A few weeks ago, my (Mike’s) dad came to visit. Dad’s a pretty lively guy, so I thought it would be nice to go up and have him help me take a look around Seoul, Korea’s lively, super-populated capital city.
My first challenge was finding a nice neighborhood in the massive sprawl. Something nice but not too expensive, something exciting but not a 24-7 party. Dad likes adventure, but he’s not much for disco. After consulting one of my favorite websites for travel, hostelworld.com, I found a place called The Golden Pond, near the Hwaewa metro station, on the northeastern edge of downtown.
On arriving, I was pleased to find a quaint little neighborhood not unlike what I’d left in Mokpo. I’d been expecting a shoulder-to-shoulder madhouse from the pages of a National Geographic article on global overpopulation. But the neighborhood up there has a distinct small-town feel, and it’s a bit edgy and young, tucked as it is between two universities. Dad had found it first, of course – he’s intrepid and never fails in a travel challenge – and when I found him he had settled in to the bed and was working a sudoko puzzle. After a brief hello, and a good night’s sleep, we were ready to conquer Seoul.
In the morning we ate at the Dunkin Donuts. Yes, Dunkin Donuts are everywhere in Korea. They serve a nice cup of coffee – (all espresso, though, no drip coffee. Drip coffee is an American tradition that never caught on outside North America) – but the donut selection is not quite the same as America. They have bagels, a couple of chocolate donuts, but the rest of their display case is filled with things like grapefruit chewisties, glutinous rice snacks, and bean-paste filled things. Eatyourkimchi.com has a nice run-down, if you’re interested in more details.
Then we headed out to see a couple of the five great palaces of the Joseon dynasty. First up was Changyeong Palace, which was a secondary palace of the ruling dynasty until a fire destroyed the principle royal residence in the 1590’s. Being great adventurers, we tried the first gate we found, which turned out to be a service entrance, and as we began to admire the beauty of the grounds, we were chased down by a nice woman from the back office and told to leave. Chastened, we went down the road, and paid the entrance fee (about 2 dollars) and walked in the main gate.
This brought us to the main palace grounds, which are a rectangle divided into a series of courtyards by a succession of large gates, with a central corridor lined with markers like small headstones. These large, football-field sized spaces eventually lead into the large pagoda-styled building that hosts a relatively modest throne. Outside the palace walls are some more residencies, and beyond that, through a
peaceful grove of trees, right near where we’d tried to sneak in, lay a small lake with an island, lined by electric lanterns that at night would have been a beautiful, romantic place for the royals and their coterie to gather, drink, and write the poetry that was considered essential for the ruling class in those days.
Down the road was Gyongbuk palace, known to all English teachers who use the national curriculum as the star of chapter 5 in the text book – Where’s Gyongbuk-gong?
We arrived at the exact time they were doing the symbolic changing of the guards. A colorful progression of men in shiny silks walked across the yard accompanied by the beating of drums and the sounds of long pipe-style instruments that reminded me, for their wavery droning, of bagpipes that had been removed from the bag and used as solo instruments. But they still had a distinctive Asian sound as well, a sound designed to carry up into the village and up the mountains. The soldiers carried long flags on their backs and solemn faces. It was an impressive display for the hundreds of tourists lining the central walkway that led from the main gate through a large dusty courtyard to the inner gate that led to the palace grounds themselves. On the one side we could see the tall blue buildings of modern Seoul, while to the back stood the mountains that provided ancient Seoul with it defense.
Inside, we mingled with the tourists and hordes of local
school kids on field trips. Korean school kids act funny around tourists. They are encouraged to talk to foreigners, first of all. Which meant that the average foreigner was approached perhaps a dozen times by kids, whose minimal English skills didn’t lead to much of a conversation. Your typical question would be: Hello. Where are you from? Do you like Kimchi?
Their simple questions were often baffled by Dad’s more complicated, above elementary school grade answers. Where are you from? They asked, and he’d say something like, “Well, I call Minnesota home – have you heard of the Twins?” They were sports about it, though – giggling their schoolkid giggles, then running off to their group, and then, unfazed, off to talk to more foreigners later.
Straight south of Gyoengbuk Palace is the Great South Gate, which was a huge stone fortress from the days when Seoul needed defending. A few years ago, it was burned to the ground by an arsonist, and is now a large, tented construction site as it’s being rebuilt. But just above where the Great South Gate used to stand is the neighborhood dominated by Namdaemun markets, nearly a square mile of shops delivering everything from t-shirts and suits to cameras, pig’s feet and red bean waffle fish. It’s a staggering display of consumption that puts the Mall of America to shame.
Of course, we visited many other places: The National Museum, the Folk Museum, the Electronics Village near Yongsan station, Jogyesa temple, and, I would estimate, 50 to 100 camera stores that appeared around nearly every corner and the top floor of the Yongsan train station.
We even went up to Itaewon, infamous home of all foreign activity in Seoul. For those of you who don’t know, here’s a Korean pop song and video that touches on what the Itawon neighborhood means in the Korean consciousness:
I should say it wasn’t quite that crazy, though it was crowded, and filled with more foreigners than I’d ever seen in one place in Korea. I might not have even gone, but for one of my primary quests in coming to Seoul: a decent hamburger. I’m not sure Dad appreciated this quest, as he’d only been away from America for about 24 hours, but I’d been here about six months by now, and my cheeseburger blood levels were dangerously low. Dad understands this, and accompanied my humor like the excellent co-traveler he’s been on many an occasion.
So we wandered streets crowded with non-Korean faces, shopped for English language books, and found a nice Irish pub called the Wolfhound. Inside the Wolfhound, we had cheeseburgers and Guinness (well, I had the Guinness, dad was happy with water). It was the best burger I’ve had in Asia, by far! On the TV, a rugby match featuring England and France, which held the crowd entranced. It was a nice bit of home.
The next morning, we re-visited the Dunkin Donuts, headed for the KTX train station, and in a few hours were in Mokpo, where Dad continued his adventure!