Cafe Pascucci is one of the few places open today. A big corporate chain, Pascucci is a cozy cafe in LaFesta catering to the Western tastes many Koreans have for coffee and cafe sandwiches. It stays open for the same reason many big corporate chains stay open during major holidays back home.
Chuseok is the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving, and today Koreans from every corner of the peninsula are spending their time with family. The streets, normally dangerously packed with cars and scooters are today strangely silent. The only traffic today is from people visiting their ancestors at their eternal resting places.
For many the holiday began with a day off of work and school to travel and safely arrive at the oldest granparent’s home in time for the day’s festivities. As for us, we enjoyed a day apart from the students, administrators, and other teachers who routinely populate our day to day lives as the characters of our Korean drama, by venturing to the summit of Bukahnsan National Park’s Bagundae Peak.
At 836 meters (about 2,700 feet) the peak is the highest in the park, but less than half the height of South Korea’s tenth highest peak. It’s an impressive sight to see from the ground, and even more so the other way around.
Our climbing team consisted of Danielle and I, along with two new friends, Andre and Anna (who are blogging over at Seoulful Adventures). Andre is a Minneapolis transplant hailing from the Lake Harriet area and Anna is a native of the D.C. area exurbs in Virginia. Like us they just graduated from college, Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, to be precise) this past June. Together the four of us scaled Bagudae along with dozens of far more ambitious Korean hikers of all ages. While it was hard to see men and women who were probably not much younger than my gradnma pass us as though we were standing still, there was also some sense of appreciation I could feel from some of them. It was as if some people were glad to see us participating in the great Korean pasttime on the day before the most important holiday in Korean culture and not stimbling around Itaewon drunk as skunks at 3:00 in the afternoon, as many foreigners are wont to do.
The climb itself was unlike any hike I’ve ever before attempted. Instead of long winding switchbacks, Bagudae was almost straight up the hill, at some points using stairs or near ladders, but often the trail was just a pile of well placed rocks and trees to show you the best way to the top.
The summit itself was a solid rock face, a peak most hikes would go around or otherwise admire without scaling. Getting to the top meant strategically stepping in just the right spot while holding on to a thick cable set up to show you the way, and give you something to hold on to while walking. Even though it was a painfully difficult climb, the view from the top was unbelievable.
We talk about the Seoul urban sprawl a lot: the three hour subway rides, tiny crowded spaces, and alarmingly high population; but it wasn’t until standing atop this boulder perched sky high above the city that I really could appreciate the city’s real vastness. The land stretches well beyond the horizon to the south, an endless sea of sky scrapers and high rise apartment, many of which look nearly identical from this vantage. The sprawl continues to the east and the west, occasionally interrupted only by the mountains and the Han. To the North was an abyss of emptiness, an expanse of uninhabited mountains outlining a jagged horizon.
A few weeks ago, North Korea announced they would be allowing families to reunite with their loved ones, if briefly, across the 38th Parallel, and the English language news has occasionally reported on planned first-ever reunions between married couples who haven’t seen each other in 60 years, for example. While it is difficult to imagine a reunification happening anytime soon, the borderless vista as seen from the highest point in the Seoul area evoked a powerful sense of hope that one day my students who speak so passionately about the belief in “one Korea,” may see it happen.
For the rest of our Chuseok holiday we were hoping to find something fascinating in the Hongdae area and spending a rare quiet day in Seoul. We ended up finding a quaint little cafe on the outskirts of the district that was filled with vintage Americana. The coffee bar was constructed inside of an old VW bus, and books and trinkets of things related to the US or Volkswagens (odd considering that VW is not an American company) adorned the walls and panels of the bus and the cafe.
Happy Chuseok, everyone.