Reflections

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” ~Mark Twain

I’m still a little sad it’s over. A month ago I landed back in The States from my 30 day trek through parts of Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong. I’m back in New York now: back to the old rat race.

I wouldn’t necessarily call it culture shock, but whenever you come back from a long trip there’s going to be little realizations about where you call home – similar to living in New York City and then going back to Maine, or on a smaller scale, moving away for college, and coming back home. There’s a verbose linguist named Bruno della Chiesa who has a good saying, “A fish doesn’t know what water is.” Hence, when you leave the fishbowl, your world, your perspective, opens up.

The bulk of my time was spent in Japan, so a majority of those realizations and comparisons that pop up in my head stem from that experience, but of course also to a certain extent Korea and Hong Kong. I won’t go into a long list, but there’s a lot we could do better at here, from infrastructure projects, to public education, societal politeness, etc…

And that’s not to paint New York or America in a bad light. Returning from such a trip also broadens one’s perspectives on what they appreciate about their home. Our country certainly enjoys greater liberty. In New York, the diversity, depth, and concentration of culture is a special conglomeration and chaos that’s hard to find anywhere else Earth. The definition of beauty here is broader than anywhere else because of it. There is more at your fingertips here than anywhere else because of it: food, art, experiences, people, you name it.

I managed to unplug from American politics while traveling. Unfortunately political scandal and criminal justice failures in Trumpistan, U.S.A. have been running at full-tilt since I’ve gotten back, and it’s exhausting. To avoid a long political diatribe, I’ll repeat the Mark Twain quote I led off with, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

To me that quote embodies a large reason why I travel, but preceding even that is simply curiosity. What’s it like in a another part of the world? How do they live there, and perceive their world? There’s a fatality in closed-mindedness. An anti-intellectualism leading to rugged individualism has spread across a large swath of America and is doing real damage to the world we live in. Travel, can be part of the antidote. I’m hoping my generation, as it grows in this globalizing world, can do better.

I’ll leave it there. I’ve still got hundreds of photos to sort through, and a healthy portion of my brain filled with excellent memories. I’m feeling creatively rejuvenated now that I’ve gotten that out of my system too. There’s just one itch I need to scratch, and it’s, “When do I go back?”

 

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Final Hours in Hong Kong

I’ve mentioned before that Hong Kong has a beautiful skyline. It wasn’t until the 90s and 2000s when most of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers rose high above its land. One of the best ways to appreciate the architectural jungle of steel, cement, and glass is from the Star Ferry that runs between Kowloon and Hong Kong. The historic ferry dates back to the late 1800s and is a classic way to travel between the two islands.

When the sun sets, the cityscape transforms into a galaxy of lights. Speaking of which, nightly, there is a light show involving more than 40 buildings on the harbor called, “A Symphony of Lights.” Allegedly it’s the world’s largest permanent light and sound show.

I’ll be honest, the show isn’t terribly spectacular. The music it’s set to sounds like cheap midi ripoffs from video games, and the light show itself will probably leave you murmuring a resounding, “Well, that was nice.”

The cityscape lit up at night, looking at Hong Kong Island from the edge of Kowloon, is beautiful, not to mention you’ll see the Star Ferry, and probably a couple junks lit with colorful, ambient light. A gaudy light show is unnecessary, and doesn’t improve it.

I had a final dim sum dinner with a couple of people from the hostel I had only just met on my way to the light show: Taewoon and Sherri. They were both nurses coincidentally. Taewoon had served his 21 months with the Korean military and worked largely with troubled psych patients after getting his nurseing degree after that. Sherri had recently quit her precious position and was on her way to a development summit in Kuala Lumpur. Nurses are always in demand.

I had thought about going to Ozone afterwards, The world’s highest bar, located in Hong Kong’s tallest building. But I still needed to pack for my flight the next morning, which had been bumped up an hour in time, and so I’d get precious little sleep. I opted to pass on it. It’s always good to leave something for next time. I also felt a tickle in my throat. One of the guys in my hostel room had been sick and coughing in the night. I hoped he hadn’t infected me.

I woke bright and early the next day to quietly exit the hostel and make the hour long trek to the airport. Now that it was daytime I was able to really appreciate the surrounding beauty of Hong Kong’s airport. Surrounded by tall, lush, green mountains the modern structure was spacious and easy to navigate.

I gotta say, in relation to New York, the airports and public transportation were far better in Japan, Hong Kong, and even Korea. New York’s transit systems are old, and run 24 hours a day, but in terms of reliability, facilities, customer service, and ease of use, it has some major upgrading to do.

