Seoul

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.

Namdaemun Market

Namdaemun Market
Namdaemun Market

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 Palace

Gwanghwamun gate
Gwanghwamun gate

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.

Gyeongbokgung throne hall
Gyeongbokgung throne hall

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.

Changdeokgung Palace

Changdeokgung Secret Garden
Changdeokgung Secret Garden

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

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

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.

Bukhansan

J and I hiked the Bugandae trail of Bukhansan, a mountain in north Seoul.  At first the trail was made up of bricks, with the occasional car driving by. Then the trail narrowed into an endless staircase of white rock.

I described Bukhansan as a “non-trivial hike.” Someone in the hotel overheard me and said that phrase is an oxymoron. I packed light for our trip, so I did not have my hiking boots or poles. But all around me, the locals were fully decked out in sleek matching hiking sets, some with scarves tied around their necks. Basically, we shared the trail with a bunch of dignified, trendy, well-prepared physically-fit old people.

As I continued hiking, my knees became wobbly, and I wished I had purchased hiking poles from one of the numerous purveyors at the base of the mountain. The hike was tiring, but I took a simple pleasure in every step. The leaves had a beautiful red, the trees around me had the novelty of being a distinctly Asian variety, and the air was fresher than the smog of the city. Along steep sections, there was a thick metal rope for hikers to grab onto. The trees along the route had smooth bark where thousands of hikers had latched on for stability.

I was traveling minimally. I had a backpack full of water and snacks, and I’m a lightweight person. But J was having some trouble, so we took frequent breaks. I held his backpack, and it was unreasonably heavy. I wondered what he had packed, because I thought that I was carrying all the essentials for our hike.

“What’s in here?” I asked.

A laptop, an empty metal thermos, and a liter of Japanese lube.

Hell

I went on my first-ever cruise for a friend’s wedding. I actually enjoyed it a lot, the all-you-can-eat food, endless activities and entertainment, no hassles with luggage. I sat in the front row of a comedy show, knowing full well that entailed. The comedian did an impression of me as a Chinese spy. And the audience had to guess which Asian country J is from (it took a while).

Even though the food was not amazing, I appreciated the upscale ambiance and excellent service by the waitstaff. We did all the onboard activities: the giant waterslide, mini golf, ropes course, mineral spa.

I had my worst karaoke performance of my life. Everyone clapped, because they were glad it was over. “You were slightly better than the girl before you,” J consoled. She was tone deaf.

On Grand Cayman, there are shuttles, more like small vans, that make circuits around the shore. You can hop on and off for a couple bucks. I hopped onto a shuttle and went to Hell, a small tourist trap area. There are interesting limestone formations caused by algae eating away calcium, leaving other minerals intact. I bet the place got its name from those stalagmites.

We couldn’t actually walk on or touch any of the limestone formations, we had to observe from a platform.

posing in Hell, Grand Cayman
posing in Hell, Grand Cayman

There was nothing else in Hell except a gift shop that doubled as a post office. The cashier, in a lukewarm and exhausted tone, told puns to each customer, like, “Have a hell of a time.” The building was covered in Bible verses, so as not to glamorize hell, but keep people on the straight and narrow.

Hell's gift shop
Hell’s gift shop

Hell was pretty boring. The most exciting thing was the chicken and iguana roaming the parking lot. They ran fast when chased.

We also stopped by Jamaica, Mexico, and some other ports, though frankly all the beaches were similarly pleasant. We won some Amazing Cozumel race. There was a team of elderly folk that was far better at solving puzzles, but we outran them in the end. Balloons fell from the ceiling. This was the first race I ever placed first in.

Cozumel
Cozumel

Stockholm History Museums

I knew nothing of Swedish history, but after visiting these museums, I have a firmer grasp on how much I don’t know.

Vasa Museum

Vasa miniature replica
Vasa miniature replica

The Vasa was an elaborately constructed military ship. It sunk in Stockholm’s harbor during its maiden voyage in 1628 because it was unbalanced and top-heavy. Water flooded into the cannon openings. Most people jumped off the ship, but some were unable to escape and drowned. A meeting was convened over the incident, and in stereotypical laid-back Swedish fashion, it was determined that no one was at fault.

