Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Great Outings in Seoul with a Dog: Yongma Waterfall Park and Namsan

After a long hiatus, I am going to attempt to finish all the remaining posts I have backed up before my big move to LA next month. First, I have some great photos to share from a couple of outings we had last May with Kongi the wonder dog - Namsan and Yongmasan!

Yongmasan is one of several popular hiking destinations within the Seoul city limits. It is a short, relatively easy climb to the 348 meter summit, and the trail continues on to another easy nearby peak, Achasan. Best of all, at the base of the mountain some clever engineers have constructed a giant artificial waterfall. The lush green backdrop and three sets of falls cascading into a large aquamarine pool create a Maui-like scene right here in Seoul.

Knowing that the falls are only turned on at certain times, I had done my research ahead of time to determine the exact time we should arrive in order to catch the action. According to the information given at the official Seoul tourism website VisitKorea.or.kr, the falls were scheduled to turn on every day at noon, 2 pm, and 4 pm:

I arranged for us to arrive just before 2 pm. It was a national holiday (Buddha's birthday), and the park was filled with Christians having some sort of rally.

We wended our way through a sea of cars and picnic mats to the base of the falls, where we sat and patiently waited for the water to turn on. After 2 pm came and went with no action, Unni observed a discreet sign hidden in the shrubbery off to one side:

VisitKorea.or.kr, you big fat liar! Turned out we'd have to wait another hour for our waterfall, while listening to the  harsh tones of Christians shouting out raffle numbers over loudspeakers.

We decided to kill time by taking the hiking trail up the mountain. After about 15 minutes the sounds of the Christian rally finally faded to nothing behind us, but then we rounded a ridgeline and heard the loudspeakers from an equally obnoxious Buddhist rally floating up from the next valley. Eventually we climbed high enough to escape the noise.

The trail wound through some nice shady woods before climbing up a seriously intense series of stairs, then opened out onto a rocky incline leading up to a pagoda; the whole trail seemed designed to offer a variety of excellent photo opportunities.

Mindful of the time, we turned back at the pagoda. When we returned the Christians were still carrying on, playing some sort of game that involved lining up and shouting out commands on the loudspeakers, and the waterfalls had finally turned on.

The pool was weakly cordoned off by a shoulder-high fence with gaps at either end wide enough for a child to easily slip through. There were about a dozen kids splashing around the falls, while the adults sat and watched from the other side of the fence. I was tempted to hop the fence myself, but I didn't see anyone over age 12 in there, and I didn't want to be the Ugly American.

So we sat around watching for a while as Kongi patiently endured the caresses of one little girl who was absolutely smitten with her. Eventually I gave in to the temptation, slipped off my shoes and clambered awkwardly over the fence for a quick splash under the nearest waterfalls.

The falls cut of sharply at the end of the hour, and we headed home, leaving the Christians to carry on with their noisy rally in peace.


A few weeks after our Yongma adventure, my friend Tracy was visiting from the US, and we decided to have an outing to Namsan, a small green mountain in the heart of the city that is a mecca for dating couples and a must-see stop first-time visitors to Seoul.

Namsan is often compared to New York's Central Park. The description in accurate in the sense that it is a fairly large swath of green planted right in the middle of the urban jungle, and there are a variety of trails and attractions sprinkled throughout. And it is dog-friendly.

First we walked through the "wild-flower garden," which was disappointingly barren of fresh blooms at the moment, and discovered the mythical short stretch of "wilderness trail" in the park.

The "wilderness trail" dumped out after about 200 meters in an obligatory excercise equipment-and-pagoda rest area. Tracy and I waited there for a while as Unni moved her car, and Kongi charmed the pants off of a few elderly people resting in the shade.

Kongi and Tracy!

After that we headed back across the flower garden to the "foot massage path," a stretch of embedded stones upon which visitors are encouraged to tread bare-foot for a therapeutic foot massage. Tracy and Unni tried it and reported that it was quite painful in places.

After the foot massage path, we located the "Shilgae-cheon," a pleasantly manicured bubbling brook running beside the path offering more good opportunities to show off our photogenic doggie.

Our original plan was to follow the trail up to the summit, which I have visited many times before by less circuitous routes. However, by the time we reached the first freshwater spring the sun was beginning to feel oppressive, so the gang took a vote and decided to head back to the car. Kongi, of course, would have been happy to go on all day, but she graciously appeased the wishes of her two-legged companions.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Greta was a Bad Kitty

The other day Unni brought home a single, solitary goldfish about the size of my thumb, in a little glass jar with a plant floating in it. I objected that the fish would be lonely all by itself, and wasn't the jar a little small for it? Unni said there was a reason why this fish was by itself, but she wouldn't say what it was. She did agree to transfer the fish and its floating plant to a larger ceramic bowl.

