Day Six: Ae Ran Won, Hiking Inwangsan, Namdaemun, Date Night: Protests, Chamsutgol, Seoul Tower

Our day started out with a ride on the subway and this fantastic t-shirt:

That got us smiling, and it only got better from there.

The night before, S. suggested we spend some time outside of the city. When I told her that I really enjoyed Jogyesa, she said that the temples in the parks and mountains would probably be even more lovely. When we first planned our trip, we intended to spend at least one day hiking…perhaps with a daytrip outside Seoul, or in Seoul’s (very large) Bukhansan National Park.

As the week went on, though, we started filling up the days with appointments and meetings related to K. Taking a five-hour hike, complete with travel time to and from a park, didn’t fit in anywhere. We’d already used our open day for the DMZ tour. So we took S.’s suggestion, and looked around at the local mountain parks (there are several of them right inside Seoul…it’s amazing…one minute you’re surrounded by skyscrapers, the next minute you’re climbing a forested mountain). We looked at the possible choices, and chose Inwangsan. It has Buddhist and Shamanist shrines, unusual rock formations, and is the mountain backdrop to both the royal palaces and the president’s residence.

First, though, another important appointment.

When we were still deciding to adopt, and where to adopt from, I read a book that changed a lot of my perspectives about adoption, adoption from South Korea, and especially the relationships in the adoption triad: birth parents (also called first parents), adopted children, and adoptive parents. The book is called I Wish For You a Beautiful Life: Letters from the Korean Birth Mothers of Ae Ran Won to Their Children. The letters were collected by Mrs. Han Sang-soon, the director of Ae Ran Won (a home for unwed mothers).

Mrs. Han has spoken around the world on behalf of unwed mothers, and for years she has advocated for unwed mothers and birth mothers in Korea…working to improve their rights, their opportunities, and also working to promote understanding of how and why women are faced with the unbearable choices leading to adoption. I admire her very much. Because of her, and her book, so much of what I believed I knew about adoption has changed. It’s very difficult to understand the choices first mothers make when they choose not to raise their children, but through her book you get some understanding of their lives, the heartache of their situations, the love they have for their children.

Mrs. Han in front of Ae Ran Won:

From her introduction to I Wish For You a Beautiful Life:

In Korea, there is much misunderstanding of birth mothers, as well as prejudice against them. They are often criticized for not showing responsibility for their babies and for being concerned only about their well-being. It is thought that most of them are only interested in hiding their pregnancies, and that they go into the hospital to give birth with great fear.

Some people look with contempt on those birth mothers who agree to send their babies away after a short counseling session with social workers from an adoption agency. These mothers often appear to be apathetic, almost numb, and they remain aloof from their problems, even denying them. Some young women just disappear from the hospital and, in some cases, if they can’t find any help, they abandon their babies in the street, hoping that someone will find them and take care of them.

I would like to emphasize that such behavior by birth mothers is a sign of even deeper conflicts than those of the young women who agonize about placing their babies for adoption. I believe that such behavior is defensive, and is the result of the scars and pain of the negative experiences in their lives, their unexpected pregnancies, and the shock of giving birth without any preparation. These feelings eventually lead them to think that they are helpless and alone.

Furthermore, it is extremely difficult for the mothers to make proper judgments or display sensible behavior when they are numb. That numbness is brought about by the shock and unforgettable sadness they experience. Along with this, I understand that it might be natural for the birth mothers to try to hide from the disapproving stares of society. I think their inability to cope and their subsequent desire to escape reality are the same as that of anyone who has to face an unbearable situation.

I wonder how they feel deep inside when the cold stares have faded away and the incident is all but forgotten by others. It is then that the wounds and suppressed emotions of grief, guilt, and yearning surface again. It is precisely these feelings, if not treated properly, that cause much harm in their lives. On the other hand, if these feelings are treated properly and the mothers recover, I believe that they will be able to come out into the light from the darkness and make a new start.

We find that a helpful part of recovery is for each birth mother to express her feelings in the form of a letter to her child. It is my great pleasure to select some of these letters from our files at Ae Ran Won in order to share them with adopted children and their families. My staff and I hope that people who read these letters will better understand birth mothers, and we are honored that the profits from this book will benefit our work at ARW. It is fitting that the stories courageously told by some birth mothers will help other women on their journeys.

