:30 Maximum Altitude 727m

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View from the top of Munsubongsan. Picture is a subtle HDR.

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The rocky top of the mountain is littered with boulders, and there are hikers as far as the eye can see. Some are more daring than others. Behind me is an all wall protecting Seoul from invaders.

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This is the real peak of Munsubong, but it is not that easy to get up as it requires some rock scaling on your hands and knees and perhaps a rope.

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At the peak.

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And it is still autumn, just a reminder.

*End*

Ungilsan, Seoul, South Korea: Autumn Hike

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Ungilsan in Autumn: Achieved by focusing much closer than the subject itself and let the bokeh work its magic.

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Although I was using a wide angle lens, the slope on the left and right is not an optical illusion.

This trip started as a routine mountain hike a little outside of Seoul at a place called Ungilsan (운길산) mainly because it is possible to get there by taking the suburban line 1 metro to a station with the same name. At least on the map it looks like there is a mountain to climb over there. And it looked like one of those popular places to go on weekends as there are quite a number of overdressed korean hikers (nothing new here). The metro line is supposedly quite new, going all the way to Yangpyeong town and going upstream along the Han River.

Ungilsan metro stop is new enough to be built less than a year or two ago. Just outside the station is a large map of the hiking paths that lead off the station. I counted at least 2 or 3 high peaks and many smaller routes. There’s no real need to memorize it for me since all routes would be new to me. Best would be to follow the crowd. The path starts by going back where the train came from, past many village restaurants on your left. This is where it is possible to load up on lunch by buying a kimbap or two (Korean maki rolls). Then the road goes under the train track and through a small village. Very quickly it starts to go uphill through some woods.

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At the village at the bottom of the montain, some of the lower peaks around Ungilsan

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Some parts of the hike is quite like an easy walk.

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Hikers in Korea have this habit of stacking up rocks while making wishes. This is one of the largest I’ve seen to date.

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I’m still wondering what caused this tree to grow in this manner.

The route is simple enough, and you do get tired from the slight incline through the woods. I’ve noticed that other than using the path in the woods, it is also possible to walk on a road that is possibly steeper and leads to Sujongsa temple. The hike is not really that difficult and not really that far. I’m guessing that the top of Ungilsan is not more than 3km from the metro stop. Very soon the path leads to the spine of the mountain where the path becomes a little easier to climb. I wouldn’t call it a climb, more like an easy hike.

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Start of autumn.

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This is one of the first red leaves I encountered on this hike, not particularly pretty, but still red.

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In some sections the leaves are starting to dry up, getting ready for winter.

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This is close to the rest area, showing the close proximity of the leaves, making it possible to take pictures of it without any specialized gears.

A few hours later hikers will reach a rest area where some adventurous sellers will sell you lunch or refreshments. When that happens you know it is an easy climb for some. From here the summit is less than 200m away. However on this day it is understandably crowded. The peak itself is crowded, and at the time I was up there, just after noon, the sunlight was so harsh, it was only possible to look at the view but not to photograph it. I guess I could but I would never be happy with the picture. Instead I took a geotagged photo with my iPhone for the token momento.

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On the way downhill. Again, the slopes are not an optical exaggeration.

The hike is possibly even forgettable for me, but since we are in early autumn here in Seoul, trees are starting to shed leaves, and there are a couple of trees with very saturated red leaves. I’d want to call them Maple leaves but I’m not scientifically sure, so let’s just call it red leaves for now. When I see one I’d take a break and attach my macro lens and get to work documenting it. The lighting is not that easy to shoot with a Nikon D300, sometimes I wished I packed my heavier D3s. But with a little bit of luck and patience I’m sure I will be able to get something out of it. I try to look for a break where sunlight would be able to get through the canopy and illuminate the leaves. Sometimes I’m lucky, othertimes I get a nice arrangement of leaves but no good light. At times like this I normally try to shoot manual mode so that changes in lighting intensity do not mess up the pictures, and it helps also to dial in a fixed white balance since the WB between direct sunlight and shooting in the shadows can mean that the same scene be rendered in uncontrollable hues.

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One of the buildings making up Sujongsa.

