Sitting comfortably in the heart of Seoul and overlooking its ancient palaces is Namsan (남산), which in Korean stands for the South Mountain. This name, a token of the past, is proof that in times long gone by Namsan Mountain demarcated the southern border of the once small Seoul city, a city that since those times has grown out of proportion. Surrounded by a leafy large public park, Namsan offers a number of hiking opportunities to the locals, while from the top one can admire the panoramic view of the vast urban sprawl that constitutes the South Korean capital.
Although Namsan amounts to mere 262 metres in height, it can be easily spotted from various areas of Seoul. This is due to one of the city’s landmarks. Located on the peak of the mountain is the N Seoul Tower, which amongst Koreans is more commonly referred to as, simply, the Namsan Tower or the Seoul Tower. Needless to say, visiting Namsan deservedly landed on the top of my things-to-see-in-Seoul list, and so it should for any traveller!
It’s a beautiful evening in May and it’s already dark. I’ve met my friend Ju-young for a traditional Korean dinner and now we’re driving to Namsan. With some difficulty we find a parking spot – on a warm evening like this Namsan is particularly popular with visitors. We’re very late and from the parking area need to go at a trot to catch the last cable car to the summit. We manage by the skin of our teeth! Once on top it’s a short distance to the foot of the N Tower. The only problem is that the said distance is made up of a flight of big wide concrete stairs. I speed ahead to catch one of the last lifts going up the tower while Ju-young, owing to her high heels, lags behind a bit. Once again we are successful and within moments are transported by the world’s fastest lift to the observation deck up top. One interesting thing worth mentioning here is that the N Tower’s observation deck, which usually functions as a rather pricey restaurant, is actually revolving! Admittedly, not at a break-neck speed that would make your food fly off your plate along various trajectories, but at the pleasantly sluggish speed of 1 revolution per 48 minutes. Hence, if you do stop by the restaurant it really is worth hanging around for almost an hour enjoying your meal and the slowly changing view outside.
Ju-young and I take our time walking around the deck, taking pictures and trying to recognise Seoul’s other landmarks hidden away in the neon jungle that surrounds us. The panorama around is breathtaking – the lights of the city seem to illuminate everything as far as the eye can see. Seoul’s territory seems to have no limits! To the north we can see the busy Myeongdong, Seoul’s prime shopping district; immediately west of us is Itaewon, the perhaps most international and liberal area of the city that even contains a mosque! The flow of the high-rise buildings is only interrupted briefly to the south by the Han River (한강) that majestically wends its way through the centre of Seoul. Beyond it arise the skyscrapers of Gangnam and Apgujeong, Korea’s plastic surgery capital. After that the lights fade in the distance.
Ju-young and I take the lift down and stay awhile at the large viewing platform at the base of the tower. Most of the visitors tonight turn out to be young couples who arrived here with their locks of love and who can sometimes be found in the shadows stealing the occasional kiss, or even snogging – something that according to the strict Korean social norms is most definitely not permitted in public. Soon Ju-young and I board the cable car and descend.
One last thing I’m going to say here is that Namsan Mountain really is quite an institution in Korea. Probably there isn’t a Korean around to whom the name wouldn’t mean anything at all or wouldn’t bring up childhood memories. Why? Well, over the course of time Namsan snuck it’s way into the Korean folklore and now occupies a warm cozy place within a sweet nursery rhyme Moon (달) that Koreans sign to their kids:
Moon moon what kind of a moon [달달 무슨달]
Round moon like a plate [쟁반같이 둥근달]
Where is it right now? [어디어디 떴나]
It is over Namsan [남산 위에 떴지]
– South Korea (한국).
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