Mt. Sorae



 There’s this hill I’ve been eyeing for months now that seems close enough for me  to possibly walk to in an hour or so. I asked my director about the hill, and how to get to it. She’s a woman of wisdom and few English words, so her advice panned out to, “Go left.” Aha! Excellent. 

So, after heading out of my apartment and heading in a leftward-type way, I discovered that she is an excellent guide and this hill is only 45 minutes away from where I live. I also discovered that I, unfortunately, am a complete idiot who cannot tell the difference between a hill and mountain. 

On the plus side, I climbed a mountain today. Luckily Mt. Sorae, or Soraesan, at about 300m is designed to be more of a leisurely stroll than anything actually taxing. Towards the beginning of the trails, they’ve beautifully landscaped the whole area into a lush garden of bright purple, deep pink and brilliant red rhodendron. There are a few areas flattened out and set up with some work-out machines, but as you keep going up, that kind of thing drops off a bit. 

soraesan monk

After about 20 minutes I spotted a large deck that looked like it might have some great views of the city. Once again, my powers of guesswork were grossly incorrect. Instead of a scenic lookout point, it’s a pavilion set up for the monk-in-residence to pay respect to the Buddha stone carving, officially titled the Siheungsoraesanmaaesang, which is actually a national treasure.

While resting  and listening to the monk’s rhythmic prayer drumming, I kept hearing another beat, a little faint, but definitely there. I couldn’t place it, but I knew it sounded familiar so I decided to investigate.

Maybe I watch a lot of military movies or something, because it turned out to be the RoK army running drills a little ways away from the path. I was going to try and sneak down to take a picture, and while I was mentally running through the consequences if they were to find me snapping pictures of them from the bushes, a group of them came traipsing up from another direction and had me like a deer in headlights. 

Instead of completely abandoning my plan, I pretended to intensely, and therefore creepily,  watch some of the soldiers who were doing some mountain-climbing activities off to the side before getting at least one shot to prove they were there.







Seoul Grand Park

Seoul Grand Park is the mecca of all things delirously fun, and don’t let no one tell you different. 

Home to the  Zoo, Botanical Gardens, Insect Pavilion, Baby Animal Nursery, Dolphin Show, Seoul Amusement Park, and plenty  of mountain trails, the only way I could think it could improved would be if they had vendors selling kimbap out front for $.75. Oh wait, they do! Yes!

ski liftAfter thanking the lady for our cheap lunch, we heading right, hearing a siren call from what appeared to be ski lifts. I mean, who doesn’t like ski lifts? Seeing that there were multiple options on where it would take us, we just aimed for the zoo entrance. (Less than W10,000) We flew over a lake, what must have been the Children’s Petting Zoo (not sure on that), and saw the Amusement Park to our left as we headed directly towards beautiful mountains. 

Stepping off the ski lift, we found ourselves directly in front of the zoo entrance. Paying W3,000 per person, we were in. As well as 45,602,328 other people who had the same idea. There was hardly an open pathway to walk down as families were strewn all over the grounds, picnicking and each seemed to come equipped with their own paint set for the children to carefully, oh-so-carefully, try to recreate their surroundings. 

We saw flamingos and robots and a guy dressed as Shrek being harassed by a little girl and a shop that rents digital cameras for the day. And this was just the beginning. 

I think the toilet is an attraction all on its own. I guess it’s not just me, as it’s also advertised on their website.

Giraffe Observatory – Beautiful toilet of Seoul Grand Park.
Do you think it possible to see animals at the toilet? It’s possible at the toilet of Seoul Grand Park.

They’re not kidding.


We wandered through and watched some of the animals before finding ourselves taking “action shots” at the Botanical Gardens.

  p10004351      him

I love all the animals, but I have to say, one bear stole my heart. He was so funny!


Sex Shop

 Oh, Itaewon. Whenever I’m hunting for something that could fall within the “shady business” category, I’ll know right where to go. 

Itaewon, an area shaped by its proximity to military bases, is the “Little America” of Korea. (No one actually calls it that, but it kind of is.) It is filled to the brim with everything an expat could be looking for in another country- you can find foods from home, movies, books, music, etc. There’s even a Quiznos almost directly across from a Subway. There’s lots of shopping with sizes “more accomodating to the Westerner” and even a large international clinic (not too far from the Hamilton Hotel, if you’re wondering.)

While all of this is great, there’s also a seedy underbelly. Well, it’s not really an underbelly. What I’m trying to say is that Itaewon is pretty seedy. There’s an area known as “Hooker Hill” where you can buy the women dancing in the windows. That kind of thing. 

shady mcshaderson

Anyway, my neighbor Rachel had been talking about a few sex shops she had found in Bucheon. Normally in a sex shop, I would think the employees would want to give the customers a little privacy when trying to decide on their bedroom accessories. NOT IN KOREA. According to Rachel, they would constantly come up and try to demonstrate any product she might be standing near. For example, a man came over, speaking no English, and explained that a particular vibrator was a bit noisy by making loud vacuum-cleaner type sounds. 