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View from Sujongsa.

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Main Temple

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Buy a tile, write something and tile it up. Most of the tiles are in Korean, I didn’t see any alphabets on it.

As usual, my path downhill is usually a different one compared to the uphill trek. This time we decided to go down the path that leads to the temple called Sujongsa (수종사). Again, an easy walk down the hill to the temple, and right after the temple it is possible to take the road down to the metro station. At least when walking downhill, this road does look quite steep compared to the path through the woods, but it is not possible to figure out if this is a perception thing or whether it is really steeper. All I know that is that it is quite hard on the knees to walk down a steep road for a few kilometers.

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Always need my picture of farm machinery.

Reading about this post after the trip, it sounded like one of the most unexciting posts I’ve done in a while. I’d say that this hike was not too bad, lingering around the “standard” level and not much more. If not for the autumn leaves I’d say that this trip would be quite boring. Maybe it would be better after a heavy snowfall in winter? Who knows... Maybe its time to try it out in the dead of winter.

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*end*

Islands off Incheon, South Korea: Muui-do

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Revenge of the killer seagulls. Just lucky timing, on the way across from Jamjin-do to Muui-do.

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Fishing boat at Yeongjong Pier with Incheon City in the background

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Panorama of Incheon City in the horizon from Muui-do

It seems that autumn is finally upon us. Temperature has dropped to 20C on a sunny day like today. Looks like the right time to explore some islands off the city of Incheon. Island hopping is a term I wanted to use, but it is technically not really any hopping at all, since by public transport I would be lucky to even get to one island per day. What more, everything is in Korea here so I will have to guide by chance and by the grace of my GPS. Good light also means I can ditch my big camera and go light with a D300, lunch and plenty of water. Always ready for an adventure.

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Google Earth capture of the entire journey mapped by a GPS. Green path is the actual route taken throughout the day.

Getting to the island is a multi-transport discipline. On my research, it looks like the easiest way to get there is to get out of Seoul and get on the express train to Incheon Airport an then hop onto a bus. The alternative way going through Incheon and then a ferry ride to the Airport island looks to be a longer journey. In most cities, Seoul included, the authorities have this idea that tourists are beings meant to be fleeced, so for example a metro ride to Incheon city proper is less than half of what it cost to go to the airport. Price aside, I’ve said that getting out of the city to the airport by Metro is not an easy task. There are some signs at metro station that looks like you could get a A-REX express train to Incheon Airport at Seoul Station, but don’t make the mistake I did. There’s no train going to the airport as of 2010. The line should be ready in the future, but just not now. I wasted 1 hour looking for that phantom train. Some maps indicate that the line is there, but some doesn’t. Best way seems to be to get to Gimpo Airport using Line 9 and then hopping to the A-REX to Incheon Airport without getting out of the station at Gimpo Airport stop.

Outline for today therefore, to take metro to Incheon Airport and then onto one of the island next to it by bus. End the day with a ferry ride into Incheon city before dark. It doesn't really matter how it turns out. What is clear is that I will have to take a bus over a causeway to Jamjin-do and then hop onto a ferry to Muui-do. Will make up the itinerary as I go along...

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Incheon City from Yeongjong Pier

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So now at Incheon airport, it takes a little bit of investigation to know where to go next. I used up at least 1 hr here figuring out that it is impossible to walk to the pier (2km away) because of the airport security, so a bus is the best option. Go to departure area on the 3rd floor and take bus 222. Unfortunately there is no way to know whether the bus is going to Jamjin island or to Yeongjong pier for the ride into Incheon city. Just have to take your chance or ask the driver.  Bus fare seems to be 1000W as I didn't really pay attention to my stored value card as I put it on the sensor.

However I was one of the ones that got on the wrong bus as the first one I took was going to Yeongjong pier on the return trip from Jamjin-do. When I got there, it was time to wait for the next bus to go to the island I wanted to go in the first place. Good time killer is to hang around the pier and look at all the tent-restaurants that sprouted out at the parking lot, full of drunk Koreans munching on BBQ pork and kimchi.

