26-29 June 2023
I knew little about South Korea. What first came to mind was Psy’s catchy 2012 K-pop song “Wop Wop Gangnam Style.” My second thought was South Korea survives and thrives under the constant threat of a crazy man. Can’t be too critical about that second thought, as since 2016 the U.S. suffers its crazy, too.
Seoul acts as a stopover for my niece and I on our travels East. It was a brutally long flight, made psychologically so because we lost a full day in the air. Departing San Francisco at 11:55 pm Saturday, we arrived Monday morning at 3:30 am. Even with some sleep, it was exhausting and one arrives thinking of rest rather than how much to cram into four days in Seoul.
ICN airport is impressive and, thankfully, organized. I applied for my K-ETA Electronic Visa, have my Q-Code (health requirement), my Asialink E-Sim, and a hotel reservation. Ready to go, but where? It’s 4 am! Cafe and coffee!
Following a caffeine jolt, we board Airport Railroad Express for direct transportation into Seoul Station downtown. The train begins running at 5:23 am, departs every 20 minutes and takes approximately 45 minutes. Purchased tickets at the station kiosk. Arriving Seoul Station and eschewing the Metro system, convenient but infamously crowded, we walk to our hotel in the budget-friendly Namdaemun neighborhood.
Seoul, at first glance, is modern concrete-drab interspersed with historic gates and palaces. Traffic speeds past on wide multi-lane avenues. Crosswalks are observed and you have about 30 seconds of safety. Arrows pointing the way identify my lane. All very organized. We arrive at our hotel and I am happy to pay for an extra night just to check in and crash for a few hours.
SOUL-SEARCHING IN SEOUL
Historic palaces like Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung showcase traditional Korean architecture and insight into the five-century-long Great Joseon Dynasty. Founded in 1392, the dynasty was replaced by the Korean Empire in late 1897. During its reign, Joseon encouraged the adoption of Confucian doctrine while discouraging Buddhism. Rulers ranged from progressives to tyrants but there is no denying its lasting influence on Korean culture. When not waging military campaigns, fighting pirates, or supporting literature and science, one of their favorite pastimes was killing their siblings and rivals.
Palaces once lacked little in comfort and beauty. Today, Gyeongbok’s throne room, just one of 7,700 rooms, contains an uncomfortable looking wooden chair. The cloudy day mutes the vibrant colors of wooden ceilings carved over 500 years ago. Through most of the palace was destroyed by Imperial Japan, the labyrinth of rooms and buildings is being restored. The gardens are lovely. The National Palace Museum houses Korean artifacts and the royal treasures. Tne palace is also site for the changing of the guards ceremony. Many visitors are dressed in Hanboks, traditional Korean clothing; they enter free. Entry is very reasonable, a little more than $2 and if over the age of 64, free.
Nearby, Changdeokgung Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built in mid-15th century, destroyed by the Japanese then rebuilt by the Joseon rulers. During the Japanese colonial period, its park once held the Japanese zoo and botanical gardens. Today Changdeokgung’s main sights are its ancient Myeongjeongmun Gate, bridges, pagodas, throne room, the oldest main hall in Seoul, and Munjeongjeon or council hall. The carvings and vibrant colors are stunning as are the blue tiles.
In 1762, the huge courtyard in front of Munjeongjeon witnessed possibly the most barbaric incident of the century. The Crown Prince was thought mentally ill and behaving strangely. The King, his father, ordered him to be sealed alive in a rice chest, where the Prince died eight days later. The royals may have lived in luxury, but the drawbacks seem hardly worth it.
Jogyesa Temple is a must stop. Small, tranquil and elaborate, the temple is not far from Changdeokgung and an oasis for the weary. Hundreds of lovely paper lanterns adorn the trees and spaces. Three golden Buddhas and spectacular carved ceilings and painted interiors adorn the temple.
ALLEYWAYS AND HANOKS
Flanked by Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung palaces is Bukchon Hanok Village. Hundreds of traditional wooden Korean hanoks are home to restaurants, teahouses, cultural centers, art galleries, and B&Bs. It’s a good place to experience a bit of old Seoul. It might be a little touristy, but that is who I am and why I am here.
LIVELY SEOUL – WHY ONE VISITS
To say Seoul is “dynamic and lively” is an understatement. My preferred areas of the city are the fun labyrinth of alleyways alive with blasting K-Pop, bars and restaurants. No need to seek out any special neighborhood as there is one around every corner. There may be plastic tables and scruffy, crowded little mom and pop restaurants, but the beer is tasty as is the food. The experience of wandering through winding streets amid what seems to be endless restaurants and shops gives a real insight into why visitors like this city.
Seoul is sort of a foodie’s paradise as Korean cuisine is renowned for delicious dishes. Every menu I saw, thankfully, had photos and English translations. Though a little spicy from their love of chili, every meal was delicious. Just find a good-looking spot, sit down, point out something, and enjoy.
Not far from Jogyesa Temple is Museum Kimchikan, dedicated to the art of making kimchi. UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage names kimchi as one of eight unique food customs in the world. Kimjang is the process of making kimchi, a dish of salted and fermented vegetables, usually cabbage and huge white radishes. Seasonings vary but generally include chili flakes, garlic, ginger, and salted seafood. It is mixed and sealed into earthen jars, stacked in the corner for future use. Cooking classes are available.