Through this book I have wanted to share a clear picture of the reality of unwed mothers and the indescribable pain that they undergo when they send their babies away for adoption. Furthermore, I would like to deepen the understanding of adopted children who grow up in foreign countries and in cultures different from Korea. I would like as best as I can to help them answer the nagging question of “why.” In doing so, I hope that their feelings of rejection will begin to heal.

The book:

When I knew we’d be traveling to Seoul, I emailed Mrs. Han and asked if we could visit Ae Ran Won. I had heard she was welcoming of visitors, but I never expected the warmth and generosity of her invitation. She asked me to call and arrange a visit time once we were in Seoul, and after a few days of phone tag I was able to make an appointment for the morning of our sixth day.

We arrived that morning, and we were invited for tea in Mrs. Han’s office. I had imagined a brief introduction and a tour, but instead we sat down for a long conversation. She told us about the work being done at Ae Ran Won, and about all the programs they’ve created to assist unwed mothers. When she started as the director of Ae Ran Won, less than 20 years ago, 80% of women chose adoption and 20% chose to raise their children. Now, with the support of ARW, 81% of mothers are choosing to raise their children. Given the long history of Korea’s disapproval of and discrimination against unwed mothers, that is an amazing accomplishment.

The entryway to ARW:

The painting in the entryway:

ARW doesn’t just provide a home for women facing a crisis pregnancy. They provide individual and group counseling, job training, and tutoring to attain at least a high school diploma. After their babies are born, whether or not they choose to parent, mothers stay at the home for 100 days of counseling, job training, and help planning their futures.

The computer training lab:

After that time, mothers are able to live in a group home for one year, plus six months more if needed, to complete their job training and diploma. Mothers get assistance with finding a job and a place to live.

Many mothers have difficulty supporting themselves and a baby on their own, especially since rent in Seoul is so high and many of these mothers don’t have enough savings to pay for rent while they get on their feet. With that in mind, a new branch of ARW is opening this summer. It’s a self-supported group home with subsidized rent for one year. The mothers pay their own living expenses, but save the rest of their wages for their future independent living.

Also, while mothers are working full time, they have access to ARW’s “Happy Mothers” program. The HM program connects moms with emergency daycare or crisis care, in case a work or job emergency occurs and they, as single parents, don’t have the support they need to care for their child.

Isn’t that an incredible program? Mrs. Han is a gentle, distinguished, incredibly graceful woman, and she speaks with equal grace. Still, even she couldn’t disguise the disappointment she feels for what the government of South Korea has done for unwed mothers. She spoke about how the birth rate of South Korea is around 1.1%, and that most people feel it should be higher, that more people should be having babies. Still, there is no support for unwed mothers to keep their children, because people believe it will bring too much trouble for the society’s future. The government does little or nothing to assist single moms, so ARW fundraises on their own.

(By the way, if you’d like to donate to ARW you can do so directly from their website or through this fund to support unwed mothers in South Korea.)

I kept thinking we were keeping Mrs. Han too long (she’s such a busy woman!), but she assured us we could stay and talk as long as we liked. When it came time to take a tour, she showed us around herself. We met several of the women staying at ARW, and their adorable children, but out of respect for their privacy I didn’t take any photos with people or babies in them. These photos make ARW look somewhat empty and dark, but it’s not…it’s just that I couldn’t take photos where people were gathered, and most people were gathered in sunny, open rooms.

The dining room:

Going upstairs (there are two upstairs floors) with Mrs. Han:

The new nursery room (the number of mothers choosing to raise their children is so high now that they’ve had to rearrange the floors and rooms of ARW to accommodate more children. This room was almost ready.):

Bathrooms:

One of the dorm-like rooms for the residents of ARW:

Inside one of the rooms (there is no bed because sleeping mats are often used in Korea. During the day they are folded or rolled away):

Laundry room on the roof:

Looking into the nursery area:

Leaving Ae Ran Won:

I’m so glad we spent that time at Ae Ran Won. We’ve both done a lot of reading about adoption…I think our ideas and assumptions about almost everything have changed over time, but visiting Ae Ran Won made first moms very real to us, made K’s first mom very real to us. It also made us even more committed to supporting Ae Ran Won, and working for equal rights for unwed mothers in South Korea and the world. We’re adopting a child, yes, but we believe that first families should stay together whenever it’s possible. Certainly we can work toward a world when what keeps children and parents apart isn’t discrimination, denial of resources, or desperation. Mrs. Han has shown that, with access to support and resources, most mothers feel they can choose to raise their children.

