Seven trips in two and a half years, solely landing in Seoul combined with short tours to the Gangwon area and once to the Andong village. The most common question I get whenever the topic is raised is, “Why the love for South Korea, particularly, Seoul?” Even the immigration officer at the Incheon airport could not contain his curiosity as he peered inquisitively into my renewed passport. It all dates back to 2002, when the stage of the last World Cup took place in South Korea and Japan. Then an amateurish fan of the magical game of Soccer, I was totally mesmerized by the energetic disposition of the Korean people donned in red. Instead of watching the giants of the European teams, I found myself remembering names of the Taegeuk warriors. The jersey of the Red Devils was thus etched on my mind and by winter that following year, I arrived in the land of Soju.
Dongdaemun is where home is whenever I am in Seoul. Exiting from exit 12 of subway stop 205, one will see the magnificent buildings of the mega shopping malls towering over the neighboring shop houses in its vicinity. The streets are always busy, heavy traffic and rowdy crowd conjuring up a jubilant rhapsody, day in and out. Shops of all shapes and sizes shout out the pride of the Korean consumerism while the ubiquitous PC Bangs, quintessential of the world’s most wired nation, serve as a backdrop. This place practically comes to a high in the night when you will see people swarmed in from all over the country, partaking in the dining and shopping scene. Yet instead of going on a shopping spree, my preference is given to rocking to the songs performed at the outdoor platform intended to entertain the crowd. And when you try ordering 똑볶이 and a bottle of soju for dinner alongside the roads, you’ll find yourself blending into the kaleidoscopic nightlife in downtown Seoul.
The air intoxicated with unfathomable excitement and the nauseating odor of what the soju would do to its consumers all rolled into one, is perhaps the signature scent of this place.
I would sometimes choose to dine at a traditional eatery, enjoying a bowl of warm호반죽 before taking a blissful stroll down the Cheonggyecheon, a stone’s throw away from the malls. With my Mp3 singing to the tune of 한잔의추억, performed by the already disbanded 쿨, the stream amidst this concrete jungle certainly does breathe a refreshing air to all appreciative city-dwellers.
Back in Seoul, the marriage of the old and the new, the traditional versus the modern and also between the conventional and the innovative prove to be quite a cultural shock even to an Asian like myself. I find the old and new architecture more than eye-catching, from multi-storied Migliore and Doota to the near-by monumental East Gate or Dongdaemun, hence, the name of the place, and/or the harmonious co-existing palaces and modern buildings in the same area. A great day can be spent by visiting the Gyeongbokgong in the morning and chill out at any of the thematic cafeteria round the corner. I often tell my friends how getting lost in Seoul can be quite a blessing in disguise, almost a novelty. Many a time, a walk along the nameless streets can be both rejuvenating and relaxing to a tired soul.
For people who believe that traveling is to provide an eye-opener, Seoul and the Seoulites certainly do have a great deal to offer to them in terms of the industrialization and socio-cultural aspects. Seek out the latest electronic gadgets such as the PC or cell phones available in the Korean market or you may choose to get yourself hooked up on the cyber games played as a group in the local PC bang, an experience totally unique to what we do as an individual player back home.
Or make a date with the internationally-acclaimed artists, alive or already passed on in the galleries and theatres. The art exhibitions at the Seoul Museum of Art and Soma Art Gallery next to the Olympic Park will re-ignite your once passion for the Fine Arts. In addition, the long running musical, Subway Line 1 and Nanta or Cooking never fail to bring tears of sadness and joy to their viewers. And if you would rather go for a long ride in the nation’s oldest subway line 1, kick off an excursion ending at the Incheon stop. You will be fascinated by the sheer challenge of getting yourself transported to the destination, if and only if you manage the right transfer at the right station. I have had my fair share of adventure when I made a pact to meet my친구for a night’s out at the Incheon City Hall stop.
Armed with merely the subway map, it was not as helpful as I had hoped it would be. You will understand it if you had ever taken a good look at the Seoul Subway map. The different color codes are interesting, spreading out like a web; it does have its delicate patterns worthy of an aesthetic eye. Yet it was more like a maze, and I found myself struggling to find the way out.
Commencing from Dongdaemun Stadium stop, I took a line no. 4 to Dongdaemun, and then transferred to a line no. 1 all the way to Bupheong, before I changed into yet another line before alighting at my final destination. It was as followed: Dongdaemun Stadium-Dongdaemun-Guro-Bupheong-Incheon City Hall, with a lot of help from the ever-so-polite Korean commuters. Certainly knowing your “left” and “right” in Korean will help a great deal and eventually, I did make it right on time to meet my 친구. I was later treated to a quiet ride back to my humble abode with a night view of Han-gang or the Han River.
Seoul is vibrant in the day and charming in the night. The change in the seasons too, brings about her many facets of beauty.
In summer, the scorching heat and the prolific rainy days are great excuses for showing off one’s myriad shades of eye-wear and colorful umbrellas. You may decide to have a picnic and attempt inline skating at the Olympic Park, or take a dip at the fully-furnished and well-equipped swimming complexes. For lunch, you may choose between the mouth-watering 삼계탕samgyetang or the controversial delicacy of the poshintang (read “dog-meat” soup!), and if dinner is to be taken light, a simple fare of 냉면and 김밥is strongly recommended. Indeed, the Korean cuisine is not all about or just about 김치 kimchi. Conquering the heat with a cooling Popsicle or simply spend an afternoon in the bookstore at Gwangwhamun, reciting the selected poems by Kim So-yeop are some simple pleasures anyone can acquire.
In winter, catch the snow flakes in Jongno and learn all about fate and destiny when paying a visit to the palm-reading fortune teller. Perhaps when the biting cold gets into you, you can sing your hearts out at the Noraebang (Korean version of the karaoke) or lie on the couch to catch a movie you’ve missed in the Video-bang (video rooms). I’d like a cup of green tea latte on the go at the Seattle franchise coffee-chains while window-shopping at Myeongdong, or savor a bowl of traditional tea유지차 in Insa-dong, one of my two favorite haunts in Seoul, the other one being the Cheonggyecheon.
Amidst the hustle and bustle of the city, Insa-dong exudes an air of nostalgia and sophistication. My first Korean of “인사동 어디예요” was spoken in a moment of desperation lest I got lost. And my first purchase made and taste of the Korean brand cough syrup was from a pharmacy there and then, when the owner mistook me for a Japanese traveler and even spouted some Japanese to me.
As for the Cheonggyecheon, since Dongdaemun serves both as the first and last stop in Seoul for me, the stream will forever remain poignantly beautiful in my memory.
My first meeting with the lady stream made me realize how the Koreans can get this exhilarated over one stream. She is truly one Helen of Troy, totally dazzling, perhaps more so in the night. 친구and I took a long walk from point A, Dongdaemun to point B, City Hall. The night was a little chilly but more than bearable. I suppose it’s great to be able to just be near nature wherever one is; the night sky strewed with stars while the earth danced to the sparkling neon lights.
Though no picture was taken of me and my 친구 at the Cheonggyecheon, I chanced upon a heart-shaped stone slab and snapped a picture of it to leave an indelible mark to my maiden visit. And I suppose I have since left my heart in Seoul.