Seoul, South Korea - Two Days in a Big City

Part of the old city wall next to my parents' hotel.

So I went to Seoul the weekend before Christmas, and I've been too... what? Busy? No. Lazy? Possibly. Distracted? Yes. I've been too distracted (by Netflix, mostly) to upload any pics. See, that's the problem with Netflix. As soon as you finish a series you think, "Well, that's out of the way, now I can get back to leading a productive life." But Netflix says, "Wait, wait, wait! What about these other shows we think you'll like?" And you see them and think, "You know what, those do sound quite interesting, I'll check out a few episodes." Two weeks later you finish the next series and think, "Well, that's out of the way, now I can get back to leading a productive life..."

Anyway, I went to Seoul a while ago, and now you get to see some of the pictures.

Since I only went for a while I didn't have much time to explore, but just next to my parents' hotel was a portion of the old city wall. After a long bus ride up to Seoul, I wasn't ready for bed so my dad I walked up the hill to check it my first night in town. It was bitterly cold for a Texan, and, apparently, for anyone else. I only saw one couple out walking while my dad and I explored. Of course I had to take a picture of them as they walked down the hill, back to the modern age.

Up near the top of the hill my dad and I found a sort of monument: a number of stones carved with Chinese characters. Other monuments were present on the hill, bronze and stone statues of Korean heroes, graven with Korean script, yet the standing stones were almost exclusively carved with Chinese hieroglyphs.

Monument at the top of the hill above the city wall.

This confused me for some time: why were the characters Chinese instead of Korean? Later that week, I asked Mr. Kim, my employer, about the characters. Apparently a lot of Koreans can read the Chinese characters because at some point in their schooling they choose a second language, either Chinese or Japanese, both of which use the same symbols. This learning process is made slightly simpler by the fact that Korean was actually based on Mandarin at some point long ago. Having some (exceedingly) basic knowledge of Mandarin I can see some of the similarities between the two languages, especially in the numbers (actually I don't know much about Mandarin other than the numbers). The linguistic schism appears similar to that of the romance languages (think Spanish and French), many of the words sound similar and the grammatical structure is nearly intact, but it would take some work for a native speaker of one language to learn the other.

The next day, Sunday, and my only full day in the city, my parents tried to hit as many tourist traps as possible. They're great tourists. 

My mom, using a guidebook, had found a central location where we could hit an old palace, a "traditional" (read - "tourist") market, and a neighborhood filled with traditional architecture.  

First stop was Gyeongbokgung, a palace at the center of Seoul. Frankly, it was remarkably similar to the Forbidden City in Beijing, only smaller. In addition to the size, the colors were different, and the layout struck me as being more disjointed. The most striking difference between the two palaces was the juxtaposition of massive modern buildings jutting over the centuries-old walls.

Gyeongbokgung front gate.

Gyeongbokgung central temple.

On our way out of the temple we noticed a crowd gathering for something. I heard one tourist say that "it" was starting in just nine minutes. We asked the tourist what "it" was , and she explained that the Changing of the Guard ceremony was about to start, so we stuck around for the show. It was interesting, and colorful with all the guards dressed in traditional garb, yet I couldn't help but notice that all of the "guards" had the exact same beard. Actually, I should have noticed sooner that all the "guards" had beards at all. Koreans are not known for their ability to grow impressive facial hair. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that every one of them was wearing a false beard, and bad ones at that. Still, we stayed through the ceremony, which was complete with music, including an absolutely massive drum. When I got the chance, I got closer to the drum for a shot, while one of the ceremony organizers tried to shoo me away. Despite the pestering (I swear I wasn't doing anything wrong), I still managed to come away with one I like.

Bukchon Hanock Village with modern skyline behind.

After the ceremony, we left the palace to seek out Bukchon Hanok Village, a "traditional village" which had been relocated into the center of Seoul. Basically, when the Korean government realized that it was westernizing at an extraordinary rate, it decided to keep a modicum of its traditional architecture intact. They began moving older structures from the countryside into the hyper-western center of Seoul creating an amazingly stark contrast between what Korea used to be, to what it is quickly becoming. Well, at least on the outside that's what it appears to be, yet based on the incredible upkeep the residents of these structures have put into their abodes, it's rather obvious that this "old-fashioned" neighborhood is actually high-end real-estate  disguised in traditional garb. This is Seoul's fake beard. This is the Korean government's attempt to say "We're still traditional! Look at these tiled roofs! Look at the wood! Ignore the Western skyline in the background!"

It is a renaissance festival, a celebration of how wonderful things were before we mechanized, before we discovered overabundance, before everyone had food on their plates. This is where Korea buys into the mythos that the past was wonderful and magical and forgets that the average modern person in the first-world lives better than any king or clergy did when this architecture was commonplace. Yes, it's beautiful, but it's still a reminder of when times were hard, when disease was common, when living into your 70's, or even seeing half of your children survive to their teens, was nearly a miracle. Don't get me wrong, we do this in the West as well, we just have to dig farther back in our history to find the pseudo-utopian era. Perhaps the Koreans even did it better than we do.

Ah, the simple life of yesteryear...

Kimchi pots and straw mats. Ignore the electronic light switch, it's not period.

I digress. The Hanok was beautiful, and I will most likely return and attempt some better shots before Seoul's skyline completely devours what is left of the old city. With the rate they build things here, that may not be far in the future, either. 

N Seoul Tower from below

After the village, we went to the market so my parents could purchase trinkets and trash to bring back state-side, By this time I was tired of being jostled, the sun was setting, and it was getting colder by the minute, so we made haste back to our hotel for dinner and to regroup. We decided our last stop should be to the N Seoul Tower, which was a convenient 10-minute walk from our hotel. So we took a cab. We bought tickets to ride the gondola up to the summit of Namsan Mountain, the only mountain within Seoul, and then bought more tickets to take the "fastest elevator in the world" to the top of the tower where we were sorely disappointed.

For a vast, modern, Asian city, Seoul's skyline is lackluster at best. Perhaps I'm a bit jaded. Granted, I grew up in Dallas, Texas where our skyline has for decades been considered to be one of the best in the United States. I've been to Shanghai and Hong Kong, whose skylines are tremendously beautiful and modern both by day, and by night. Seoul, by comparison, was rather drab and flat. Perhaps the most beautiful part were the mountains gracefully rising out of the mists on the edge of sight. Or perhaps I was getting jostled by strangers again and having a thoroughly rotten time of it, and this affected my perception of the city. Perhaps it just wasn't a clear enough night. Perhaps I was annoyed attempting to capture clear pictures through inch-thick glass smeared with the face-and-hand-grease of a thousand previous tourists. Perhaps I was just tired. Regardless, I didn't think the tickets to the top were worth the money, and I won't be returning. 

Seoul is a beautiful, vibrant, incredibly-modern city teeming with throngs of people from all over the world. The city hums with the sounds of progress and high-technology. Vast networks of information and people flow through the city without cease.  This city will grow. It will expand beyond the wildest imaginings of a half-century ago. Along with the rest of Korea, this city will grow, endlessly and upwards. Its culture will seep into every facet of the world stage. There is a beautiful future awaiting this city and its millions of people, but after two days there, being endlessly jostled by strangers, seeing the most incredibly western amenities and products, and being constantly reminded of home (and sometimes feeling like I never left), I can honestly say: I'm glad I didn't move there.

Gwangju is much, much better for me.

See you after my next misadventure!