Unexpectedly, a few weeks ago I found myself in Korea, or to be more poetic, in ‘The Land of the Morning Calm’. I’d not planned on it, rather thinking about returning yet again to France, the land of my birth as well as neighbouring countries but a lucky happenstance pointed in the other direction. A dear friend who in the past had been subjected to copious praise of Europe, France in particular, judged the time had come for me to open up a new horizon and discover her remarkable country. She had a few days to spend guiding me and how could I not accept? I’m not one to quibble with Karma and so without equivocation or ado I flew off and now while memories are fresh and vibrant I’ll take you along on a journey of discovery, that for my part was captivating and delightful in every respect. This rugged and ancient land offered spectacular scenery and vibrant, modern cities; in but a sampling of its long history and cultural achievements proudly preserved in several UNESCO sites I discovered more to admire unstintingly.
(NOTE: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)
Flying over my first view of Korea confirmed what I’d read – it’s a mountainous peninsula, a full 70% covering the land mass with every square metre of the remainder dedicated to farming and living space. Double click on the images below to see for yourselves.
An aerial view of Seoul, a sprawling megapolis served by no fewer than twenty bridges spanning the Han River.
As I’ve often claimed, the local people one encounters traveling in a foreign land are really the star attraction and in this case I can’t praise enough the Koreans I encountered, all without fail, kindly disposed and generous. I can’t think of one instance when meeting either those catering to you in a restaurant or hotel, at the airport or in a taxi, or chancing upon in a casual manner, when a smile and a courteous demeanour wasn’t the sine qua non of interpersonal relations; on a personal level I was always treated with respect and I do believe with a touch of affection for having come to visit their country. I may be redundant but I have nothing but fulsome praise for the people and the marvellous manner in which they live and behave either as individuals or on a collective basis.
Perhaps we in Western industrial countries could take notes on how not to treat sidewalks as garbage disposals, to deface public transit with graffiti, and recognize it is possible to live harmoniously even when population pressure may seem overwhelming. I remember a rather snide remark made by a visiting friend who viewed with disdain Vancouver’s ill-maintained, scruffy sidewalks, scraps of newspapers, discarded bus and sky-train transfers, fast-food coffee cups scattered and cigaret butts along the curbs in areas that would not be considered as the less affluent of the city, no at all, it’s a visual pollution plaguing the entire town, including the much vaunted sea-wall. I was prompted to set him straight, “Just you wait, it’s going to rain soon and it’ll clean itself up.” Well, I suppose that was a little sarcastic but unfortunately on the whole it was telling it as it is. Take notice, nary a cigaret butt, a chewing gum wrapper on Seoul’s sidewalks, anywhere!
The people, the children even, have a calmness about them and in their behaviour that gives the ring of truth to ‘The Land of the Morning Calm’. A friendly Buddhist monk allowed me to take his photo; after I’d politely bowed a farewell he responded with a ringing ‘hello’ as a goodbye. Nice!
I spent several busy days in Seoul and just a few of the statistics that accompany this great city would make one wonder about what might be encountered during a visit. Here are some striking figures: it’s the capital and largest city (by far) in South Korea; with a population of more than 10 million it is the largest such megacity in the developed world. What is referred to as Seoul Capital Area is the home to nearly 26 million people, over half of the entire South Korean population. Situated on the Han River, it was first inhabited over 2000 years ago and within its metropolitan no fewer than 4 UNESCO World Heritage Sites attest to its illustrious history.
Given its sheer breath and scope I might have felt overwhelmed and yet, it took no time for me to feel at ease in an environment that was pulsating with energy, with people, young and old, on the go and traffic that would scare the most experienced driver, and I’ve driven in Rome, Paris and Barcelona among other crazed traffic situations.
