Monthly Archives: April 2014

Splendid, spectacular Seoul

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  Lao Tsu

Seoul was fascinating at first sight.  I had landed at the ultra-modern Incheon International Airport and with customs formalities efficiently handled I was soon whisked downtown by express bus.   It was a long time since I’d found so much to get excited about – history and modern times seamlessly blended to result in a satisfying holiday that in retrospect was unfortunately too short.

(NOTE: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)

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Inchon is familiar to those who remember the vicious Korean War (1950 – 53) that although causing incalculable misery to the populace lurched to an uncertain conclusion with the country decades later still cleft in half.  General of the Army Douglas MacArthur saved the South from near certain defeat with a daring, surprise amphibious landing in what became known as the Incheon Enclave.

DNKF00006287_7MacArthur had to overcome the strong misgivings of more cautious generals to a risky assault over extremely unfavorable terrain with United Nations army contingents augmented with a majority of tough US Marines. The Battle of Inchon resulted in a decisive victory and strategic reversal in favor of the United Nations and Republic of Korea (ROK) armed forces that led to the recapture of Seoul.   Had he been given free rein, the bold general meant to pursue and destroy the foe’s army in disarray and retreating north.  Political considerations in Washington dictated otherwise much to the Korean people’s grievous loss of half of their homeland. The historic fiasco was simply a continuation of the naive and disrespectful miscalculations of the Allies after the end of the Second World War, (without consulting the Korean people although clearly against international law) to divide into two parts, one south of the 38th parallel for the Americans to occupy and north for the Russian Army.  

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Tragically the clear advantage was not pursued and war-weary United Nations allies yet again accepted a de-facto split of the country along the 38th parallel.  After three years of bitter combat, destruction and uncounted civilian deaths, fighting ended on 27 July 1953, when the armistice agreement was signed. The pact restored the very same border while creating the Korean Demilitarized Zone a four kilometre-wide fortified buffer zone between the two nations.  To this day violent military provocations from the North, brandishing the threat of a nuclear arsenal, is a daily reminder of the short-sighted policy of appeasement.  Obviously lessons had not been learned if one recalls the abject surrender to Hitler’s territorial expansion but a decade earlier. Three succeeding generations of the despotic Kim family has starved and terrorized its own populace in North Korea sadly with no end in sight.  Alas, history teaches that all too often the mistakes of the past are doomed to be repeated.  

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Seoul located only a few kilometres south of the DMZ was grievously damaged, its infrastructure destroyed and its population traumatized by starvation and death.   The horrors of that new war came only five years after having seen the last of the Imperial Japanese Army that had occupied the country since 1910 until the end of the Second World War.  Considering that Korea can trace its roots some 5000 years the brief account of relatively recent history explains how Seoul, in particular, was through the ingenuity and determined hard work of its people rose from the ashes to become today’s vibrant, prosperous, modern city.  It has been rewarded with several UNESCO World Heritage designations and I propose to share with you that which I found most appealing.  Undoubtedly there is so much more to see that I definitely plan another and longer foray in the not too distance future. 

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To move 25 million people within its metropolitan area, the Seoul public transit is massive, efficient and by other industrial countries standards, relatively economical for the riders. I couldn’t help but notice the numerous, brightly painted  local buses that oftentimes zoom by several at a time.   The photo I took was to demonstrate precisely what I’m referring to; it wasn’t until this moment I noticed the happy ballerina showing off a flawless style in front of the art gallery.

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Decades of relative peace has allowed a powerful and innovative manufacturing sector to create a sparkling economic miracle.  Ambitious and creative, the capital city of Seoul has risen from the ashes featuring wide avenues, fast transit infrastructure and architecture that is bold and attractive to the eye .  A case in point is City Hall, a fine amalgamation of modern admixed to classic Korean design, completed in 2011.   Seoul’s new landmark is a symbol of a ‘green’ awareness, the planners determined to incorporate geothermal and solar energy to effect important reduction in energy consumption.   En passant, South Korea is a global leading proponent to control and eventually reduce green gas emissions, whereas in sharp contrast, the present Canadian Government is hell-bent on going the other direction. It has opted out of the Kyoto accords, it is pushing to extract oil from the vast tar sands that by any sane reckoning is an ongoing environmental disaster, all I might add without a sense of shame or bothering to listen to the majority of Canadian voices appalled by the abject obeisance to the oil industry barons.   That is but a partial exposition of the Harper Government sanctioned degradation of the natural environment once considered sacrosanct by the majority of Canadians where Green Peace organization was birthed.   The unpleasant truth is Canada has become an environmental despoiler, a rogue nation in the eyes of the world community.  So much for the ‘nice’ Canadian image.

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Facing City Hall a skating rink that reminded me of Toronto’s except much, much larger.  All in all though I might give a definite edge to Canadian skaters, except of course when it comes to Olympic speed skaters and figure skating champion, the sublime Yuna Kim.  The ubiquitous Zamboni renews the ice surface allowing a short rest for the numerous skaters. 

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Close by City Hall, my first look at the Deoksugung one of the Five Palaces built during the Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1897).  The walled compound was also known as the ‘palace of virtue’ and was inhabited by generations of princes and quarters for concubines. By luck I happened on a daily ritual, the Changing of the Guards.  Against a grey, lacklustre sky the display of colourful, centurties old garb and precise marching to the sounds of a martial band was a cheerful welcome and a  much needed energy boost after an already long, long walk.