As we taxied on the runway and took off, I felt a wistfulness over me. My journey was coming to an end. I knew it was time to get back to business in New York, but one month had gone by too fast and part of me wanted to keep going. I had a layover in Japan. I could jump ship if I really wanted to, but no, it was time. I can go back to New York and plan the next one better than jumping into it on the fly and improvising.

I took a deep breath, sighed it out as the plane rose above the clouds and Hong Kong disappeared below, and settled in for the long, long journey home.

So long Hong Kong

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Hong Kong Round Two

My next day in Hong Kong I decided to check out the famous view of the city from Victoria Peak, one of the highest points on the lush, green mountains overlooking the Hong Kong skyline.

It seems like most cities have their version of, “Let’s climb to a high place and look at the skyline.” I’ve gotten tired of things like that to be honest. However, the view of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak is worth it. There’s also a historic tram that will take you up there. Or you can take a hiking route and drench yourself in sweat due to the humidity. I saw a couple brave women who had finished the Old Stone Road hike, the steeper of the two options, and it looked like they had taken showers. 100% humidity will do that to you. At least it was a mostly overcast, cloudy day.

I’m glad the sun wasn’t beating down on me, and the clouds were a picturesque touch. There was a risk of no view because of them, but all of us up there got lucky with the weather. Someone told me the humidity and heat started only a few days ago. Not lucky in that regard.

There’s also a lot more to do up there than take in the pretty view, and take pretty pictures. There’s an old estate and garden you can hike up to, a shopping center, restaurants; they’ve built up the peak to be much more of a destination than a high view of the city.

After returning from the peak I walked around the old town area of Hong Kong. I checked out a small, famous Taoist temple that was thick with incense smoke, and wandered along “Antique Street.” I didn’t buy anything though, as most of what I liked looked bulky or heavy, and I had some carry-on requirements to meet on my upcoming flight. It’s hard to tell what might actually be antique, and what’s a reproduction too.

I headed back to the hostel to rest and refresh myself with a shower before heading out again. I was meeting a couple friends, Alvin and Jenny, whom I knew through Global Citizen’s Initiative at the Dragon Boat Festival on the Hong Kong waterfront.

By the time we arrived the Dragon Boat races had just ended, but I had caught a few earlier in the day. It was Sunday and this was the last hurrah for the festival as well. On our way in we were handed a number of free beer coupons from people leaving (score!). San Miguel beer was a sponsor, so Hispanic beer in Hong Kong was the drink of the evening! It tasted great on such a hot, humid day. There was a slight breeze from the waterfront as well.

The dragon boats themselves are like long canoes, manned by 22 people: 20 rowers, a drummer in the front, and one on the rudder in the back. The gunshot sounds, and 4 boats take off in a sprint along the harbor, paddling their guts out. The paddles are like canoe paddles as well, not like the oars on a scull.

The rowing teams being done, filtered into the festival itself and grabbed some pitchers of beer themselves. There were food trucks, some entertainment tents (saw a couple creepy clowns for the kids), and a main stage for music performances that started a couple hours we arrived and the sun set.

We enjoyed the atmosphere and caught up on our lives, then decided it was time for some dinner. I had heard about Tim Ho Wan, a nearby dim sum place, and cheapest Michelin Star rated restaurant in the world. They had never been, so I thought it would be a good place to go.

The line was big, but went quickly. They hustle people in and out fast. You fill out your menu in line, and food hits your table shortly after you sit down. I let Jenny and Alvin take care of most of the ordering. I think we had at least 12 small plates of various kinds of dumplings, rolls, and other Chinese dim sum specialties. I’ve never been a big fan of chicken feet, but the ones I had there were very good (though Alvin said he’s had better haha). Overall it was a fantastic meal. We had gotten there close to closing time, and ended up being the last to leave the restaurant. They supposedly closed at 9:00, but we found out by that it means they really close down, as in the last orders are probably taken no later than 8:15, and they start cleaning up shortly after. One Chinese server came around to take our empty plates and told us “to step up our game,” as Alvin interpreted it. We ate a lot, and managed to finish our plates. Absolutely stuffed, we said goodbye, and parted ways. It was great to see them again.

Hong Kong Hustle

To fly out of Seoul you need to travel about an hour on the airport express train to Inchon to the Southwest. Getting there, checked in and through security took longer than I thought, so it’s a good thing I gave myself quite a pad to make my four hour flight to Hong Kong that afternoon.

