The warm weather is finally in full swing meaning everyone is outside. With the increase in heat comes an increase in crowds and in a place like downtown that nears critical mass even in the dead of winter, the more populous spots have become almost oppressive. Between the noise of construction, the blaring music, waves of ambling people with no sense of direction or personal space, not to mention the stiffness and humidity of the air, I for one was due for a break from the urban aspects of the city without turning my back on the city in which I reside. This week, our destination is an escape from the cacophony and crowds that was far beyond expectations.
On the outskirts of the city in northern Gwangsan gu, there is a park that feels like a different world compared to the rest of the city. Songsan Yu won ji (Songsan Amusement Park) doesn’t fit the typical definition of an amusement park but it has an unavoidable air of relaxation and joy. Upon exiting the bus for the park, it’s difficult not to feel that this place is in a different part of the country. The view from outside the park is one of the few within the city limits that has both mountains and a genuinely open horizon full of lush fields and open water. Walking across the narrow bridge, the sound of a rushing stream offers an instant calm making the long trek from downtown immediately worthwhile. After entering the main grounds, the real draw of the park becomes quickly apparent.
The first area within Songsan serves as a sort of multi-purpose meeting ground. Primarily, this area is used by picnicking families. The sound of laughter and scent of grilled meat is immediately welcoming. If you forgot to pack a lunch, which I highly recommend, there are also some carts here with basic food similar to what could be found in a convenience store. Here also are some short walking trails with a variety of contours meant to be walked over barefoot to stretch the arches (it’s a bit uncomfortable at first, but I recommend giving it a shot). These trails wrap around a beautiful little pond with a small island sitting area full of beautiful flowers and a shade tree.
Continuing past the main entrance is where the more athletically minded folks will want to head toward right away. The central fields of the park are perfect for nearly any activity on even the busiest day. When I came upon these fields, there were about a half dozen kites flying, a group of teenagers playing football, as well as kids running around playing a variety of imaginative games. One corner of these fields is dedicated to a small but fantastic playground with a cool robot space theme that I was disappointed to be too big for. Past all of this at the far end of the field were a number of basketball and tennis courts. Walking through this massive space, I was surprised that even with a few dozen people occupying the field, a scrimmage for just about any sport would have fit in comfortably without crowding anyone out including Frisbee or football.
Just past the main entrance to the field was my favorite part of the whole park: foot paddle boats. For 5,000 won per person, a couple or group can rent a boat to get a completely different view of an already gorgeous landscape. The water, though a bit heavy with yellow dust at this time of year, also has a number of lotus patches floating around which are in the early stages of blooming adding to the atmosphere of calm engendered in every bit of this place. On one side stretches a nearby mountain side, heavy with trees varying in color from green to red to purple. Along the other side, an assortment of flowers in contrasting red and white appear to wind themselves into the verdant backdrop of bushes and flowering trees that line the loose gravel pathways. At the farthest end of the water is where the awe is unavoidable with the mountains falling far enough into the backdrop that even on a clear day, the fields and rivers seem to stretch indefinitely as though if one had the strength, it would be possible to paddle across the world.
To get to Songsan Amusement Park, take the 19, 37, or 38 buses to the stop of the same name. Once off the bus, the park is almost impossible to miss. The park itself is free to enter with plenty of public restrooms and a few spots to purchase basic food and a few toys. With light traffic, the bus ride from the Lotte Department Store stop downtown takes about 45 minutes, or you could take the subway to Songjeong Park and take any of those buses from there as well. With a group of three or four, you could also take a cab but be warned that if you’re looking for a cab back, you’ll likely need to take one of the buses there, which run surprisingly regularly (about every 5 minutes per bus number) back into the Songjeong area. The trip out is a great way to see another side of Gwangju that most people don’t take the time to enjoy and the destination is one of the best I’ve ever been to in all of Korea. With all the places I’ve travelled to in this country and in this city alone, it’s not often I am this floored by something new. Seriously, give this one a Saturday afternoon, especially those of you with families.
After spending a large part of the winter traveling various countries in Southeast Asia, there was a big part of me that missed my homes, both where I grew up and my adopted one here in Gwangju. Wandering into a park like Songsan reminded me of what I love most in this world: connecting with nature and feeling the air of peace and pleasure that is only available when surrounded by people who left their cares at the gate. This place being so close, sitting just within the boundaries of the city, seems like some hidden dream, simultaneously foreign and familiar like some great river road from stories half remembered. If the heat of the city is wearing you down, head towards the shade of this grand park just a little way down the crooked trail.