On the way home, another subway station:

And the yellow rubberized path (I like to think of it as Seoul’s yellow brick road) you see everywhere around Seoul…on the sidewalks, in the subways… What is its purpose, do you think?

Back in our hotel lobby, I waited for D to get the rest of our currency out of the safe (the people at the front desk were so helpful…we must have accessed that safe every day at least!).

We were on our way to pick up K’s name stamp from the stone cutting artist, and we had plans for a date night later on…time to exchange more money! Around the corner from Hotel the Sun Bee is an Insadong visitors information center, and from there we were told we could exchange money at the Korea Exchange bank…which is right next to our hotel (duh! on our part).

While D exchanged money, I had fun looking for the differences in a Korean bank versus our banks. 1) the number of flat screen televisions and 2) red ink for name stamps. Instead of signing their names, many Koreans follow the traditional practice of using a their name stamp (dojong) on important documents, bank forms, and artwork.

Before we came to Seoul, we were given a special gift from our friends Marilyn and John. They asked us to use it toward a something special for K. At first we thought the perfect gift would be an antique wooden box to keep her little treasures, but after a while that didn’t seem possible (see Day Four). Then the day before, we walked past the window of this stone cutting artist, and it clicked…what about a name stamp? We knew we wanted one for her eventually, and it would be so much nicer to get one here rather than order it online or send for it.

The artist who designed our stamp was really kind. When we arrived to pick up the stamp, we were surprised to see he’d added some of his own artwork to the body of the stamp…a carving of a father, a daughter, and a mother under a shining sun. He couldn’t have known, but K’s English name translates to “shining sun.”

He asked if we knew how to do use the stamp properly, and when we said no he gave us a covered porcelain bowl of red ink (it’s strange stuff…sticky, and a little more solid than honey). Then he showed us how to do it. You dab the stamp in the ink many times, quickly and lightly, to fill up the stamp without getting too much ink on it.

Then you position it over the paper, and press down firmly…hesitating just a little while to let the ink stick to the paper.

This is his card, so if anyone reading this blog happens to be in Insadong you can look him up:

D in his shop:

Thank you, Marilyn and John. It’s the perfect gift, and without you we wouldn’t have thought to have it made.

Walking back through Insadong, this is a very typical sight…walls of gallery and exhibit posters:

It was time for lunch, and we were in Insadong, so that meant I’d finally have a chance to try Sadong Myeonok’s beoseot jeongol (a recipe here). Yum!

The restaurant entrance, with ajummas busy making dumplings (mandu):

The menu at Sadong Myeonok (click to enlarge):

A couple of Korean cokes:

Beoseot jeongol, cooked at our table (I had no idea this is what it would be like, but hey!):

Closeup of the egg in the onion flower:

Cooking (we weren’t sure when to stir it, but one of the restaurant ladies came by and gave it a good mixing at the appropriate time):

Beoseot jeongol, complete:

Noodles, several varieties of mushrooms, a little thinly-sliced beef, a little egg, some veggies, and a few herbs in a spicy sauce…YUM. D had some rice with it, but I preferred to eat it as-is.

The side dishes/banchan (jap chae in front, chinese cabage kimchi (baechu-kimchi) behind it, and diced radish kimchi (kkakdugi) way in back):

Whatever this side dish was, it was pretty good…kinda meaty and chewy:

Walking out of the restaurant, we went into one of Insadong’s many stamp and brush shops. There were stacks of old name stamps along one wall (some with Hanja, Chinese characters, and some with Hangul, Korean characters):

The brush shop had more kinds of brushes than I ever knew existed. Check out that enormous one on the left!

After lunch we headed back to the subway and toward Inwangsan. We didn’t have any hiking directions or map other than what was in the Lonely Planet Guide (LP), so we were hoping the directions LP gave would be accurate. Thankfully, they were!