Well, we decided to look into one in Itaewon while we were there this weekend. Facing a down-trodden, warehouse-type building, we followed the scent of urine and vanilla cigars to the 3rd floor.

 Surprisingly, once we entered, it was actually much classier than I was expecting. 

entrance way

There was only one employee, a very discreet guy who let us wander around freely, while Rachel explained to me that I thought were really long dangly jade earrings were actually meant to accessorize something  else entirely. What was great about the store, named Azzil, is that it was so cheap! Normally anything like this is pretty black market, so it’s really pricey. 

And now, Rachel holding onto a dildo that was hanging from the ceiling!


(Look how happy that shopkeep is back there!)


Tel. 02-795-9900

Directions: In front of Hamilton Hotel, cross the intersection and go straight. There will be a Mexican restaurant on the right and a few antique stores. Azzil is about a 3 minute walk and up on right. 


Interracial Dating

At 6:30pm, I warily walked into a class of 6 teen or pre-teen girls. There’s Emily and Cindy, the two top students who are best friends, and have earned the nickname “baby birds” because their high-pitched mimicry of one another sounds a lot like chirping. Today I received the honor of becoming one of their nest, telling me I’m the “old” bird. (I’m 24!) We also have Scarlet and Lisa, the quiet ones who always give everyone nasty looks and try to text friends if they can get away with it. Then there’s Angel, high-energy and very smart, but claims to only know the words “teacher”, “pretty”, “fight” and “crazy” in English. Lastly, there’s Rebecca. A little awkward and rebellious, she would choose drawing anime characters over food, water or air.

twilightRebecca is usually a tough one to get involved in class, but today we had a more laid-back lesson so we started talking about movies. They always like to ask if I know about different movies they’ve seen, and while Lisa wanted to know if I’d seen House Bunny (…ugh), Rebecca asked me about Twilight, the teen vampire movie. All the girls started to throw in their opinions, and of course we got to talking about the guy, Edward. Everyone at home seems to be in love with him, but I don’t really get it. He doesn’t even look like he showers! I asked the girls.

“So, you know Edward? What do you think? Cute?”

Lisa nodded, “Yeah, cute.”

Rebecca, horrified, shook her head. “No!” 

When I asked why, she replied, “I don’t like American boys. So white! And doll eyes!”

(And yes, they really do speak in exclamation points pretty consistently.)

I happen to know that Rebecca comes from a really traditional family. (Her aunt is the director of the school, and frowns upon girls with bangs and painted nails.) It’s kind of strange, because some Koreans seem exponentially more accepting of an interracial relationship than others. However, there is definitely a LOT of stigma. Most Korean parents have banned their children from dating outside their race, although you will find more tolerance in the city.

If a Korean boy dates a white girl, the parents often will not approve. They want a Korean daughter-in-law, who will understand their culture and history, who will be able to cook Korean dishes for their son and grandchildren, who will preserve their ways, and also who will be able to assimilate easily into the family since family units here are so close.

If a Korean girl dates a white boy, she almost immediately becomes a traitorous, gold-digging whore. (No offense meant.) There’s a lot of bad feeling towards American men after the Korean War and so many unwed mothers were deserted by American GI’s. Also, it is assumed that American men have more money they’re willing to spend on their girlfriends, so many Korean women may look at it as a paycheck. (According to my American neighbor, her co-workers always ask to be introduced to her “rich” American friends.)

Absolutely none of this is helped by the fact that there are so many military bases here surrounded by shady sex trafficking. 

I have also been told that white men may be appealing because in typical Korean relationships, the Korean boyfriend is perfection while you’re dating and turns into a chauvinistic patriarch as soon as you’re shackled in  by a wedding band. (My married-to-a-Korean-man director told me this.)

Once, while sitting in a bar having a conversation with a Korean, I kept noticing everyone staring at us. Finally, he whispered, “They think I’m very rich.” Replying to the questioning look on my face, he sighed, “They think you’re a Russian prostitute.”

So then there’s that.


Gyeongbuk Palace + Han River Cruise

Twice annually they hold a reenactment of the 1866 royal weding of King Gojong and Quenn Myeongseong at Unhyeongung Palace. I had heard something about it so we left my apartment on Saturday and headed into Seoul.

It sucked.

We were there 5 minutes, decided it wasn’t worth the hype, and went to get smoothies from a street vendor.

We wandered through Insadong and watched some street dancing, then mixed in with the crowd walking to Gyeongbukgung.


Built in 1394, Gyeongbukgung was the main palace of the Joseon Dynasty.  In a strange turn of events, while we skipped out on Queen Myeongseong’s wedding, we did visit the palace where she died, assasinated by Japanese agents and their supporters. 

Gyeongbuk Palace (Line 3, Gyeongbokgung Station) is definitely in my top 3 places to go in Seoul.  The architecture is really impressive, the grounds are gorgeous, the price is cheap (W3,000), and the strangeness that Korea never fails to bring to any tourism event is particulary fun. 

