The Instigator – Sinnae-dong, Jungnang-gu.
When I first arrived in Korea in 2005 I was based in Jungnang-gu, which is on Seoul’s most north-eastern extremity. On face value, there wasn’t really much going for the place but it was close to the Costco in Sangbong, so I used to walk down to it every so often to get more cheese. I also found a little hill, which was often described as a mountain, next to me, which I would wander up regularly because I had the mornings free. This mountain was called Bongwhasan, and the subway station at the end of line 6 is named after here. When it was a little warmer I would also walk to Bongwhasan to take the train into Itaewon. This was as adventurous as I got back then. After a while, I got a little bored with seeing the same things.
I first started walking around in the morning after I got up and had breakfast. This was usually after I realised that having all this morning time allowed me plenty of freedom to go out and do stuff, and then come back in time to go to work at two or three o’clock. Staying in bed late into the morning just wasted the whole day. Later, when it was hotter I would walk around at night as I finished work around nine o’clock and didn’t really feel tired. I would walk for hours sometimes.
During the day I would leave the apartment around nine o’clock and head up the mountain. Sometimes, around half way up, I would veer off and wander around the side of the mountain and try to find a new path. Then I would wander down to the street at some stage and walk back to my apartment, take a shower, eat lunch, and then go to work.
The longer I spent in that area the more I wandered up and around the mountain and the more I found thinner and less visible pathways snaking into the mountain. One of my favourite aspects of this mountain was that it was covered in old Korean War concrete fortifications, and as I hiked around I often allowed my imagination to drift. When I came down I would often just take some unknown track and find neighbourhoods less familiar than before. But, I could always find my way home because all I had to do was follow the foot of the mountain around and I would make it back to my own neighbourhood.
At night I would go for long walks. These would start off on trips to E-mart or Costco, but I soon got bored with these and started to just wander further and further. During the summer the streets would be busy with people sitting out on the street drinking and socialising. Markets and other spaces would be still open, and it was cool enough to wander around compared with the suffocating humidity during the day. This corner of Seoul was full of things I felt I would never see elsewhere; not only were there fish tanks full of fish but also turtles and octopus, there were pet budgies and the likes for sale in cages, as well as indescribable animal limbs in baskets outside butchers. As far as I was concerned this was everything.
There was something about the streets that got me. They weren’t glamorous or pretty, in fact they were the opposite. There wasn’t anything particularly unique about them, and in fact many were so similar in their layout, and the only thing that stopped me from recognising this was the fact that I couldn’t read or speak a word of Korean. Even today I still get excited in a busy markets or streets and Herself has to control me so that I don’t go running down another unknown alley.
Back then I liked the sweet smells of sewerage from the drains and from the food cooking from the back of restaurants. I never worried about the open grease trap that the street was been used for, or that the scooters and cars would often use the footpath as a shortcut. They were things that could be stepped around. Many times I walked to buy an English newspaper from the one shop I knew sold them, and then decide that I would walk the long way home by completing a large loop patched together by various streets intersecting each other, often only luckily patched together by guess work. Because I had no way of measuring, I never knew how far I walked every day. I had a set of landmarks linked together and that was all I needed to know.
Seeing these small intricate parts of this tiny corner of the city I lived in got me hooked on exploring Seoul. I haven’t explored that much of the city, in fact it’s only a tiny proportion of it because there’s so much to see. But, I still can’t help wandering, I just wish that I did it more these days.
The little neighbourhoods are what excite me the most. The ones with their own local market and all the same chain stores and local independent shops open late, a street full of bars backing onto a stack of love motels, and always with a constant hectic pace. All an apparent self sufficient economy apathetic to what the neighbours a few kilometres over are probably doing. And all of them have something unique and interesting about them.
I don’t live in Seoul anymore and I’m happy where I live today. But during those three years I used to love getting lost, as the expression goes, but lost in a place that is so closely knit together that you can always find your way around even when you don’t speak a word of Korean. I walked around a lot in my three years living in Seoul, and I don’t wander around that much anymore. This series of posts that I’m going run will be a memoir to these wanderings around Seoul.
There are some more qualified to talk about this than me, and all I am going to do here is tell my stories of exploring different parts of the city. Some parts will be famous, some less so. I hope that as I go through some of these places I can point you in the direction of some people who are better equipped to guide you safely and skilfully through this massive city.
But, for now you’re stuck with me.
For what it’s worth, If I Had A Minute To Spare is not a travel blog, it’s a personal journal on the internet which charts my own experiences and opinions. I don’t claim to be a travel guide or an expert, I only talk about what I think. Please enjoy these posts for what they are. If you are inspired then please share your story too.