Olympic Park, Yongsan and the Best Headphone Store in Seoul


The forecast last long weekend was great Friday and dodgy Saturday and so armed with a mini-brolley I headed out to Seoul. Once again it was a re-visit to begin with, the Olympic Park, which I’d enjoyed twice before once in the cold harsh mid-winter and later prior to spring when it was brown and barren. As I changed subway lines at Jamsil I’d forgotten the cavernous underpass that marries the two stations, its scale appropriate for Olympic crowds of 1988 but somewhat less so in the present. In short its cavernous. As I changed trains a poster for the latest Korean-wave blockbuster bore down on me and the other commuters.

Friday was glorious and the Peace Gate was vibrant in the early morning sunshine as the old folk improved their constitution by speed-walking or simply strolling at a less frenetic pace. A number of families crowded around the eternal flame as kids hurtled on scooters and cycles across the huge expanse of plaza.

After grabbing a coffee I wandered around the SOMA complex which was closed in preparation for a new exhibition but there are many works exhibited in the sculpture gardens as each nation participating in the Olympics chose an artist to submit work to the park. I particularly like a sculpture created from industrial standard wires used to reinforce concrete. it can be viewed from a variety of angles the face changing shape as the visitor rotates around it, in addition on a sunny day like today it casts ever-changing shadows across the courtyard. Another exhibit I like is that of Louise Bourgois, the exhibit is refreshed as the component parts become weathered, though I’m unsure if the artist intended this. Bourgois (died 2010) is best known for her spider sculptures “Maman” with a few giant penises thrown in for good measure, click here to read more about her. At SOMA a version of her piece “Shredder” is situated on a small courtyard to the East and I discovered a “redundant part” opposite the gift shop.

Further afield lie some other interesting pieces set among pine trees, a good area to take a break or a picnic as the weather heats up. I cut across the road that snakes its way around the lake and the earthen fortress and came to the poppy field. A number of unsuitably clad photographers were crouching taking close-ups with none-macro lenses; I still cannot understand the mass of shutterbuggers in SK who generate masses of badly composed and out of focus shots but hey ho.

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I’d circumnavigated the fortress twice before and so I took the path that dissects it emerging aside the Olympic Swimming Pool which is a monstrously shaped concrete armadillo in need of demolition; I do wonder if it’s ever used competitively. I know its open to the public for a couple of quid but apparently used as a meeting place and not for serious exercise. I found the following quotes:

“Dark, crowded with lots of slow swimmers, not too pleasant”

“Very frustrating place to swim; no overtaking in the lanes is allowed and there are no fast, medium or slow allocated lanes. Most Koreans only swim 25 of the 50 meters then stop and stand up in the middle of the pool. Great pool, but horrible for a serious swimmer to do laps.”

Adjacent to the behemoth is another lake enhanced by a couple of artworks, again a lovely place to take a picnic as there’s plenty of shade and seating areas of the grassy (for westerners) and concrete (for Koreans) plus and incredibly clean loo!  I circled round rejoining the earthen fortress passing the ancient tree and taking the walkway to the best vantage point. Here there’s a great panoramic view of the park and Olympic buildings though the stadium is some 3 km away in Jamsil. The Park is a great triumph without the carbunkel that is the swimming pool. My thoughts are that the structure itself should be dismantled and an open air lido left in its place. In winter it could double up as an ice-skating rink. After my descent I stopped at the SOMA Cafe Bene for a well-eraned blueberry smoothie before passing the eternal flame and taking the metro over to Yongsan for the electronics market.

Unfortunately Yongsan’s reputation for value is I feel generously overrated! This was my second visit and though many of the traders have online stores (G Market) they raise the prices when you arrive in person. Also I knew my desired purchase (paid for from my school soccer pennies) which was the Sennheiser Momentum Headphones and only three serious vendors are available if you need serious cans. I also wanted an Eiio E17 headphone amplifier to improve the phones sonic performance. All three stores quoted 480-500K won for the cans and none had headphone amplifiers, they did have a good choice of phones but kept banging on about tax. If you need camera gear or high-end audiophilia then it’s certainly worth heading there with a fixed price in your head to negotiate otherwise look online. I had of course checked the online alternatives but I wanted to hear the products in action before purchasing. Of course I couldn’t do this because they didn’t have the amps. I’d read online about a fabulous store in the theatre district of Daehangno and communicated online to see if my products were in stock, they were.