To get to Inwangsan, take subway line 3 to Dongnimmun station (map here), exit 2. Turn left down a small alley (there’s really only one that looks alley-ish), then walk uphill past shops, apartment buildings, and a golf driving range for 10 or 15 minutes. The walk is steep. And it only gets steeper.

Dyed fabrics and lace hung out to dry in the alley:

They warn you it’s steep, and they aren’t kidding:

We got stuck in one dead end, but someone walked by eventually and helped point out the right way. The entrance to Inwangsan isn’t that far from the subway, so it’s harder to get lost than you might think. Walk up a steep steep hill, turn a corner, and this greets you (this photo is looking back at it):

More detail:

Inwangsan, as I mentioned before, has a lot of history and cultural significance. Changdeokgung and Gyeongbokgung Palaces, from which Korea was ruled for centuries, were built at the base of the mountain. Today, the Korean President’s residence (like our White House, but called Cheong Wa Dae or Blue House) is also at the base of the mountain. On the mountain itself are several important sights, including Seoul’s most famous Shamanist shrine, Buddhist temples, and part of the old Seoul fortress wall.

Back in the Joseon era, I read somewhere, the mountain was known as “white tiger mountain” because of the number of tigers living there. I can understand why…it’s forested, difficult to climb in places, and the rock formations seem like they’d have a lot of caves and hidden dens.

The hike is all uphill, but it’s not too bad after the initial stretch. There’s a small mountainside village beyond the gate, and if you walk up and to the left you go past a few gates, entryways, and enclosed yards:

Up above, you can see a pavilion and bell, belonging to the Bongwonsa Buddhist temple, the largest of the Buddhist temples on the mountain:

The bell:

Detail of the bell pavilion:

The gate to Bongwonsa. According to LP, the paintings on the doors “depict the guardian kings of heaven who protect Buddhists from evil and harm.”

Closeup of one of them:

Bongwonsa was closed and we couldnt’ see much of the building from the outside, so we turned around and went back up the hill toward Guksadang, the shamanist shrine:

From the plaque:

This building is a shamanic shrine that houses the spirits of Joseon founder Yi Seonggye (King Taejo) and various guardian generals. It as built in 1395 on Namsan and was called Mongmyeoksinsa. Guksadang was located on the site of the Namsan octagonal pavilion up until 1925, when the Japanese built the shrine Joseonsingung on the site. The shrine was moved halfway up Inwangsan in July of that year[according to LP, Guksadang was demolished by the Japanese, then rebuilt secretly on Inwangsan by Korean shamanists].

Even today shamans perform rituals for invoking spirits, for healing, for good fortune, and for praying for the spirits of the dead. Nearby Guksadang is the Seonbawi, called Gijaam, and several small temples, which are helpful in the study of shamanistic beliefs in Seoul. Within Guksadang are various paintings of shamanic gods, which are collectively designated Important Folklore Material Number 17.

For more information on Korean shamanism (muism) or the role played by shaman (mudang), the Wikipedia site is a good quick read. It’s interesting that Korean shaman are usually female.

In the courtyard in front of Guksadang, there was a statue and an area for candles and offerings for spirits (from LP “For shamanists death does not end relationships, they simply take another form. Shamanists believe that the dead still need food and drink):

A man praying in front of Guksadang:

…I should mention here that taking photos around Inwangsan isn’t always possible or appropriate. There were places where people were conducting ceremonies or setting up for prayer where photos would have been really rude. As it was, there were several times when I used my small camera (set on silent) to snap a quick photo of people when I thought they wouldn’t notice or be disturbed. In addition to reasons of prayer or worship, I was told that some areas of Inwangsan are off limits for photos because of the overlook to the president’s residence (though we didn’t encounter any of those areas).

From Guksadang, we climbed steep steps to a couple of large, eroded rocks called Seonbawi (Zen rocks). The rocks are so eroded they look like two robed monks, and there is a platform and altar in front of them where people come to pray…supposedly women come there to pray for a son, and because of that the rocks are sometimes called “Gijaam,” or “rock where one wishes for a child.”

From the plaque:

“This rock is called Seonbawi (zen rock) because it looks like a robed Buddhist monk. It is also called the “Rock of Preying for a Son” as many women who wanted to bear sons came here to prey. This rock is said by some to resemble the likeness of King Taejo, Joseon’s founder and first King and the Great Monk Muhak daesa and by other the likeness of King Taejo and his wife.

