I first visited South Korea in 1988 during the Summer Olympics. It was a wonderful two weeks of sport with a unique atmosphere (remember the final of the field hockey, Flo Jo, and the notorious big bad Ben Johnson...I was there!). More recently, the Winter Games took place in PyeongChang. The games were a resounding success, and Korea once again showed that it can put on a big show when it needs to.
During my visit this time around, my schedule was too tight to be able to make it over to the Games venues. I was only in the city for 48 hours and had a fairly packed agenda. As usual, therefore, the issue was how to fit in a couple of runs with precious little time between meetings.
What to do about the dreaded jet lag?
Before talking about the city, however, I want to discuss jet lag a little. How do you conquer it? I’ve always suffered from jet lag particularly when flying east. I can’t claim to have found the answer but here are my top three tips:
1. Firstly, when flying to Asia from Europe try to take a flight arriving in the late afternoon if your schedule/budget/airline allows it. The flights that arrive in at 6am are challenging to bounce back from. I usually end up falling asleep at 3pm on the first day and never recover fully for the rest of the trip. However, if you can get to the hotel by 6pm, eat, run and go to bed around 10:00pm, it’s so much better.
2. Secondly, eat as little as you can on the flight and get into the eating routine of the country you arrive in as soon as possible. And, of course, stay hydrated on the flight. This is essential if you decide to do any longer runs when you arrive.
3. Finally, I find most ‘jet lag medication’ doesn’t work and always leaves me with a headache. The only exception is an over the counter drug readily available in the US, Advil PM (similar to Nurofen in the UK) which is very mild and doesn’t linger for days on end.
South Korea is a wonderful country to visit with some of the most welcoming, dynamic people I have met in Asia. They are always very positive despite the threats from their ‘noisy’ neighbours in the North. As an aside, the last three occasions that I have been here my arrival has coincided with a missile launch from North of the border. This time however with the Olympics in full swing it’s smiles and cheerleaders all round.
Seoul has changed out of all recognition from the late 1980s. Much of the Centre has been redeveloped. The subway gives you access to anywhere you need to go, and is both very efficient and good value. At busy times (e.g. most of the time) it’s best to avoid taking a taxi.
Compared to major European cities (I can speak from experience having worked all around Europe as a tour guide) Seoul doesn’t feel like a major tourist destination. The sites are not unbearably crowded. There is a lot to see and do including fascinating contemporary architecture as well as traditional Korean style buildings. There are a whole host of quirky unusual museums such as the Seoul Herb and Medicine Museum (Subway Line 1 to Jeji-dong) and the Samsung D’Light Museum (Subway Line 2 to Gangnam) offering some thoughts on the gadgets of the future.
I am more of an Art Museum lover and I am spoiled for choice in Seoul. As I only had time for one museum I picked the LeeumSamsung Museum of Art (Subway Line 6 to Hangangjin) which has a collection showing the connections between major US / European artists and their Korean equivalents.
The Leeum Samsung Museum of Art.
If you are food lover, you are equally spoilt for choice. Coming from Japan you might find some Korean food overly spicy but the quality and variety of tastes you can experience are bewildering. Again if you want to get a quick sense of the local cuisine you can do worse than head for Gwangjang Market (Subway Line 1 to Jongno 5-ga). You will soon realise that Korean food is far more than just the barbecue and Kimchi. The other thing I was not expecting is the boom in Craft beers both local and imported. I can't vouch for it as I didn’t go there but Craftworks (Subway Line 2 or 3 to Euljiro 3-ga) is highly recommended. Just make sure you drink plenty of water as you’ll need to be well hydrated for your run the next day!
Where to run in Seoul and how to get there?
First of all, I don’t like to be too adventurous. If you get lost and end up having to get the subway home it rather defeats the point of a run. I also like to avoid having to cross busy roads (although jaywalking in Seoul is less frowned upon than in Tokyo), and I therefore like to identify parks or city centre river runs wherever possible. Seoul has plenty of both but I ended up choosing two park runs.
