06 October 2008

Seoul: Forest and Children's Park

My sightseeing today covered two swaths of urban parkland: the Seoul Forest, opened by the city in 2005 with national lottery proceeds, and the Children's Grand Park, opened by the city under a presidential decree in 1973, and a frequent hangout for me during my childhood.

Before I headed for Seoul Forest, I got to witness this lunch break at a nearby boys' middle school. Nothing excites boys like soccer (maybe except American boys, who probably prefer American football). There is also a co-ed elementary school behind this school.

On a different note, I was also reminded that my mother's primary Seoul home was not far from here, maybe a mile or so to the north. She lived there from leaving Busan until she got married. My grandparents continued to live at the location until the mid-1980s, when they moved to Jamsil to be closer to my mother. That didn't help much, however, as my mother moved to Los Angeles shortly thereafter; my grandparents eventually moved to the suburb of Seongnam in 1994, and passed away there. Unfortunately, I don't think I'll be able to locate the house without my mother's help - and even then, with all the new developments, the house may not even exist anymore.

I am crossing a creek, which empties into the Han River just beyond the bridges in the distance. Once I cross the freeway, I will be on Ttukseom; despite its name connoting an island, Ttukseom is more of a sandy spit. The freeway is typical of the Seoul freeway network, which is free and tends to run along bodies of water (due to land being unavailable elsewhere). Severe floods will put these freeways under water; good thing Seoul has an excellent mass transit network. Speed limit is 80 km/h (50 MPH) on all city freeways - pretty modest, and identical to New York City.

This crosswalk near the Seoul Forest entrance shows another oddity in Korean life. While pedestrians are normally asked to walk on the left, all crosswalks - including this one - ask them to walk on the right instead. Other confusions, as I previously noted: cars drive on the right, trains on Korail tracks run on the left, and trains on city subway tracks and private tracks run on the right.

I've arrived at an entrance to the Seoul Forest.

The westernmost part of the forest consists of an eco-forest, which was closed off today. However, I was able to see these Formosan deers, who make the eco-forest their home. It's possible to buy some feed from a nearby vending machine for them.

I am entering the main area. Here's a rare rooftop garden with white cosmos flowers, with the maple trees in the back starting to turn red.

Despite the turning leaves, it's still hot in Seoul, and I am sweating even in just a tee and shorts. The humidity doesn't help either, and neither does global warming, which has turned Seoul's climate from continental to semi-tropical, and has visibly changed the fauna. Normally, I should be expecting a sweater/jacket weather by now.

The residents of Seoul continue to bundle up quite a bit, even with this heat. If I were a resident, I would've had to wear a heavy cardigan over my tee, a pair of thick tights under my shorts, and possibly a scarf too.

There is a Lotteria fast food restaurant here. The sign says that on August 26th of this year, President Lee Myung-bak drank a cup of coffee at this table.

Lee's continued coddling of the Moonies and the US Republicans is biting South Korea back with climate change. He must be stopped. I stayed far away from this table - just like I stayed far away from W's footprints back in Busan. To me, Lee, W, and McCain are one and the same.

A small stream of water cuts through this section of park. The bridge pictured has suspended steps which rock as one climbs.

There is a sculpture park here, displaying artwork from Seoul-based artists. This part of the park consists of wide expanses of grass and sports facilities.

There is also a line of metasequoias, which first appeared during the age of dinosaurs. Despite the name, they don't seem to resemble the California sequoias all that much, and are much smaller. They are native to Sichuan and Hunan provinces in China.

Here's a closeup of a sculpture. This one's titled "Toward the Space," and was done by Kim Young-won in 2002.

This apple-lined walk parallels a hump in the park terrain, under which a vehicular tunnel runs. Now that it's October, the ripe red apples can easily be seen here.

This waterworks building reminds me that this year is the 100th anniversary of the first running water service in South Korea, starting right here at Ttukseom. Seoul was the first East Asian city to have water, electric power, trolleys, telephones, and telegraphs all at the same time, the trusty Wikipedia reminds me.

At a remote corner of the park, some rice is being grown. The two scarecrows are so typical of rural South Korea.

Closeup of the rice plant, with golden rice seeds ready for harvest. This is the peak time for rice harvest. And in the old days, a poor rice crop would mean starvation until barley became available the next spring.

Ttukseom is well-known for equestrian events, as a racetrack was here (and hosted the equestrian events of the 1988 Olympics). These horse and jockey statues remind me of that.

I am now walking toward a nearby subway station on Line 2; its elevated section is visible above.

The banner is from a new political party, Progressive New Party, too new to even have representation at the National Assembly. It claims that the new package of Lee Myung-bak's tax cuts for the rich add up to about 25 million won (USD $25,000) per recipient, and strongly denounces the cuts, calling them a "bomb for the life of the masses."

