Twas the17th night before Christmas and not a creature was stirring not even a mouse! Well except for this creature as I headed west to Seoul in temperatures approaching -14 degrees. Leaving school at 4.00pm I already had my ticket to Seoul booked for 5.05pm, taking the express bus would give me 15 minutes at terminal, except the express bus never came. 45 minutes later having missed my coach to Seoul we took the local bus into Chungju. My co-teacher kindly re-arranged a new ticket exchange for me and I finally left Chungju Terminal at 6.05pm arriving in Seoul Express Terminal at 8.05pm. I’d chosen a cheap discounted guesthouse from Booking.com. On the map it appeared some 3 minutes east of Jongno 5 subway station, one street back from the main Seoul artery Jong-ro that dissects Dongdaemon and runs through to Gwanghwamun Square and beyond.
Emerging from the station at 8.50pm I turned left into Daehak-ro then first right into Hyoje-Dong to be met by an extraordinary sight, like a less polished version of the Rossebuurt in Amsterdam and much smaller. The ladies adorning the windows sported Korean traditional dress, the hanbok, and did little to entice the passers-by into participating in their services. The gaudy lighting and appropriately named establishments such as “Lady Queen” seemed to deliver trade to customers of a more mature stature or that at least was my brief observation. 3 minutes down this invigorating alley was my accommodation for the weekend the Hong Guesthouse. After buzzing reception and waiting for what seemed an eternity, an eastern European young lady appeared to allow me access. After explaining the security, a coded lock, she ushered me to reception which it transpired was on the 5th floor. This was neatly laid out with coffee/tea facilities and a balcony; which in summer would have been a pleasant place to read or surf the net, the guesthouse was fully wi-fied. My room was simply furnished but with its own bathroom and it appeared somewhat chilly. I filled the bath with hot water to warm the bathroom and then tried to re-charge my iPhone. There were 6 sockets but only two were working, I used one for the phone and the other to warm the room with a very good hairdryer. It was the first time I have used a hair dryer in around 17 years due to my less than extensive bonce!
I needed sustenance and headed for my favourite fried chicken chain Kkanbu, just to the right of Tapgol Park. Great crispy fried chicken with garlic, sweet and sour plus curry dips. The beer is always cold and the clientele mixed, consisting of students, arty types and middle-aged couples, it’s always busy and lively. I had another couple of beers on Jongno-3 ga and headed back past the Jomgmyo shrine and the kinky hanbok establishments to Siberia Towers.
My weekend plans had been to visit Buam-dong on Saturday morning, the Olympic Park on Saturday afternoon and the Ihwa Mural Project on Sunday but the temperature were to say the least disconcerting. In the morning I decided to follow my plan and took the Line 3 to Gyeongbokgung Station, passing through the Seoul Metro Arts Centre. I emerged at Exit 3 then took bus #1020, 7022 or 7212 to Changuimun Gate, Buam-dong. It’s only a short bus ride but uphill all the way.
The gate is part of the old Seoul Fortress wall built by King Taejo, the first king of the Joseon Dynasty, in 1397 as protection from invaders. It stretches 18.2km but most of it was been destroyed during the Japanese invasion and Korean War. The government is currently trying to restore most of the wall, the section of the wall here has undergone restoration and a popular hiking trail follows through Changuimun Gate. It is also called Bukmun (North Gate) or Jahamun. The current gate tower, or Munru, was built in 1741. Before passing through the gate look up to your right and you will see an army checkpoint, hikers have to show their passports before passing through here. It’s something to do with the North Koreans leading an SAS style attempt to kill the president some 50 years ago; he survived but was assassinated by his own brethren some years later.
Behind the old fortress wall, Buam-dong has all the good things that Seoul’s trendier neighbourhoods have, with the added benefit of a slightly secluded, serene location. The area has a bohemian feeling and is home to a good number of small cafes, galleries and museums. I simply wandered around the narrow streets until I arrived at the Whan-ki Museum. The Museum is dedicated to commemorating and exhibiting the art of Suhwa Whan-ki Kim, one of the first generation of abstract painters in Korea. Suhwa is his pen name. The museum frequently holds a range of events and educational programs. For more information, visit www.whankimuseum.org/eng/. From here I carried on wandering up the hill to seek out “Art for Life”. Part café plus tasty bistro; art gallery and music salon. Art for Life was created from a restored hanok. Seong Pil-Gwan and his wife opened up the affable place to share their love for music after the conclusion of their careers as a flutist-oboist duo in the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. The place breathes creativity!
