In Korea we live on the floor, we sleep on the floor, we play on the floor, we do everything on the floor. So, it is very important to keep the floors clean.Romi Haan
Mar 29-Apr 18 2017
Our last stop in Asia before heading to Europe, we didn’t have any expectations for Seoul. We ended up being pleasantly surprised, finding a very beautiful and bustling metropolis. You don’t hear much about Seoul compared to places like Tokyo, Hong Kong, or Shanghai, but I would rank it up there with Santiago, Chile as the most underrated places we have been so far. I would stay for 20 days, while Maggie would be there for seven, having to return to California for a few weeks for work. I was worried that I would end up running out of things to do, but I ended up never leaving the city during my entire time in South Korea. There was plenty to keep me busy and entertained, from wandering traditional historic neighborhoods, hiking through beautiful hillside parks, and checking out world class museums and architecture.
I would end up staying in three separate neighborhoods during my visit, the first with Maggie and the next two with housemates. When we first arrived, we headed for our place in the Insadong district. The first thing I noticed was that the area felt like what would happen if Tokyo and Hanoi had a baby. It had the modern buildings, efficient transportation, and bright lights of Tokyo mixed with the narrow maze-like alleys, street vendors, and older buildings of Hanoi. We immediately knew we were going to enjoy our stay, as we settled into the top floor of a small, newly built modern apartment building.
Nearby was one of my favorite areas of the entire city, Buckchon Hanock Village. Wedged between the two city palaces (Gyeongbokgung & Changdeokgung), the area is filled with trendy restaurants and specialty boutiques built around traditional historic residences and various interesting sites. We would visit an Owl Museum, which was more like a café, but displayed the enormous collection of all things Owl that a woman and her husband have collected over the years. We also checked out the Seoul Modern and Contemporary Art Museum on Saturday evening when it was free to visit. Mostly though, we would enjoy simply wandering the streets, climbing the hill in the center that offered views of the surrounding area, and snapping pictures of the neat architecture such as peaked roofs made of stone, elegant wooden doors, and beautiful inner courtyards.
Closer to home in the alleys surrounding our house we would enjoy eating at a traditional Korean barbecue restaurants, as each evening the area would fill with tables and chairs as the locals would get off work and sit down to enjoy dinner. Tents would also pop up along the streets where people would gather and drink soju, a type of rice wine, sometimes well into the night. As it was our first time having Korean barbecue (non-westernized), we had to be shown how prepare it. Instead of just throwing the meat on the gridiron, we would instead cut it into small pieces while constantly turning as it cooked. Once it was ready to eat we would place a piece in some lettuce, add a bunch of side dishes known as banchan, and then roll it up and enjoy. Some of the other Korean dishes we would enjoy include Kimchi, salted and fermented vegetables, with nearly every meal; Gimbap, several ingredients such as fish, meat, eggs, and vegetables rolled in seaweed and rice; and S Patbingsu, a shaved ice dessert with sweet toppings such as chopped fruit, condensed milk, fruit syrup, and Azuki beans. I would also spend a night drinking Korea’s most popular alcholic beverage, known as Soju, it is a clear and colorless distilled drink that is traditionally made from rice, wheat, or barley. I found that it tasted like a sweet vodka, with a hint of rubbing alchol. It went down smooth though and after a bottle I was felling pretty good.
Nearby Insadong in the heart of the city were all the government buildings, lined up along Gwanghwamun Square. We took the long walk from the presidential palace, known as the Blue House because of the blue roof tiles, to the other end at Seoul City Hall. Many monuments could be seen along the way, but more interesting, while we were there was two opposing protest camps. Recently the president of South Korea had been impeached and proceedings to have her charged and put in jail for corruption were ongoing. One side was glad that it happened, with a big reason being due to the presidents handling of the Sewol Disaster, a ferry that sank three years earlier and killed 297 people, mostly high school students. They had a permanent memorial set up where people could pay their respects, as well as information on display about that fateful day, demanding that those still not found would eventually be united with their families. Not far away we found the opposing side, which had set up an Occupy like tent city in front of the City Hall. This group was composed of conservative nationalist who supported the ex-president, believing she was removed unconstitutionally and against the best wishes of the country. It was interesting to see the two sides both speaking their point of view, with of course a massive police presence keeping them separated. Earlier in the month the demonstrations had clashed and some protestors were killed, so luckily nothing like that was happening when we visited.