Yet, I can tell you the traffic moves along (ushered along by traffic cops at almost every intersection of main streets), that there is an amazing number of transit buses for the local citizenry, numerous cabs (the fare a third of what I’d pay in Vancouver, I kid you not), and passenger cars, and yet, I do believe I heard but one warning honk to a fellow who was jaywalking (me), a rare occurrence as I observed. Heck, even in staid Vancouver it’s an all too common annoyance, honking for the sake of making oneself heard. The monk patiently waited for the green light to cross: henceforth I wisely decided to ‘when in Korea, do as the Koreans’.
Jongno Tower is a 33 story tall office building with a restaurant and bar atop that’s famous for its view of the Jongno area. It’s located near Jonggak Station of Seoul Subway Line 1. My hotel was some five minutes walk from this interesting building and I used is as my location beacon. If you’re not familiar with Seoul it’s easy to lose one’s way compounded by the fact that street addresses as we know in the West are not commonly used in Korea. It’s also a good idea for the traveler to take a digital pic of an outstanding building or a salient physical feature to find your way back. You can always show it to a local who will point you in the right direction.
Awaiting a subway train people line up and wait without undue haste. Interestingly, for safety’s sake (it does get crowded during rush hours) a glass and metal security barrier prevents any accidental fall over the edge and onto the tracks. The train stops exactly in front and then and only then does the system open up for an orderly in and out of passengers. I think this could surely be emulated in other cities – take note Montreal and Toronto.
Ancient customs and modern architecture blend seamlessly in Seoul and elsewhere in South Korea. My impression everywhere was that of a carefully planned modus vivendi that allows for the preservation and celebration of its past history along with living in a fast paced and constructive new society. Respect for elders and customs is evident along with the enthusiasm of the younger generation for fashionable styles (young women are the best dressed, bar none, I’ve seen anywhere, Paris included) and technology.
I was surprised to find dozens of men squatting or sitting on grassy stretches bent over boards. Thinking they might be playing chess (maybe I could get a game?) I soon discovered they were intent on playing a much more complex and ancient game of ‘Go’.
As usual I did a lot of walking and soon made an interesting discovery – the main streets and avenues are busy with office workers, shops and restaurants and skyscrapers. However, take a couple steps inside one of the side streets, some not much more than paved lanes and a whole new world opens up.
A mere fifteen minutes stroll from my hotel (The Designers), daily I was drawn to Kwang Jang Market, a sprawling indoor emporium. Inside hundreds (yes, that many) outlets offer a myriad variety of household goods, clothing and food at affordable prices. For my delight several alleys feature a panoply of what is often referred to as ‘street food’ but that in reality has no kinship with the hot dog stand on the sidewalks of North American cities.
And deciding on what to eat was a daily conundrum – which of the inviting stalls should I sit at? I’ll admit to even doubling up, yes a little meat here and a little seafood there. Oh, and should I reveal a full meal would set me back maybe the equivalent of six or seven Canadian dollars? By way of information, another welcome relief for the pocket book – no tax of any kind or tips! NONE!
For the foreigner, other than the visual advantage of seeing what one might fancy to eat, the eyes and the nose is a reliable guide and surely beats ordering from an unknown menu. All steamed, deep fried or boiled in front of the eager client, the warmth and aroma are a powerful inducement to a hearty appetite and ultimate satisfaction.
What’s more, the friendliness is palpable; perhaps a foreigner who obviously is enjoying himself is made to feel even more welcome with generous samples to taste. The truth is had I so desired I could have simply sampled my way through to a full stomach without ever actually buying a meal.
My guiding companion displayed a wry sense of humour that might have been funny, if I wasn’t the target. In all seriousness she asked if the pig’s snout reminded me of someone? “Had I seen it reflected in a mirror,” she mused, innocently. Okay, it was mildly amusing after all.
I’ve decided to indulge my taste buds with Korean food this evening; I wonder what induced that sudden urge? As it happens good quality Korean restaurants are not hard to find in Vancouver. So there you have but a very small sampling of what you might discover for yourself in splendid, spectacular Seoul. More to come in following posts, stay tuned.