Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Seoul: At the Top of Namsam

Among my collection of most contented moments in Korea are those standing on mountain tops. Not that I have been to that many mountain tops. Still. In Seoul, that mountain is Namsan. In Hangul, san (산) means mountain, nam (남) means south. South Mountain.

This day, Shane and I skip the slippery winter hike and hitch a ride on the cable car. We've heard from another expat friend of ours that this place is touristy and overrated, but we ignore the cynic and rise up to the peak just as the sun is going down. 

It's a spectacular view, touristy or not. Seoul crawls away from us in every direction, so far it boggles my mind thinking about the number of people inside those buildings. 

Up here, there's a beautiful brightly lit, brightly painted gazebo. Juxtaposed just a few yards away, a couple overpriced restaurants, a few stores selling more than the expected souvenirs: skin care products, teddy bears, and random junk I don't really need to buy at the top of a mountain. That's the thing about Korea, always contrasting, always contradicting, always smacking me in the face with its duality. "You are at the top of a mountain, in the middle of a park, with a spectacular view of a huge metropolis. Soak it in. Buy some stuff." I don't. Though I am strangely drawn to the neon, bell shaped Christmas tree display. Shane and I drool over the gourmet looking restaurant, just one row of seats wide, the entire wall a window overlooking southern Seoul.

Shane and I forgo the ride higher up on N Seoul Tower. It would be another 8,000 won each, and the view from where we are is grandiose without going any higher. The sky is overcast, but the air crisp and calm. Lights below us begin to turn the streets into illuminated rivers of traffic.   

A crowd of families, teenage friends, tourists, and couples amble over the planks of the observation decks, laughing and taking photos. I've seen something like this before, in Florence, Italy: every square inch of the decks' planks covered with locks. Bike locks, keychain locks, heavy duty security locks, pink locks, shiny locks, locks covered in messages of all languages. Locks placed here by optimistic lovers, locking down their hope, promising each other they will always be together. Locks with no keys.

We linger, savoring the changing light. In a few moments, we will take one last look, get in line for the cable car, and play little games with the toddler just ahead of us in the queue. We will smirk at the bad covers of pop Christmas songs playing inside the car, and my mind will meander over the thought about how small I am to a city so huge. Seoul is satisfying, but I feel now more than before that Busan is my place, even if it is only one of my places.

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