Coincidentally, Hong Kong airport is located about an hour outside of Hong Kong by bus or the airport express train. It used to be located in the city itself, but the old airport went out of commission in 1998. By the time I arrived at the hostel it had been mostly a day of travel, so I settled in to get the lay of the land and plan out the next four days.

In most major cities there exist “Free Walking Tours.” They’re not affiliated under any parent company, but it’s a trend that has spread around the world. They’re set up by locals eager to share their city, history, and culture with inquisitive visitors. Though it says free, they’re donation based, so if you’re dirt cheap, or hated the tour, it’s free. If you liked it, it’s very good form to donate a little money to your guide because they’ve been a wealth of local information for the last 3 hours of your day. Having been around Europe and a decent chunk of the Far East, I always like seeing if one is around, especially if I haven’t had time to research an area much. It might seem touristy, but it’s a really good use of your time because not only do you get a good overview of the area and local history, but the guide is almost always a wealth of knowledge who can offer up tips on food, nightlife, what might be overrated or underrated, etc…

The next morning I was up for an off the beaten path tour of Kowloon, which is both the peninsula I was staying on North of Hong Kong island, and a neighborhood in it. Historically, there also existed Kowloon Walled City, which at one point was the most densely populated areas on Earth, and one of the most dangerous. Due to an oversight in the treaty that granted Kowloon to the British after the Opium Wars, an old Chinese fort was left technically outside their jurisdiction, but within their borders. Kowloon and Hong Kong basically grew together, but the weird district remained. After World War Two it began filling with residents. A major plus is that within the six and a half acre border, you got to live tax free. The residents built what they needed when they needed, and slowly created an absolute labyrinthine monstrosity of overlapping buildings, pipes, halls, and dwellings. Over 30,000 people lived there. But soon the Triads (organized crime groups) moved in to take advantage of the lawlessness of the zone. It became known as The City of Darkness not only because the construction made sunlight rare, but the harsh living conditions and rampant crime created their own darkness as well. That combined with the questionable engineering and infrastructure eventually led to the British evicting (and fairly compensating I should add) the residents, and demolishing what had become basically one giant, cancerous structure. Why the British never annexed their little oversight 100 years sooner is beyond me. Today there exists a very nice park and public space in its place.

Anyways, the neighborhoods beyond the walled city still exist, and to the northwest of the park are among the lowest income neighborhoods in Hong Kong, and the cheapest place to live. It’s still one of the most densely populated areas on Earth too.

The initial impressions of Hong Kong I had were very similar to two broad phrases I had heard before: one being that Hong Kong is the Manhattan of the South China Sea. The density, frenetic life, similarly towering financial institutions, make that ring fairly true. To be clear though, Hong Kong has a flavor all its own as well. The second favorite saying of people is that a Hong Kong second is a New York minute. As a New Yorker, I’ll reserve judgement that proclamation for now.

We met in Mong Kok for the tour. There only ended up being 5 of us on the tour. For about the next three hours we covered the mostly depressing history and current state of affairs of the neighborhoods in the area.

When I stepped out of the subway the edges of the sidewalks, streets, and pedestrian walkways were completely populated by Indonesian women. They had laid out tarps or cardboard and were socializing and picnicking. I was wondering what was going on. Were they homeless? They didn’t look homeless. Was there a religious pilgrimage going on? Was this a protest?

It was one of the first subjects our guide, Alla, talked about. These women were all housekeepers for wealthier residents, in charge of a household’s cooking and cleaning, and taking care of elderly parents or young kids. Sundays are usually their day off, and they use it basically as a holiday to spend out of the house. Kowloon was mostly Indonesian women, and Hong Kong mostly Filipino. They find whatever space they can – in a park, along a sidewalk, wherever, and setup for the day to picnic, socialize, rest, and have fun.

Despite being a large population of laborers in Hong Kong, and a major economic force allowing for stronger dual income households, these “Foreign Domestic Workers” don’t have many rights. They receive free room and board, but their monthly minimum wage is only about $514 USD, much lower than Hong Kong’s official minimum wage. Oftentimes those rooms might mean sleeping in a living room or toilet. They’re not eligible for citizenship either. Normally after living in Hong Kong for seven years you can apply for citizenship. Not so for them.

They come from Indonesia and The Philippines because even though being treated like a second class citizen in Hong Kong is bad, it’s better than where they came from. They save what they can and mail the rest back home. Sound familiar? That one day of the weekend is the only day they have to themselves, all 300,000 of them.