This political party also opposes corporal punishments in schools, something strongly supported by the ruling right-wing Grand Nationals and most of the parents of school-age children.

Two stops on Line 2, and another on Line 7, brought me to Sejong University, named after the great king who invented the Korean alphabet in 1446. It's currently in a dispute with the more prestigious Korea University, a few miles to the north, over the name "Sejong Campus," which Korea University uses now but Sejong University claims applies to only its own campus.

Again, note the layered outfits of the women in front. I am sweating - and again, I am only in a tee and shorts.

Just across the street from Sejong University is the main gate to Children's Grand Park. Despite the traditional architecture, it's only 35 years old. The park opened on May 5th in 1973 - Children's Day in South Korea (and Japan).

At the entrance, there is a traditional pond, with a water-powered mill and a pavilion.

Entrance to the park is free, and most of the visitors are not children, but the elderly, as most children are in school. There also are some young couples out on dates; maybe they come here because they need an inspiration, so that they can conceive a child of their own tonight?

Before this plot of land became a park, it was a golf course. Even before then, it was a park/garden created by Sunjong, Korea's last emperor who ruled from 1907 until the Japanese annexation in 1910, for his wife. Here are some stone sculptures that once were located all over this plot of land, but brought together here when the park was created.

Here's a new addition to the park. This garden has sculptures, installed by city parks department this year, to tell over a dozen popular Korean folktales visually. I shared five of these stories over at Christy's Art Blog.

Part of the installation, though not part of a story, includes this scaled-down house. The "three-partition thatched-roof house," as seen here, refers to the bare-bones accommodations that the working poor in royal Korea would have typically lived in.

I have briefly exited the park, to visit its southern neighbor, the Korean Children's Center. I used to hang out here even more than at the park. The right building is the Science Hall, which houses many scientific exhibits and a planetarium; this is where I came to take my first look at a CD player, and to watch a computer-operated model railroad depicting the four lines of the Seoul subway system then in existence. The building in the distance is the Culture Hall, where early Korean animation features, like Robot Taekwon-V (first released in 1976, and recently restored for a new generation of children), used to be shown.

The Korean Children's Center was also the creation of the President, and was run by a foundation named after his wife, who was shot to death in 1974 in an assassination attempt on the President. An interesting fact: the President's name was Park Chung-hee, and his wife was named Yuk Yeong-su, which was interesting because the name "Chung-hee" is usually considered feminine, while "Yeong-su" is a common name for men. There were many standing jokes in the 1970s over those names.

The lowest level of the Science Hall houses a kindergarten, which I once attended for a year. I can't believe it's been over a quarter century since those days already! This was a nice, expensive kindergarten, which sent a bus to my home in Jamsil to pick me up daily. Glad to know that the kindergarten is still around.

This monument stands nearby. It says: "A land of children, who, bright as the sun and pretty as flowers, grow their wisdom." It's in the handwriting of President Park - a propaganda tool to showcase his calligraphy skills and his love for children. There is also a similar monument standing back in the park.

One thing I don't remember, but saw today: these traditional homes, located beyond the soccer field. There is also a water slide belonging to a neighboring water park, if you watch carefully at the trees in the back. I do remember the water park.

Behind my right shoulder, there used to be a true-size replica of the Apollo moon lander. It's no longer there.

Back to the park, into the botanical garden. There are a number of plant-sculpted statues inside the smallish tropical greenhouse, like these explorers.

Outside the greenhouse are wildflowers in a garden. Another section also has a bonsai lab with dozens of examples.

Beyond the botanical garden: a small zoo, typical of the older zoos with their crowded, miserable cages. At this exhibit, some baboons can be seen, one nursing her young. This zoo was a newer alternative to the one that had existed in downtown Seoul at Changgyeonggung Palace, but has since moved away to a suburb.

Today, the zoo was one place where I could actually see some children. Also, a Snow White-themed animal show was available for a small fee, though I skipped it.

Aside from the earlier folklore exhibit, this park is very dated, and its attractions can no longer compete with newer, sexier parks elsewhere in and around the city. For much of my tour today, I was feeling like I was in a time warp, stuck in the 1970s. It even felt like I was visiting a capitalist counterpart to all those communist propaganda parks that once adorned the other side of the Iron Curtain, because of all the propaganda monuments inside this park installed by the Park regime.

And here's an example of why I felt that way. This statue depicts Lee Seung-bok, who, according to the plaque below him, was murdered in December 1968, on his tenth birthday, by North Korean guerrila infiltrators in his rural village, as he kept screaming "I hate the Communists!" The infiltrators also killed his mother and two brothers, who had come out due to the commotion. The story of Lee Seung-bok was repeatedly taught in the South Korean public schools until well into the late 1980s, as part of a wider staunchly anti-communist curriculum. Anti-communism was quietly retired starting in 1988, however, as South Korea started establishing ties with Communist Bloc nations to expand trade opportunities and box in North Korea; later, warming of ties with North Korea followed, but due to the lack of cooperation on the North Korean side and a more hostile policy by the Lee Myung-bak government here in the South, things have once again chilled down.