After half and hour, it was time for the bus to start moving again. Somehow I have a feeling that there’s not more than 2 buses that services this route going from one end of the Incheon Airport island (that would be Yeongjong Island) to the other end. The bus goes through the airport to pick up more passengers (or victims) and then darts to the west, where I wanted to go, confirmed by my GPS. Right after the airport the bus turns left into a small lane full of korean restaurants, seemingly built so that patrons can look at the sun setting over the sea. After a while, going through a tight road and avoiding carks parked on both sides of the road, the bus goes over a causeway connecting Jamjin-do with larger Jeongyong-do where the airport is located. The bus stops in the small island just before the ferry point. Roads here are tight, as real estate is not plentiful. A building sells 3000 Won return tickets to Muui-do for pedestrians.

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Ferry connecting Jamjin-do with Muui-do

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Four lanes of cars, they go in on the left then make a u-turn at the end of the ship and get out the same way.

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There are two ferries operating here, taking turns in a maritime ballet shuttling cars and pedestrians across. On this day, and at this time, there are more cars returning than going to Muui-do. It's almost 5pm by the time I got to my destination, which rules out any possibility of exploring the island. Just enough time to enjoy the sunset. The trip itself is an adventure in getting lost and letting a bus driver determine my fate for the day. Muui-do is not very far away by ferry, it takes less than 15 minutes to get across. As the ferry glides across the straits, seagulls follow the wake of the ferry, I’m not sure if its because the boat of to feed off the bread crumbs thrown by passengers.

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Jamjin-do’s ferry ticketing booth. Notice the small space which is almost all taken by roadside restaurants. No place to park for sure.

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Ferry anchor points on Muui-do

The trip back is quite straight forward. I already have a return ticket, so just hop onto the ferry at the pier, get back to Jamjin-do and wait for the same bus 222 to get here at the front of the ticketing building. The trip to Yeongjong pier is long enough it is possible to get a nap here. It was already dark by the time I noticed the bus making a detour from the standard route and realised that the driver was going off course to get some fuel. Thought that only happens in Malaysia. Though the sun was already below the horizon, the cold evening and clear skies gave the sky a nice gradient between dark orange and dark blue. I couldn’t take a picture of the nice colours since I can’t set up my tripod here (nor did I remember to bring one) and my camera does not do high ISO that elegantly.

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Small fishing boat at Muui-do

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Evidence of what peopel do here. Drink beer, eat oysters and light up fireworks (on the bottom right).

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... and fishing...

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This reflecting pool is actually a small pond on Muui-do with the sea in the background.

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View of Jamjin-do from Muui-do in the late evening.

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The convenience store in Muui-do

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Heed the warning!

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These two guards are looking after the ferry boarding points on Jamjin-do. Muui-do is in the background. This picture was taken on the way back to the mainland.

At least on the map, Muui-do looks like a holiday place with beaches and resorts. However, by the time I got here, I have less than an hour before darkness, and perhaps the last boat back to the mainland too. So it would not be too wise to hang around here too late, so only thing to do is to hang around the main town just after the usual Family Mart convenience store and watch the moon rise from the east over Incheon city. There are some fishermen, but they look local, the rest of the people here are making their way back to the ferry for the trip back to Yeongjong-do. I was thinking of taking some pictures of the small fishing boats in the harbour but at ground level they do not look too interesting. I have quite a number of pictures of it, but I only kept a few as most of them are quite boring. I was able to isolate the boats with a 105mm lens on a DX crop sensor but in general nothing much to talk about.

Tickets for the ferry ride back to Incheon city from Yeongjong pier cost 3000w too. But quite sure this time it is one way, so it is not a cheap ferry. It would be cheaper to grab the A-REX and Line 9 from Incheon airport. It is getting dark and the next boat is at 8 pm, just 20 mins away. Other than loud Korean travellers, the night is peaceful tonight. We have full moon now and during the long Chuseok holiday, and add to that a cold and cloudless night. I am unfortunately outfitted for summer. But I still prefer to be outside during the boat ride to the part of Incheon with the seaside promenade and a big ferris wheel.

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For this shot I wished I had brought a longer lens. Its a 105mm on a Nikon D300, not too bad framing, but I would have liked a little tighter cut. That’s the Incheon bridge in the background. One of the longest in this region.