After coffee I wandered back towards the gate and the park named after the political activist and poet, Yun Dong-ju. Having lived the later part of his life close by, Jeong Seon painted dozens of landscapes of the locale, and developed a distinctly Korean style that departed from the norm of Chinese aesthetics during the Joseon Dynasty. Respected for his political activism, poet Yun Dong-ju found philosophical insight, and perhaps succor, during Japanese colonial rule, hiking the hills in Buam-dong, now marked by a park in his name.
Descending from Buam Dong, I took a panorama of the mountain and turned to head down the hill heading towards Gyeonbukgong Palace. Halfway down I was accosted by two giggling young soldiers who managed, despite their mirth, to explain that I was in a spot of bother. I’d apparently taken pictures of a military installation; they asked to see my shots. After complementing me on my skills I was instructed to delete the offending images and with their appreciation and my conciliatory smile I carried on with my journey. Passing through the Garden of Sharon I came to a Phoenix-sculpture fountain adjacent to Hyojadong Sarangbang, a newly opened memorial and exhibition hall. Skirting the west wall of Gyeongbokgung I passed the Korean headquarters of UNICEF and more galleries. I visited the poshest coffee shop in the world with beautiful Scandinavian furniture, a cast iron fireplace and the worst muffins ever created! I can excuse the muffins as the warmth made me excuse everything.
I’d noticed it was 13.00pm, across the road in the palace it was time for the changing of the guards, a ritual I hadn’t witnessed before. In past times, the royal guards of Joseon Dynasty performed the given task by guarding the Gwanghwamun Gate, the entrance of Gyeongbokgung Palace where the king ruled the country. The ceremony has taken place since 1469 and continues as a tourist spectacle to this day. It is a colourful sight and on a day like Saturday I felt for the poor actors engaging in this example of staged authenticity. Not only do they have to suffer the cold but the indignity of the army of tourists grabbing and poking them for photo opportunities. I also considered the painful removal of their false beards and moustaches. Why are so many folk devoid of any semblance of travel etiquette? It’s not cultural sensitivity I am talking about here, sensitivity is not the forte of Koreans either, and it’s simply bad manners and uncivilised behaviour that grate. Let’s simplify please, “no spitting, no littering, do not speak loudly (shout banshee like), do not push in public,” would be a good start!
By this time my original plans were scuppered by fast approaching hypothermia and my brain function also impaired due to the falling levels of serotonin. Despite 5 layers of clothing I was close to defeat but remembered that respite was some 10 minutes walk away at Deoksugung. I crossed over to Gwanghwamun Plaza with the imposing statue of King Sejon at its heart; there was a lot of activity and also a legion of Santa’s. Korea has presidential elections on the 19th of December and Seoul was gripped with a psychotic form of election fever, so different from the apathy towards politics in the UK. The Plaza reminded me of Wembley Way on Cup Final Day the difference being the disorientation caused by alcohol is replaced by the Korean lack of spatial awareness. The noise was deafening and irritating, a maelstrom of different sights and sounds, a kaleidoscope of colour. I moved slowly through the crowds dodging umbrellas, war veterans and ladies clad in fur. There was a distinct age group here, 40 plus, and not many younger voters. They (the youngsters) may not fully appreciate Korea’s dramatic growth from a third world agrarian economy to a developed economy currently standing globally at number 15. Korea is struggling to make the transition from manufacturing to a service and information driven economy, generally because it needs to move away from mimicry to innovation. [Apple vs. Samsung :-)]
Korea’s corporate structure is dominated by mega-oligopolies with strong disincentives to innovate and the education system (despite Obama and Gove’s adulation) is overwhelmed by rote learning and plagiarism, this does not position Korea well for the future. It is significant that there are weak manifestos in place for all political parties and the more liberal thinking “people’s” candidate has given over to support his chief centre ground rival. They are up against the conservatives led by the daughter of the architect of Korea’s economic miracle. All parties pay lip service to regulating the powers of the chaebol’s.
Korea’s traditional export strengths are in manufacturing, cars, ships, electronics, and heavy industries. These historically generate about 40% of GDP and much of Korea’s foreign exchange. However, unless Korea strengthens its service economy, it will increasingly compete ‘backward’ against the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, China, India, South Africa) over manufacturing, rather than ‘forward’ against the US, EU, and Japan over innovative services.