One can easily spend days exploring colorful neighborhoods from vibrant Myeongdong and Namdaemun, or pop-culture areas like Gangnam, to traditional Bukchon. An efficient public transportation system of subways and buses makes it all reachable.
At night, Myeongdong’s walking street is crammed with food stalls and sellers. It can be expensive to eat as everything looks and smells wonderful. From lobster tails to grilled meats and seafood, a plethora of tasty delights await. Ice cream, candied fruits, cream-filled waffles and sweets are interspersed among the juices and tea. Be sure to indicate spicy or not as Koreans love that chili. Also Myeongdong is the location of the Cat Cafe. Some time with furry friends is a great way to top up the evening.
While efficient and highly navigable, Seoul’s subways are crowded. If you value your space, don’t like the next person’s armpit, or worse, in your face, then avoid, especially in busy times. Like LA freeways, all times are busy. Thankfully, Seoul is walkable and I suspect there is a street market within a few blocks of every person in Seoul.
A COMPLICATED HISTORY
There are a plethora of museums, temples and galleries, too many to visit. The history of Korea is complicated. Little is taught in American schools and perhaps if not for the tv series Mash, little would be known of the Korean War. I have read a little as I love history and know of a distant cousin who was KIA in Korea in December 1950.
Just about an hour from Seoul, the Third Tunnel of Aggression is situated within the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North Korea and South Korea. It is an excellent trip that will explain a lot about the two Koreas. Like the now-defunct Berlin Wall, this zone has a troubled history and just across the barbed wire fences is a very tall flag pole and a “dear dictator.”
Evidently, the area just outside the zone has become a popular weekend getaway for South Koreans. There is a camping ground, amusement park and a gondola ride across the river. However, to enter the DMZ, security is high. There is an opportunity to visit one of the four tunnels dug by North Korea. Interesting and much cooler 240’ down but it is a challenging 358 meter, 11% climb out. Gas masks are available but probably defibrillators would be more apropo accoutrements. A new Dora Observation terrace, also including a climb, allows for views into the north, totally dependent upon the amount of haze. It is very humid today but Kaesŏng Industrial Area can be seen.
Something of note is the political scene. There seems to be so many protests that the buses warn they may be late because of them. The parked Police buses, engines running, speak a thousand words. Can’t read the banners, but pictures tell the story. Riding the train, reminders stream across their monitors that “China is our friend.” One tv clip talks of the territorial dispute over Dokdo, reminding riders that these Liancourt Rocks in the Sea of Japan are the sovereign lands of South Korea, not Japan.
Another means of learning a little history about Seoul is joining the city’s Hop-on-Hop-off buses that circle the main sights. It allows one to see Seoul while sitting on one’s bottom. Unfortunately, traffic is a nightmare but unbelievable as it seems, the buses were very much on schedule.
NOT ALL IS SUPER IN SEOUL
The traffic is such that it is preferable to walk. Lacking any understanding of Korean, Google translate is a huge help. We are constantly getting Public Alerts on our phones and translate is excellent. No warnings for gas masks or bombs but plenty on missing women and upcoming rain and flooding. The subways are bomb shelters but use with caution if flooding.
There is terrible air pollution but most cloudiness is the dense haze caused by the high humidity. Rain seems to be a constant possibility during this time of year. Humidity is in the 95% range. One just deals with these things.
Seoul is the first place I have traveled in over a decade that restricts Google Maps. South Korea disallows drawing walking routes. In a security-conscious nation with a crazy guy launching rockets and playing a nuclear weapons card just miles away, perhaps this makes sense. Naver Map App draws metro routes and directions. Surprisingly, Apple Maps does a good job maneuvering the city. And all of them accurately show your location at all times. Hopefully the crazy guy doesn’t use Apple. By purchasing an E-Sim (I used Airalo’s Airlink) I was never out of touch.
Money exchange? That’s a good thing. Not much cash is needed. Everywhere credit cards are accepted. I think one could do fine with $10 a day, except for the street markets. Seoul has a reputation as an expensive city. I did not find that. Food, beer, museums, and transportation are all inexpensive by western standards.
AN ODDITY OF NOTE
Wednesday morning, South Koreans woke up younger. The nation scrapped its traditional way of counting age and adopted the “international age” system used by most of the world. International age is the number of years since a person was born, which starts at zero. But informally, most South Koreans will quote their “Korean age,” which could be one or even two years older than their international age. Under their system, which has its roots in China, babies are considered a year old on the day they’re born, with a year added every January 1. Sometimes, they use their “calendar age” which considers babies as zero years old when born and adds a year every January 1. “Gangnam Style” singer Psy, born on 31 December 1977, is 45 by international age; 46 by calendar year age; and 47 by Korean age. Lucky Psy is now just 45. Me, I’m still the same 78.
Seoul, to me, is not impressive until one spends time in its colorful neighborhoods. Juxta-position these with historic palaces and architecture and Seoul is worth a visit.
To say we depart Seoul City in rain is an understatement. Public Alerts received since 6 am warned of up to 5″ and possible flooding. But, it has been a memorable stopover and it is time for a change of pace, exchanging happy jingles and cartoon characters for throat singing and Bactrian camels.
We fly to Mongolia.