For now, I am leaving the propaganda behind. I am at the park's smallish amusement park, which, at the time of opening in 1973, was the best Seoul had to offer. Even after the much nicer Yongin Nature Farm (today's Everland) opened in 1976, this park still did well, as the Nature Farm was very far away, and required a car - a luxury back then - or a long, expensive bus ride to reach. It's starting in the late 1980s that this amusement park really faded away.

The roller coaster train above is the Blue Dragon Train, a roller coaster which started running on the park's opening day on May 5, 1973, and was retired on November 20, 1983, replaced by the 88 Train, whose red tracks are behind it. The name was good, as the blue dragon stood for the king in royal Korea; in fact, the train once had a dragon motif painted along its length. Today, however, it's just a rusting hulk of metal, a mere curiosity for the visiting children, but something that does evoke memories for their parents. In fact, when I was a child, a popular subject to draw/paint at neighborhood arts academies was the Blue Dragon Train.

A look at the amusement park, which now feels like a cut-rate carnival than anything serious.

Rides cost 4,000 won (USD $4) each, 15,000 won (USD $15) for a 5-pak, and 21,000 won (USD $21) for unlimited rides. Definitely much cheaper than the newer theme parks, but this place still feels very dated and cut-rate, and a poor value.

In the distance, outside the park, a dome that looks like a shrunken-down US Capitol is visible. Apparently that is a wedding hall, that's my best guess.

In front is a loop belonging to the 88 Train. The 88 Train has a very short run time, but nevertheless has one loop and two corkscrews, and can get quite fast. It wasn't running today, however. By comparison, the predecessor, the original Blue Dragon Train, had only a few dips and a tunnel.

The rear exit of the park, served by Line 5 on the subway, is close to this amusement park.

I am taking a different path back to the main gate. Now, back to propaganda.

In the 1970s, three North Korean infiltration tunnels were discovered by South Korea. These tunnels were designed to move a sizable amount of manpower and weapons in a short amount of time without detection, so that the North Koreans could launch a surprise attack on Seoul before South Korean forces could scramble to counter. A fourth tunnel was found in 1990.

This model tunnel depicts the second tunnel found, bored through solid rock. The third and fourth tunnels are similar. The third tunnel is very close to Seoul, and is a tourist attraction today.

The first tunnel was concrete-lined with railroad tracks. A lot of heavy equipment can move through it.

The propaganda value of putting these tunnel models at this park, both for the children and their parents: Even though you may be enjoying your peace here today, the North Korean Communists can, and will, destroy it before you know it. Be vigilant. Report all suspicious persons and activities (including spies, spy ships, and leftists) by dialing 113.

And in truth, the Korean War ended with a cease-fire, never a peace treaty. And South Korea did not even sign the cease-fire, as the Syngman Rhee government then in power wanted to fight until one side was completely destroyed.

These elephants offer a show at times, and rides for children and adults between shows. No shows/rides today. These are Asian elephants. They look a bit miserable here.

My tour of the park has ended. I am back at the entrance pond and the main gate. I look beyond the park fence - and now find another apparent wedding hall, this one shaped like the Venice Campanile in Italy.

I got back on Line 7, to travel several steps further north. I have now arrived back at the Costco location that I had visited a few weeks ago. This sculpture adorns the entrance plaza of the Costco.

Some new observations I made here are as follows. There is a tire center here, and unlike the US locations which sell only Michelin products, I can also buy Kumho tires as well. The automotive department also sells Kumho batteries, and also stocks Hyundai-Mobis windshield wipers instead of motor oil. (Kumho, in addition to automotive parts, also operates several other divisions - including a bus line, a delivery service, and Asiana Airlines.) Although Samsung PAVV television sets predominate the electronics department, I can also buy LG XCanvas and Sony models. Various Kirkland-labeled clothing items are available, though they are all labeled "Asian sizes." And downstairs in the food department, I can buy uniquely Korean items, like ginseng. And I was wrong when I said American beef is sold here; in fact, the American red meat sold here is pork, not beef, and all beef is Australian or domestic Korean. (Given that the railroad workers are refusing to transport American beef, getting American beef here is difficult at best anyway.) And last, but not the least, exiting the store from the downstairs checkout stands don't require a ride on the elevator; there indeed are moving walkways that also bring me back to ground level and parking, quicker and less crowded.

My sightseeing is expected to stop for the next few days as I make another journey outside the city.