I arrived at Central City bus terminal at 8:50am on Friday morning, it was a heavenly experience in direct contrast to the usual black hole of Calcutta feeling of claustrophobia and despair! It was deserted, had North Korea invaded? Were Big Bang and Girls Generation performing naked by the Han? It was weird. This was unlikely as the heavens pored down.
I arrived at Yongsan Electronics Market via Sinsa station and the Bundang line. There is a fashion department store at the metro end of the main terminal and a modern camera/computer mall called the iMart which is part of a large general department store at the other end. Across a long covered bridge are other building, less polished and more decrepit than the terminal. In the main iMart vendors played with mobile phones failing to engage with prospective customers, I don’t like being harassed but a little eye contact is perhaps necessary if a deal is to be made! I suggest a Korean expedition to Istanbul Grand Bazar, the contrast in selling skills immeasurable. I had gone along more out of curiosity than anything else, with information available online at sites such as DPReview why would anyone need to spend time stimulating attention in this elephants graveyard? I actually suspect that most of their business is done through GMarket, the Korean arm of Ebay.
There seems to be a monumental land clearance going on between the terminal and the older building, it turns out this is yet another International Business District (IBD). I discovered the image below which gives an idea of the scale. I also managed to ascertain that Daniel Liebeskind is the “world class” architect tasked to bring this grand plan to fruition on the north bank of the Han River. The concept is that the real estate mirrors the shape of a Silla Crown! The focal point is a tasty tall tower some 620m (152 stories) high. It’s called Archipelago 21, click this link to see the vision. Click here! I’m a sucker for these projects though I’m sure many others will be dismayed. Monumental architecture has always defined the worlds great cities from Babylon to New York, why should Seoul’s aspirations be any different?
The weather was appalling, rain continued to lash down, this meant I was happy to potter around indoors and catch u with my 12 “unread” back issues of Wired on the iPad. In-between coffee’s I played around with my bartering skills, teasing some excellent prices out of the vendors, at least those who could be bothered. It was interesting that the busiest stands had vendors offering coffee and access to a PC so you could check out lens reviews on-line, these guys had some nouse. Whilst the Internet may be a prime source of sales, why forget about the power of free marketing. Treat someone well, coffee, business cards…a smile and the resulting power of 10 marketing can be very effective!
I dropped off my bag at Banana Backpackers and headed to Sindang to check out the Art Space. It was indeed an Art Space but it was as devoid of life as the Express Bus Terminal had been that morning. Sindang Creative Arcade was created by remodeling empty storefronts at the Sindang underground shopping centre in Jungang Market. It is a creative space for 40 artists to produce new and diverse art in pottery, textiles, metal works, glass, paper, painting, cloisonné, print engravings, book art, photography, illustration, and videography. Maybe the soju party had been good the night before but only 4 of the 40 artists were in residence. It was a shame because upstairs the traditional market was buzzing with life, I recommend that you only visit when they are hosting events.
From the colourful canary yellow exit 8, I wandered back through the upstairs market. This first opened as a rice wholesale market right after the Korean War and accounted for 80 percent of the rice supply to Seoulites. I sampled some mandu, a Korean dumpling and checked out the stalls selling fresh seafood packed in ice. Most of the female vendors sat huddled under blankets sipping “tea” (maybe), transfixed by their daily diet of Korean soaps. I emerged on the main drag which if you turn right leads (after a 20 minute stroll) to Dondaemun History & Culture Park. I have lately discovered that Ms. Hadid’s masterpiece has a re-scheduled completion date of late 2013 (suggesting late 2014). Good job the London Aquatics Centre didn’t take so long! I headed back to the guesthouse for a nap and a dose of Maria Callas before heading to Mr. Altaris’ for the ridiculously tasty fried chicken, leaving bloated I took to my bed early.
I awoke early going down to the hugely comfortable communal kitchen for toast and tea. The kitchen had been taken over by an army of Taiwanese girls who had jus completed a two-week tour of Korea, their level of English was immense. Fridays rain had morphed into a beautiful but cold Saturday morning as I strolled to Jongno 3 station taking the metro, destination Hangangjin. I have been following a video series on Vimeo made by a group calling themselves Semi-permanent. Video 4 sees a programme about art in Seoul, intrigued about an American artist working in Hannam-dong I set out after using google maps to pin the place. Well, more fool me! After leaving Hangangjin station I passed through the Blue Square Art complex but found that the centre of the pin directed me to a US Army residential enclave. I’ve just written to the guys at Semi-P as it would be useful if the posted travel directions to supplement the videos. As it was I ventured up the side of the hill which was a pretty monumental effort and was unable to find out where the art was. My built-in Satnav is pretty good and also I could pick out some landmarks of Itaewon so I headed in that direction stumbling upon Seoul Central Mosque (Masjid). It’s not the pinnacle of Islāmic architecture but the area around it is awash with businesses of Islāmic origin, these include cafes, restaurants, butchers, slipper makers and travel agents. The Mosque was established on May 1969 during General Park Chung-hee’s presidency and the current building opened on May 5, 1976. I stopped for coffee in a lovely little café, chatting to the owner whilst enjoying a Mint Choco. After this pleasant exchange I continued down the hill towards Itaewon and Antique Street.
