What I Love About Seoul
The first thing you might notice about Seoul is the technological prowess: sleek, quiet trains whisk you from Incheon International Airport to the central station in less than an hour, inside spotlessly clean carriages fitted with electronic maps above each set of doors – a sequence of red and yellow lights to chart the 48-kilometer (30-mile) journey. Then, once you’ve navigated the maze of passageways at Seoul station to get on a subway train, there comes a jolt of global cosmopolitanism: you may well encounter a blonde-haired expatriate who speaks fluent Korean and a local student joking in English with two African friends.
But what I love most about Seoul is the sense of balance that underpins it all. Emerging above ground, Bama and I find ourselves in a heady mix of the avant-garde and centuries-old traditions. South of the broad Han River, the gleaming financial district of Yeouido rises from its namesake island, which once hosted a flood-prone international airport. But look beyond the futuristic skyline and the neon-washed streets in the commercial areas north of the Han and you’ll catch a glimpse of old Seoul: humble courtyard homes, Buddhist temples, and stores selling traditional wares from glazed porcelain to calligraphy brushes and hand-pressed paper. There’s even a neighborhood and subway station named Gongdeok, or “Confucian values”, which have shaped Korean society enormously, not least in the family-oriented way of life, an innate drive for educational achievement, and aspects of its legal system.
Indeed, Seoul has the enviable ability to run headlong into the future without losing a sense of its own history. Walk down the hill from 600-year-old Bukchon, a proliferation of hanok traditional houses built in wood and stone, and the tiled roofs with upswept eaves soon give way to small apartment buildings, a procession of artisanal shops and cafes, then utilitarian facades and busy intersections that will land you in the thick of the modern city. Seoul encapsulates the balance between yin and yang in the Taegeuk, a graphical symbol more than 1,000 years old that finds its most prominent expression as two interlocking blue and red semi-circles on the South Korean flag.
It is perhaps out of necessity that Koreans know how to strike a balance. I once read a comment by an American of Korean and Polish parentage who explained how Korea was the “Poland of Asia”, which wasn’t made in reference to a shared fondness for pork sausages and rustic, uncomplicated cuisine, but rather their geographic position between two larger and more powerful neighbors. Much like Germany (or Prussia before 1871) and Russia’s treatment of Poland over the past 300 years, China and Japan have fought over Korea for centuries, launching multiple invasions to bring the resource-rich peninsula into their respective spheres of influence.
As much as 60 percent of Korean words are of Chinese origin, but hangul, a distinct Korean alphabet developed back in the 15th century, has prevailed as the main writing system. When Japan colonized Korea from 1910 to 1945, the Japanese authorities embarked on a campaign of forced cultural assimilation (banning the Korean language from schools and outlawing Korean language publications) while systematically destroying much of Seoul’s centuries-old royal palaces, which they saw as symbols of Korean sovereignty. And yet the Koreans have proudly maintained their identity, language, and culture in the face of this enormous pressure.
Unlike in its much larger neighbors, visitors here do not need to navigate a minefield of social norms and etiquette (as in Japan) or a maddening free-for-all in which everyone is hardwired for self-preservation, the rest of society be damned (as in mainland China). I find South Korea to be a happy medium between the two; here is an East Asian country that is a little more relaxed and less hung up on public displays of formality, where denizens are considerate enough not to talk at 100 decibels and shove others out of the way to jump a queue.
What I also love about Seoul is the sheer dynamism; the fact that you’ll find life in the streets at any given hour of the day. Bama and I see this firsthand during our late-night arrival. At almost one in the morning, there are still people milling about outdoors, and we pass a number of street-side tents where residents can drown their worries in soju – a traditional rice-based Korean liquor – and eat barbecued meats before taking the last train home.
I advise you to purposefully get lost in the labyrinthine corridors of Gwangjang Market, where you can rub shoulders with students, white-collar workers unwinding after a long day at the office, young women in leather jackets and short skirts contemplating an assortment of pickled foodstuffs, Korean-speaking expats hunched over a plate of steaming comfort food at a communal table, and fellow visitors staring wide-eyed at the dizzying array of street food stalls – their counters piled high with thick mung bean pancakes (bindaetteok), the tastiest mandu dumplings you might ever have, and mounds of silky dangmyeon noodles (made of sweet potato starch) alongside fresh leaves and julienned vegetables ready to be thrown together in a wok to create japchae, a phenomenal stir-fried vegetarian noodle dish.
It’s at Gwangjang Market where we duck into a dimly-lit alleyway lined with non-nonsense eateries specializing in yukhoe, or Korean steak tartare topped with raw egg yolk and a sprinkling of sesame seeds on a bed of julienned Asian pear. Inside one of these places, the warmhearted matriarch puts down several fully laden condiment dishes with a smile and motions for us to mix their contents into the yukhoe. So, we do, infusing the beef and pear with the distinctive nutty aroma of sesame oil before pouring in a thick savory paste, cloves of fresh garlic, and then chopped unseeded green chilies. It is a riot of flavor and texture that dances on the tongue.
The South Korean capital may be a sprawling megalopolis of 10 million, but it still feels personable and easy to navigate on foot. One evening, Bama and I make a beeline for Namdaemun, an iconic 550-year-old landmark that was once one of three major entry points into Joseon-era Seoul. Officially known as Sungnyemun, the “Gate of Exalted Ceremonies”, Namdaemun was painstakingly reconstructed using age-old construction methods after the original wooden gatehouse was destroyed in a 2008 arson attack. In a remarkably prescient move, heritage conservationists had used 3D laser-scanning technology to create nearly 200 pages of blueprints just two years earlier.
I love the fact Seoul (unlike my native Hong Kong for example) is serious about preserving its built heritage. I also love how the municipal authorities have been reclaiming precious space for pedestrians in a series of urban renewal initiatives. The most recent example is Seoullo 7017 – an elevated linear park akin to New York’s High Line – on a disused kilometer-long highway overpass. Previous mayors have also downsized Sejongno, a central avenue leading to Gyeongbokgung, the city’s most impressive royal palace, to 10 lanes from the original 16 to create pedestrian-friendly Gwanghwamun Plaza. A similar success story is Seoul Plaza, which turned an intimidating traffic junction outside City Hall into a smoke-free public space centered on a large elliptical grass lawn.
But no urban renewal project has made an impact quite like the rebirth of Cheonggyecheon stream, a 10.9-kilometer (or 6.8-mile) waterway that was paved over starting in the late 1950s. Uncovering the stream involved the removal of a congested artery and, on top of that, an aging elevated highway completed in 1976. Cheonggyecheon was eventually reopened in 2005 with a sunken park stretching along its banks, and while there was much initial criticism about the cost (US$281 million), the stream has since become a magnet for both visitors and local residents. In the biting cold, Bama and I make a stop here after dinner to admire the waterfall marking its source, and below the next bridge, a reflected wash of rainbow colors that mirrors the kaleidoscopic quality of Seoul itself. ◊