I was in Seoul for a whirlwind week. In the daytime, I explored the city. In the evenings, I caught up on schoolwork. Seoul is a dynamic mix of old and new. The city is constantly evolving, whether due to Korea’s long history as a battlefield between China, Japan, and Russia, or due to gentrification and modernization.
As a tourist, the language barrier was challenging for me. The public transportation had signs and announcements in English, but I found that most of the locals were unwilling to speak English or embarrassed by their command of the language. Most of the people who spoke English well had studied or worked abroad. Since I was in Korea, I tried to learn Korean. But it devolved into “hi,” “thank you,” and pointing at things. Once, it took 5 minutes to communicate our desired destination to a taxi driver.
There are a few coffeeshops on every block. How does the economy support so many coffeeshops? If there is so much supply, then there must be high demand. Someone told me that Chinese people drink tea because the water is dirty, so they need to boil the water. But Seoul’s water has historically been clean, so tea never really caught on. As a result, they primarily drink water and coffee.
The market was the hub of our trip, as our buses tended to transfer near this stop. On weekends, the alleyways of the market are packed. We tried some lobster covered in cheese and noodles from the street vendors.
Bukchon Hanok Village
Bukchon Hanok Village is a residential neighborhood with traditional houses. The traditional style was once thought of as old and low-class, but the style has come back into vogue. Tourists in rented hanboks posed in front of the ornate doorways. People live in those houses, and there were signs posted requesting that people keep their voices down, as the residents are tired of the throngs of people hanging out right outside their homes.
I enjoyed seeing so many people dressed up in hanboks. Wearing a hanbok is not cultural appropriation, rather it is respecting and appreciating Korean traditions. The palaces even waive entrance fees for those in traditional garb.
Gyeongbokgung is the main palace in Seoul. Gyeongbokgung’s land area is only a tenth of its previous size, as buildings have been sold or destroyed throughout various battles, foreign occupations, and modernization.
The architecture and decor is rife with symbolism. The throne hall is visually centered. The hall is protected by the Chinese Four Symbols: the white tiger, black turtle, vermillion bird, and azure dragon. The steps that surround the throne room each have a symbol statue. One of the symbols is painted on each of the north, west, south, east gates to the palace grounds. Finally, the mountains and river that surround Seoul each also represent one of the symbols.
Unlike traditional Chinese buildings, the Korean buildings have curved roofs. Also, the support pillars are unequal heights, which gives the appearance that the pillars are equal height. If the pillars were the same height, then an optical illusion would make the pillars appear to be different heights.
Nearby is the Blue House, where the president lives. The building is painted white with a traditional roof in a vibrant blue color (most traditional buildings have green, black, or brown roofs). I would say that security is pretty lax in Seoul, but the Blue House was by far the most secure area. We weren’t even allowed to cross the street to stand outside the gate to the compound.
Also nearby is the Folk Museum, which documents the lifestyle of Koreans before modernization. Historically, there has been a lot of Chinese influence.
Korea no longer has a state-sponsored royal family, but everyone I talked to spoke highly of their past royalty. Except for some familial infighting for succession, the emperors were described as hardworking. They studied history for hours each day, were advised by government officials organized into 18 levels of rankings, and worked themselves to early graves for the benefit of the people.
King Sejong is particularly well-regarded. He invented and promulgated the Korean alphabet, Hangul, which was a lot easier to learn than thousands of Chinese characters. Hangul is the only language with a known creator and time of invention.
Historians recorded the history of the royal family. Unlike the Chinese emperor, who would read and edit the written history if desired, the Korean emperor did not change the recorded history. A member of the royal family fell off a horse, and the emperor requested that the historian not record this embarrassing incident. The historical record mentions both the horse incident and the emperor’s request.
Cheonggyecheon is a stream that cuts through the downtown core of the city, below street level. The stream is stocked with fish. Cranes and other birds wade in the shallows. The banks are covered in horsetail grass. It is an oasis of nature in the shadow of skyscrapers.
The stream has a long history. Originally, the stream was natural, flowing from the mountains. Later, it was paved over to make another road, but the road created noise and congestion. So the road was torn down and replaced with a straight, man-made stream fed by pipes. The flowing water cools the surrounding roads.
The bridges over the stream have interesting stories, too. One of the bridges has the gravestone of a previous queen embedded into it. The queen tried some political maneuvering in an attempt to leapfrog her own son onto the throne, so the firstborn and rightful heir hated her, and moved her gravestone to the bridge.
Gwangjang Market was a burst of color. Stores lined the sides of the road, and food booths with seating lined the middle. Pennant flags of other countries were strung across the ceiling. All around me, I could see and smell delicious food. Live squid seemed like a popular dish.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza
The Dongdaemun Plaza, designed by Zaha Hadid, has a facade of curving metal plates. Inside, there are several design exhibitions. At the time we went, it was Seoul Fashion Week. Never before have I seen such a concentration of people taller than 6’4″. Waifish trendsetters in eye-catching clothes posed for photographers. Even the children were looking fly in sunglasses, fur jackets, and metal hardware.
I ate so much food in Seoul. I would say the food offerings and flavors match that of Korean restaurants in America (unlike many Chinese restaurants, which sweeten the food for American palates). They have the best friend chicken— the oil is light, skin is crispy, meat is tender and juicy.