We walked by countless of those classic Hong Kong high rises, concrete behemoths of stained concrete or tarnished pastels. One woman on the tour asked why they were so run-down looking. Basically what it came down to was that the people cared much more about the inside than the outside. Another woman, a Canadian named Helen, murmured to me that she thought it was terrible they looked so shabby. I told her maybe it was a case of don’t judge a book by its cover. We’ll get to Helen later, but she was really getting on my nerves after a while.

The cheapest neighborhoods in Hong Kong are comparable to mid-range neighborhoods in New York. And even though there are only about 1,400 homeless in the city of 7.3 million, over 200,000 live in abhorrent conditions: they live on illegal, ramshackle rooftop structures, others live in “cage rooms,” which would be a ghetto version of a Japanese capsule hotel, and some even live in stairwells, paying rent for a space where they can only put a mattress and few belongings down at night.

All this: the maids, the living conditions, the high cost of rent and real estate, is unlikely to change soon.

Hong Kong’s legislative body is more and more at the whim of China. Additionally, the wealthiest landowners in Hong Kong hold significant sway. There is also a fear that trying to correct the housing market, by a large affordable housing initiative for instance, could put Hong Kong into a recession. That’s because over 20% of their economy has been built on real estate. It’s a complicated matter but anyone who bought a house recently could plunge into deep debt if housing prices dropped. The government would also earn less money on selling public lands and less money on property taxes. There were a number of other interlocking reasons Alla gave as well, saying there doesn’t seem to be a solution, except don’t build a real estate dependent economy.

During the Kowloon tour we walked through a number of famous markets. In Hong Kong vendors with similar goods often conglomerate and take over a street. We went through the flower street market, a pet market (mostly for goldfish), and a bird market.

We finished up the tour, and Alla recommended a great lunch place. The abalone and eel soup with rice I had was excellent. I wolfed it down quickly because I was hopping on Alla’s afternoon tour of Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong walking tour covered the island’s history in greater depth: from its founding through British colonization, Japanese occupation, and the handover to the Chinese.

It’s funny to note that China used to be a very closed kingdom. The king and government officials considered anyone not Chinese to be barbarians. Additionally, being a Confucian society, they viewed merchants as self-enriching people who were lower in the social strata than farmers, and slightly above slaves. The British, having an unquenchable desire for tea, demanded a port in China be opened to them for trade. Hong Kong, being as far from the capital as you could get, and therefore its inhabitants being the most barbaric of all Chinese, was chosen. However Chinese demands, and British opium resulted in The First Opium War with China, who lost and formally ceded Hong Kong Island to the British. Later a 2nd Opium War occurred and the British took the Kowloon Peninsula as well.

Hong Kong thrived and the population exploded. At the same time the Chinese lost the First Sino-Japanese War, and Britain began to worry about protecting its growing colony. The exploding population also needed room to expand because unsanitary conditions led to an outbreak of the plague. They demanded a 99 year lease of The New Territories, a large chunk of land and islands surrounding Hong Kong and the Kowloon Peninsula, in order to better defend its colony, and allow the population to expand outwards.

99 years later the British stuck to their word and ceded The New Territories back to China, they didn’t technically need to give back Kowloon or Hong Kong, but the infrastructures now being so tied together it didn’t make sense to keep it. They considered decolonizing Hong Kong after WWII, as they did with most of their colonies, but Mao feared Hong Kong’s influence over his Communist dreams for China.

The handover itself was a fraught one. Discussion began in the late 80s, during a very different Communist China. The Soviet Union collapsed, Tienanmen Square happened, there was a market collapse. Over 10% of the population of Hong Kong lost faith and emigrated. Those who stayed were promised a referendum to vote for Chinese or British rule (or maybe independence?), but it never came. The people of Hong Kong never had much say in their fate.

Having talked with some Hong Kong natives, and looking at the difference between Hong Kong and its neighboring China, I think the people of Hong Kong would rather have stuck with the British. Western colonization was a bad event for many people all over the world, but in some places it had major benefits. There’s a reason why hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people from all over Asia have fled to Hong Kong, not China, over the decades to make their fortunes. Even leading up to the handover people were trying to get across the border and settle there to receive a special Hong Kong resident status.

Without the British, Hong Kong may have remained a small fishing village of less than 10,000 people. Hong Kong has its darkness and downsides. Is a quaint, peaceful fishing village better than a vast metropolis that has both enriched millions of lives, and let millions of others exist and subsist in squalor? We’ll leave that to the philosophers.