Another ongoing conflict for Seoul is obviously North Korea. Interestingly, while the United States and countries further away from the Korean peninsula were talking about imminent war and an increased threat, the people of Seoul were more concerned about its own government and the current problems the country faces with corruption. The South are used to the threat of the North, having grown up with it, and knowing that each year around this time talks of danger and war spike. They understand that nothing will likely happen unless the North Korean regime is provoked, that if they were to start a war it would be suicide. Mostly, they have been feeling left out of the discussion about what to do, since they don’t have a president at this time, and are worried China, the United States, or Japan will do something without their consent. It was good to see that the people who would suffer the worse do not live in fear of North Korea and can go on living their lives without it having a huge effect on their well-being.
Away from politics, while in Seoul we had to check out the famous Gangnam district. Gangnam is a newer and wealthier area of the city located on the south side of the Han river, separating it from the older city to the north where we were staying. Instead of twisting alleys and small residential neighborhoods, this area was full of large modern buildings laid out on a straight gridded street pattern. Large department stores and chains dominated the landscape, while people would dress up in the latest fashions and head for the clubs and lounges. Maggie would work from one of the many coffee shops while I would meet up with her in the evening to grab some nearby cocktails. The area wasn’t our favorite, but it was worth checking out, reminding us a lot of the Ginza district in Tokyo. We much preferred the smaller more personal neighborhoods found throughout the city.
While we were enjoying our cocktails in Gangnam, the bartender let us know that in a couple of nights there would be a firework show for the grand opening of the Lotte World Tower, so we decided to go and check it out. The area was completely packed, almost uncomfortably so, as the streets and sidewalks for blocks around were full of people checking out the festivities. It ended up being worth the crowds though, as it would be the first time either of us saw fireworks shot from a building. It was spectacular as a 20-minute firework display that included music and lights filled the night sky, blasting off from and surrounding Korea’s new tallest building, and now the fifth tallest in the world.
While Maggie was still in Seoul we would also take some nice walks along a couple of the cities unique urban parkways, Cheonggyecheon River Park and Geyongui Line Forest Park. Cheonggyecheon was a beautiful sunken park that stretched for several miles, starting in Seoul’s busy central business districts and stretching out through the neighborhoods to the east. Beautiful plants were starting to bloom as the pleasant walk took us under various bridges alongside a peaceful creek. An excellent retreat from the busy streets above, it was almost surreal knowing we were surrounded by all the concrete and steel of the city hidden just out of view.
Half-way along the park we would head back up to street level and explore the area surrounding Dongdaemun Culture & History Park. The centerpiece is a distinctively neo-futuristic designed windowless building, characterized by its curving forms, the creation of starchitect Zaha Hadid. The area includes a walkable park on the buildings roofs, large exhibition spaces, futuristic retail stores and restored parts of the Seoul fortress.
On the other side of the downtown area and going west, we would take a stroll along the Geyongui Line Forest Park. This park was at street level and ran along the right-of-way of an old rail line, above a current subway line. Remnants of the old railroad remains, being built into the parks landscape with the theme maintained throughout the park. Towards one end is an area known as Geyongui Line Book Street, several bookstores along a stretch of the park housed inside structures that resemble old railroad cars. It makes sense, as this side of the park is the Hongik University area, a part of Hongdae which is known as the place to be for young adults to hang out and party. We would explore the busy streets which also included Sinchon and Sangsu, hip areas that have recently seen a lot of youth run shops and restaurants attracted to the area.
Another park that we had the chance to visit together was Yeouido Park, a large park built along the southern bank of the Han river, and filled with Cherry Blossoms blooming in the area. I met up with Maggie at a coffee shop nearby when she was finished working for the day, walking down to the riverside together. Once there, we saw that they had bikes for rent to use on all the nearby bike trails and lanes, we decided to rent a tandem bike and ended up riding around for a couple of hours taking in the views. Seoul is full of many great parks, something I wasn’t expecting before we arrived or heard much about.
After a week, it was sad to see Maggie go, but it was time for her to head back to Oakland for a bit. It’s good though as she can see her family and dog, visit with friends, as well as attend necessary work events and meetings which ultimately allow her the opportunity to travel. We checked out from Insadong and I would end up moving to the Itaewon neighborhood, staying in a private room at flat shared with a couple of roommates. Itaewon is the ex-pat area of the city, and probably Seoul’s most diverse area because of it. It is also located next to the massive U.S. military base, known as Fort Kim. International food can be found all over the area, which stretches from the south of Namsan Mountain almost to the Han river. The area I stayed in was on one hillside and full of many good places for coffee and to hang out. It still had a local neighborhood feel as most people stay in areas of Itaewon further south.