Intricate woodwork on the Vasa's stern
Intricate woodwork on the Vasa’s stern

Somehow, despite sinking right in the harbor, people forgot where the ship sank.  No one marked the location or anything of the sort. But in 1961, the ship was recovered. Thousands of pieces were painstakingly attached back together. The ship has been chemically treated and is constantly moistened to prevent it from rotting and splintering.

Swedish History Museum

Swedish History Museum
Swedish History Museum

Despite the association between Swedes and vikings, only a small minority of Swedes were vikings. Most were farmers. Also, viking helmets did not have horns on them. The horns were added later when the viking was transformed into a symbol of nationalist pride.

Medieval Swedes were extremely vain. People of all social classes acquired jewelry and clothes to show off.  Women proudly wore their key(s) on the outside of their clothing.  The key opened closets, doors, and cupboards, symbolic of their running the household. The museum has a “gold room” with display after display of gold, imported and crafted coins, bracelets, necklaces, crowns. The collection is large because the government allocates funds to purchase antique metalwork.

In the courtyard, reenactors demonstrated medieval breadmaking and games. There was a personality quiz to determine which Norse mythological figure you were most like, such as Thor or Loki. I got Balder, a friendly chap most notable for dying from mistletoe.

One exhibit discussed the inherent bias in any museum. With a collection too big to display in its entirety, what gets shown? And who writes these narratives? How are the artifacts grouped together? Since Sweden as a country did not exist in the past, how should its history be explained?

Armémuseum

Cannons
Cannons

The Swedish Army Museum details the armed conflicts that took place in the country from medieval times up to World War II. Upon entering, there is a red room full of skulls and a diorama of fighting monkeys, suggesting that violence is part of human nature.  Throughout the museum, there are dioramas of citizens, soldiers, men charging on horseback, the impoverished cooking, starving in snow.

I was drawn to the trophy banners and pennants. The designs were amazing. For example, there was a blue Russian banner with a golden two-headed bird with crowns, except the shield had a saint instead of a man on a horse.  The bannermen would protect these flags with their lives. The capture of a banner was demoralizing to the group to whom it belonged, and anyone who captured an opposing force’s banner would be rewarded.

Stockholm Art

Stockholm is filled with vibrant art displays. Like Seattle, there is a city law that says each new building needs to allocate a certain percentage of its construction budget towards public art.

Metro Art

Stockholm’s metro stations are wonderfully decorated, whether by tiling, etched pillars, or colored concrete. Stockholm hosts contests wherein artists submit their proposals, and the winning artist gets to execute on his vision. Typically, the winning theme has some relevance to what is outside the station. For example, Kungsträdgården station has casts of the statues that were displayed at the palace. On another floor, there is imagery from an opera for the nearby opera house. A long, colorful flag is painted on the ceiling.

Below, a construction worker drew a goat, and people thought it was funny, so it was permanently etched into the wall.

Goat
Goat

T-Centralen station’s blue line is decorated with silhouettes of construction workers to honor those who built the station.

Stockholm metro art
Stockholm metro art

I visited stops along the blue line, which is newer and has these grandly-themed stations.

Moderna Museet

The Museum of Modern Art is a mixed bag, with some works by famous artists, amazing paintings, photos, and some rather forgettable works as well. There’s a room dedicated to Matisse’s paper cutouts, the largest of which was Apollo. But I felt a surge of excitement when I saw a small cutout, which I recognized from the cover of a piano book I had used in my youth. There was a disorienting painting of William Tell by Salvador Dali. Another painting I liked was a mural that showed a scene as if the people and furniture were constructed out of mirrors. There are sculptures outside too. The attention-grabbing sculpture is of vibrantly colored, playful figures juxtaposed to rusted sprinkler contraptions.

Fotografiska

Södermalm sunset
Södermalm sunset

Fotografiska is a photography museum. When we went, the main exhibit was “Like a Horse”, showcasing horse-themed photo series by 30 different photographers. One photographer took photos of children riding through gritty New York City, another photographer dressed up the horses with head accessories and took portraits.
There were portraits by Irving Penn. No matter the subject matter, each was shot in a studio of his with the same plain background. He was an expert in bringing out the essence and personality of his subjects, whether they be skulls, celebrities, or everymen, or marginalized peoples.