2012 Travel Diary 3: Bugaksan to Daehakro

Seoul, Saturday 24 March 2012. There’s time to kill before our evening appointment in Daehakro, so we go for a stroll in Samcheong-dong, along with most of the rest of Seoul. It’s 5pm on a pleasant Saturday afternoon, and young couples amble with an charming lack of purpose, getting in your way if you want to proceed at a normal pace. All the street food looks very tempting, but getting away from the crowds has more appeal. Turning right up Bukchonro towards Samcheong Park the crowds thin out. And the park itself is deserted.

The view Southwards from Bugaksan
The view Southwards from Bugaksan

We take a stroll up to the top of Bugaksan for some splendid views South across Seoul. At the summit, a photographer with a tripod is waiting for the time when the sun will be at the right angle to get some good shots of the sunset reflecting off skyscrapers. He’s not going to get any good photos today as the haze is too strong. We take in the view to the north and see the path that continues westwards to Buamdong, location of my favourite museum in Seoul, the Whanki Museum. Next time I go there I’ll know that the stroll back to Insadong is easy and won’t bother trying to flag down a cab.

We return through Samcheong-dong, still bustling, to Anguk station and catch the subway to Hyehwa, the station that serves Daehakro. We’re expecting our friend Judy to be there to meet us and take us to the small theatre where our friend Yi Chul-jin will be performing. But when we get there, she’s nowhere to be found. She’s already started her drinking session for the evening somewhere in the area. It’s early so she’s sober enough to direct us to the theatre over the phone.

We arrive at the intimate space and wait for the 7pm performance to begin.

The performance is a mixture of traditional dance – Seungmu, Taepyeongmu and Salpuri – interspersed with traditional song and a solo daegeum piece. A nice variety, though this is one of the many times I wish that I spoke Korean. The pansori singer chats to us informally to tell us about the song she’s about to sing, and to ask us to use the customary Chiumsae exclamations of encouragement to spur her on. Many audience members oblige. The final item is the Salpuri, danced in something more like a gangster’s suit than the normal shamanistic robe. A very effective adaptation, allowing you to get a better view of the leg and arm movements.

Yi Chul-jin dancing an updated salpuri
Yi Chul-jin dancing an updated salpuri

The performance ends in time for me to return to Hyehwa Station at more or less the appointed time to meet with Charles Montgomery with his wife Yvonne, with whom I always try to meet when I’m in Seoul. I also always try to meet up with someone new, and this time it’s Suzy Chung of A Seoulful Life. I was surprised that two such premier league Seoul-based bloggers had never met each other. But then, even in the much smaller London K-blogosphere, I’m not sure I’d recognise all the members of the Massive.

We find our way to the restaurant where we’re going to be eating barbeque duck, and gradually our party assembles: Yi Chul-jin and his wife, Charles and Yvonne, Suzy, Soon Yul (who has been my companion Seoul that day) and several of Yi’s company. The young daegeum player is also there, and Suzy immediately swings into cultural interpretation mode (in between deftly turning the slices of duck on the grill). The daegeum player is there to get a “face stamp” – she’s registering respect by coming to join her seniors for a short while, but will soon leave to do her own thing.

We’re soon tucking into the delicious duck, some of which is smoked. There’s beer, soju and more, but I’m disappointing Yi Chul-jin hugely by being careful with what I’m drinking. On most occasions I’ve been out with Yi I haven’t recovered till the following afternoon, but tomorrow I have to get up promptly.

Charles Montgomery and Suzy Chung
Charles Montgomery and Suzy Chung

Judy, who was meant to meet us earlier, is nowhere to be seen. Instead, a very pretty and very drunk girl joins us. Judy has sent her to apologise for her absence. They’ve already had their 이 차 and Judy, unusually, is incapable of continuing further. Fortunately her young friend has plenty of life left in her, and she entertains us all with an unceasing flow of chatter while knocking back more soju.

I’m already feeling the effects of my first full day in Korea, and head off, still unsuccessful in getting any taxi driver to understand me when I try to say “Fraser Suites” in its Korean transliteration. The drunk girl is giving everyone fond embraces as she heads off to her 사 차 with the hardened drinkers.

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