First Trip to Seoul


Saturday: Day 1

I finally made it to Seoul this weekend after the false start with the lost wallet two weeks ago.  I boarded the 7.05am express from Terminal in Chungju, we covered the 115 kilometres (71.3 miles) in 90mins descending upon the maelström that is Seoul City Express Bus Terminal around 8.35am. I can only describe the first impressions as “visual hades”!

The first issue was identifying the subway from the cacophonous main hall….it wasn’t easy there  were no English signs despite the fact they had the 1988 Olympics and 2002 World Cup.  In saying that I have been pre-programmed over the past few months into thinking no bugger speaks Englishy, Chungju has that effect on you! After wandering the full length of the terminal I decide to try to buy my return ticket for Sunday with the mindset that I could show the subway map to gain directions.  What a plonker I am! The girl at the desk was immeasurably polite and her Englishy was first class, I now realise, this is why 23 million Koreans (half the population) live within Seoul (11 million) and its environs.

The subway was accessed from a rabbit warren of a shopping mall and once I had purchased my Seoul City Pass + and loaded it with T Money. A 12 km journey on the Seoul  subway costs 100 won around 60p, the cars are wide and air-conditioned plus cellphones work around the whole system.

It was time to take the plunge. I was lucky my digs the Windroad Guesthouse was 7 stops on line 3, change at Chungmuro and 3 on line 4 finishing at Hyehwa, then about 5 minutes walk. It was situated in a university district conveniently about 15 minutes walk from Chandeokgung Palace. First surprise was I met a good samaritan, I would think in his late seventies who took it upon himself to become my personal guide and ensure I reached my destination.  I still do not know if he lived in the area but his hospitality to someone he had never met was in marked contrast to what would happen in London. Once he had guided me to the door, he shook hands and headed off. The Windroad squeezed into an alley way behind an American Hotdog joint and a Family Mart. There is a comfortable courtyard an area to cook and wash clothes and an office with PC’s and Internet access (Wifi to). I was shown to my plain but comfortable room whereupon my day turned even more electrifying!

As the door to my room was opened it was clear that it was still inhabited, my first glimpse of proceedings were the balls of two very female feet about a metre apart supplemented by what seemed like the grunting of a wild boar.  I can now conform that thankfully when I returned later that day the amorous pair had in fact departed and the sheets were freshly laundered and pressed!

Sporting a very large smile, I departed for my sightseeing, I had a tour booked at 11.30am.  This was to see the Secret Garden (Biwon Garden) of Chandeokgung, which for readers information is tour guide only! Prior to this I wandered around Changgyeonggung Palace built-in 1418 in the Joseon Dyansty.  During the evil Japanese invasion it had been a zoo with some buildings simply ripped down showing little or no respect for Korean tradition and culture. Since 1989 the palace and its landscaped gardens have been fully restored and along with the nearby Chandeokgung is designated UNESCO World Cultural heritage classification. at the designated time I settled next to the secret garden entrance along with the other 60/70 tourists………..my idea of hell on earth! Michelle and Carissa were in Seoul to get inoculations and a more manageable bank account so I messaged them and arranged to meet later in Insa-dong.

Our designated American Korean guide was dressed in traditional garb and was hyper ventilating as she climbed the gentle incline alongside us. I felt about 12 as she listed all the rules about staying together and we were indoctrinated into thinking we would be placed on the naughty step if we deviated from her demonstration route or managed to actually get a word in during the next 90 minutes. I asked her could I see the balls of her feet remembering my bedroom entertainment earlier.  Somehow I don’t think passion has ever been on her agenda though she could have played Cathy Bates in a remake of Misery! We all know what she was passionate about. In reality I floated around the outskirts of her party but not to far to encourage her to be deviant and paddle me on the naughty step. Miraculously as we entered the second of 4 valleys in the garden, her battery went on her microphone and a resounding Hallelujah chorus cannoned around my head…..there may well be a God or at least her silence made me feel I was close to Nirvana. As we entered the third valley her management skills had all but disappeared and around 800m separated the first from last in the group.  There was only one possible route to the exit so I  stealthily separated myself from her legion of subordinates and headed off on my own. The garden is beautifully laid out but I simply cannot imagine any Joseon Kings climbing those hills. On reaching the exit I set out to potter around the main part of Chandeokgung Palace (built in 1405) before heading off to Insa-dong to meet the girls and visit a traditional tea house.