Starting off, you can walk up to any unsmiling palace guard and  take a photo. (Free!) 

palace guard


From there, you can dress you child in the traditional hanbok and parade them around the grounds, taking glamour shots. For the adults, there’s the universally popular face-in-a-hole.

face in a hole

The lotus pond was very pretty, and also the site where we watched a pigeon eat some egg and fish eat some popcorn.

 the palace grounds

Up to this point, the palace experience had been maybe slightly strange, but relatively pretty low-key for a day out in the city. 

And then there was a dog wearing shoes.

dog wearing shoes

*courtesy of friendly older women exiting the train station

Hopping onto the train, we switched over to line 1 and stopped at Youido Station, where there are (supposed to be) parks, and docks for the Han River cruises. Right now the area is undergoing a lot of landscaping and construction, so we didn’t see any trees, nevermind all the cherry blossoms that usually bloom in the area. In a year or three, I’m sure it will be really beautiful. 

river cruise

        Even without that, the river and the opposite skyline were drawing us in so we got tickets for an hour-long river cruise (W11,000).



The cruise ship was very nice, with lots of comfortable deck seating as well as lots of room inside for when it gets chilly, complete with a snack bar. 


It was relaxing and romantic, minus the several minutes when an older Korean man and his cronies were giving us the evil eye. But other than that, lovely. 

     josh with the flag    





Surgical Masks

Ok, so let’s just lay it out. The surgical mask. Let’s just put it on the table, and talk about it like adults.

Yes, Asians wear them during all types of weather, in every season, and for a variety of reasons. 

  • First, they may be sick and are trying to respect others by not passing it on
  • Second, they’re worried about getting sick, usually in colder months, so are using it as a preventative measure
  • Third, they are an older woman and are working incredibly hard to avoid the sun and its wrinkling rays at all costs,
  • And lastly, it may be Yellow Dust season.

Yellow Dust, also known as Asian Dust (handy, that) is referring to when particles originating from Mongolia are wind-whipped into dust storms that generally end up in different parts of East Asia during spring.  It can give a healthy person a sore throat and even asthma, although for someone who already has asthma, it has been known to be fatal. Actually, Yellow Dust increased the mortality rate at about 2% in its prime. 

So it’s actually kind of serious and has absolutely nothing to do with SARS.

You can buy them at any pharmacy or even grocery stores. In fact, I got one as a prize in my cereal once. (Not kidding.)

Hwaseong Fortress

the fortress

  We’ve been talking about going to see Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon  forever. We tried going once, but it was frigidly cold and so that plan  was abandoned pretty much immediately. 

 However, we finally made it today! It’s really close to Suwon Station (W7,000 taxi ride in ridiculous traffic) which was the big draw since we left the base too late to go anywhere too far.  Hwaseong is really interesting because all the literature they’ll hand you say it’s a fortress “dedicated to filial piety” when according to some other sources, the real story is actually a little more sordid.  Wikipedia claims it…

was built in the late 18th century by King Jeongjo of the Joseon Dynasty to honour and house the remains of his father Prince Sado, who had been murdered by being locked alive inside a rice chest by his own father King Yeongjo having failed to obey his command to  commit suicide.


Yeah, so that’s actually quite a bit different. 

Anyway, it’s right in the heart of the city. It’s huge and the wall goes on for about 6 km as it originally enclosed the city. There is a small train available up on the paved area above that will take you along if you don’t feel like walking (some areas can be a little steep.)


Also, it’s shaped like a dragon, so it feels…festive? I think that’s the word I’m looking for here. 

Good to know: They sell out on the  tickets pretty quick, so you need to get there ahead and buy them if you don’t want to be one of those fools left in the dust.

the buddha

Josh and I, being those fools left in the dust, started walking along. It’s lined with cherry blossom trees which was really pretty, and Josh took photos of the pigeons that were (weirdly) actually using the pedestrian crosswalk. Interesting. 

After marveling at the freakish birds, we found a little side path that led us to this huge golden Buddha we’d been spying but had not been able to figure out how to get to until we stumbled upon this little stairway.  It was huge and all the red paper lanterns for Buddha’s birthday were amazing. There was even an alcove underneath where I watched a woman bowing in prayer. 

Saying goodbye to Buddha we kept on walking, finding a  giant bronze statue of King Jeongjo (the good guy in this “filial piety” story.) There were lots of families picnicking on the grass right there and an endless stream of Korean children being told to pose in front of the statue while their parents took photos with their professional-grade, monstrously-huge cameras.

king jeongjo

This means that Josh and I threw out every curse word that came to mind since almost every photo we took ended up with some other person’s kid running around. However, I thought this little one was fantastic with his sweet tracksuit. I liked him.

at the top

We climbed and climbed, finally reaching the top of, well actually I don’t know what, but we were at the top of it. Hwaseong Fortress is one of those places that if you just keep going a little farther you’ll definitely be rewarded. The view opened up into this huge panoramic of Suwon City and you could see how the wall stretched out for miles. 

On the other side of the wall it was much more forested and there were paths running back down. It was gorgeous so we hiked back to modern civilization. 








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