The boat took 15 mins. Could see that the second ferry is finished for the night, hence the longer than usual wait. I guess for those who don't mind paying, they could go by bus, taxi or private car over the long bridge connecting the airport and Incheon city too.

The boat landing site is a cacophony of tourist restaurants and neon lights. Looks like there is a couple of mid sized amusement parks here. For me, it's getting late and I absolutely want to get back as soon as possible. The next chore I had to carry out is the kilometer or so walk over to metro line 1 guided by my gps and google maps on my phone. What would I do without technology? There is a monorail system that looks like it connects to the metro station, but at this time in the evening it is not operational anymore. I’m not even sure if it is ever working. Can’t really verify it today.

And like clockwork, now inside the metro waiting for 30 something stops before getting back to downtown Seoul. For the final tally, my odometer says I have done just a little more than 100 km, but that had to include the multiple bus ride. Long trip, spent 1 hour maximum at the destination, but still feeling a sense of adventure in the process of finding my way around here. The boat ride into Incheon was the highlight of the day, there was fireworks off a tourist boat moored close to the promenade and just the general feeling of seaside wind blowing for 15 mins or so. It was cold but refreshing at the same time. Looks like a sequel should be coming up soon.

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According to this superimposition of GPS plots and places where I took some pictures, it’s clear that I didn’t take too many pictures at too many different locations today. Most of is just figuring out where to go. But the results were worth it.

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Tranquility

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Watch it!

*end*

Gyeonggi Province, South Korea: Suwon City Fortress

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Suwon old city wall

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Architectural detail: An old door with armored metal sheets taken at one of the secret entrances into the city along the wall.

Alright, I’m here now in a new country, ready to explore the place out and what a better place to do this than during the golden weekend. We are now around end of September, and this is what the Korean calls their Thanksgiving and what happens is that the whole of Korea goes on holiday for a whole week. Equivalent to the lazy christmas week for the Americans and a shorter version of the French summer holidays. Offices will be closed. Everyone will either go home to visit their elders or gravitate towards the summer playground of Jeju Island. Whatever it is, I’m not about to go far on this long week, in fear of highway traffic jam, lack of return tickets on trains and flights, and overpriced hotels. Hell, I’ve not even had time to visit any place around Seoul yet. So its time to do a little research on Wikipedia and Google Maps for the best place to visit for this long weekend.

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Suwon City, nothing special about it. This is the view from the top of the hill where the wall passes through.

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Old city walls separate the ordinary residents from the Kings that live inside the wall. Not true of course, just cooking things up.

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Map view of the walk. Train station is on the bottom left. Wall is that baloon formed by the orange line.

The old town of Suwon looks interesting. What it is, in short, a town with a core that has its ancient city walls intact. From the map it looks a lot smaller than the city walls of, say Nanjing or Xian in China, but perhaps they don’t have as crazy an enemy to protect against; who knows. Best of all, Suwon is just an hour or two out to the South of Seoul allowing travel by Metro in the morning and returning late in the evening. So the plan was hatched. I will need to plot a GPS course this trip while walking the whole circumference of the city wall, which looks achievable in a day.

I has been some break I have been having, so packing up for a day trip is starting to be difficult. My muscle memory doesn’t apply to packing. Small bag, a DSLR and a lens or two, Audio Recorder, GPS and phones is all I need for this. I’ve started to move towards using the iPhone and Android phones for navigation. Although good for live Google Maps, it still doesn’t replace a stand alone GPS for the ability to hang it out of the bag for 10 hours straight collecting GPX information every 3 seconds.

All ready, I leave late around 1 in the afternoon, thanks to my inability to wake up early for trips. It should still be summer this late in September but the cloudy day is causing temperatures to drop to around 20c. Weather forecasts is not too good, with chance of rain, but in the 30-40% range so I take play the probability game and didn’t pack a rain jacket.