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In many respects Seoul reminded me of Paris as it doesn’t take much walking distance to come upon yet another interesting site, a fountain, a statue or a famous street .  Ancient history is around every corner although often framed by modern architecture within a super-charged city.  

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This young fellow was undoubtedly the most photographed of all the participants; he maintained a dignified cool and I’m sure he must be the focus of thousands of souvenir photos.  
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Strike up the band and let’s march smartly!

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During the Japanese occupation (1905) and subsequent annexation (1910) official Japanese policy was extremely harsh and particularly focused on destroying Korean cultural identity with the aim of eradicating any nationalistic sentiments.  There ensued a terrible destruction of many of Korea’s palaces and national landmarks as well as the outright theft of thousands of cherished historic artifacts.  It has taken decades for only a part of these cultural heirlooms to be repatriated from Japan and other countries that also took part in the looting, including Western nations.   This is not particularly unusual behaviour although it always is a source of wonder why nations are so loath to return what was stolen from another country’s cultural heritage.  If your home has been broken into and your furniture stolen it is reasonable to expect it to be returned when found or is the government allowed to keep it?  You know, a kind of finders keepers in the form of  a  sanctioned international injustice in my opinion.   

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The Korean people have dedicated much treasury to restoring the former glory of its cultural heritage.  Thousands of artisans expertly reconstruct buildings and restore artifacts as a gesture of national pride for the edification and proud delight of new generations.   Although only one-third of the destroyed structures have been rebuilt already Daeksugung Palace is shining bright; started in 1990 the rebuilding will continue for as long as it takes to be fully restored.  

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A Western-style building found its way within the traditional architecture, not to every Korean’s liking incidentally, and I don’t disagree with their opinion. 

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Behind my shoulder one of the two European style buildings houses the National Museum of Art where the works of contemporary Korean artists are displayed in fine collections as well as major exhibitions of famous masters such as Picasso, Chagall and Matisse among others .   Zoom in on this photo and take a close look at the centre – Seoul’s dual personality is clearly seen in the ultra modern architecture of City Hall set just behind the classic lines of the ancient palace. 

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Leaving the palace grounds I strolled along Cheonggyecheon, originally an urban waterway, then paved over until after three years of restoration reborn as an ecological stream.   I knew from there it was but a stone’s throw to my hotel.  Almost for six kilometres it cuts through the very heart of Seoul’s downtown area featuring 22 bridges and nine fountains.  It is very popular with local office workers who   gather on convenient benches or grassy areas to eat lunch or meet friends after work.   In the summer it is illuminated with waterfalls and fountains. All in all a remarkable urban rehabilitation of a once despoiled natural stream brought back to life for the enjoyment of Seoul’s residents and visitors alike.  I’d say this was a successful government initiative to make life a little more pleasant for its citizens, unfortunately too seldom seen elsewhere. 

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This colourful, perhaps curious sculpture located at one extremity of the stream was the result of an international contest.  It has not received unanimous approval, in fact has been scorned by locals, but I like it.  As my friend chided, my aesthetic judgment maybe as screwy as the design.

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After a long day and tired feet, it was back to the comfort of my fine accommodations. The Designers Hotel name indicates what it purports to be – a designer’s hotel.   When it was built a couple of years ago, a novel idea was tried out.  Each member of the graduating class of a major design school was offered the opportunity to create their best room and the result was that every last room in the hotel is very much different one from the other.  Some favoured muted colours, wood paneling and traditional looks while others were definitely modern, upbeat and innovative.  I know I tried out three of them for the fun of it. This one turned out to be my favourite, bright with a great view and a whirlpool bath inside the room.

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A night view to sleep by and a sunny greeting to get cracking bright and early. 

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Oh yes, I almost forgot the tree in my room – wonder if it has sprouted leaves by now? 

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Finally I would feel remiss if I didn’t include a couple of photos of Ewah, the most prestigious woman’s university in Korea and my friend’s much beloved alma mater.   The building I’m pointing to is about as innovative as any I’ve seen anywhere.  It is the focal point of the campus; on either side libraries and lecture rooms, staff offices and restaurants provide all the student and professor requires for a comfortable day.  It is also a big favourite tourist attraction with neighbouring Chinese in particular.  

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And finally an imaginative sculpture several stories high seen from the inner elevator on the way to the top of the building and out to the campus grounds.   I’ll leave you with this image with a promise of more from The Land of the Morning Calm soon to come.   My next post will take us to explore a couple of UNESCO sites, amazing temples, royal tombs, a busy fishing port (I loved it) and a scenic journey through rural Korea among other discoveries.    A bientôt!

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Korea – ‘Land of the Morning Calm’

“Nothing can be compared to the new life that the discovery of another country provides for a thoughtful person.  Although I am still the same I believe I have changed to the bones.”  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 

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.)

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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.  

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An aerial view of Seoul, a sprawling megapolis served by no fewer than twenty bridges spanning the Han River.

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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. 

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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!

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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!  

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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.   

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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.

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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’.  

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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.

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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. 

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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.   

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.  

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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.

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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.