I learned far far more on the tours that day, and it was informative talking to Alla, a local, about her position on current events, like the Umbrella Revolution. Young people in Hong Kong are particularly unhappy with China’s increasingly stronger thumb on the scales of their government, but the situation seems hopeless. She has immense pride in being from Hong Kong, but at the same time, she’s an avid traveler herself, and doesn’t know if her future resides there.

Chairman Mao and his kingdom.

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Oppa Gangam Style

For most of the world, an indelible image of Seoul was probably created by Psy when he released his song Gangnam Style. I thought I’d check out the district.

And you know what? It’s a little overrated. Gangnam is basically a big, upscale neighborhood where you can see fancy offices and go shopping at Louis Vuitton. Granted, it’s a huge ward so I didn’t cover it all, but there are local markets as well, a temple (Still tired of temples), and Samsung D’light.

Samsung D’light is where you can go look at and use the latest Samsung technology, some of which isn’t available to the public yet. On a couple floors of their store they have some interactive exhibits, and some VR exhibits you can try. I rode a VR roller coaster, played around with some gadgets, and called it good. They also had an Olympic torch collection.

On my way back I checked out a market. Koreans seem to love socks with fun designs. They might look like cartoon characters, or have some fun design on them, or have some special tailoring done to make it look like a little cat or video game character might be hopping out of your sock. I picked up a few as souvenirs.

The Hongdae area around where I was staying is near Hongik University so it’s got some cool shops and galleries to check out, but one thing I particularly liked, and that wasn’t on the map, was a brand new park they had built where some trolley tracks used to run. The sunken park was a little valley of green and quiet among the surrounding neighborhood, and was dedicated to literature. Little cubes with books you could take out and read on the benches peppered a stretch, as well as what looked like some art studios. Along the edges were small cafes, restaurants, and convenience stores. Just another one of Seoul’s huge amount of urban re-engineering projects it looks like they’ve undertaken recently. It’s crazy how much construction there seems to be happening, or looks like it was completely within the past year.

Strange taxis in this neck of the woods.

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Gazing into The Hermit Kingdom

North Korea is a scary place. The Communist dictatorship, cut from the North of the country post-WWII, and made official post-Korean War, is one of the scariest and most mysterious countries on Earth.

The Demilitarized Zone runs across the entire country, four kilometers wide, and stretches into the sea. There’s only one point along the border where North and South territories touch, and the countries can meet face-to-face. So like good capitalists do, it has been turned into a tourist destination.

The only way you can visit it is with one of the few tour companies that have been granted a permit. You’re then bused about an hour to the border, passing a couple sites along the way. I chose my tour group because a North Korean defector had been invited along and we were allowed to ask her any questions during the bus ride. Our guide acted as interpreter, and oftentimes I’m not sure how perfectly her translations were, but it was a very enlightening experience hearing first hand what life was like behind the walls of North Korea, her escape, and how it compared to life in South Korea.

She was middle aged and had escaped in 2013, but it was a long process. Most of her family had starved to death. She was a teacher, and wasn’t being paid for months and months, so she moved to the border of China and began to try and sell things in the market there to the Chinese tourists. She bargained with some smugglers and had to work for them for 2 years to pay for her passage. They smuggled her to China and from there she went to Laos, Thailand, and finally South Korea. We weren’t allowed to take photos of her because if North Korea ever found out that she had defected, her only family member left, her daughter, would be killed. Had she had any other family, North Korea usually kills 3 generations of immediate bloodline for serious crimes. For now, she’s considered missing. People go missing all the time in North Korea, and are presumed dead. Because information networks are poor, and blackouts frequent, it’s not easy to keep track of things.

We asked a lot of questions. Her life was far happier now that she was in South Korea, and she focused most of her energies on trying to earn money to send back to her daughter so that she may survive, and hopefully also be smuggled out. People date and fall in love there, but there doesn’t appear to be much hope that a revolution could happen. The punishment for betrayal is too great, the people too brainwashed, the spy network too large – there are a lot of factors against it.

The Joint Security Area, or JSA, itself is a surreal place. We arrived at Camp Bonifas first, a South Korean and US military base, which in cooperation with the UN and a small presence from a few neutral nations oversee the South Korean side of the JSA and its operations/diplomacy. There we were greeted by PV2 Latta, a big, barrel chested man from New Jersey who seemed to be in good spirits as a glorified tour guide and military escort for us. He gave us a brief orientation inside the camp, then we were shuttled into a military bus and driven a little further to the actual JSA. Within the JSA there are North Korean buildings painted gray, and UN buildings painted blue. Two large headquarters on each side face each other. We walked out and were given a very brief opportunity to snap some photos. I hadn’t brought my good lens and DSLR because the zoom was slightly longer than they allowed. In hindsight I should’ve tried to bring it, because there wasn’t a thorough check. Crappy mobile phone camera it was!