I then reminded Unni that we have a Japanese cat, and cats and Japanese are both known to enjoy sushi. Before leaving for work, we sternly instructed Greta that the fish was to be a friend and not a meal. Greta has never been very enthusiastic about food or climbing up on the counters, and the fish was so well hidden in the roots of the floating plant, I think in our hearts neither of us actually thought anything would happen.

When I came home that evening,  the fish was not in its bowl. There was no sign of any kind of violence or splashing. I looked around in all the places Greta hides her treasures but could not find it. Greta was sleeping up in her cat tower. But a little later on, she came down and started sniffing around the bed. With an awful sense of foreboding, I went over and discovered the dead goldfish under my pillow, stuck to the blankets by a wad of congealed fish blood.

Menace to society

I called Unni immediately and told her what happened. She sounded sad, but philosophically remarked that it must have been that fish's fate. When she came home I pointed to the counter where I had wrapped the fish in a tissue, but she said she didn't want to see it. She asked me to take it somewhere and bury it.

Unni explained that she had heard from a friend that there is a Buddhist saying that if a lady keeps a single goldfish in her home, she will find her soul-mate. That was why she had bought the fish that Greta had so hastily dispatched. We sat in silence contemplating that for a while, and then I pointed out that Unni is Christian, not Buddhist.

The next day I took the fish out to the grassy area behind our apartment and buried it. I said a few words over the grave and marked it with some stones and pretty flowers.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Great Outings in Seoul with a Dog: Seongbukcheon (성북천) and Cheonggyecheon (청계천)

In part two of our ongoing series on places to take your dog in Seoul, we introduce another of Kongi's favorite walking spots, Seongbukcheon (Seongbuk Stream), and its more famous cousin Cheonggyecheon.

Your guides, Changmi (right) and Kongi
Both streams feature nice comfortable walking paths, creatively designed fountains, and a variety of flowering plants to sniff.

Cheonggyecheon starts off near the south end of Gwanghwamun Plaza and continues due east. The first part of the stream is the most developed and artfully landscaped but is usually full of people, especially on the weekends. Kongi and I usually stick to the less populated eastern section of the stream.

Me and my doggie at Cheonggyecheon

Unni proudly walking Kongi along Cheonggyecheon

Kongi likes to loiter under the bridges and check out the carp that congregate in the deeper water. She gets a lot of attention, especially from retired older gentlemen who praise her beauty and encourage her to try to catch some carp.

Hanging out under a bridge, eastern Cheonggyecheon
One of many local art pieces decorating Cheonggyecheon

Cheonggyecheon is joined by Seongbukcheon after about 4.5 km. From here you can turn north and follow the walking path along Seongbukcheon all the way to Hansung University Station. This path is used mainly as an exercise path by the neighborhood residents, and it is a good place to meet other doggies.  
Kongi admiring a river heron, Seongbukcheon

A special behind-the-scenes look at the making of this blog post
The path along Cheonggyecheon continues for 3.5 km from start to finish and is a great setting for a long, leisurely Sunday afternoon stroll. There is no need to worry about your dog overheating, since there are frequent opportunities to dunk her in the cool water. There are also a number of fountains in and around the stream that operate on regular timed schedules.

Cooling our heels in Seongbukcheon

Pretty fountain near the southern end of Seongbukcheon
Another fountain on Seongbukcheon

Yet another fountain on Seongbukcheon

Near the northern end of Seongbukcheon, you pass just south of Sungshin Women's University, where there is a sort of mini-Daehagno with lots of tasty food options, cafes, and shops. Just upstream from that, as the stream bends to the west, there are some outdoor eating options on a broad sidewalk along a quiet side street on the northern side of the stream. Unni and I like to frequent a coffee shop in this area called "꿈꾸는 콩" (The Dreaming Bean), which is operated by a good-looking young guy who seems plucked out of a Korean drama. There are a few tables set up outside, and the shopkeep seems very dog-friendly.

Kongi eyeing a fellow canine with suspicion

Next to this coffee shop are a number of eateries serving cold noodles and fried chicken; these also have sidewalk tables and are good options if you want to grab a beer and snack with your dog in the late afternoon. Unni reports that it is also possible to observe entertaining late-night drunken antics along this stretch of sidewalk any night of the week.