Michelle called, they were running late and it would be 2pm before they got there so I decided to search out Jogyesa Buddhist Temple. The Temple is only 102 years old but some of the surrounding trees are much older, there is a 450 year old Locust Tree near the main hall and a 500-year-old White Pine. Jogyesa is the head temple of the Korean Buddhist Jogye Order. In the shadow of the temple a man had set up a mobile bike repair outlet and old folk enjoyed each others company in the shade of the Locust Tree and the lanterns erected for Buddha’s birthday in April.

On crossing over to the vibrant Insa-dong I was struck by the contrasting energy of the area diametrically opposite to the chilled out zone around the temple. I called Michelle as it was now 2.20pm and the girls had stayed up in Itaewon and invited me to join them for beers. Itaewon grew up around the former American base and initially was a red light area. These days it is the most westernised part of Seoul with multitude of bars and restaurants catering for all tastes.  Itaewon has the label of Seoul’s global village and every September/October there is a Global Village Festival, this offers a parade, traditional dances from a multitude of countries, it also includes a food festival.

Carissa fancied a cider so we headed down to some Irish themed pub were we knew they had it. It was here we were accosted by the “man with the inappropriate book”. This overgrown schoolboy had a book of ridiculous phrases that he knew off by heart but did not fully understand what they meant or when to use them……he was hilarious. I tried to get him to learn “innit, glad, bruv, cuz allow!” but he seemed reticent.

The girls were staying in the Jimjilbang and having a range of treatments so they headed off towards Seoul Station and I headed back to my university quarter. After the gentrification of my stubble and pits I went out for some food, I met up with some local students and spend a good couple of hours just chatting about the UK and Korea, London & Seoul; for them they got to practice their Englishy for me I got to feel an energy in Seoul that is AWOL in Chungju. On getting back to Windroad I chatted and drank beer with a Danish guy and a Swedish guy for an hour or so and then headed back to my beautifully uninhabited room.

Sunday: day 2

Rising at 6am I edited my pictures from day 1 and planned a route for day 2…….I had the misfortune to have an elderly moment which later could have proved to be fatal! MY misadventure started as I walked up the gentle incline behind the university following the perimeter wall of Chandeokgung’s Biwon (Secret) Garden. As the road got steeper I entered the university gates and realised climbing further vertically, that this was most probably a dead-end. In that instance an elderly man with a Springer Spaniel appeared in the distance, I notice a footpath up to a wooded area.  I deliberated as I mopped Niagara off my back and deduced that if he had exited the woods here he had most probably entered further up the hill. I found the path through the woods which narrowed as I turned a corner confronted by a mini-Everest.  I Made out a worn route up the rock face and decided to give it a go as I was wearing my knee brace and death holds no fear! With the help of nature and its supply of creepers I made it to the top after about 10 minutes climbing…how did the old fella get down? Had he been paragliding? Dismissing that thought and looking to the left I could see a hole in the fence so I squeezed between the last two rocks and crawled through gap.  Composing myself I discovered I was on top of the hillside at a small bus terminus and to the left I saw a wooden elevated walkway and the ubiquitous  “brown sign”, I wasn’t lost, I may have found cultural gold. With my newly found understanding of the Hangul alphabet, courtesy of an iPad app, I deciphered that the trail led to my desired destination, the Hanok Village of Bukchon.

I rested at the top of the hill, mopping my brow with the now indispensable travellers towel, a woman dressed in mountain gear stopped, I thought to chat, but to show me her Englishy lines.  I have no idea if they were hers or hers son or daughters but she beckoned me to explain. I could have been honest and said “Nonun kun un dung eet da”, but so do I. You can use your imagination on that one! She showed me pages and pages of hand written lines, the chosen line;

“Culture is the glue that holds generations together; paradoxically, American culture makes a virtue of the ephemeral. Americans in consequence cannot imagine the frame of mind of those for whom a cultural connection to the past has become a matter of life and death.”

Why on earth would anyone chose to write the above on 16 pages of ruled paper only Plato, Leonardo or another genius such as George Osborne could explain. Remember George, he is the one trying to widen the gap between rich and poor and who’s economic management skills or lack of them will be his epitaph. Hopefully, sooner rather than later, as his negative view of Keynesian economics will prove his undoing!

A Korean thought for today, taken from a paper coffee cup.  Remember,

“A good cup of the coffee can turn the worst day tolerable, can provide all-important moment of the contemplation, can rekindle a romance. The caffee is dedicated to advance the coffee quality through sincerity. The caffe is a great story of the best coffee.”

