Diary of an Autumn Leafer – the palaces and mountain tops of Seoul
If all else fails in finding an Outback Steakhouse, at least I should be able to find autumn leaves in Seoul.
As someone who had grown up in the Midwest of the U.S., I was used to fall leaves. It was my favorite season, bar none. The leaves on the trees changed to beautiful and vibrant colors. Pumpkins appeared everywhere. Farms offered hay rides and haunted houses. Pumpkin spice lattes started up at Starbucks. The air cooled and took on the scent of dried leaves, burning wood, and impending winter.
It’s seriously a magical time of year, and I miss it.
In Asia, autumn is hard to come by, especially when you’re as far south as Hong Kong (it’s still in the mid-70s, and it’s a week to Christmas), but Japan and Korea both have some renowned locations where autumn leafing is possible.
It was only the second week of October, but Seoul already had that little bit of nip in the air. The leaves were just beginning to change, and little bits of red and yellow appeared on the tips of trees.
One of the best places in Seoul to view leaves and beautiful traditional Korean architecture are at the two main palaces in the city – Gyeongbokgung Palace (Northern Palace) and Changdeokgung Palace (Eastern Palace). Gyeongbokgung is, perhaps, the most famous in Seoul, a massive complex of buildings that had seen so much history – after all, it was built in 1395. The palace is beautifully preserved and rebuilt, after the destruction that Japan caused during one of its imperialist invasions in the 16th century.
An audio tour provided all the historical and royal commentary necessary to tour the palace complex. We roamed around for close to three hours, waiting for the changing of the guard, which takes place a few times during the day. The palace grounds begged for a leisurely stroll with many opportunities for photographs of Korean architecture, the mountains behind the city, and the traditional Korean dress costume called hanbok. For women, it is a tied jacket and a colorful, full skirt, and hair accessories. Men also have a loose jacket and baji, or loose-fitting trousers. Sometimes, the men were wearing the black hat with the fan-shaped decoration.
Some of Korea’s most well-known and photogenic locations are within the grounds of Gyeongbokgung, taking in its bright paint colors, palace buildings, pavilions, and ponds.
Following a quick coffee break, we walked over to Changdeokgung/Changgyeonggung Palace, about a ten to fifteen minutes walk from Gyeongbokgung Palace. Here, the buildings also reflect the grandeur of the Korean royal dynasties, complete with a secret garden to tour and get a feeling for what it had to be like to live there during the 1400s when it was first built.
The palaces were a fine and informative way to spend the morning and afternoon in Seoul, and that evening, we decided to find a way up to Namsan Mountain and North Seoul Tower to look over the modern city at night. There are a few ways to get up to the tower, but one way you can’t go is by driving a private car. A few buses chug up there – the way we took and highly recommended as a way to get a loop tour of the city for relatively little money, walk or bike, or take the Namsan Cable Car. Depending on the wait, the cable car might not be a bad way to go, but we heard it could be really crowded and hard to get a window seat to even see anything as it advanced up. That’s why we opted for the bus.
The tour loop bus stopped at most major locations within the city, including the vibrantly busy Namdaemun Market, which was only a block or two from our hotel. We waited quite awhile for the bus, not realizing, at the time, that it only ran in a loop and didn’t have two directions in which it ran. We finally hopped into one of the ubiquitous Starbucks in Seoul for a hot drink and free-Wifi to check, and yep, the bus runs in a loop. So, we could have gotten on it ages ago instead of waiting one to go the shorter route since we were quite close to the tunnel and cable car for the tower.
After getting on the bus, it took about forty to fifty minutes to run the loop up to Namsan Mountain. When we finally reached the top, North Seoul Tower was resplendent in bright green lights. The city was topped by the velvet clock of a dark night sky, but the lights were neon and bright. Buildings seemed like dollhouses. The march of traffic scrolled by like tiny ants on the move.
It was a gorgeous view of Seoul.
We did not stay up there long, as we still had a relatively long ride back down to the city, and we were meant to be up very early the next day for our DMZ and JSA tour.
With Seoul, it is possible to go from the earliest bits of Korean history to the heights of modernity in just a few hours – with a few coffee stops along the way, of course.