Dream as if you'll live forever, live as if you'll die tomorrow.

James Dean

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Hwaseong Fortress

A few weeks ago on my trip to Jeolla Nam Do, I met a lady who lives in Suwon. It was big joke on the trip because her name is also Cheryl M and she is also Canadian so I kept referring to her as the other Cheryl M. Anyway, Suwon is a city just south of Seoul and she told me about these fortress walls that surround it. Since I love fortress walls I decided that I must check it out. When I looked it up in my trusty Lonely Planet book I discovered that not only did it look beautiful but it was in fact a Unesco World Heritage Site. I decided that I must pay it a visit. I called up my friend CJ, and sure enough she was game for the adventure.

We caught a train to Suwon and 1 1/2 hours later we were there. We knew we had to go to a place called Paldalmun which was the south gate into the fortress, with steps leading up to the walls, but we weren't exactly sure how to get there. We headed for the tourist info booth where we met a very kind man who spoke no english. Somehow we managed to explain what we wanted and he gave a small slip of paper with the bus number that we needed to take. We were off - but where to catch the bus. Outside the train station was a row of taxi's but no buses to be seen. I did however see a man in a straw hat, with a map and I assumed that he was going to the same destination - so we followed him. Sure enough he led us right to our bus. We were a little concerned that we wouldn't know where to get off the bus but it turns out you couldn't miss it as there was a giant stone gateway in the middle of the road. Also the straw hat man got off here so we knew we were in the right place.
Hwaseong fortress was built in the late 1700's by King Jeongjo to house the remains of his late father, Prince Sado. Prince Sado was locked by his father inside a rice chest where he died. It was punishment for disobeying his command to commit suicide. Parents were so unreasonable back then. High above the fortress are the walls that total a distance of 6km around the perimeter.

At Paldamun we climbed the very steep stairs up to the walls where we began our journey under black skies and the threat of rain. Despite the grey skies the weather was very hot and humid and within no time we were exhausted but determined to walk the entire length. Off in the distance we could see a fairly large mountain with a pagoda at the top and we knew at some point we would have to climb it. We journeyed on toward the mountain ever fearful of the sky that was getting darker and darker.

The wall itself was very beautiful and well maintained. Every so often there would be look out stops with pagodas and cannons all strategically placed for the soldiers to keep watch for the enemy, the Japanese. Given the height of the wall we had excellent views over the city. After about an hour of walking we noticed the sky getting even darker and we started to feel a few drops. At this point there were some stairs taking you off the wall and I noticed some shops selling umbrellas. Since I wasn't smart enough to bring mine I thought I had better go and buy one. We still had at least an hour of walking. I bought a lovely pink umbrella and we climbed back up the stairs and continued our walk. Sure enough, simply because I bought an umbrella, the skies cleared and the rain stopped. We continued on with that mountain looming in front of us.

We had been walking for almost 2 hours when suddenly we were there. At the mountain. There were stairs straight up to the top and it seemed like an endless climb. To make it more difficult the stairs were cut from stone on the side of the hill so they weren't exactly even or evenly spaced. Somehow we made it to the top, did our Rocky dance to the amusement of others there, and looked out over the city. Down below was the fortress and we knew we had reached the end.

We walked a little further where we found the stairs down and signs to the entrance into the fortress. Outside the fortress there were crowds of people and some sort of festival going on. We got there in time to see this crazy man doing tricks on the tightrope. We watched for a little while and then decided that we were too tired and hungry to stay any longer. We made our way back to the road where we caught the bus back to the train station and the train home to Daejeon. Soemhow we managed to right bus to the train station as this time we were without the services of straw hat man.It was a fun day and definitly worth the time and effort.