Beliefs concerning Seonbawi became more closley linked to folk beliefs after the Japanese Empire moved Guksadang , which had been at Namsan next to Seonbawi. Guksandang was a shrine to a Shamanic god and the place where shamanic rites were held. As a result Seonbawi became connected with these shamanic beliefs.

These is an interesting story about the time when the city wall of Hanyang (Seoul) was being built. It is said that Muhak daesa wanted Seonbawi to be within the city walls , but Jeong Dojeon wanted the rock located outside the walls. Jeong Dojeon said: “If Seonbawi is within the wall Buddhism will flourish; if it is without Confucianism will flourish.” Taejo followed Jeong Dejon’s advice , an Muhak daesa sighed: “From now on the monks will be following the Confucian scholars around carrying their packages of book for them.” The story tells us that Seonbawi attracted attention from the early Joseon era as a striking feature of Inwangsan.”

We climbed up above Seonbawi, over areas of enormous eroded rocks and striking pines:

Up, up, up, until eventually you reach a steep outcropping of rock with only a few tiny steps to keep you on the path:

Step too far out and a nasty fall awaits. There was a sweeping view of Seoul, but 1) D gets nervous when I get too close to deadly falls and 2) a young woman was setting up for prayer to our right and we didn’t want to get too close. This will have to do (the mist was from the heat and humidity…it was a really warm day):

Above us was the peak of Inwangsan, which we thought looked like a man sitting cross-legged, looking out over Seoul. It’s a very distinctive mountain peak, and we could see it when we toured the palaces:

At the top of that long climb it levels out a little, so we stopped for water and a quick photo:

As we walked toward the peak and away from the rock outcrop, we passed a couple of magpie nests. I loved being outdoors again…smelling the forest, hearing the birds and insects, and especially watching the magpies. They were so rowdy, and seemed so happy flying between trees and temples, soaring around the edges of the mountain. They’re interesting, enjoyable birds:

From up so high, there were several lovely views. The rocks across the mountain:

A restored section of Seoul’s fortress wall:

We started climbing down toward a small steep valley cut by natural springs and streams. It was damp in that lovely forested way, and along the path were several outdoor Buddhist prayer sites. A little Buddha statue in an eroded crevice:

Further down, Buddha carved into the rock face:

Closer:

Behind it, a small, covered, natural spring for drinking:

A short climb above the carved Buddha, there was writing, many burned candles, and a mat for prayer:

We walked down, and bumped into what must have been a park guard…he was the first person we’d seen on Inwangsan who wasn’t there for prayer. He directed us along this forested path:

We passed through an area where people were praying and engaged in ceremonies. We heard drumming and chanting, passed a couple of tents where people seemed to be living next to a shrine, and quickly walked past a few areas where people were setting out offerings or praying. Only once we were past it all did I take this photo:

I’m not sure if the pile of stones is a seonangdang, or prayer rocks, or if the two are one and the same. I’ve seen pictures of other stone piles, and this one was much smaller than the others I’ve seen. From An Illustrated Guide to Korean Culture (2002): A seonangdang is a pile of stones placed at the edge of a village or at a mountain pass or along the road for a religious purpose. The pile of stones itself is an object of worship symbolizing the body of a god. There is rarely just a seonangdang, but usually there is in addition a shrine shaped like a small house, which is sacred to an old tree or god. In this case, the pile of stones, being constructed very high like a grave mound, is frequently called a stone grave. As they pass, people throw a stone on the pile or spit, praying for what they desire.

We reached a dead end at the Seoul fortress wall (being renovated), and could go either uphill or downhill:

There we bumped into the only other hikers we saw that day…two women from France. They said the path to the peak of the mountain was closed, and that they’d been turned back by soldiers. As they walked down the mountain, we stopped a while to look out over the fortress wall and Seoul. A man sitting below us seemed to be doing the same:

Beautiful pines and rocks:

A view of Seoul and some of the strange eroded rocks:

Another view of Seoul’s ancient wall:

Colorful pieces of cloth tied to a tree…one of our books about Korea says these ribbons are tied to a sinsu or dangnamu (a divine tree) by parents hoping for their children’s long lives or merchants seeking prosperity:

