Retracing the Past


As I’m nearing the end of my stay in SK I’m re-visiting past tramps and the last weekend before Christmas the north part of Jongno became my stomping ground. For 10,000 Won (6 quid) you can visit 4 Joseon palaces (Changdeokgung, Changgyeong, Gyeongbokgung, Deoksukgung) and the Jongmyo Shrine in the Jongno area.

It was my intention to avoid the crowds as best possible and so I waited from 8:40 am (in Siberian winds) for the Changdeokgung ticket office to open at 9 am; It didn’t of course, despite the staff entering through the side door at 8:45 am. My ticket included an organised tour of the Biwon “Secret” Garden at 11:30 am, something I’d experienced and partially enjoyed/endured before. This experience can be tortuous as you are regimented around by a gorgon eyed tour leader who speaks with a well-defined American Korean accent. Wanting to enjoy my day I decided to give it a miss and to try and stay one step ahead of the crowds my focus was to give my new iPhone 6 plus its first outing.

The UNESCO World heritage protected Changdeok Palace was the second Chosun Dynasty palace built in 1405. Meaning “prospering virtue,” the palace replaced Gyeongbok Palace amidst political struggle over the throne. It was also caressed by arson during the Japanese invasion but rebuilt in 1609 to be used as the state palace. It was a serene experience to wander the complex with only birds and a few volunteers for company. The blue hue of the snow complemented the vibrant jade pigment of the buildings. Fresh snowfall had the graphic imprints of birds feet and icicles glistened as the sun tried to push aside the clouds. I wandered up the hill passing through the small gate to the Changgyeong (Flourishing Gladness) Palace. In the last years of the Joseon dynasty, the Japanese Imperialist occupiers built a zoo, botanical garden and museum in the palace compound with a view to symbolically undermining the royal status of the dynasty. The palace was restored in 1984 with the removal of the structures added by the Japanese.

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The grounds are my favourite in Seoul, the red bark and blue/green needles of ancient pine trees always look better in winter and the faint smell of pine needle scent perfumes the air. Volunteers worked tirelessly to clear the snow and to sweep the dirt paths to improve grip. The temperature was around -8 degrees so I was surprised to see another stoic traveler setting up his tripod, it was just too bloody cold! I of course took a few snap of my own whipping out the iPhone then returning both it and my blue pinkies to the relative warmth of my mustard blanket. I spent around two hours pottering around the grounds, stopping off at Daeonsil (Glass House) before trotting over to the adjacent Arario gallery for some Ethiopian Sidamo.

The next part of my winter architectural safari was in Bukchon Village. Flanked by Gyeongbokgung (West), Changdeokgung/Changgyeong (East), Jongmyo Royal Shrine (South) and Samcheong Park (North). Bukchon is a residential area in Seoul with many hanoks (traditional Korean houses), some of which are coverted into commercial properties (restaurants, shops and guest houses). OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABukchon is also apparently called “the street museum in the urban core.” As I passed the sites of old street murals that had been whitewashed over I wondered if this was the decision of residents or the tourist board making sure the area is constantly refreshed with new photo opportunities. As I climbed the hill to the village summit, it was still noticeably quiet as the tourist hoards and coaches had not arrived. I took a break visiting the courtyard of a preserved hanok house before walking over to the observatory to take green tea. By now the mist had burned away and the sun was causing melt from the rooftops. In saying that, the North Seoul Tower atop Mt Namsan was still undefined in the distance; but the view outback across towards the Blue House and Mount Bukhansan was crisp and clear. Looking down from the rooftop terrace I could see an elderly resident was working feverishly to make the entrance safe for visitors. The observatory is the top floor of a family house and the host an older lady who could possibly be an Octogenarian. She is a fine host and the meager cost of accessing the sun terrace is 3000 Won which include green tea or coffee as refreshment, she is never pushy about you moving on.

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Next I descended the near vertical staircase that provides access to Samcheongdong; the faded murals are the last remnants of the time when artists settled here in protest at plans for re-development. Of course gentrification has taken place but it’s thankfully become a boutique shopping area rather than an place of nondescript concrete high-rise housing. I settled in Cook’n Heim for a New York burger, Zen Kimchi does a good review of the place here.

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The Museum of Modern Contemporary Art (MMCA) is close by and the new extensions are a dramatic location for photos in strong sunlight. Across the road is the entrance to my next palace Gyeongbokgung.

