WHAT DO you think of when you hear the word “exotic”? Palm trees and tropical rainforests in the Amazon? An African safari with meer cats and zebras running in the wild? Sure, these are exotic places, but what if you want to experience something unique and different in Korea? It’s the middle of the semester, and you desperately want to escape from the mundane routine of going to classes. Where can you go that’s exotic but not half way around the world? Regional remoteness is not a prerequisite for an exotic and unique experience. In fact, just 30 minutes by subway from Yonsei Sinchon Campus you can find yourself at two unique neighbouring destinations, Itaewon and Hannam-dong. Located at the centre of Seoul, this trip can provide you with a range of exotic experiences, from the unique religious culture of Muslims to a mouthwatering Brazilian steak house to a park filled wildflowers, all in one journey.
Starting from the mosque
Take the subway from Sinchon Station, Line 2 towards Hongik Univ. station. After three stops, transfer to Line 6 at Hapjeong station bound for Bonghwasan station. Eight stations later, get off at Itaewon station, and enter an exotic world of diversity via exit 3. As you walk the As you walk along the streets of Itaewon, you can feel the exotic air flowing from every corner: bustling streets with people from diverse walks of life, Halal shop signs written in beautiful Arabic, Indian women selling handmade colourful hijab, Irish pubs, Russian karoke bars and food stands with variance never seen before, selling sizzling kimchi French fries to halal bulgogi.
Although wandering the streets of Itaewon can in itself be an adventure, you can experience more from your exotic trip if you let yourself divert from the main street for a little while. The Seoul Central Mosque is located only ten minutes away from Itaewon station. From exit 3 of the subway station, walk several blocks straight, turn right and follow the curved, narrow street with occasional corner shops and small restaurants. After a while you can see a pair of pointy minarets in the distance. As you get closer, the white outer walls of the mosque lined with blue borders can be seen more clearly. The walls of the majestic mosque enclose the body with a sacred serenity.
After savoring the beauty from a distance, enter the outer walls by walking up a stone staircase. The first thing you can see is a white guard post at the entrance. If you are wearing a short skirt or shorts that show your legs, the guard will kindly escort you to a dressing room, where there are several long bohemian patterned skirts that you can choose and change into. Taking part in this religious tradition, even if you are not a Muslim helps you become more intertwined in the unique atmosphere of the mosque. The act of changing into a long skirt that covers your bare skin is in itself a symbolic action to express some respect to the divine being. Wearing the designated skirt, walk up the stairs of the mosque, and enjoy the mystic and solemn air that surrounds the mosque.
Although the mosque looks very simple at a distance with only a few colours, do not be fooled and look closely. You will definitely notice something unique: the small, detained designs on every inch of the mosque. Take time to gaze at the brick walls, the intricate Hebrew writings inscribed on stone blocks, and tile decorations on the entrance pillars to the mosque. Although only Muslims are allowed inside the building, the doors are open for visitors to look inside, to witness Muslims praying to Allah on red carpets facing a wall adorned with exotic patterned tiles. After you have fully felt the Islamic air, head back down the steps and walk to the balcony that that overlooks the city. You can enjoy a serene view of downtown packed with buildings and cars with the backdrop of a grand serene mountain.
Exotic urban atmosphere
Head back down to the main street of Itaewon. Starting from the Itaewon subway station, you can see a variety of restaurants and shops from around the world, from Turkish bakeries selling specialty pies and delights to fabric shops displaying a dazzling rainbow of silk, chiffon and cotton used to make traditional Indian clothes. Another interesting element to observe is the gradual change of atmosphere when walking from Itaewon to Hangangjin station.
While the streets near Itaewon have a bustling, lively atmosphere, crowded with young, busy people, and shop owners actively advertising their products; the atmosphere changes as you approach Hangangjin station. Turkish ice cream stands and road shops selling fabrics are suddenly nowhere to be seen. Instead, candle-lit restaurants and Audi car dealerships are in their place. Depending on your budget or mood, you can choose where you want to eat. To enjoy the lively atmosphere, you can eat light meals nearby Itaewon station, trying out a variety of kebabs or dumplings from here and there. If, on the other hand, you want to enjoy a deluxe three-course meal, you can dine at fancy international restaurants nearby *Hangangjin* station, cooked and usually served by natives. You can choose among a variety of restaurants such as Brazilian steak houses, Spanish paella restaurants, or Paraguay Schnitzel restaurants. Not only do the restaurants vary, but also the kinds of shops differ on this same street. As you walk along the street, it is yet another interesting and unusual experience to observe the differences among the shops.
Uncover the hidden Namsan Park
After you dine and shop, it is now time to take a walk at the nearby Namsan Park. Although you may think you are familiar with this park, the Hannam part of the Namsan park is a region that most people are unfamiliar with. As you walk the main street towards *Hangangjin* station, you can find a small trail that leads to a set of green, wooden stairs. As you climb the stairs, you may wonder if you are in the right place, with not many people or even signposts around. However, withhold your suspicions for a little while, and keep climbing. At the top of the steps you will be greeted by mountains in the distance. The bright sunrays of the autumn sun reflect off the red brick rooftops of Hannam town, the glass walls of Yeoee-do city, as well as the familiar dome of the Seoul Central Mosque. Visit this park at sunset, and enjoy a magnificent view overlooking the city. Take time to breathe in the rare coexistence of several cultures in one town.
After you take in the magnificent view of Seoul, head towards Namsan Park. The unique features of the Hannam region of Namsan Park are the wildflower and moss gardens. As you enter the park, you can see wooden signs located among the trees and plants. Follow the sign towards the wildflower garden, first, to witness a garden full of artless flowers: Artless, not in the sense that it lacks color or creativity, but in the sense that the garden is unpretentious and pleasingly simple. The wildflowers swaying to the autumn wind are a visual rhythm that leaves you drifting to your deepest thoughts.
As you go further into the park, you begin to see the trees and plants in collaboration with the ponds. Starting with seemingly small occasional ponds, the water turns into a stream, then, you enter a moss garden. The moss garden is a unique feature of Namsan Park. Here, the wooden deep-brown waterwheel, the red leaves of the maple trees, and the green moss are in perfect harmony. Although the moss garden is not as big as the wildflower garden, this perfect harmony of nature in one single view is indisputably breathtaking. Sit on a bench in front of the garden. and close your eyes to enjoy the serene sound of the stream. Use all of your senses to soak in the calming atmosphere of this exotic moss garden.
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Something that is exotic means by definition, that it is unusual and interesting, usually because it comes from or is related to a distant country. Although such definition of exoticness is only applicable to the first two parts of this journey, the singular and unique experience in the park is also a refreshing type of diversity. Take a break from your mundane, ordinary lifestyle, and try deviating to a nearby yet exotic place, filled with diversity and harmony from different cultures.