North Korea looked foreboding, but standing slightly hidden behind the buildings in front of us were some very intimidating South Korean soldiers. I never felt in danger…but there’s an odd sensation being there, a thick tension in the air.

We were then allowed to enter the center blue building, where the line runs right through a table. Two more soldiers were inside: one standing at the head of the Western side of the table, which we couldn’t pass, the other standing in front of the door to North Korea. You don’t want to go through that door. Before entering the JSA you have to sign a waiver basically for everything from death to abduction, and saying if you’re fool enough to go over to North Korea you’re not the UN’s, USA’s, or South Korea’s responsibility anymore.

So in those brief minutes inside that building I technically crossed over the border in the center of the room. At the same time, a Chinese tourist group was forming outside the North Korean building, and more North Korean guards appeared. I snapped a bunch of photos of them. They didn’t look too happy to see me. Unlike the South Koreans who sported large, dark, aviator sunglasses, the North Koreans had no eye-wear, and squinted at you, trying to give you an evil eye maybe.

We were quickly ushered outside, back to where we stood at the start, and we all looked out at the Chinese tourists, and they were looking at us, each other snapping photos of each other, surrounded by soldiers of opposing sides in a war that never ended. A very surreal place. What a strange world we’ve constructed. There’s even a gift shop for it.

Heading back we passed other sites – an empty village across the river that was North Korean propaganda. It had loudspeakers that ran 24/7 and a 600lb flag atop a massive tower. We passed bridges meant for the unification but would never be used. The Kims had mined their end to be sure of that.

There be North Korea.

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Giving me the old North Korean Stink Eye.

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Top of the World, Ma!

I’m going to be in great shape after this trip.

I decided it would be a good idea to do a hike in Bukhansan National Park, which they say is the most visited national park in the world. They also say it’s the most visited national park in the world because not only is it nearby Seoul, but there’s a lack of things to do in Seoul once you’re done with palaces, temples, and clubbing. Not exactly untrue, but it’s feeling like you need to search harder for things that are worthwhile in Seoul than Tokyo. Of course, I had done more research before going to Tokyo than Seoul, so there might be a bias there. Regardless, people who say that probably need to branch out a bit, because there’s a lot to do in Seoul…just maybe it’s more exciting for travelers.

Anyways, the mountain. I thought I’d go to the top of course, 636.5 meters up. It’s not the height that’ll get you, but the angle of elevation. The path I took rose swiftly, and it was a steep step from one rock to the next most of the way. I’m not in bad shape, but I gotta hand it to the older folks I saw up there who must do this often. It’s not a walk in the park. My legs were quite spent by the time I hit the peak.

Near the top as you approach Bugandae (the highest peak) you pass through an old wall that once protected Seoul from invasion. After that wall it gets even steeper and you need to grab some cables that had been anchored into the mountainside to help you with the final 70 meters or so.

The view is worth it. Once you clear the trees and see the rounded boulders of the other peaks, and the horizon line fading into a haze you’re probably gazing out into a 360 degree view of one of the most beautiful views in Korea. And one of the best picnic spots, as made apparent by a couple groups of old folks laying out tarps and chowing down on their lunch.

At the very summit I had passed a Korean guy, who unbeknownst to me, took some photos of me from below. He got my attention at the peak and texted me the photos. I didn’t have service up there, but they don’t appear to have come through, sadly. Maybe when I’m back in the states they’ll magically appear. One can hope. Oh well.

The kilometers down were taxing on some different muscles, but went by quicker, and soon I was back on the bus headed for Seoul. The whole endeavor, hostel and back, had taken about 8 hours, most of my day. When I returned I rested for a while, then decided to walk around Hongdae again, now that it was night.

The neighborhood definitely changes at night. Bars open up, the young crowd is out in droves, eating, drinking, and especially shopping. Tons of stores and carts line various arcades offering almost anything you could want, so long as it’s in vogue. It was a good area to hear some street musicians perform too. I grabbed a beer, hung out a while, listened, watched a couple street comedians doing some physical comedy, and headed back. I was feeling beat from the day so I had a low key night in the lounge with some hostel folk and turned in.

Bukhansan National Park

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