Looking back to where we’d climbed the rock face:

Eroded rocks (and some sun!):

The Korean magpie Pica (pica) sericea:

The same guy flying away:

Climbing back down toward the stream, we turned a corner and this greeted us:

An outdoor exercise area! What a great idea… D couldn’t wait to try it out:

This thing was cool. You stood on the disk, held on with your arms, and then twisted back and forth on the spinning disk. It’s more tiring that you’d guess…it works muscles you didn’t know you had:

D was trying out all the equipment, my eye was drawn to a tumbling coreopsis (I think?) and lots of happy bees:

That’s just about everything we saw at Inwangsan. Next time I’d like to climb to the top for the view. On the way down the mountain we took a different path…over to the left of the Buddhist temple. We passed over pretty little springs and walked through lush green forest:

When we reached a clearing we could see Bongwonsa from the opposite side, with the Seonbawi in the background.

At the end of the trail, the entrance gate:

If we’d had more time that day, we could have seen Seodaemun Prison (the prison where independence fighters were jailed an tortured during the Japanese occupation). It’s on the other side of the main road near the subway.

We walked back to the subway (downhill this time…nice), and made our way toward Namdaemun market. The night before most of the shops had been closed, and I still wanted to find a special hanbok for K’s Tol (first birthday celebration). D’s main goal for the market was to find and buy a few of the t-shirts we like so much. We’d tried shops and street vendors around Seoul, even E-Mart, but we hadn’t had much luck finding the stellar t-shirts he wanted. Surely they’d have them at Namdaemun…

Wow. Namdaemun during the day…that is one BUSY place:

It’s also fantastic for people-watching and photo-taking, and while D looked through the collections of various t-shirt vendors, I kept my camera busy. A fresh seafood stand:

Pink sparkly ties and pink shirts (pink is a happy color in Korea, not a girly color…a very large percentage of the businessmen we saw were wearing very pink ties, and many of those ties had little sparkles on them. I begged D to get a couple for work, but he wouldn’t.):

Ajumma frenzy (this was an awesome sight….there was a pile of shirts and skirts on the back of this cart, all tossed together, and the same group of 10 or so ajummas gathered around it grabbing, tossing, and digging through the pile. Each of them was grabbing and looking at 8-10 shirts a minute, and they were so determined, so forceful, in their browsing that no one else stepped up to see what was for sale. I wouldn’t mess with them, would you?):

Typical market scene:

Food + clothing vendors = just enough walking space:

If you’re at Namdaemun and looking for a hanbok (any size, male or female), look for this sign and building:

Building C, 3rd floor. We rushed in just as they were closing, and thankfully one of the ladies who sells hanboks was still there. She showed us several lovely hanboks, in materials that were much nicer than the stores and stalls along most of the Namdaemun streets. We saw even nicer ones in some of the shops in Insadong and Bukchon, but for $60 or so you can buy a very nice hanbok at C3. We bought two…one for K on her first birthday, and one for when she’s three or four and wants to play dress up.

Hanbok mission completed, we could finally dedicate ourselves wholly to finding D’s t-shirts. It took a lot of digging, especially since finding men’s XL shirts isn’t very easy in Seoul, but we found two.

Shirt one has a can of paint on it and reads:

7thannual Armadillo Christmas
Tru-test Suprem! Quality Paints
This Tin Santamonica You Beer Original
[upsidedown:] Vendorsbazmr

Shirt two has a graphic image of an old aviators mask and reads:

Simple childhood games
My Toy star booting
If the computer is where it should be, the call is simply log
ged. But if the computer has been reported stolen

When we were looking, we saw this one:

(There were other really good ones, but the vendors said no to my photo requests.)

After he had his t-shirts, we were free to wander a little. Namdaemun has a information station, and the lady there gave us a map. It’s too big for me to scan and share all of it, but here’s some (click to enlarge):

The alleys intrigued me…”Boiled fish alley”…”Beddings Alley”…”Alley for soldiers or appliances”…”Food Vendor alley”…”Leisure/climbing wear alley”…”Noodles Alley”…they all sounded interesting. I had also wanted to see the spices and grocery areas, but they were like the rest of the main buildings (1 through 7 and C through G)…most of them closed at 5pm or so.