I would spend the week doing a lot of walking, including hiking Namsan Mountain, visiting the Seoul Forest and crossing many of the bridges spanning the Han River. I would end up traversing five of the mile or so long bridges enjoying sunsets and the evening lights on different occasions. The Banpo Bridge is probably the most popular, having an interesting music and water show each night as water is shot from small water cannons hanging off the side. The others each had their own unique design and view, some carrying trains and others being highways.
Staying in its shadows, I couldn’t miss hiking Namsan Mountain, a beautiful natural area smack in the middle of the city, providing many pathways and areas to get some fresh air. Being spring, the flowers and trees blooming all around were a colorful site. The mountain is probably most famous for being the home of Namsan Tower, a large observation tower that is brightly lit at night. It may have been my favorite park, as the views it offered were unparalleled, but Seoul Forest would give it some tough competition.
Seoul Forest is a large park between the confluence of the Han and Jungnangcheon rivers, with probably the best display of Cherry Blossoms in the city. There was a Cultural Art Park, an Ecological Forest, a Nature Experience Study Field, Wetlands Ecological Field, and the Han River Waterside Park to explore all within its boundaries. It seemed like it was the preferred place for locals to enjoy a picnic or to spend an afternoon during the weekend chilling under a dense canopy of trees, where citizen can breathe the invigorating fresh air.
Nearby the Seoul Forest in the Seongsu district were two large shipping container developments, many could be found scattered all throughout the city, but these two were the biggest and best examples. Under Stand Avenue and Common Ground are both made from stacked shipping containers. Common Ground, the world’s largest shipping container mall, consists of 200 cargo containers stacked 4 stories tall. Complete with food trucks, a DJ spinning tunes, and plenty of art and creative displays, Common Ground is a hipster’s dream. Under Stan Avenue is the newest shipping container mall to open in the city, with 115 containers. Calling itself a “creative public cultural space”, it aims to support teenagers, artists, social entrepreneurs and local vendors. Both places are worth checking out to see the many possibilities of the intriguing low-cost construction technique that seems to be taking the world by storm as of late.
A couple of the other museums I would visit were the Seoul Arts Center and the Arario Museum in Space. The Seoul Arts Center was a huge complex, including an opera house, an art museum, a design museum, music halls, and many other spaces dedicated to the arts and culture. I visited to check out a Shepard Fairey exhibit, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Fairey is a famous artist most known for his Obey Giant paintings and murals, probably the most recognizable street art of our time. The Arario Museum was also enjoyable, an interesting combination of modern and contemporary art, displayed in a maze-like structure that alone is a reason to check out the space. I would also wander the beautiful grounds surrounding the National Museum of Seoul as well as the monuments in front of the massive Korea War Museum.
For my last five days of my stay, I would move places once again, not too far from Itaewon, to the east side of Namsan Mountain. The place was in a somewhat rundown building, but once inside, the apartment was like a fancy boutique hotel, with a comfortable and nicely designed room full of little deals that would make it a a very comfortable and pleasant stay. I would end up exploring two of my favorite places, besides Buckchon Hanock Village, while staying there.
First was an area known as Mullae Art Village. Located far from most of Seoul’s attractions, this neighborhood was a nice break from some of the monotony found in a lot of other parts of the city. An industrial area full of hundreds of small workshops and metal factories, somewhat run down and gritty, but full of surprises. Artists and creative types have recently begun moving in, turning the small spaces into cafes, restaurants, bars, and art studios. Murals have also popped up and make the area and its small narrow alleys a great place to explore. Even if the artists weren’t there, it would have still been enjoyable just to see all the workshops and different things being made.
Lastly was the Iwadong district, known as the Iwadong Mural Village. A long steep climb takes you to a delightful area set up along a section of Seouls historic wall. Cafes and restaurants sit perched along the ridge and steep steps making it a wonderful area to explore and hang out. I visited several times, and although not a very large area, would discover something new each time. The city wall is beautifully lit at night and the park running alongside offers more great views while breathing in the fresh spring air.
My 20 days had come to and so it was now time to head the airport and catch my next flight direct to Madrid, Spain, where I would rejoin Maggie and spend the next 3 months in southern France and on the Iberian Peninsula. Although we were looking forward to it, we will miss our time spent in Asia the last three months. From returning to one of my favorites cities, Hong Kong, to motorbiking and meeting the wonderful people of Vietnam, to exploring and wandering all over two of the world’s biggest cities, Tokyo and Seoul. We look forward to returning to Asia again on another leg of our around the world trip.