Monday, February 20, 2012

Winter hiking at Gwanaksan

I went to Gwanaksan for the third time this weekend. The first time I went was in the fall, which was probably the most excruciating single-day hike I've ever had since it was a long, never-ending route that came after climbing another mountain. That day was scarring enough to keep me away for three years. I went back last May and started hiking at 2 pm when it was about 32 degrees. This time, it was about -5 and I took the most popular route, which also happens to be the shortest.

What makes Gwanaksan great is that it's very rocky at the top with a lot of ups and downs, enough to add some small thrills to what is not really a very tough hike. It's certainly more interesting than the vertigo-inducing stairways you'll find at Dobongsan or Baekundae, the two biggest peaks at Bukhansan.

I didn't realize there was this much snow on the mountain, which in turn appears to have melted and then frozen. I don't ever remember there being this much water anywhere on Gwanaksan.

Approaching the top, this little rest stop selling liquor and noodles reminds you not to take yourself too seriously, not that anyone notices.

The peak of Gwanaksan, Yeonjudae, seen along with a temple that dates back to the seventh century.

Ridges like these are what make Gwanaksan such a challenge.

This was a really fun part. I'll admit to being absolutely petrified when I first came here.

There are many ways up and down Gwanaksan, but I'll summarize the three that I know.

1) From Gwacheon station on line 4, walk about 5 km and 2 hours to the top. This is a very moderate hike and though I've only been down this way, I'm pretty sure that there's no tough climbing at the top. Instead, you get to walk up stairs.

2) From Sadang station on lines 2 and 4, walk about 5 km and maybe three hours to the top. This is my favourite route, it's more of a military-style obstacle course, featuring a couple of rope climbs, lots of ups and downs, and a point where you squeeze through a narrow space between two cliffs with a boulder perched precariously above.

3) From Seoul National University station, take a bus or taxi to the Gwanaksan park entrance and hike about 6 km and two hours to the top. This is a good midway between the Gwacheon and Sadang courses.

Of course, you can combine these courses to avoid repetition or make things more interesting, such as starting at Sadang and crossing over the mountain to finish about 10 km away in Gwacheon. To make it a full day's hike, add in Samseongsan to the west or Cheonggyesan to the east. Naver Maps actually shows hiking routes along with estimated times and distances, which is really not a bad way to plan a hike. I personally use Korean Sanha.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Fourteen even better places to visit in Seoul (with pictures!)

Roboseyo recently wrote about five places to visit in Seoul that are not the typical touristy places. As I prepare to move out of Seoul and back into suburban Gyeonggi-do, here are some of the places I've loved visiting over and over during the two years I've lived in Seoul. I will no doubt keep on returning to these places.

The list is not in any particular order, though I've grouped them by neighbourhood to give a vague sense of itinerary.

1. Visit Deoksugung, especially at night, for the lit-up Daehanmun, the quiet and the crowds. Deoksugung is the dimunitive member of Seoul's five palaces, but it is where the Joseon dynasty lived out its final years. The Western buildings inside bear testament to a Korea that tried, without avail, to modernize. Get out at City Hall station, exit 2.

Daehanmun, the entrance to Deoksugung, at night.

While you're there, consider dinner at Deoksujeong around the corner from Deoksugung. They serve typical jjigae dishes, but also fish and galbi. For a very serious neighbourhood, it's an inexpensive, boisterous and tasty meal.

Another option is coffee at the Sogong-dong Starbucks, an exceptionally wide location that's mostly quiet and empty in the evenings. This location has Korean-style architecture, historical plaques on the inside and many soft leather couches.

2. Another favourite of mine is Oori Bunsik and the Good News Cafe at the bottom of Namsan, both quiet places with good food. Oori Bunsik, which seats about 16 people, is especially nice on cold days. It serves typical Korean food (rice, jjigae) but closes at 8 and will stop serving one of rice or noodle by 7:30. Have a cafe and a waffle at the Good News Cafe next door. The location is tricky if you've never been there, but you want to take the bus to the Yongsan Library, the top of which is on the main road, and get off at its ground floor, which is on the bottom of a side road.

3. The Gwanghwamun location of Kyobo Books is another favourite of mine, considering that you can eat, shop and read there for hours. They have a large selection of English-language books, though as is the case elsewhere, it's biased in favour of new releases and classics. Gwanghwamun is also a great place to relax at night, assuming that it's not lined by riot police. Get off at Gwanghwamun station on line 5 or Jonggak station on line 1.