Kongi begging for table scraps

If you've make it this far north, you should also stop by the famous Unni's ceramic painting studio, Cerawork! The shop is on the north side of the stream just past the big Hi-Mart. You can take a lesson in ceramic painting, using your dog as a model! Just tell them Changmi sent you. If Unni tries to say that no dogs are allowed in the shop, you can just show her this incriminating photo: 

Here are some maps:

Total course length: 8km (Click image to enlarge)

Close-up of northern Seongbukcheon

 Stay tuned for next time, when we tackle Yongmasan Waterfall Park! Here's a sneak preview:

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Great Outings in Seoul with a Dog: Bukaksan

In the brief time that is left to me before I move to the US, I am endeavoring to spend as much time with our dog Kongi (actually Unni's sister's dog) as possible. I bought a fashionable carry-bag so that I can take her with me on the bus or train, and we have been going on special outings every weekend. Since there seems to be no information on Seoul's official tourism pages about which places allow dogs, I thought I would share some of the best places we have found in which to walk or play.

Let Kongi be your guide to the best-smelling flower patches in Seoul!
Today we will be introducing the series of trails around Bukaksan, probably our favorite place so far. The southern end can be accessed via the trailhead near the Samcheonggak villa, or by following Seoul Seonggak north from Hansung University station. From the north, you can access the trails from the Bukak Pavilion or the Haneul-Gyo bridge on the Bukak Skyway road.

This is a great place to take a dog because not only is it less crowded for some reason, but it also has some sites of historical interest, allowing Kongi to learn something about the history of her homeland.

For instance, the western edge of the park features a scenic stretch of the old city wall, also known as Seoul Seonggwak.

Also, one section of the trail known as the "Kim Shin-Jo route" (in red on the map) passes by the site of the famous 1968 gun battle between South Korean security forces and a group of 31 North Korean commandos who had snuck all the way down from the border, intent on assassinating the President (this episode is most memorably depicted in the movie Shilmido). Kim Shin-Jo is the name of the only commando who was captured alive, who was later rehabilitated into society and became a Protestant minister. The site is dominated by a large rock formation pockmarked by bullets from the gunfight. Each bullet mark has been helpfully highlighted in white paint.

The trail generally winds uphill as it moves northeast, passing through a series of valleys and climbing several long Escher-esque staircases. Each landing features a nice wooden bench, tempting frequent breaks. This is a great spot in which to crack open a beer and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere.

At the northern end of the park, just before the Haneul-Gyo bridge, there is a scenic lookout picnic area with nice views of the mountains to the north of Seoul.

There is also a workout area with exercise equipment for people who still aren't tired out from climbing all those stairs.

From there, the trail joins the Bukaksan Skyway road. There is a nice walking path along this road that offers some good views of Seoul. This can be followed east all the way back down to the 1162 bus stop near the Haneul-Hanmadang and Seongbuk Park, another of Kongi's favorite hangouts.

Stay tuned for more adventures with Kongi in the near future!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Hey everybody! Nobody's guarding the southern border anymore!

Maybe this is old news to some people, but I was impressed by an article on Ju Sung Ha's blog last week in which he made the rather startling observation that North Korea has de-prioritized the guarding of its southern border to the point that the only real obstacle to southward-bound defection may be on the South Korean side.

In the old days, patrolling the southern border was considered one of the most vital military tasks, so only soldiers from the most trustworthy classes were posted there, and they were well-supplied and compensated. But as northward defections into China have become more of a problem, it seems that the regime has shifted most of those elite troops to the north, leaving the southern border in the hands of the least favored military units, composed mostly of starving kids in ill-fitting uniforms.

Ju's blog and other defector sources have reported much in recent years about the sorry state of the majority of the North's troops, who frequently steal food from civilians and in some cases are reportedly so malnourished they no longer have the strength to control their bowels and have taken to wearing diapers. These half-starved soldiers who stare across the border all day, collecting South Korean propaganda fliers for disposal and illicitly listening to South Korean radio, could be prime candidates for defection.

As a policy suggestion, Mr. Ju proposes that South Korea clear "defection paths" through the minefields on its side of the border, leaving the anti-tank mines and barbed wire fences in place but removing the anti-personnel mines and posting signs to show the northerners where it is safe to cross. The soldiers on the northern side would presumably know or be able to find out where their own landmines are. He astutely anticipates that the strongest objections to this plan would probably come from South Koreans afraid of the social disruption caused by waves of refugee soldiers. To these naysayers, he advises growing some balls:
As a reporter who has experienced life in both North and South, I have observed that the northern side seems to always reach for the sky with nothing but bluff and bluster, while the South has actual capability but no confidence.

