Thursday, August 11, 2011

The soul of Seoul

Window shopping in Seoul was proving to be somewhat challenging since the shops didn't have windows. Well, strictly speaking they did; the mall consisted of the usual array of glass-fronted stores on multiple levels connected by a central escalator. The difference was that the shops seemed unable to be contained behind their façades. Like an outdoor market, rails of goods spilled onto the aisles making it impossible to tell where the actual front of the store began. It also bustled with people and it was past 10 pm.

When booking flights between Sapporo and Toronto, I discovered I would have to stop in Seoul for an eight hour layover. Feeling this was a stupidly annoying length of time to be stuck in an airport, I'd added an extra 24 hours to the stop and booked a couple of nights in a hotel. The plan was to see the entire South Korean capital in exactly a day and a half. Much more sensible.

I'd already fluffed part of my plan by falling asleep when I reached my hotel (it had an air-conditioner) so I emerged rather sheepishly in the evening to see if I could still get something to eat.

Since the hotel was in the Dongdaemun Market commercial district where the shops are open for 18 1/2 hours a day until 5 am, this turned out not to be a challenge.

Outside the mall, I browsed through the stalls of street venders trying to choose between meat skewers, sushi-like rolls or an orange pasta-looking dish. In the end I selected the possible-pasta, accepting a bowl of hot somethings with a cocktail stick to eat it with. The orange sauce turned out to be pretty spicy and the pasta consisted of a glutinous rice dumpling. I took a photo with my phone and posted it on facebook. This action had two results: the first was the discovery that the dish was called 'Ddukppoki' (떡볶이) and is apparently a very popular snack in Korea. The second was facebook asking me whether I had a Korean name that I'd like to add to my profile...

It was just dinner, I tell you! It didn't mean anything.

Prices in Seoul varied a great deal. My hotel was good value for its location, but not cheap at $100 a night. Food prices ranged a fair bit and transport was very cheap. It costs only $1 to ride the (extremely nice) subway and the shuttle bus from the airport to my hotel cost only $14 for roughly an 1.5 hour journey. Also, I did not invent the cheesy title to this post; every English language guide book I saw was entitled something similar. By contrast, the French version had the boring translation of "A guide book to Seoul". But, eh, they deserve it.

The following day I set out for some serious site-seeing. I started at the Gyeongbokgung Palace (top left photo); a royal palace that dates from the Joseon Dynasty in Korea. This period of Korean history lasted five centuries and ended --ultimately-- with the annexation of Korea by Japan at the start of the 1900s. This had the unfortunate consequence of most buildings being reconstructions of the original (although some are still quite old) which met their untiming decimation at the hands of Japanese forces. Each of the small information plaques beside the buildings states their use, their original date and the date they were destroyed by the Japanese.

... I was starting to see the historical problem between these two countries.

Traditionally, the Japanese and Koreans hate each other. Their history is bloody, destructive and recent, with the annexation of Korea only ending in World War II. The present conflict has a different feel to it than the one between the English and the French. Don't get me wrong, of course I can't stand the French! But that's because it's just such fun to beat them at football[*]. One of my Japanese friends (while somewhat inebriated) once told me; "Older people are very prejudice against Koreans. I don't feel that way and yet ... I understand why they do." Some wounds are still too raw to be confined to sporting events.

My guide books' pictures of Gyenogbokgong palace did not do it justice. They shows the outer wall; a military-looking affair at one end of a large concrete square. Behind this, however, the palace buildings extend back into large gardens around a central lake. There is not one huge building like the large houses and palaces in the UK but rather a multitude of smaller establishments designed for different purposes. Each of these was compact enough that you could see its extent by looking through the wide doors and windows. Despite their open frontage, the breeze passing through high-ceilinged rooms felt cool, smelling of wood and incense. If it hadn't been completely inappropriate, I would have jumped the rope barrier and laid out on the tatami mats; Seoul in July is not comfortable.

After the palace, I took a cable car ride up to the communication tower overlooking the city. It was slightly cooler here and there was a demonstration of ancient battle techniques which was pretty awesome. Many a straw dummy did not live to provide opposition for another day. I later walked back down to street-level where I saw a mother luring her small children up a steep set of stairs with a game of 'rock, scissor, paper'. The person who won each round was allowed to climb five steps. Cunning, very cunning.

Finally, I browsed in Namdaemun Market (right-hand photo); the largest traditional market in Korea. It was remarkably similar to the malls.

I left my hotel early Sunday morning to head out to the airport. The traffic in Seoul is notoriously bad but at 6:30 am it was still relatively quiet. The main people about were the street cleaners ... all of whom had "The Seoul of Asia" embroidered on his breast pocket. The old jokes are apparently the best ones.

[*] When, you know, England knew how to play


  1. I love Seoul -- it's got so much character. BTW, if you're on a budget, you can find very inexpensive and decent--sometimes even luxurious--private rooms (in most cities around the world) on this site:
    That is, if you don't mind staying with strangers. I think it's a step up from hostels/dorms, without having to pay very much more.

  2. That's a great travel tip -- thanks very much!