I passed cohorts of riot police and the peace camp opposite the newly risen behemoth that is Seoul City Hall. At the entrance to Deoksugung, fur-clad iconic denizens of the new developed Korea gathered, white skinned and adorned with vivacious scarlet lipstick. This reminded me of my first visit to Budapest, post the 1989 liberation from communism. The cafes and restaurants became honey pots for the old aristocracy to throw open their wardrobes and don their ostentatious attire. These ladies could have been ancestors of the Yangban, the ruling classes. Currently Korea’s upper class and power elite is determined by patronage among the conglomerates, which tends to predictably follow blood, school and hometown ties.
Entering the palace is always a pleasure as immediately to the right is a favourite place of mine to relax, the little café adjacent to the ornamental pond, utopia on a summers day, more than bearable in winter. The café is always warm and welcoming; the honey ginger tea and honey muffins eminently desirable and comforting. The cafe was empty so I took time to review my pictures and read up on the build-up to the Manchester Derby. I also did some research on the foundation of Seoul’s great palaces. It transpires that when Taejo was persuaded by the prophecies of Doseon, a 10th-century priest and master geomancer, to build a new capital, this was one of the sites chosen to locate a palace. They used Pungsu-jiri, or to you and I, Feng Shui; to select four sites for royal residences where the topography of the land heralded good fortune for the dynasty. It’s great to visit the palaces on a sunny but cold winters day as they are less crowded and even more photogenic. Warmed and re-fuelled by the tea and muffin I wandered around the complex listening to the sound of snow melting from the tiled roofs ad watching birds foraging for food.
On leaving the complex I took and immediate right along Jeongong-gil following the palace wall. Along the street were promotional banners advocating a three-centre exhibition of photography celebrating the development of Seoul. The first of these venues was on the left, the Art Museum. Built in 1928 the purpose being a courthouse, the Romanesque building was in its time a trendsetter for municipal building around Korea. As well as the photography exhibition they were preparing for an exhibition celebrating the gothic film director Tim Burton. The Seoul exhibition was great less one thing, no Englishy. For a nation that invests so heavily in English delivery and for a city that seeks to be a cultural trendsetter, I found this quite disheartening. I spent time trying hard to match the images with places I have visited in Seoul, some were instantly recognisable but others less so. The exhibition really imbibes a sense of Seoul’s scale and how it’s grown over time, the photographs document each of the city’s districts and major historical periods. The curator has collected images from professional and amateur photographers, which reconstruct places and events through citizens’ eyes and experiences. The exhibition inhabits three locations Seoul Museum of Art, City Hall and Seoul Museum of History. Well worth seeing, it’s all free and the 2012 Seoul Photo Festival runs until December 30th 2012.
I continued my stroll passing the Paichai School of Henry Appenzeller (an American Missionary) which is now a museum and the Chungdong First Methodist Church another of Harry’s creations. I am not going to enthuse about this area as others have done, true it contains some good traditional red brick architecture but is now dominated by higher less than aesthetic inhabitants of the concrete and glass variety. I have to say much of modern Korea’s architecture lacks style, I am a great advocate of modern architecture when it’s done well but the recent death of Brazil’s (and one of the 20th Century’s) greatest architect and the side and rear view of Seoul City Hall reinforced how bad some SK architecture is. The city of Brazilia was planned and developed in 1956 with Lúcio Costa as the principal urban planner and Oscar Niemeyer (RIP) as the principal architect. On April 22 of 1960, it formally became Brazil’s national capital. The whole city has UNESCO status. Please Korea take heed of the “Vitruvian Triad”.
It was late afternoon and felt even colder as the wind cut through my 5 layers of clothing, I popped into the Seoul Museum of history to continue part two of the triumvirate exhibition. It was disappointing, the exhibits were just old photos blown up, blurred and placed on blocks, it also included a couple of oil paintings which I did enjoy. These recorded the topology of Seoul before it became devoured by concrete. I decided to head back to sin city for a nap prior to dinner. Later that evening, over Belgian beer in the Texas bar alongside the Cheonggyecheon, I met up with FOBY who had popped into the city from his sisters in South Seoul.