Getting there is easy, just find my way to Metro line 1 heading south. Will be taking a train to Sindorim station on line 2 and then change to line 1. Line 1 also branches off towards Incheon city, so be careful not to get on to the wrong train. There are announcements in English so it should be easy. Line 1 trains are also a trekking advertising board, with all the recommendations of mountains and sights at the stations that it stops on the main map above the train doors. I take note. Stations are spaced quite far apart once out of Seoul, so the trip took a litte longer than I planned.

Arriving in Suwon train station, the first thing that grabs your attention is a large AK shopping mall with everything, even a Baskin Robbins, so this is a good place to stock up on water and other necessities for the walk ahead. I make an unconscious plan to return around dinner time so that I can have a meal before returning to Seoul. At least today there seems to be quite a number of foreign workers hanging around the train station. More than what I have seen in Seoul, outside of Itaewon of course. I see Africans, Filipinos and some Indonesians. No idea what they’re doing here, either there’s a big place that hires foreign workers or they’re here for the same reason as me.

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The start of the wall on the left of Paldalmun

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This part of the wall is quite obviously reconstructed

My walk along the old wall of Suwon starts at Paldalmun, which is the one of the main gate. The road leads up to it and then goes around it treating whatever is left of the gate as the centre of a roundabout. And this is dead in the city center. There is a tourist information center here but closed today thanks to Chuseok holidays. Looking at the map, the left of the gate is the part of the wall that goes up a hill and on the right side is a river. I thought it would be better to climb the hill first and then downhill all the way rather than ending the trip with a hill climb, so I will start on the left.

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The start of the wall passes through a small forest. These stacks of rocks is something locals do while making a wish. No they’re not supernatural, although I thought it was so when I first saw it.

What’s sure here is that the wall is definitely reconstructed. There’s something not very pleasing to me about reconstructed wall. I prefer it in the original state. It even has flags and long staffs with fake plastic blades to represent a battle ready Suwon from ancient times. Having a new wall where the old wall is not the same thing. I shall go on a long monologue about reconstructing historical architectures in a different blog.

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Big irregular boulders stacked up to form the wall. I believe that this part looks like an original part of the wall.

The first part of the walk was tough but not terribly so. Only reason it is so is because the darn hill. Its not a terribly high hill, but a hill nonetheless. Once I get to the top it is mostly level. The wall is punctuated with turrets and command centers. The ambience is enough countryside to be able to take a relaxing walk punctuated with the occasional car horn and traffic noise but perhaps faint enough not to be able to notice it. For me its loud enough I don’t do too much ambient audio recording there. There are signs on the wall describing each architectural feature of the “advanced” wall design, like regular areas where there’s a section sticking out of the wall so that archers can shoot sideways at infidel invaders - for lack of a better word - and arrow port holes on the wall that slopes 45 degree downwards. I find some of them so perplexing how one could shoot an arrow through a 2m long square hole without touching the sides and attenuating the force and range of the arrow, but got to trust the ancients.

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This is one of the secret entrances into the city along the wall.

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New part of the wall, this is at the top of the hill

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Turrets like this punctuates the wall. Provides a place for the soldiers to hang about and a good place to shoot arrows at invaders while being chickens.

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Command centre: There is a stair that leads to the second floor where the King can look over the whole battlefield.

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Architectural detail of the Command Centre

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Detail of a Bell located at the top of the hill close to the Command Centre

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And the thingy to hit the bell with!

There are also a bunch of secret gates apparently built at hidden locations to allow transport of provisions during battles and at the top of the hill there is crossbow turret at Seonodae just next to an impressive command tower on the top of the hill. There is a ticket office there but today there is no one here so I get to save 1000 Won. The rest of the walk around the wall is easy, but long. No problem for families with prams to walk entire circumference with some heavy lifting up and down stairs.

If you notice in the map posted earlier, there is a river that runs through the old town. At both ends of the river, where the wall runs over the river there are huge gates (only one on the North still survives today) where gates prevent boats from entering when closed. However I have no idea how they could prevent the siege party from poisoning the river water and forcing Suwon to give up the battle. Then again when I look through the history books, looks like this place was never used as a place of residence for the King since he never survived to see it completed, hence the capital stayed in Seoul.

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After the Command Centre, it is downhill all the way

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Where this was taken I was still on the wall, but at one of those areas for archers to be able to shoot at invaders sideways, like a little balcony.