If only they knew the reality; the South with its tremendous degree of openness can afford to be shaken 10 meters from side to side without collapsing, but the North is so extremely isolated that it cannot stand to wobble even one meter.

If the landmines are removed from the DMZ, it is the North that will really be in an uproar.
Of course, the removal of landmines in the South is nothing new. South Korea has periodically removed swathes of them in the past, not to encourage defection but to protect its own citizens and soldiers from stray mines that get washed away from their original positions due to flooding. Clearly both Koreas long ago stopped worrying about the possibility of an infantry invasion from across the border. But if this new development reported by Mr. Ju is true, it adds an interesting new element to the equation.

The obvious question which Mr. Ju does not address is how the North Korean authorities might react to such a move. Clearing defection paths and posting signs would certainly not go unnoticed, and the North would use any means at its disposal to shut them down. Even if the vast majority of soldiers want to defect, all it takes is one brown-nose standing in a tower with a machine gun to dissuade them.

They would also probably not let the South Koreans off easily, although their official response might be interesting. After all, it's not the same as the South's loudspeakers, which the North could condemn as psychological warfare and threaten to use for artillery target practice. It's hard to think of a persuasive argument for how the removal of landmines constitutes a "dastardly plot to disrupt peace on the peninsula."

Sunday, April 22, 2012

World's Most Precious Kitty Coming to America!

It's official! Greta and I are moving to LA in August. I will be starting my PhD in Polisci/IR, and Greta will be continuing her goodwill mission to promote Japanese feline culture and refinement around the world.

Greta flew in an airplane once before, in 2009 when we moved to Korea, but that was only a two hour flight and I doubt she remembers it now. I sat down with her and patiently explained everything was going to happen, and answered her questions.

If the pilots are not kitties, how can we be sure we'll land on our feet?
And I'm not allowed to pee the whole time?
Greta understandably has some anxieties about moving to another country. The last move was hard on her at first, but she eventually embraced her new home. She is studying up to learn everything she can about her mommy's homeland.
This is where we're going to live? How will we both fit in such
a small two-dimensional space?
What's this about tired, poor, huddled masses? I am a Kamogawa princess
from an ancient bloodline. I do not huddle with the masses.
If we move to America, can I get a handgun?
America, prepare yourselves for a major cuteness injection this August!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Wedding Crashers

One of the most special experiences we had in Cambodia was when we were spontaneously invited to join in some random strangers' wedding reception.

We were on our way back from Tonle Sap when we spotted a big wedding pavilion in front of a road-side restaurant.

We asked the driver of our minibus to stop, and Jongshil found a boy who could speak English and asked him if it would be okay for us to take some pictures. The next thing we knew we were being ushered into the pavilion and invited to join the feast.

I was seated next to Professor Lee. The music was playing too loudly for us to understand each other, but Professor Lee snatched up a menu and scribbled notes to me when he had something to say. "I feel like crying," he wrote, and "I can see these people's happiness," and "A magnificent rooster has appeared."

I don't know how long this party had been going on, but no one was dancing when we first got there. I saw this as an opportunity for us to earn our invitation. Kanjangnim must have had the same idea, and after a couple of beers he got up and started dancing by himself. I immediately joined in, and several other wedding guests soon followed our lead. Before long we had a little scrum of people dancing around and around in a circle in front of the speakers.

Unni recorded some low-res video of the scene on her smartphone.

 By the time we left an hour later, our little circle of dancers had grown to about 20 people and an auxiliary dance circle had formed halfway across the room. Party mission accomplished, we took our leave, but not before handing over a little Korean-style wedding gift.

A few weeks later, after we had all returned to our normal lives back in Seoul, Unni and I received another unexpected wedding invitation - to the nuptuals of Professor Lee's son. The ceremony was held at a very tasteful "house wedding" hall in the Kangnam district of Seoul.

Like most Korean weddings, the ceremony and the reception were both extremely brief, although this one was fancier than most and included a proper multi-course meal instead of a buffet. The posh surroundings and the fact that most of us had never met the bride or the groom did not stop our gang from being our usual rambunctious selves. We were easily the most demanding guests at the reception. We continuously harassed the wait staff to bring us more booze, Jongshil redistributed the items on our plates to match our body types, and as we were leaving we scooped up as many flower arrangements as we could carry.

I continue to marvel at this little group of friends we have assembled. They are like the fanciest group of overgrown children I've ever encountered. Half the time I can't decide whether to feel honored to be included or embarrassed to be seen with them. I look forward to our next adventure.