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Yi Seong-gye founded the Joseon Dynasty in 1392 and designated Hanyang (now Seoul) as the capital. He had a new palace built there and named it Gyeongbok (Felicitous Blessing) Palace. It was burned to ashes during the Japanese invasions of Korea from 1592 to 1598 and rebuilt in 1867. Visitors to the palace can watch the Royal Guard changing ceremony every hour from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m in front of the main gate. I prefer the North area where the gazebo sat inaccessible (as always), today in the centre of the frozen lake. I pottered through the palace grounds and again stopped for coffee noticing the skin on my hands was as last Winter cracking from the cold and dryness of the wind. After applying mums Palmers Cocoa Butter Formula (TM) I saw the changing of the guard for the umpteenth time. I cannot help but be sympathetic to the actors who must be frozen standing motionless for the 5 hours shift at the entrance to the palace.

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Crossing the main road I stopped to observe a protest which it transpired was about the live harvesting of organs which has apparently become prevalent in China. I was now in Gwangwhamun Square adjacent to the giant statue of Sejong where sweet red bean soup was being handed out free (too sweet). I climbed the steps of the Sejong Centre for the Performing Arts knowing I could take a short cut through the back-streets to my next palace.

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Faux Santa’s were preparing for a Christmas Carol Concert and at the foot of the rear steps was the ticket office for Sebastiao Salgado’s Photo Exhibition “Genesis”. Sebastião Salgado is a Brazilian social documentary photographer and photojournalist, one of the great photographers of current times. His work is revered by moi and the current Genesis exhibition is sensational. Using a monochrome palette Salgado has created a collection of breathtaking images from incredibly remote destinations.

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Genesis is the accrual of over eight years work and exploration during which Salgado made 32 trips to some of the most extreme and far-flung corners of the planet. This exhibition brings together over 200 works of wildlife, landscapes, seascapes and indigenous people. It also aims to raise public awareness about the pressing issues of environment and climate change. It is a reminder of the breathtaking beauty that still exists on our planet.

A ten minute walk south-west brought me to the Seoul Museum of History which was incredibly chaotic with a cacophony of noise emanating from a poorly managed concert in the central atrium. Passing swiftly out of the back entrance I came to my next venue. Initially called Gyeongdeok Palace, Gyeonghui (Serene Harmony) Palace was built in 1623. It was not built as a main seat of government but as a kind of royal villa. I walked around the back and up a hill for a better view and came across a school of martial arts practitioners in the local park. They offered me rice cakes and Makgeolli, which it was rude to refuse. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Once back inside the complex I wandered to the rear where there is normally a freshwater spring. In this instance it was frozen solid much to the chagrin of the local Ploceidae who ferociously pecked at the surface . Three elderly Korean couples made fun of the overuse of “danger” tape which was strewn across the historic landmark. One particularly animated guy pointed out that a number of fire extinguishers were fixed solid to the structure because of the constant cycle of thaw, freeze, thaw during the Korean Winter had rendered them immovable and useless.

I left the complex taking a right and crossing over into Jeong-dong. At the heart of this area is the quaint street of Jeongdong-gil that runs along the stone wall of Deoksugung Palace, a few diamonds of cultural heritage exist in this part of Seoul, remnants from Korea’s past. Jeongdong-gil was quaintly designated y the local government as a “Beautiful Street for Walking” in 1999.

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During the Joseon era (1392-1910) this was a residential area for court officials and yangban (the upperclasses) due to its close proximity to Gyeongbokgung Palace. In the late 19th century, when the Hermit Kingdom parted its doors to Western influence, the first Waygooks (foreigners) settled in Jeong-dong and the area became known as “Legation Street” or the “European Quarter.”

Before 1880, foreigners could not live within the city walls of Seoul. The first American envoy to Korea was gifted land in 1884. The opening of the U.S. Embassy brought a flash of foreign settlement to the area from France, Germany, Russia and Britain. Western education, religion, and medicine took a minimal foothold in Korea. The area thus became the Embassy quarter, a base for Christian missionaries and a centre for contemporary education. If you are in Seoul and wish to visit the area the website Discovering Korea Jeong-dong contains a detailed review of it’s attractions. My main reasons to visit this area have been the excellent coffee shops, the Seoul Museum of Art, the Ginko trees in Autumn and the Honey Ginger Tea at the Deoksugung glass Café.

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I stopped to watch a new company of actors suffering as they re-enacted the Deoksugung “Changing of the Guard”. Next I traversed the dangers of Sarong-daero landing at Seoul Plaza in the shadow of the monstrously over engineered City Hall. On the far side of the Plaza yet another over-policed protest was taking place; the boy soldiers affectionately rubbing each others hands to keep warm being the riot shields.