The forecast for Sunday was even colder and so I had no fixed plans but wanted to visit the Digital Media City (DMC) in Sangnam-gu, Western Seoul, adjacent to the World Cup Park. This is a state-of-the-art digital media entertainment development; a government supported project to swell Korea’s advanced IT, human resources and entertainment industries. Until 1993 Digital Media City was in fact a massive landfill site for Seoul’s waste, part of an island in the Han River. On exiting the line 6 Station one is faced with the usual poor signage and if you turn left the DMC is visible in the distance. The visitor is separated from the DMC by both line 6 and the Airport Railroad but with no obvious crossing point. After stopping to speak with a local FOBY discovered that you turn right out of the line 6 Station and passing Paris Baguette take another immediate right to take a very uninviting 300 metre underpass. A travel tip here is to take the Airport Railroad NOT line 6, the AR deposits you on the correct side of the rail tracks and is a mere 10 minute stroll from the imposing towers of DMC.
The approach is well “under construction” and once again the signage initially invisible but on leaving the station take the main thoroughfare and then at the construction hoardings take a left, skirt the hoardings known as the “Art Fence” until on your left a stunning piece of public art emerges.
This 15 metre high opaque glass installation named “THEY”, was installed in March 2010 and consists of two merged figures, male and female, heads intertwined, one looking upwards and one downwards in opposite directions. The sculpture is eye-catching during the day but I really want to return at dusk on a Saturday when it comes alive, a Youtube video shows it illuminated in the evening. Lee Jin-joon (born 1974) is the artist who created this impressive peace of public art; the artist came first in a competition to create a DMC monument. The inscription is as below:
“Here stands a couple.
Embracing each other, the woman is looking up to the sky and the man looking down to the earth.
We, perhaps allow ourselves to experience merely what we wish to see or listen (to).
Sky meets Earth; past confronts future; Human encounters media; all these things may exist on our own stage of life through personal illusion.
Nevertheless, we must hold tight to embrace each other.”
I believe the artist suggests in the midst of a deluge of media information we should not forget history, nature, each other and the strength of human relationships.
Following the recommended route for a tour of the DMC to the immediate left is DMC promotion room, and further along the Digital Pavilion which apparently is the largest IT Pavilion in Korea and a place where you can experience what life will be like in a ubiquitous future. Further along is the Korea Cultural Contents Centre. Unfortunately all are closed on Sunday’s but open 10.00-18.00 on the other 6 days. At the far end of DMC is the Millennium Eye or Cell Sculpture.
The structure features 140 mirrored spheres that reflect their environment. The Global Eye visualizes the sky, on the opposite side, in real-time. The rising water bubbles on the surface of the structure mirror the DMC’s lofty vision of leading the world in to the future of the digital media era. Again I would like to come back one summers evening to see the structure lit up at dusk. From here we could have continued our tour but temperatures were decreasing as the wind got stronger so we made our way back through the shining towers to the station.
If the weather had been manageable we could have crossed over the main road from the ME passing expensive apartments to access the three World Cup Parks which hug the banks of the Hangang River. It is on this side of the road that a premium landmark-building project is under construction called Seoul Lite, this will be a monumental mixed-use tower. It is a 133-floor, 640m (2,100 ft) skyscraper, which will become the world’s third-tallest building when completed. Construction broke ground on 16 October 2009, and is scheduled to be completed and ready for occupancy by April 2015. It will be built with the country’s own Capital and technology at an estimated cost of 3.3 trillion won (US$2.9 billion).
We arrived back in Seoul in 15 minutes alighting at Seoul Station to visit the wildly disappointing old station which is now a gallery space called Culture Station Seoul 284. It contained depressingly self-righteous pretentious “installations” which displayed little artistic merit or skill in their construction. A good idea but in my honest opinion a failing project.
We headed up to the Jongak area of Jongno for an Andong Chicken lunch, well recommended for a cold winters day. Frank sussed out iPhone five tarriff’s and headed back to his sisters. I returned to Express Bus Terminal to try and get an earlier bus home but unfortunately all seats were taken and I had time to nestle in a corner of McD’s to sip coffee and read “Kids” by Patti Smith. The journey back to Chungju was speedy but at terminal the taxi queue was longer than usual. I landed in City Ville at 7:45pm devouring cheesy chip butties and ready for an early night.
On reflection I did a lot this weekend and its great that Seoul has so many attractions and things to do that you can change plans on a whim or due to adverse weather and still have an enjoyable time. My list of “to do” things is still far from exhausted.