We flew from Beijing into Incheon International Airport, often rated the world’s best, a little behind our ETA of 11:35 am on Tuesday, May 30th. We caught the Express Train to Seoul Station and another 2 metro trains to finally arrive in the historic district of Bukchon Hanok Village. Our hotel was a hanok, a traditional Korean house for which Bukchon is known. The neighborhood is preserved to show how things looked 600 years ago during the Joseon Dynasty. We picked up some beer and snacks from the local 7-eleven and enjoyed them on our great courtyard patio. Later, we did an evening stroll through the traditional village well after the day-tripping tourists had all departed. One of the most interesting things about Bukchon is spotting the many locals who rent traditional Korean garb and set off on a photo taking extravaganza. Our walk brought us to our dinner venue, Maple Tree House, specializing in Korean BBQ. We started off with the local Cass beer and salad while waiting for a table. We asked for some recommendations which included Korean black pork belly, marinated boneless short-ribs, and premium Korean aged beef striploin, which came along with numerous side dishes. We had our own grill on the table with matching hood vent to cook the meat and the servers made sure we were cooking it all to perfection. It was a great way to celebrate my 5 year Abu Dhabi anniversary.
The next day, we planned to summit Mount Bukhansan. We caught the metro north to Gupabal and found our bus with a little help from a kind local; however, the bus was packed with young soldiers. I guess they use this bus to get to the training bases located near Bukhansan. We squeezed in and were packed so tight that we could not see out and missed our stop. We eventually realized our mistake and jumped out, crossed the road, and caught a bus going back the other way. It was much easier spotting our stop without so much camouflage blocking our view! We walked up the street filled with outfitting shops and entered the Bukhansan National Park. Its proximity to such a huge city makes it the most visited national park in the world by square footage. While we were putting on our boots, we were obscuring the view of the park sign as a fellow hiker tried to take a picture. Realizing our social faux pas, we moved and offered to take a picture of him by the sign. We said a few pleasantries and he was on his way.
We grabbed a coffee and set out. The trail was initially pavement and we passed a few Buddhist temples and a fortress before crossing a river. A little unsure of which way to go, our friend from the gate was there to show us the way. He introduced himself as Charlie and we had a new hiking partner. Charlie is an entrepreneur who loves hiking and spent some time in Silicon Valley over the course of his career where he honed his English skills. We continued on, picking up another hiker, Dan, from the UK. The trail got gradually steeper and steeper and we polished off our water bottles in the rising heat of the day. I took a swig from my Camelbak and immediately spit it out…it tasted rotten! I took another sip and said, “That tastes like alcohol!” I stood there, mind racing, trying to figure out how I managed to get alcohol in my water supply. Finally, we figured it out. We stopped at a convenience store after the previous night’s dinner to pick up some snacks and bottled water for our hike. Instead of water, we had bought soju, a traditional Korean distilled beverage and I remember saying to Bec how expensive the bottled water is in Seoul. Looking back, we tried to buy a 7 L jug, but didn’t have enough money so we settled for a 2L. Good thing! Short on water, but ripe with soju, we pressed on and the trail graduated to exposed, bare rock where there are a number of wire ropes bolted into the mountainside and some stairs to reduce the exposure risk. It was definitely on the challenging side, but we soon made it to the top. We reached the tallest of the 3 Bukhasan peaks, Baegundae at 836.5 meters. It was a spectacular view in all directions giving a feel for Seoul’s true size.
Our foursome shared a picnic lunch of various Korean specialties including a celebratory pull off Dan’s Camelbak. We headed down the opposite eastern slope and chatted with a few other locals. Reaching civilization at the bottom, we downed a few bottles of water purchased from the shop. One of the chaps we met on the way down, Don, insisted on giving us a ride to the nearest bus station which was still a significant ways down the mountain. Charlie, in his natural kindness, also insisted we join him at the Gwangjang Market in the Jongno-gu district where he always rewards himself with his favorite street food after a Bukhansan summit. We followed him into the chaotic market and sat down at a small stall. The dish, bindae-tteok, is a fried mung bean patty with soy sauce for dipping. We had both the vegetarian and meat options and washed it down with makgeolli, an interestingly milky rice wine beverage. The 3 gentlemen beside us were great and one of them surprised us when he whipped out a selfie stick and grabbed a group shot. Saying goodbye to Charlie in the metro, we headed for Bukchon. All I can say about Charlie is, what a top notch guy, who always keeps a “positive mental attitude”.
That evening Bec had made us a reservation at Mingles, voted as one of the Worlds 100 best restaurants, on the south side of the Han River in Gangnam. Arriving at 7:00 pm, we enjoyed the chef’s set course menu with wine pairings. Another great meal in Seoul!
On Thursday, we caught the metro down to the Myeong-dong district. We visited the Cathedral completed in 1898. Interesting side note, the religious demographics in Korea are 43% Buddhist, 35% Protestant, and 21% Catholic. We wandered the area’s famous shopping streets and found our restaurant, Gogung. We ordered the Korean specialty, bibimbap, a dish with many variations, but always a bowl of sautéed vegetables on top of rice. We walked off our lunch by climbing to the top of the nearby Namsam Park. At 262m, it also offers great views of the city. We didn’t go up Seoul Tower, but opted to enjoy the views over a pint of beer. Heading down the east side along the old city wall, we found a metro station and headed for home.
That night, we ticked another Korean culinary box, Korean fried chicken. On a tip off from our hotel, we took a taxi not too far from our place and entered a street with the most neon signs I think I’ve ever seen in one place. This national staple was a real winner. After dinner, we found a cool basement bar and had a couple more local brews to end our evening. This place had a neat feature. We were given a button to push when we wanted the attention of our server. Genius!
We decided to keep it local on our last day in Seoul. We walked south from Bukchon into the trendy art neighborhood of Insa-dong. Again, my wife found her restaurant, Bukchon Son Mandu, specializing in the huge, fried mandu dumpling, and we opted for the combination platter. Yum! From there, we walked over to the Jongmyo Shrine, but learned that the mandatory guided tours were sold out for the day. Oh well…let’s try the Changdeokgung Palace just a bit to the north. This 15th century palace has been destroyed many times, but is beautiful today. We toured the grounds on our own, but then met at the gates of the Secret Garden for our guided tour. This garden was the leisure grounds of emperors and features many tranquil lakeside settings.
From there, it was back to our neighbourhood for a couple of craft beers at nearby Café Gondry. We then grabbed our bags and took a taxi up to the airport for our 1:00 am flight back to Abu Dhabi. We spent the day recovering from the late night flight and enjoyed some pool time. That afternoon, we headed over to Jenn and Spence’s for a BBQ. Our friend, Amanda, also joined us. We had a great time catching up. Bec kept busy on Sunday while I was at work. After work, we went for a nice massage at Talise before I was whipping up a new cocktail creation back at the apartment. We enjoyed rack of lamb for dinner along with a nice bottle of wine. The next morning I dropped Bec off at the airport for her flight back to Berlin.