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Opposite the Japanese 30’s architecture of Seoul Library the Ice Skating Rink opens every day from 10am until 10pm, Sunday to Thursday and 10am – 11pm on Friday, Saturdays and Public Holidays. It costs 1,000 Korean Won per person for an hour session which includes skate hire. At this stage in the afternoon the sun was at its high point and the rink had started to melt! Hundreds of kids waited noisily for the surface to be “hoovered” so that they could gain access. Once on the ice the buffoonery was a major comedic experience for me as the Korean nation is the most spatially unaware of any inhabiting this Galaxy. I am eminently sure the bruised bums, ribs and knees would have seen them retiring to the hospital directly from the plaza.

Needing a pee I wandered through the crowded bowels of the Seoul Finance Centre where the masses gorged on a variety of “Korean Style” Western delicacies. This of course results in them having their appetites satisfied but most (after hiding from the sunsets of the year) are left with consumption complexions and a major vitamin D deficiency. Escaping the darkness I emerged at the Cheonggyecheon Stream which is a barren utopia of peace and quiet in Winter. Emerging at the steps adjacent to the English Language School’s Pagoda Tower I made my way through the underground bookshop across to the historic Tapgol Park and onwards the days final destination.Processed with VSCOcam with a8 preset

Jongno Halmeoni Kalguksu (Grandma’s Kalguksu) has been a fixture in the Jongno area since 1988. Serving only Kalguksu (knife-cut white flour noodle soup) and Kaljebi (soup with buckwheat knife-cut dough flakes), the restaurant is a local favorite. Both soups are made with only fresh, quality anchovy soup stock and hand-made noodles and are served with a side of Geotjeori Kimchi, made fresh at the restaurant each morning.  After a $6 feast of carbs I rolled back to my digs for a nap.

That nap lasted until 9:00pm and MCFC were on TV at (9:45pm) so I nipped out for a bouteille de vin rouge to enjoy in the lounge. A 3-0 victory for striker-less City was a perfect end to a lovely day, I slept well!

On Sunday I had my usual early breakfast before heading towards Naksan Park and Iwha-dong Mural Village. As Seoul expanded, some neighbourhoods clung to the past in the face of rapid development. Some situated on the slopes of mountains (big hillocks) remained relatively untouched due to their undesirable location and poor demographic. They’re called dal dongnae, or moon villages, since being on a mountain puts them closer to the moon. While many have been demolished in recent years as land values soar a few have survived. The locals wishing not to be displaced were encouraged by community artists to allow their often poorly built dwellings to act as art canvases.

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Ihwa-dong is a moon village, situated on Naksan (“san” meaning mountain), it was and still is a thriving location for bespoke tailors and seamstresses. Steep stairs, narrow alleys, and quiet squares are (mostly at weekends) populated by small groups of adventurous tourists. No coaches here!IMG_0173
There are a few cars and delivery bikes zooming around but generally it’s an area retaining its character. Young entrepreneurs have opened small cafes and craft shops and the enterprising owner of the shop at the top of the “fish steps” now cooks breakfast pancakes in the busier months. As the place is located adjacent to the Seoul Fortress Wall it’s popular with tourists and hikers alike.

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After sampling the Korean Pancakes I followed the path of the wall down to Dondaemun to fill up with “Hangover Soup”. Despite not having a hangover to cure it is good Winter food.  Gomtang/Galbitang – Beef-based Korean soup is a popular Korean hangover cure because of its protein-rich broths. The slices of beef (gomtang) or beef right off the bone (galbitang) help fill you up on a -10 degree morning. It’s so good you’ll forget what you’re nan taught you about manners; if you’re hungover and hurting or not, you’ll find yourself slurping every last drop of soup.IMG_0180

After a hearty fill I once again visited the DDP looking for a Shoulder-pod S1 the last piece in my travel kit for the Trans-Siberian adventure come next March. IMG_0186

It transpired I was unsuccessful and so I eventually settled in a cafe to order from the USA. The  DDP Design Mall is awash with Christmas merchandise and they have even managed to transpose some stylised  reindeer on the concrete staircase.IMG_0189

It was time to head home to Chungers so I took the subway to the EBT and luckily I only had a 15 minute wait for the Express Bus.

PS I received this lovely message from one of my morning class students Park Mi Rae (Jade)IMG_0234