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This is one of the gate at ground level, notice the extra level of protection given by the curved semi-wing that sticks out from one side?

Nothing much to talk about most of the walk. Its just a wall. That’s the thing I’m going to go on about. I’ve been walking along ancient walls that has not been renovated, displaying the injuries sustained in wars and scars. Each one seems to have a story to tell. You walk around and wonder how each mark was inflicted. There is a sense of intrigue and imagined plot. When a wall is renovated, it looks as fresh as the corner Macdonalds restaurant. Sure, you can tell me that some famous event happened there, but I’m distracted by the new thing sitting there.

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This is a screen out of Apple Aperture showing the path and where the pictures were taken. I went clockwise, and the pictures were quite regular till the end when it started to get boring.

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*end of post*

Bukhansan, Seoul, South Korea: Climbing the Hard Way

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One of the daunting peaks at Bukhansan National Park

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Forest Canopy from the peak

The answer to question of what a typical normal Korean would be doing on their weekend would be to climb a mountain. So in my assimilation training, I picked up a friend and we’re off to Gupabal Station on Metro Line 3 on an excellent warm summer Saturday morning. We’re in shorts and t-shirt while the fellow hikers at the Metro station are all in Gore-tex and week long packs with titanium cups hanging off it. Reminds me of the old hikers in Japan, overdressed for the occasion. All I had was a bag with my camera and GPS in it, expecting an easy walk all the way to the top.

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Blue line shows the GPS plots from this trip. The peak is marked with the GPS coordinates, reason being I have no idea what the peak is called as of writing.

Target this weekend is one of the peak at Bukhansan National Park, a bunch of peaks to the North of Seoul City Centre. Its technically inside the city, surrounded by urban sprawl. Some of the peaks in the National Park are quite scary indeed, craggy peaks with no visible easy route other than with crampons and drilling holes in the rocks. And most of them are 500-800m high. Nuts. This is one of those weekends where my mind is in a “what the hell” mode and that’s how most memorable adventures start.

At Gupabal Metro station, there is a large crowd of hikers (remember what I said about what Koreans do on weekends?) waiting at the bus stop. Follow them and you won’t go wrong. The bus goes fast here, they are probably the proverbial race car drivers in their previous career. But quickly we get off at a nice village. Having a friend that knows Korean helps, but not mine as we’re all first timers here at Bukhansan. So I took out my GPS and said that peak looks interesting and lets go the path of least resistance which is straight as the eye can see.

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Make no mistake. This is the EASY part of the climb. I don’t have pictures of the tough part because obviously I’m hanging on for dear life.

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View across the valley. While I doubt climbers for that mountain will have to scale those rock face, they still look scary.

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I call this picture: Humble Undergrowth.

The start of the hike was easy enough, a walk through the woods with slight incline. Along the way there are some old hikers that over took us, but we took our time to enjoy the fresh morning air. For some reasons most of the hikers here are close to retirement. The most aggressive ones are old korean women, as they’re tougher than they look. They could be 70 years old and still kick your butt in the Metro when you sit on the senior citizen section by mistake.

Before long (that would be an hour or so), the path starts to be a little tougher, with 30 degree incline and the need to climb on small boulders. Still manageable, but today I had my sandals on, so wasn’t a good idea. I was wishing I had my hiking shoes on, but the hot summer weather made me wanting to go commando this trip. And soon we’re at the toughest part of the climb. Roughly an hour of crazy large rock sections where you either have to do some elementary rock climbing by squeezing your feet between cracks for 10m and grip either ropes with knots if you’re lucky, or bare knuckles into rocks. Although this sounds scary, and it is since you will plunge all the way down the cliff if you decided to take a break, you’d continue going up because old Korean women are passing you like its like a walk in the park. Some sections are so scary you’re stuck between going down the hard way and going up the impossible way. Being stuck at this altitude while the masses are passing by you is not a good ego boost either. So with heart pounding and sweaty palms, no choice but to go up. There are quite a number of sections close to the peak where it is fundamentally just vertical rock, a piece of rope and you. Sweaty hands don’t help either. Hands down one of the hardest mountain I’ve climbed so far. The mantle piece still goes to Huashan in Shaanxi Province China, and Siguniang Shan in Sichuan Province.