I didn’t try to translate the bullshit, I gestured I was in a hurry and headed down the hill towards Bukchon. From above it looked like the roofs had blended forming an undulating sea of black tiles. Once inside I discovered a labyrinth of rustic stone and clay walls, gorgeous wooden gates and hidden private courtyards.  In the midst of an urban jungle, the slower, simpler way of life was still alive! The village is located between the Palaces of Changdeokgung and Gyeongbokgung and includes 999 Hanok homes, it includes the Full Moon Well where women meet to drink the magical water, why? Because it guarantees the will give birth to baby boys!  I circled the marked walking tour of the village, deviating to view small alleys and hidden courtyards, stopping at the Korean Buddhist Art Museum for tea. I descended the stone staircase whose elevation I can confirm does not conform to British or EU Standards, to sample the delights of Samcheongdong-gil.

Samcheongdong-gil is a 2km long road with tributary alleys at 90 degrees.  The focus here is the coexistence of traditional and modern art.  It’s easy to find a wine bar in a traditional Hanok House or a sophisticated gallery and café in the midst of residential  housing. There are high-end boutiques alongside traditional crafts stalls. I stopped at an interesting Tibet Museum, a strange Owl Museum and the throwback Toy Kino Museum and by this time it was lunchy! I settled at Nunnamujip relishing the barbecued beef-Mung Bean pancake for 7,000 Won (less than a fiver).

I headed south towards the Gyeongbokgung Palace passing many more small restaurants, café’s and boutique style shops the distinction between here and London? It did feel more relaxed and less of a tourist trap. I stopped to refuel on Vitamin Water and carried on passing a large Buddhist Centre.  As I wandered past three guys came running out, one addressed me “Alright Bruv!”. They followed along with me chatting and completely obsessed with Western culture, the dichotomy being they came from the Buddhist temple? It is my interpretation that for Buddhists, although we wish for happiness, we are naïve about its sources and so, instead of creating more happiness for ourselves, we create only more unhappiness and sorrow. Surely a demand for the Western commodotised lifestyle can never support them on the journey to enlightenment?

The Palace of Gyeongbokgung is on a grand scale and was built-in 1395, it was the main seat of government for the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled Korea with Seoul as capital city from 1392 until 1910. The evil Japanese colonialist did not maintain the complex and after independence there was a need for restoration, this did not begin until 1990.  I witnessed the Changing of the Guard at the main gate (Gwanghwamun) which was re-introduced as a tourist attraction in 1996, at this stage in the year with increasing humidity I clocked the “guards” falling asleep whilst standing to attention and posing with tourists gagging for photo opportunities. If you look closely at the photos I think you can spot them napping!

Beyond the formal layout of the Palace there are Royal gardens which also contain the National Palace-Museum of Korea, The National Folk Museum of Korea and a children’s Museum. On Sunday there was a festival taking place celebrating traditional crafts and with workshops for kids to participate in. There was also music in the form of a “beat box” singer but he did more complaining than beat-boxing as he could not get his PA system to work properly, There was a great atmosphere and many families and kids approached me to chat and take photos for them. One highlight was “Lemon Man”, again in the photos, probably the campest Korean ever to grace the streets of Seoul. I think he achieved his goal to get noticed and was probably the most photographed person in Seoul that day.

As I left the complex I saw even more building work for the “Naked Museum” which used some clever advertising to get itself noticed.  My trip to Seoul was nearing its conclusion as I had one final destination before heading back to the bus terminal and Chungju-si.  My destination was Byeolgung-gil, a short 480m long trail of stone benches and pretty cafe’s.  On arriving there I was once again uplifted to find a group of 4th grade Elementary School kids from Incheon who wanted to practice their Englishy on me.  It quickly became apparent this was not a case of “No Englishy” but a case of “Excellent English”.  I am so used to saying “good afternoon” with the response being two-fold. either “hello, goodbye” or “No Englishy”, to meet these kids and their mums was a pleasure to say the least. I know they probably are Korean middle class and have extra support and tuition but poverty does not kill intellect only attitude and laziness, tell that to the kids at Chungwon!

I returned to “hell on earth” to get my bus home needing to call Carissa to confirm it was Subway exit 7 that would ease my departure.  As usual the bus left exactly on time at 4.30pm taking another 90 minutes to deposit me back in Chungju-si.

In 1957 Truman Capote, prevaricated that New York was “the only real city city”? Capote saw in the New York of his time, an excitement, a fervour, a creativeness along with opportunity and optimism. The metropolitan experiences on offer at that time, these exist in contemporary Seoul now where the old and new co-exist in harmony. It is easy for me to see why Asia is dominating the world in creativity and growth; it seems possible to seamlessly fit into this perfect marriage of East and West and to visualise living and working there in the future. I love Seoul.