Cosmopolitan Itaewon is one of the most colourful and lively destinations in Seoul, its restaurants boast cuisine from every continent and it is home to a collection of unique shops. Western antiques and vintage goods are copious in this area of Seoul, no doubt because of the tastes and backgrounds of the residents.
Leaving exit No. 3 or 4 of Itaewon Station and passing an excellent Turkish Kebab take-away you pass along the road leading to Bogwang-dong. Here you’ll discover a line of furniture stores with antique chairs, paintings and other paraphernalia. Some of the stores deal in modern antiques such as vintage furniture and items from the first half of the 20th century.
Turning right at the first three-way junction the road leads toward the Crown Hotel, down here there are even more stores, which deal mainly with older and higher-end antiques. Scarlet Antique and Arts is akin to a world of a costume drama, with decorous 19th-century oak and walnut pieces from the UK, advanced 18th-century time-pieces from France, Rococo-style porcelain figurines from early 20th-century Germany and elaborate Japanese fans.
At the end of Antique street and turning right I came across the trendy area of Itaewon. Itaewon is shedding its seedier reputation gained because of its proximity to the American Army base and the R & R activities American servicemen are famed for. It’s quickly filling-up with high-quality restaurants and stores. You can find sports outlets selling all-manner of shoes and sports gear, Beauty retailers filled with pamper products, and dozens of clothing stores and tailors. There are also lots of souvenirs, but most are vulgar and of pitiable quality; for higher quality gifts travel to Insadong. I spotted some more mural art and a lady having her eyebrows pruned guarded by two canine sentinels. I wandered past the Irish Wolfhound pub and headed for a taste of Tottenham, the Turkish kebabs which were I have to say tres fantastique!
Passing by the Hamilton Hotel I followed the signs for Namsan Park, before I’d walked up and over the mountain and today I intended to circumnavigate from Itaewon to Myeong-dong. I stopped off at a Jazz Cafe/Gallery called “Through” for coffee and read through the latest volume of Mr. Kohler’s Seoul Weekly. Striding (sort of) up the hill I emerged at the Hyatt Hotel and crossed the footbridge to Namsan Botanical Garden. When I reached the end of the landscaped section I just used my instincts and followed an unmarked but worn footpath in a general western direction. The path rose upwards and at one point I thought I was heading for the summit again but after crossing a flood stream I came across a marked path and a “horse-fly” conservation area before meeting the road that leads down to Namsan Library.
On reaching the library I walked up to the rear where the newly renovated section of the Seoul wall snakes down to Nandaemun Gate and market. The gate has been under wraps for 5 years since the 2008 arson attach but the wraps are now off and it will be completely free of its steel cage in April 2013, the anniversary of its torching. I spent some time in the camera shops before darting into the market for a couple of snaps grabbing an infamous Namdaemun veggie filled hodduk on the way! I returned to the Banana promising myself a night free of Mr. Altari’s food of the gods.
After a nap I ventured out again checking my food app of choice “Foodspotting”; I located an old establishment that came highly recommended and served ox-tail soup. Yeongchunok has been specialising in Gontang (steamed ox-tail) soup for 40 years, this was confirmed by the stern matriarch who manned the tills. (Donui-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul 131) The meal didn’t disappoint, it was hearty, filling and is highly recommended at 7,000 won. After some people watching and chatting around Jogno sampled a pretty huge Karaoke bar called Wallpaper and headed home for an immense sleep.
Sunday was appalling, it was dull, cold and a day where normally you could stay indoors with your feet up. I did some reading before wandering around Bukchon Hanok village for a while. I then headed down to Myeong-dong strolling through Jongno and numerous printing alleys before emerging near the Anglican Cathedral. The hordes of worshippers dispersed from shedding their conscience of sins and headed into the many local eateries. The Cathedral by all accounts houses an impressive organ, I’ll take note but shan’t investigate for fear of conversion :-). I marveled at the orange and pink butchness (or not) of Korean male teenagers and the infantile wailing of their female counterparts. I was horrified by the extortionate prices charged for hiking gear and winter attire. The nicest shop with the friendliest staff is the Frisbee Apple store, it’s also handy for popping your phone in the Zeppelin dock for a re-charge.
It was time to pick up my weekend bag from Banana and head to EBT for the return to Chungju; tomorrow back to school.