We headed toward boiled fish alley:

Around the corner was a vendor selling red peppers, and he had the cutest little kitten as company:

The back alley of restaurant alley (very narrow and steamy, with access to a few restaurants but mainly the kitchens and dishwashing rooms):

Restaurant alley by day:

Back out on the main street, one of the many, many evening outdoor restaurants:

We had our hanboks. We had our t-shirts. We really enjoyed Namdaemun market. It was time to find dinner. A couple of days ago we’d tried LP’s suggestion for bulgoki over wood charcoal, but the restaurant had closed. Tonight we thought we’d try Frommer’s suggestion…a restaurant near City Hall called Chamsutgol.

This was officially our “date night,” though as parents of young children that idea was a little laughable to us. When you’re used to having, at best, one date night a month, an entire week of kids-free time feels like the best, the happiest, the most wonderful date you’ve ever been on. This, though, was a date night among date nights. Dinner, a cable car ride up Namsan mountain, and a view of Seoul at night.

First we had to find our restaurant. The guidebooks tend to give you a subway stop and a vicinity, but they’re not so great with detailed directions. In this case, the directions for Chamsutgol were really lacking. We left the subway and found ourselves nowhere near restaurants. Instead, we were at City Hall. US beef protest time!

The building had barricades up, which people were covering with hand-written notes, and the plaza was slowly filling up with protesters. There was a giant stage set up with bands playing, tables handing out protest signs, buttons, and t-shirts, and there were candles everywhere. It was busy, but it wasn’t tense. It seemed like a fun and interesting place to be.

Before we left (ironically, for a meal of beef), I took some of the protest signs and stickers:

…I wish I would have taken a picture of the candle girl image (on t-shirts, protest signs, etc.). She was an image we saw all over Seoul that week…a symbol of protest against US beef imports. This isn’t my photo, but it’s the best I could find of candle girl:

(photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

We passed Seoul’s Press Center on the way to our restaurant (we got directions from a few people passing buy…if you ask enough people, and pronouce your destination a few different ways, you’ll get there eventually).

The Press Center has daily newspapers posted in glass cases outside its building, and that night there were men standing to read:

A couple of young women were kind enough to walk us the final two blocks to our restaurant:

Supposedly Chamsutgol serves some of the best bulgoki and galbi, fired over wood charcoal (not just gas burners). When we sat down, a man brought a glowing bowl of charcoal to our table and set it down with very heavy tongs. The restaurant was so orange, and the coals so hot, I think my camera had a difficult time registering the right colors:

Side dishes and ingredients were brought to the table, and so was the raw marinated beef. A woman pulled down a retractable vent from the ceiling and started grilling the beef for us.

She used tongs and kitchen shears, and after a few minutes the beef was perfectly done…it was so tender, with a little bit of crisp to it. She moved the beef to the side of the grate, pushed the vent back to the ceiling, and left us to figure things out on our own.

We didn’t do very well.

In no time at all she was back, showing us how to stack the beef, the red pepper paste, the kimchi, the garlic, and the green onion salad on lettuce or sesame leaves, wrap it into a large bundle, and shove it (all in one bite) into our mouths. We felt a little like chipmunks, but oh was it delicious. You can see a video of how to eat it here.

(Later on, D decided he wanted his beef a little crispier, so he pushed it from the edge of the grate back over the hot coals. The lady spotted us out of the corner of her eye and was back at our table in a flash. Apparently double-grilling the wasn’t allowed.)

We also had our first try of Soju that night, a vodka-like beverage unique to Korea. It’s cheap, it’s sold in beer-sized bottles, and at 20% alcohol it’ll get you drunk fast. Well…we’re not much for drinking, so it’s no surprise that we didn’t like soju (my cheeks flushed a royal red after just a few sips). Still, we tried it.

Chamsutgol was just as Frommer’s described…it’s a little short on atmosphere, but when the food is that good who needs atmosphere? I’m glad we went.

It was pretty late by the time we left Chamsutgol, and we were worried about having enough time to see Namsan (Seoul) Tower.  Spending time on the metro didn’t seem like a good idea, so we hired a taxi. We should have been doing a lot more of that. The regular taxis (not the black upscale ones) only charge around $2 for quick rides around Seoul, and most of the drivers we encountered spoke enough English to help us communicate where we wanted to go. They’re fast, easy, and cheap…next time (especially with the kids), we’ll be taking a lot more taxis.