Run 1 - Namsan Park ‘Trail’ Run
Closest Subway station: Subway Line 2 to Samseong Station. Head for the Grand Hyatt Hotel, take exit #1 and from there it’s a two-minute walk away. You are at the southern most point of Namsan Park.
Run Distance: The official jogging course is only about 1.4km although it has significant elevation. I ended up running around 5km. if you take all the various detours on the map you could easily run over 10km
Namsan Park is visible from pretty much anywhere in Seoul. It is a popular location for families and young people although it was fairly empty when I went there. It had been very cold leading up to my trip in late February, and the week before it had dropped to -15°C. You can see from the pictures below that the snow had, by and large, disappeared but the ponds were iced over, and in parts it was still very slippery.
The frozen pond in Namsan Park.
The advantage of this park is that it is very well signposted, and even with my poor sense of direction it is quite hard to get lost. If you do get confused, just look up and you can see Namsan Tower and head for that.
The path snakes around the whole park and you can take detours along the way to discover numerous hidden gems; including a botanical garden, some pieces of outdoor exercise equipment, and all kinds of interesting outdoor sculptures.
One interesting cultural observation is the attitude of other runners. I was constantly being challenged by others to race them. Young children, in particular, wanted to see who could reach the next corner first (usually they did). And another thing I also noticed: Everyone is kitted out with the latest running equipment. Not a speck of mud to be seen on any piece of kit, and certainly no battered old running kit. If you run, you dress up. My Iffley Road Thorpe merino top was a big hit, and I think someone wanted to buy it (or at least I think that what she was saying).
The run itself was exhilarating. A surprisingly steep final section as you get closer towards the Tower and in parts with the icy terrain it was treacherous but no accidents and I made it to the top to enjoy the Panda exhibition (see photo) and the 360-degree views around Seoul. I took a longer route back to the Hyatt Hotel and for that I followed the footpath around the side of the Park.
The Panda Exhibition in Namsan Park.
All in all, a great run, easy to get to and with lots of variation. As mentioned earlier, I was there in winter but it’s also perfect for a summer run. It can get very hot here in the summer months but large parts of the path are in the shade, and I spotted a number of water fountains and drinks stands, so you won’t be short of hydration should you need it.
Run 2 - Yeouido Park
Closest Subway Station: Yeouido Station on Subway Line 5
Distance: One loop around 1.5 km
My second choice for a run is in a much more central location, and is ideal if you are in the Finance district and are very pushed for time. Yeouido is the Finance / Business district and the town planners have kept a large expanse free in the centre. The park is very easy to find, located right opposite the main IFC Mall and Office Complex. The Conrad Hotel is also close by. It is a dead flat track, around 1.5km in length, and a perfect rectangle so you really can’t get lost. Parts of the trail are dirt and there is also an athletic track type surface to run on.
Yeouido Park. Photo credit: Pixabay - dldusdn.
I welcomed the change of surface from the incessant asphalt that you normally are forced to run on during most city runs. As you can see from the attached map you are basically running around four sides of a rectangle. It is easy to measure the distance covered, so if you are mid-way through your training for a 10k race or a sprint Triathlon you won’t have to miss any of your sprint / short distance sessions. The terrain is easy to follow, and there are clearly defined tracks to keep runners and cyclists separate.
Yeouido Park Map.
The park combines many different features. It has an area set aside for in-line skaters. There's lots of seating and a big expanse reserved for big outdoor concerts and other events. Additionally, it has an area specifically reserved for barefoot walking and running. You are quite simply spoilt for choice.
In conclusion, Seoul and South Korea are well worth a longer visit than just the standard 2-day business trip. I certainly plan to visit other parts of the country on my next trip. You will definitely not be on your own if you run at the weekend and, as with every city, you will find lots of tips and advice on the web about other run trails, restaurants, and other things to do when you’re here.
Enjoy your running!