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No we’re not at the top yet. This is looking AWAY from Seoul.

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And this is the top. I’m standing on a piece of rock looking towards the path I will have to take to get down, and at this stage I’m hoping that the downhill path will be a lot more gentle than the ascend.

After an hour of so of your life flashing past you, it is time to enjoy the peak. Its bare rock with a path on the ridge connecting the peaks. The walk on the peak is easy enough but with the crowd there, it is easy to lose balance. Then again at that height of 500+m it is easy to have vertigo, but the view is nice and the surrounding mountains look inviting enough for future climbs. The funny thing is that I’m writing this at the comforts of my neighborhood Starbucks and I still have no idea which peak we climbed. I’m not at the Bukhansan definitely, this one is too low. For a while I thought it was Baegundae but now I doubt it. I could be at Yongchulbong Mountain too but seriously I have no idea. However there is a GPS plot of the whole journey but no information on the internet of the name of the peak we climbed up to. What is sure is that we went up the tough way because we came down another route and it was a lot easier. We would pass through a temple (Guknyeong-sa 국녱사) mid mountain.

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At the peak, on the way down the mountain.

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View on the way down.

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Again, looking across the valley floor somewhere close to the peak.

The rest of the way down is quite pleasant. Rocks, but gentle enough not to require walking stick or hands on the ground for the entire descent. The temple is quite a good place to rest and to load up on the water from the spring at the entrance of the temple. There’s a big outdoor buddhist statue of the type that I see quite often in Korea. After a short rest stop there, its time to go down the mountain. At the bottom of the mountain we end up at a valley where there are Korean BBQ restaurants and a dried up stream made up of large boulders. The rest of the path back to civilization winds down along the valley floor along a road. Well, we ARE walking on the road, and there is the occasional car passing by.

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This is a welcome sight. Close to the valley floor, the first sign of civilization on the descent.

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Sorry, space filler. A mail box.

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Easy down: Road/path with the stream flowing on the left.

The most important thing out of this trip is that we made it back in one piece. I did have a small issue when I was stuck on one of the rock climb and having to swing my bag to one side to balance myself to get the important 3 point hold on the rock and my GPS slammed into the rockface giving it a little more “character” than I would like it to have. Anyway, at least when I look at the scars on the device in the future I know it came from Bukhansan!

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Enlarged Google Earth capture showing the trek path relative to Seoul which is to the South of the mountain complex.

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Just like in China, you know you’re in a rural area when you see one of these.

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Chillies left out to dry in the hot sun. These will probably be grounded into dust and used for making kimchi.

*end*

Seoul, South Korea: Inwangsan

I have been having free weekends in Seoul lately and this weekend I was quite determined to go somewhere outdoors after a few disappointing sights around Insadong. Saturday was not that great, it rained. Pretty heavily too. Sunday started off good, not a sunny day, but with low clouds and chance of rain. I did a quick check of the weather, clouds are moving relatively fast, but the texture seems consistent and there doens't seem to be too much risk of heavy rain, so umbrellas were not required. So picked up my small utility bag with a D300 SLR and a Nikkor 12-24mm lens and a GPS and I was out without a clue of the route to take, but as long as I'm going uphill I'm on the right path.

Target today is Inwangsan, a mountain just to the northern border of Seoul. Close enough to be able to reach it by Metro line 3, Dongnimmun Station. Not the mountain top, of course. The station straddles below a main road that leads out of the city to the north. This destination took up only a small portion of Lonely Planet guide book which I did not bother to bring along with me. So I started looking around for a way to get up the mountain. (By the way, realised after this climb that the proper and easy way up is on the east of the mountain, so you will need to walk anticlockwise around it from the Metro station. I went clockwise.)

Going up north, I came across a bunch of apartments and a pedestrian foot bridge after going slightly uphill, still along the main road with mountains on both sides. Figuring that as long as I go uphill, I'd get to a trail, I decided to go up a very steep concrete road, which leads to a small village on the foot of Inwangsan. Its a tough slog up this slope that runs about 200m. There were a few old hikers loitering around so I followed one. Look for the playground behind the village, where you will find the start of the trail identified by a map board which is unfortunately in Korean. It looks like the old city wall goes up this mountain along the spine so this should be fun.