The taxi zoomed up Namsan and dropped us off at the cable car building. We bought tickets, climbed the stairs, and waited for our cable car. There were several other couples like us, plus groups of young people. We all crowded into the car and made our way up toward Seoul Tower, which at night is very bright and very colorful:

(That’s the best I could do on a swaying cable car!) My favorite part of the ride was looking down. The cable car runs just a few feet above the tree canopy, and it felt like we were floating over the forest at night. Even in the crowded cable car, it was a dreamy sensation.

Namsan is a fun place to be at night. There were young people, couples of all ages, and kids everywhere, and everyone was smiling and having a good time. As with the rest of Seoul, there’s a lot of public art. While we were visiting, there were several wire men suspended on wires and lit up with spotlights:

We bought our tickets and took the very futuristic elevator up to the observation deck….a round room completely surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows. Each window has writing on it, telling you how far away you are from the other major cities of the world. Chicago? 10,525.62 km. San Francisco? 9,040.09 km. There were also pictures of Seoul from the past century, and given South Korea’s lightning-fast development since the war, it was fascinating to see what a difference 40, 20, or even 15 years made.

The observation level:

The distance markers and old photos:

Seeing the city clearly was a bit of a challenge (hand prints and glaring lights on the windows), but I did my best. Downtown Seoul at night:

Looking south, bridges over the Han River:

Looking up into the mirrored ceiling:

Unfortunately we forgot to check out the Seoul Tower bathrooms, which I’ve heard described as the most amazing bathrooms in the world (for the view, at least). You can see the men’s bathroom here.

We took the elevator back down to ground level, and I think the lower open air observatory was nicer at night. There was a full moon over Seoul:

The full moon and some of the padlocks I mentioned on Day Two:

A container to leave padlock keys (???? I’d love to know the story or process behind that!):

From the lower observation deck:

Another wire man:

We walked back out toward the pavilion, and the tower was lit up in purple lights:

All of a sudden, classical music started playing loudly, and jets of mist came up from the paved courtyard. Before we knew it, the trees and courtyard were lit up with lasers. They flew over the trees and around the plaza…turning from flowers to stars to circles.

Children went wild with delight, and ran around trying to stand in moving pools of color, shapes, and mist. What a happy stroke of luck, to be here just at this time! The adults all stood, frozen in place, with huge smiles on their faces (us included).

It was almost closing time for the cable cars, so after the laser show we left Seoul Tower and rode back down the mountain, floating over the trees. Cabs were difficult to come by at closing time. After a short wait, we decided to walk down the road into the city. Eventually we found a parked cab (the driver was taking a break), and he said he’d give us a ride back downtown.

This was our landmark building, Jongno Tower (our hotel was just around the corner):

I should have taken a better picture of it while we were there, but thankfully P. just posted this on his website…a much better picture of Jongno Tower.

That was the end of our evening. Home sweet home at Hotel the Sun Bee.

~ by themagpiesnest on June 26, 2008.

4 Responses to “Day Six: Ae Ran Won, Hiking Inwangsan, Namdaemun, Date Night: Protests, Chamsutgol, Seoul Tower”

  1. Hi,

    My boyfriend and I love to travel and we’ll be goin to Seoul for a week, for the first time, a couple of weeks from now…. I was researching on things to do and I’m so happy to have come across your blog. I read the long version and it was both informative and entertaining… I feel like I know you already:) Thanks again for all the tips… Regards to D and wishin K is adjusting well:)

    Cristina

    P.S. the padlocks in N Tower are “Love Padlocks” :) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_padlocks You and D should have left one too especially since it was your “Date Night” <3

    • Thanks, Cristina! I’m glad it was helpful, and I’m jealous you get to be in Seoul!! :) Enjoy your trip, and if you think of it please come back and tell me what you most enjoyed, anything new you found to do, etc. We’ll be going back in a few years, so I’d love to start thinking of a future trip.

  2. Is there something in your blog settings that automatically rotates and distorts horizontal photos? I’m sure they’re gorgeous photos but it’s hard to tell.

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