A painting of mine, inspired by the reflections in the Han River at night...
While Japan gets all the attention, Korea does have its own amazing display of cherry blossoms to boast about. Yeouido is the best place in Seoul to see the blossoms in bloom. A 7-km long street on the small island is lined with over a thousand cherry blossom trees---and today the sidewalks were filled with millions of Seoulites trying to get a picture of the delicate white blossoms before they fall to the ground like snowflakes.
I biked the five kilometers from my apartment before taking a brief stroll under the trees. If you could get keep your head above the crowds, it was a beautiful sight. After a short walk around Yeouido, I headed back home, where the path from my apartment to the Han River has a few beautiful cherry blossom trees of its own with none of the crowd. We only have a few more days to enjoy the snow-like petals before they melt away.
It has been a busy few days for me as I ran not one, but two 10K races this weekend. Running is new for me; it's something I've just picked up since being here. I did my first 10K was in mid-May. As it was my first race, I was told just to finish, just concentrate on running every step, and not worry about the timing. No, I wasn't anywhere near the front of the pack, but I did manage to run the whole thing.
The run started at World Cup Stadium and ventured off along the river. It rained a little bit---just enough to cool us down, but not enough to make the trail slippery or make it uncomfortable. At first, we were all running as a big group; it was hard to find space for my feet. But it was exciting to be racing a clock, actually running for a purpose instead of just to move somewhere. After a while, when the real runners found their way to the front as us amateurs slowed down, there was finally some room for all of us.
Running along the river trail was beautiful. The Han River is a view that I will never get tired of. I live really close to the river, so I did all of my training runs on the trail near my house. I discovered that running from my apartment to the 63 Building in Yeouido is about 10 kilometres (well, it is according to my caveman-basic calculations, anyways), so I run there and back for my weekly runs.
I remember one of my first runs, when I was running towards the river under a bunch of overpasses and I just stepped onto the river trail, and suddenly the view of the river opened up to me. It was late, maybe 10 o'clock, and so the sky was dark but the tall apartment buildings across the river were full of light. So this amazing view of the river reflecting all these lights just opened up all at once. I actually gasped out loud---a full, deep intake of air, and then a "Wow." That was then followed by some quick sideways glances to make sure no one heard me. It was just that beautiful, I couldn't help it.
And so I was running along the river once again. I was running to the sound of my feet hitting the pacement, counting each kilometre marker as it went by: 1, 2, 3...that went by quickly...4, 5...halfway done...6, 7, 8...almost there...
I was trying to find the ninth kilometre marker when I first saw the spectators. They were standing along the edge, pumping their fists in the air and shouting something like "Whiting!" or "Piting!" The people kept coming, more and more were standing at the sidelines cheering, "Piting!" to everyone running by. Even though I wasn't sure what they were saying, it pumped me up and I kept going, now with a smile on my face. Then I turned a corner and there, suddenly, was the finish line. With a quick burst of energy and a few dozen "Piting!"s, I crossed the line.
It wasn't until later that I found out the crowd was yelling, "Fighting!" (pa-ee-ting or hwa-ee-ting, in Korean)---the Konglish expression for encouragement. It doesn't really have a direct translation, but it's meant to be like "You can do it!" or "Go for it!" or "Don't give up!"
It's come to be something I look forward to when I race; I know that I must be nearing the end when I hear it, and it gives me that one last burst of energy I need to cross the line. It's what I needed to hear this morning, as I was nearing the finish line at Olympic Stadium. "Keep going!" they said. "Don't slow down, just keep fighting!"
And I crossed the line with my best time yet.
N Seoul Tower (known as Namsan Tower before its renovation a few years ago) is probably the most well-known landmark in Seoul. How could it not be when it's seen from just about anywhere in the city? It sits on top of Namsan, a small mountain in the middle of the city, just north of the Han River. I visited the tower once, for my 100th day in Korea celebration. The observatory has a view of the whole city. It's an amazing sight, especially at night.
The Han River is one of my favourite places in Seoul, but I think my students describe it best:
If you are visiting Korea for the first time, I recommend you go to Han river, the most beautiful river in Korea. Han river is located in Seoul, the capital of Korea. Han river has been playing very important role through history. In the past, Han river was used for main transportation. Today, Han river is visited by many people. Citizens enjoy their free time there, such as fishing, water skiing, taking boats, and more!
In addition, Han river was the setting of a Korean move "Monster" (2006). It was a great hit. Anyway, I hope you will have a wonderful time and unforgetable memories at Han river. Just enjoy Korea!
63 Building is a source of pride for Koreans. While the '63' in its name stands for its number of stories, only 60 of them are actually above ground. At 249 metres tall, my students called it "the highest building in Korea"---as everyone does. But it's not, and hasn't been since 2003 when the Mok-dong Hyperion Towers in Seoul's Yangcheon district were completed. Tower A, a 69-story residential building, is 7 metres taller than 63 Building. Then, in 2004, the ultra-modern residential Samsung Tower Palace was completed in the Gangnam district of Seoul. Tower G stands 264 metres in height---15 metres taller than 63 Building---making it the official tallest building in Korea.