Since I have complained about them a few times I have included a picture of a squat toilet. This way those of you who have never seen one will now know what I am talking about when I complain. I have actually gotten used to them and they are not so bad.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

I've got Seoul

So today I decided that it was time to get out of Daejeon and pay another visit to the big city of Seoul. My last visit to Seoul was less than satisfying. I ended that trip feeling like I hadn't seen any of the city and looking back on it, it was because I hadn't. This time I decided to travel alone. That way I could follow my own agenda and visit the places that I wanted to see. So at 9:08 am I boarded the superfast KTX train to make the 50 minute journey to Seoul. Going to Seoul is like going to a different world compared to Daejeon. For one thing there are foreigners (aka white people speaking english) everywhere. The city is very tourist friendly with english signs on everything and the subways announce all the stops in english. It's a very easy city to manouver your way through. I arrived at Seoul station at 10am and decided that my first stop should be to one of the many Palaces spread throughout the city. According to my trusty Lonely Planet Guide to Seoul there was one close by. How convenient, it was only one subway stop away. I navigated my way through the throngs of people and managed to push my way onto the subway. One stop later I elbowed my way back off the subway. I had reached my destination - DEOKSUGUNG PALACE.
This palace is situated right smack in the center of the city. Although it had a bit of a park like surrounding it was a little strange to be looking at these ancient buildings and then look up to see the skyscrapers behind it. The Palace was typical of most in Korea with the main building and alot of little buildings around it. They were all traditional Korean style with ornate designs and angles. What was more interesting than the buildings though was the ceremony taking place in front of the palace - the changing of the guards.

This takes place at various times throughout the day and is done with much ceremony (for the tourists I am sure). The guards are dressed in very ornate, traditional Korean clothes. They had a man playing on a giant drum while another group played flutes and various instruments while the guards change places. It was interesting to watch but what was more interesting was watching the people afterwards running up to have their pictures taken next to one of the guards. It was all the Koream people doing this while the white people hovered on the sidelines debating whether they would look too foolish doing it too.

After an hour or two of wandering around this place I decided that it was time for the real reason why I came to Seoul - INSADONG. Insadong is an area of Seoul that is known for it's shopping. Bascially it's a giant market with stores and vendors selling everything from traditonal crafts to tacky souvenirs.
Before I headed to Insadong I thought I had better take a sidetrip to the restroom. I stopped into the one at the subway station (it's not like Toronto it's actually safe to use the toilets in the subways here). Anyway, I wait my turn, enter the stall, of course it's a squat toilet, and on the wall beside it is a big, red button with an arrow pointing to it and some korean writing. After I finish I didn't see any levers to flush so I thought hmmm maybe that is what the button is about. So I push it. Next thing I know there is a man talking to me in Korean through a speaker that I had failed to notice before. That's when I see the button on the floor to flush the toilet so I pressed it and ran as fast as I could out of the bathroom. In my hasty retreat I could see all these Korean women looking at me like I was crazy and I could hear the man still talking through the speaker. Thank God I will never see these people again.

Back to Insadong - it was marvellous. Basically it consisted of one main street, about a km long, full of shops and street vendors selling various crafts. It was packed with people but I had the best time wandering from shop to shop looking at the variety of goods. I had gone there with the intention of buying some gifts for people and I was not disappointed with what I found. The only downfall to the visit was the heat. The sun was out in full force and it was hot.

The highlight of my visit to Insadong was a certain purchase that I made. I wandered into this store that sold these beautiful printed fabrics, wooden carvings and fans. At the back of the store they had these hangings that were bordered by fabric and then hand painted on top. One in particular immediatly drew me in and I knew I wanted it. I looked at the price and it said 200,000 w ($200). I knew it would be pricey but that was a little steep. I wander the store but my eye keeps going back to that print. I wanted it. I kept going over in my mind the reasons why I should get it. Sure it was expensive but I could afford it and this was something that I would keep forever as a memory of this exeperience. I talked myself into and I told the woman I wanted it. She said she would only take cash and I was like who carries 200,000 w around with them. That's when she said "No it's only 20,000 ($20)." I had misread the label. I now have this beautiful print hanging on my wall, bought at a reasonable price.

With my purchases clutched in my hand, sunburnt and exhausted, I decided it was time to go home. I made my way back to the train station and boarded the KTX back to Daejeon. On my journey home I decided that I was very lucky to live where I do. I love Daejeon - it has everything I need minus the crowds of Seoul, but when I want a taste of the big city it's only 50 minutes away.