3. If you've already been to Bukhansan or simply don't want to go to the top, try the dullegil, which is a 70-km route that circles the mountain. It's not a very strenuous hike and you'll see many hidden-away restaurants on the way, though your challenge might be covering enough distance to get back to civilization before dark. I personally recommend the Uiryeong-gil section that bisects the route, though if you're not a Korean nor with one, you'll need to make reservations about a week in advance.

4. If you're looking for a cafe that serves good, strong coffee but isn't a chain and is in fact nicer than a chian, check out Caffe Themselves (the misspelling is Italian, I'm told) by Jongno-3-ga. They have great coffee, great desserts and baristas who wear ties with their collars in the style of the early twentieth-century. I have chose Neville Chamberlain as my example, for some reason.

Nearby is Potala, a Tibetan restaurant that also has some Indian, Nepali and Chinese dishes. It's owned by a man from Tibet and functions as a meeting place for Korean Buddhists, activists and other people who are countercultural enough to grow facial hair.

5. In the ethnic food category, we have New Delhi with locations at Gangnam, Hyehwa and Kyung Hee University, Uzbek food at Samarkand (locations at Anam and Dongdaemun), and great Chinese food with Xinjiang-style skewers at Oedae Lamb Skewers (walk out of exit one of HUFS station, its above the Olive Young).

Gobble 'n' Go in Apgujeong is not ethnic, serving great burgers, fries and chili, but it's a nice, quiet place south of the river and everything I mentioned is north of the river.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

I hate losing even more than I hate winning

I was wrong about this Super Bowl, but gladly so. I sank to 6-5 in this playoff season, making me slightly better than random chance, though considering that there are 11 playoff games, I don't know if 5.5 wins are possible. Many people, students included, asked me who I cheered for, but the truth, of course, is that I cheered against the Patriots. I like watching the Giants play, especially their defensive line, but I wouldn't necessarily say I always cheer for them. I am amused, however, that Eli Manning has now won two Super Bowls.

That's two wins by a total of seven points, which hardly inspires confidence, but that is what many people said (and still say) about Tom Brady's three Super Bowl wins, which were by a combined nine points. There are fewer people who challenge Brady's credentials because he has since gone on to put up the sort of irrelevant regular-season statistics that turn people like Peyton Manning and Dan Marino into such curiosities.

As untouchable as the Patriots were in those years, when they won ugly, with championship teams made up of spare parts (Tom Brady being one, initially) and receivers playing defense, they have become the sort of regular season paper tiger that the Colts have been for so long. Consider this run of playoff appearances after the last Patriots Super Bowl win seven years ago:

2005 playoffs - opened with a 28-3 win in the wild card round, lost 27-13 to the Broncos on the road
2006 playoffs - beat the Jets in the first round, squeaked by the Chargers thanks to Marty Schottenheimer's loss aversion, and then blew a 21-3 lead to the Colts in the AFC championship game
2007 playoffs - started off 18-0, then blew a 14-10 lead in the final minute of the Super Bowl
2008 playoffs - did not appear
2009 playoffs - routed 33-14 at home by the Ravens in the wild card round
2010 playoffs - got a bye, lost 28-21 at home to the loud-mouthed Jets in the second round
2011 playoffs - beat the hapless Broncos 45-10, squeaked by the Ravens on a dropped touchdown and inexplicably missed field goal, blew a 17-15 lead in the last minute of the Super Bowl

At some point, a pattern would start to emerge, as counter-intuitive as it is. Just like the Colts of the past decade, who could have won every regular season game by five touchdowns, but still lost 21-20 to the Chargers at home, the Patriots just can't seem to win when it counts. Or, more likely, someone just happens to be better. It's not the Patriots don't have talent, they have far more of it than they did when they won the Super Bowl, but it just hasn't been working out, no matter how explosive the offense gets.

Bill Belichick is acknowledged as the best coach in the league for thinking about the game in a way that makes other coaches fuzzy-headed. Not only does he play aggressive, but he's always playing, making adjustments when his competitors are content to let their teams play on using an existing strategy that's not working. He has played a significant role in normalizing the shotgun and multi-receiver sets on first and second downs, in any situation.

On the surface, just as he seems to get best at what he does, leading his teams to 16-0 and 14-2 seasons, he seems to get worst, losing both times in the Super Bowl. What's maybe more likely is that while the 16-0 team was a fantastic team, it simply met its match in the Giants that day. This time was probably not as good as it seemed, considering the way it played against teams with a winning record. Wins over the Broncos (9-8 when they met) and the Ravens were the only ones they recorded all year, but I wouldn't really count the Broncos as a winning team and the Ravens just barely lost.