The owner had suggested we negotiate a price when I visited and so I expected over-inflated price-tags when I arrived, how wrong could I be! On arrival I sampled cans from AKG, Audio Technica, Bose and finally my Sennheisers (What Hi-Fi rated them ***** at a price of 300 English pounds or 520k won). It was sonic heaven even before trying them with the amp and then when I saw the price (175 English pounds or 295k won I became euphoric!  I thought they’d been incorrectly priced but wasn’t going to let on, quickly I found the manager and told him who I was, he pulled out the Eiio E17 amp to pair with the headphones. I cannot engender enough superlatives with regards to the sonic quality and so I asked the price for both. The list price of the E17 (on Amazon) was 140k won, he asked 88k won, so I snatched his hand off. I’d got my desired cans plus amp for 383kwon some 273k won discount, at this exact moment I loved SK soooo much. (Shop Address :  1-63, Dongsung-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Korea: Subway 4 line Hyehwa Station, exit 2,)

Excited I strolled through the hospital grounds to my hotel for the next two nights the excellent Jongnotel in Jongno. Unfortunately I’d overlooked the fact that my boxed amp needed USB charging but I discovered that the cans performed fantastically well without amp on the iPad. A long nap followed by a bouteille de vin rouge and Chicken Cacciatore capped a successful Friday holiday in Seoul.

I was happy to discover on Saturday that the Sennheisers performance was even greater with the charged amp once this numpty had returned to purchase the connecting E9 cable. The area of Daehangno is famous for theatre and is flanked on one side by the hospital and the other by Naksan Park. After a breakfast bagel and coffee in the recently refurbished Marronnier Park I decided to scale Naksan to take in the view from the Seoul city wall. I passed lovely coffee shop which had been clad in a myriad coloured blocks of reclaimed timber. Next to the Lock Museum sits a giant fantasy mural which feels almost French. Before I ascended the steps I noticed a couple re-hydrating around a stone table. Once at the top I strolled along to the “café on the hill” which is the gateway to Ihwa-dong and it’s murals plus street art.

It’s another place I’d visited before but the art is constantly changing and gentrification is now taking place.  There’s now a museum charting the areas textile industry and a number of new eateries are appearing alongside some craft shops and artists studios. A legion of kids, supervised but running amok, clambered over me in the outdoor courtyard to pull berries from the trees. The whispy summer dresses were dirigeur and captured the gaze of the younger population. At the shop/café an adjuma cooked Korean pancakes for sale to passing trade and her son made sure they area was kept spick and span by removing any offending garbage. Kids posed for parental snaps alongside the murals while disinterested locals squatted in the narrow alleys wondering why we’d all descended into their once peaceful habitat. I noticed the iced Makeoli business had relocated to the area most frequented by tourists when before it had sat in a dark alley at the foot of the hill. I couldn’t help thinking that the journey down after a few shots of Makeoli could have been a little dodgy.

My plan was to follow the outline of the wall back to Dondemum and the DDP to purchase a couple of t-shirts. I came across a Johnny Depp look-alike striding from one of the many fashion outlets and a succession of folk passing the egg sculpture without even giving it a glance.  There was a fantasy art exhibition at the foot of the main stairwell but nothing significant enough to get my cultural juices flowing. As it turned out I spent and hour or so taking iPhone snaps and gorging on choco-pecan pie at the “Fringe” café before stopping by the skate park and going subterranean in the Dondaemun underground shopping centre. At Euljiro 4-ga I took the metro to Lotte Young Plaza stopping taking time for 30 minutes of Morrissey on the roof garden. Descending I picked up 2 “t”s at Uniglo before wandering back through Myeongdong past the Cheonggyecheon depositing myself back at Jongnotel late afternoon. That evening I settled in the Potala for a Nepalese curry before imbibing yet more vino and chatting to another importer (is that the main occupation of Koreans in Jongno?).

Rising early on Sunday I was keen to return to Dullju to play around with my new purchases.  On arriving at terminal around midday I realised I’d been a victim of a smash and grab raid. In this country of zero crime and minuscule corruption my bike seat and front wheel had found a new home. As I said on Facebook and Twitter “ride and die” you bastard!

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