I've been participating in the Seoul Sunday Football League (SSFL) for a couple months now. And by "participating" I mean cheering, not playing. It's a highlight of my week. A friend of mine invited me to watch him play soccer for several Sundays before I finally accepted. It was an away game, so we rode about 45 minutes outside the city to a pitch at an International school in Suwon. I listened to music on my iPod, sat in the rain, and didn't exactly follow the game. They lost anyway.
But something about being there really appealed to me. I wasn't sightseeing or being a tourist, I was watching my friend play soccer. I wasn't just hanging out with other English teachers, I was making friends with other expats and Koreans. After several more Sundays and one two and half hour bus ride to one of their away games in Cheongju, I got the title of #1 Han River Harriers Fan, and it's a title I cherish.
This weekend, we played a tribute game for John, who was a member of the Harriers this year. And by "we" I do mean I played too. The black bands we all wore on our arms in memory of John made everyone's step a little bit bouncier, smile a little bit bigger, and laughter a little bit heartier. The boys played without a referee, and looked as though they were having the time of their lives. This game was one of the funnest to watch all season. They subbed in regularly so everyone got a chance to play, and they swapped their jerseys as they came on and off. By the end of it everyone was wearing someone else's jersey. I don't know if they were keeping score; I certainly wasn't.
As the #1 Fan, I was called in to play at the end of the game. I wore my jeans, winter boots, and a jersey over my huge winter coat. I don't think I could have been any more excited than I was at the moment I stepped onto that field. They boys, as wonderful as they are, kept passing the ball to me so I could get a chance to kick it around. Neither I nor anyone else could figure out what position I was playing, I was just running up and down the field, following the ball but also trying to keep out of its way. Man, it was fun.
With Christmas just over a week away, the season has ended until next spring. I can't wait.
I somehow convinced three friends of mine to go on a five-hour long bike ride with me, one sunny Sunday afternoon in October. Bikes would give us a better opportunity to see more of my favourite place in Seoul: Han River. After arriving at Yeouinaru Station south of the river, we found ourselves four green bicycles with wire baskets on the front and a bell on the handlebars.
After heading east for a minute, I realized our destination, World Cup Stadium, was actually west, so I turned us around before we went too far out of our way. We casually rode along a paved biking/roller-blading/skateboarding/walking path that paralleled the river. There were many Koreans out enjoying the city, too, so we got a lot of use out of the bells. We counted the kilometre markers as we passed, careful to follow the somewhat vague directions in my guidebook.
Early on our ride, a friend pointed out what he thought was the World Cup Stadium on the north side of the river.
I laughed. “Of course it’s not the stadium. We’ve got too many kilometres to ride still, before we even think about crossing the river.”
So we kept on riding in the sunshine.
After about 14 kilometres, the path seemed end before the guidebook informed us it should. But the next step, it said, was to ride under some bridges and then continue on a dirt path beside the river, and that seemed to be what was happening here. So, we rode under a bridge and continued up a hill on a dirt road with plenty of loose gravel and potholes. But then it seemed we had no where else to go. I consulted my guidebook for help, but there was nothing.
“Would you guys be upset if I told you that we were going the wrong way?” I asked.
They laughed. “No, it’s okay, with those directions – wait, do you mean THE WHOLE TIME?” one said as she stopped laughing.
Apparently, I confused the directions between the two bike tours offered by this particular guidebook. I read the title for “Yeouinaru to World Cup Stadium” west of Yeouinaru Station, all the while following the directions to the much longer ride to Olympic Park east of Yeouinaru. Oops.
We turned ourselves around and headed back the 15 or so kilometres we had travelled. After a Ramen lunch, I was still determined to reach any destination, even if it wasn’t my intended one. We passed by what turned out to be the World Cup Stadium after all, and I somehow convinced everyone that we should attempt to ride our bikes there. So we did, even though it had started to rain. We finally crossed the river on the green bridge, as outlined by the guidebook (under the proper directions, of course). We prevailed through the rain and cold and actually made it to the stadium.
At the end of it all, my clothes were soaked, my muscles were tired, and my friends were no longer willing to trust my directions, but I was satisfied.
After the sun went down over Gyeongbok Palace, the full moon came up over the city. Millions of glowing lights from the buildings and bridges shone over the Han’s smooth waters. We decided to take advantage of the still-warm evening weather and cruise the river on a big tour boat. We made it just it time before the boat pushed itself away from shore at Yeoinaru. For the next ninety minutes, I enjoyed just standing still while the city lights moved around me. Down below the streets and subway bridges was a whole new vantage point of my favourite place. I was mesmerized.