Initial stages of the walk was pleasant enough, trail under heavy forest cover, with clear trails. It then starts to look as though the climb up will be wet and steep when a water fall appears and the path seems to be along the waterfall, sometimes part of the waterfall itself. Waterproof shoes will be useful, but I was wearing my Asics running shoes and with proper steps, it will not get wet. But slippery it definitely is, as water over granite for a long time breeds algae. I don't think the path I took was the easiest one, as frequent breaks are required. Some parts of the trail can be confusing as there are no signs and it seems to branch off in another direction. Good that I have my GPS with me, so I was able to move in the right general direction.

I took changes at the first t junction encountered and took left turn, and came upon my first view point: a bald patch of rock stickout of the mountain with conifer pine trees all around. This place should be good in winter. The view are up in the northern direction mainly of apartments, bland as it is.

The last few hundred meters are where it gets interesting. There are two patches of the trail which is just rock surface with a rope and you're suppose to haul your own ass up that thing. What happens when you slip? Just tens of meters down I suppose, which makes me want to say, don't slip then. In Hong Kong this would be a category 6 out of 5. I am just whining because while I was navigating a section of rock with centuries of pilgrims cutting out foot holds, carefully finding the best place to have at least 3 contact point like what I learnt from a Bear Grylls documentary, an old Korean woman with those oversized visor overtook me while climbing a rock! Ok, no more complain and keep on moving.

While this trail is more like mountain climbing rather than a easy slope to navigate, eventually I get to the top of the mountain, easily identified when you first start to get close to an old wall. The peak is a large area where hikers are resting after the long walk up. I'd say it was worth every bit of effort that was put into it. The peak is a rocky outcrop around 350m high in altitude. Somehow they managed them to squeeze in a helipad up here. The view is 360 degrees but not continuous of course. To the south is downtown Seoul with Namsan mountain and its telltale transmission tower sticking out like a sore thumb. Loud Korean hikers are all over. Dressed in their neon hiking gears. One of the local peculiarities. To the east, a structure that looked like an imperial palace is visible, framed by mountains with a visible wall running along its spine. This forms the old city wall, lower than the massive walls in ancient Chinese cities but probably not less effort to construct as the terrain is inhospitable.

I hung around the peak for some time, trying to rest but the pesky group of retiree hikers in neon gears were starting to get irritating. I tried to type this blog post out on my new HTC Legend, but the AMOLED screen is unusable when I look at it through my transitions eye glass lens. Without, its barely legible. So I gave up, preferring to type when I get back tonight. It is around 3pm when I got to the peak, the light too harsh to have any nice photo taken, but next trip up I will need a tripod and do some panoramic shots.

It looks like it is possible to continue the trek down the mountain on the other side away from Seoul city, but I decided to go down where I should have climbed instead of the hard route I took. The route is still quite steep going down, but the main difference here is there are plenty of raillings to grip and the steps are much more pronounced. Some areas are single file only so there are quite a lot of waiting. The path goes past a fort on the mid point of the mountain, but the area is cordoned off for construction. New slabs of granite are used to form the fortifications, and I'm guessing this is a renovation for tourism reasons and nor for real security because in this day and age, any granite wall 1.2m high is pretty useless against any enemy.

The way down is pretty boring. But there are a few spring and after seeing people refilling their mineral bottles with water from the tap, which I guess comes from the spring, I did the same too. Tastes really good actually. The way down can be confusing as well, but I made it back to a different Metro but with a GPS plot in case I need to get up this mountain in the future. I think I will need to do much more research than this trip so that I dont waste too much time wandering around looking for something. The problem with countries like South Korea is that on Google Maps, after a certain level of zoom, when the street names are visible, everything becomes Korean, which is pretty much useless for people who don't read it. Anyway, got down in one piece, had a look at a stunning 360 degree view of Seoul, and time to look for Kimchi stew for dinner!

*end*