The glimmer of glass and steel competes against the buzz of neon signs. Hushed streets, whispering of a bygone age of monks and swordsmen, intersect the city. Asymmetrical beauty – a Korean vision for planning their once and future capital – create winding passages in decorated palaces. The mountains and the Han River provide a fitting backdrop for the Hermit Kingdom. Long isolated from the world but pushed into the global economy by the edge of a blade, South Korea is now one of the most developed countries in world, rivaling the West and even its former imperial ruler Japan for international accolades. Seoul, its gleaming capital, has emerged as one of the leading financial centers in Asia, one of the most populous cities in the world, and one of the greenest and most eco-friendly metropolitan areas on the planet.
I had been wanting to visit Korea for a long time. Korea has something that China does not – it’s own tastes. Maybe due to its rapid industrialization relatively late, young people in China want Nikes, an iPhone, and BMWs. That definetely exists in Korea. But what is different is that along with well-known Western brands, there exists an entire collection of distinctly Korean stores, music, and other cultural identifiers that make Korean culture different than any other. It’s not just that these items exist, it’s that people actually want them. It’s refreshing to hear K-pop when exploring Seoul by night; the homogenization of the world thankfully skipped a few steps in Korea.
As the taxi whizzes you through a city surging with energy, you’ll witness cherry blossoms blooming in a desolate park, the crystalline outline of skyscrapers upon the sidewalk, ornamental tea shops steeping flowers and herbs the same way they have for nearly a millenium, and the scars of a war that split a people once forever unified. As you can discover pretty quickly, Seoul is disarming – bright lights and a swarm of people and a crazy language. But that’s part of it. It’s quirky and a little bit weird. However, Seoul itself is a timeless birthright of a people and culture that transcends modernity.
A long post like this would usually have an even longer body of text, but I think the pictures here give a good progression of my time in Korea.
Taken from the DMZ on our way back to to Seoul - finally exploring the Korean capital!
Leaving the DMZ tour HQ, we start walking through downtown Seoul
Along the banks of a small stream offshoot of the Han River, a local arts "district" has emerged
The Statue of Admiral Yi Sun-sin is dedicated to the new type of turtle boat, geobukseon, that helped in defeating the Japanese navy in the late 16th century
The façade of the Korean Museum of Art
An ancient ruler of Korea in the middle of a wide boulevard
The entrance to Gyeonbokgung (literally the Palace of Shining Happiness), one the ancient citadels to a Korea long gone
Closer shot of the Gyeonbokgung gate; it was closed now, but we return it to the following day...
Antiquity meets modernity
An English sign!
Lanterns adorn practically every street
Finally, Gyedong-gil, a local food street in Seoul. Here, the Korean take on hot pot. All meals in come with a healthy potion of side dishes, like kim chi, radish, and dried anchovies.
The next day, Korean BBQ for breakfast! Koreans prefer metal chopsticks to wood or plastic ones found in other parts of East Asia. Allegedly this is because back in the days of the Joseon dynasty, the kinds used silver chopsticks as silver as thought to retard potential toxins. The local populace, unable to afford silver, used cheaper iron to emulate their leaders.
Back at one of the main things I wanted to visit in Seoul, Gyeonbokgung Palace. Built in 1394 by King Taejo of the Joseon dynasy, Gyeonbokgung suffered heavy damage during the Japanese occupation of Korea, as did all of the other royal residences.
Looking back at the entrance gate
Passing through a series of gates leads to...
...awkward photo op.
Most of the palace consists of empty spaces like this - the Japanese destroyed almost 75% of all the royal palace structures in the city.
Another photo with soliders who recreate how Gyeonbokgung used to be like 800 years ago
Neat stairway statue
Beautiful latices on the the lower side of the roofs
Even in the face of the Japanese torch, the beauty of the original design is evident
In the distance, rain begins to fall
A slanted picture, but even something as insignificant (at least to the Western perspective) as a doorway is intricately detailed
Walking along a small waterway within Gyeonbokgung
Restored mahogany, but still representative of what the palace was
A dragon on the roof...?
A parting shot as we left Gyeonbokgung Palace for...
...the Noryangjin Fish Market on the south side of the city. I love going to local food/fish markets and have tried to in many of the places I go - Khan al-Khalili in Cairo, Bazurto in Cartagena, Colombia, and the Sydney Fish Market in Australia.
From the upper floor looking down
What are these?
Squids in tank
Grilled fish at a local restaurant directly adjacent to the Noryangjin Fish Market
Next stop - Gyeongdong Market, specializing in Eastern medicines
Some sort of wriggling worm
Ground vegetables and roots
Herbs wrapped like hay
Ginger and other roots form the staple of Korean ancient medicine
Making our way to the second-largest royal palace, but the best well preserved and a UNESCO World Heritage site, Changdeokgung Palace
Me in front of the main hall
One of the many halls in Changdeokgung
Sliding doors form the entrance to all of the main palace buildings
The paths in Changdeokgung are elevated so all of the palace buildings and halls are in small "valleys"...
Our hostel, almost every restaurant, and the main historic sites all required visitors to remove their shoes
The Joseon prices' placenta is based inside this large stone capsule. People came and prayed to it.
Walking around the king's lake, still in Changdeokgung
Ancient stone tower
Leaving Changdeokgung Palace from the east gate
Lunch (also the only time with non-metal chopsticks) of spicy ramen
Our next stop was the Seodaemun Prison, a symbol of Japanese cruelty and aggression during the occupation of the Korean peninsula
The Japanese brutally tortured their Korean captives in this building
The bark of this tree has scratches all over it - the Japanese took people to the building behind to be hanged, so the inmates grabbed onto this tree to resist
The main prison grounds
At the Seoul Antiques Market, I got some ginseng tea. Eh, at least it is supposed to be healthy.
A snack made from beeswax - the bees themselves are still clearly in encased within the treat
In front of a giant South Korean flag on the side of a building
The Seoul Metro uses specially designed trains that are really wide, much wider than any subway system I've ever used
A final dinner at a Korean BBQ restaurant, with the typical collection of Korean side dishes. We sat on the floor with our shoes off here.
Goodbye South Korea, back to Beijing