“The world is a book and those who don’t travel only read one page.” Saint Augustine of Hippo
After a surprise-filled, exciting journey of some 1200 kilometres that led me and my companion through the scenic interior of the Korean peninsula, vibrant, vital Seoul once again beckoned. I was happy to find myself in the familiar surroundings of The Designer’s Hotel, especially as it is centrally located to much of what I could yet visit in the few short days left for me to explore this vast metropolis.
A night view of the ubiquitous Seoul Tower, reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower it’s spotted almost anytime one looks up. It provides a popular observation tower and useful off-air communications centre.
(Note: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)
After dark Seoul is a fascinating brightly lit city as in this photo. I spent several minutes enjoying a fine laser show on the facade of this unknown (to me) building.
I had the sense the palpable hurly-burly of Seoul nonetheless worked according to a well-designed urban plan. When a full half of the nation’s population lives and works within the metropolitan area, 20 plus million souls need to adhere to an organized yet benign modus-operandi that works for everyone. The surface mass transportation system with countless buses servicing the effervescent downtown cores (there are four such within the city) is super efficient; the subway system served by 14 lines interlinks every district of the city. The majority of the population uses public transportation with 8 million daily passengers; it is spotlessly clean (in keeping with every thing else in Seoul) and in keeping with a philosophy to encourage the greatest use of public transportation the cost of a ride is subsidized and by comparison with other major cities around the world a bargain, no doubt. Further, if you’re in a particular hurry or simply want to avoid the crowds, taxis are extremely frequent and to my Vancouver jaundiced eyes, cheap beyond comparison. In fact I’ll say it – the cab fare home from the airport by Seoul standards was obscene! No wonder tourists to Vancouver soon become disenchanted with over-priced hotels, gouging restaurants and overall aura of creeping decrepitude. I really believe there’s an established policy by City Hall that sidewalks and public spaces according to the whims of the rain, abundant here no doubt, hence deemed to be self-cleaning.
Seoul has one of the busiest subway systems in the world. In addition, in order to cope with all of these transportation modes, Seoul’s metropolitan government employs several mathematicians to coordinate the subway, bus, and traffic schedules into one timetable. Nothing left to chance and it works!
It seemed every evening was another sit-down to a feast and on this particular evening my guide led me to one of her very favourite restaurants, an all-you-can-eat seafood emporium that had two great features – mouth-watering food and the tab was a surprising delight. As I was nearing the end of the my stay in Korea I can’t claim to have been surprised in the least and this may be as good a time as any to state unequivocally my holiday turned out to be the first time ever I’ve ventured abroad that I’d spent less than what I’d budgeted for. Prior to this happy event, I’ll admit to never have returned home without necessarily augmenting a trip’s finances by making more liberal usage of a credit card.
A clever idea – patrons are handed a large plastic bag to hold their outer clothes. Why? It’s a barbecue seafood place and thus the odour, alluring in the eating, is perhaps less aromatic in a crowded subway car. Also notice the heavy linen gloves on the table; very useful to handle hot seashells.
The main avenue leading to the ancient imperial palace along which imposing statues, various government ministry buildings and the United States Ambassy are found along the way.
Admiral Yi Sun-Shin of the Joseon Dynasty earned a reputation among many historians as at least equal to England’s Horatio Nelson, if not superior taking into consideration the numerous battles he won most often with definitely inferior forces. He fought 23 battles against overwhelming superior forces, sinking thousands of enemy ships and yet never lost a single battle.
A regal fellow that, a face loaded with purpose and charismatic leadership in my view. Notice there’s not a bit of pigeon droppings anywhere on the worthy and yet the statue is several metres tall. How do they keep it that way? Coming from Vancouver presently infested by crows in flocks of thousands, of course with pigeons everywhere and a proliferation of Canada Geese I soon notice and appreciate such free-from-bird droppings environment. I can’t imagine there’s a man with a tall ladder going up to clean up every day, so how do they do it? Incidentally when I mentioned the crow problem to the current city mayor, his surprised comment was, “Really, I didn’t know we had a crow problem.” When I called the Wild Life Service of the federal Environment Ministry the answer was a pat one, if rather weasel-mouthed, “Crows and Canada Geese are protected by the migratory bird act.” Maybe I suggested these birds should be made aware they ought to head south at least half of the time but nope, they hang around and proliferate. Alas, if intent and purpose is lacking the official bullshit is in no short supply.
The ‘Turtle Ship’ was improved by the astute admiral and used to great effect against the invading Japanese fleets. Heavily armed, it used sails and oars located in a second deck added mobility crucial in close combat. The spikes atop the roof kept Japanese sailors from using a favoured tactic that of boarding and hand-to-hand combat. The Admiral wise to this always managed to keep his ships from being boarded and overwhelmed by superiors numbers.
Along just a little further up the avenue the regal statue of Sejong the Great, a monarch deservedly revered in Korean history and national culture. A king and learned scholar (please note English folks, what has Elizsbeth II done for you sitting on the throne for six decades? Oh, wait she and her family got filthy rich, jolly good and pip pip) he created Hangul, the distinctive Korea alphabet ridding his country of the usage of Chinese characters. I’m sure this fact has probably caused heartburn across in Japan where they are still (and I assume forever) wedded to Chinese characters but that’s another story. For my part I applaud any country that has the pride to create and celebrate their own style – bravo! At first it wasn’t welcomed by the upper classes as they alone were educated in reading and writing but that was precisely to break this monopoly this very wise man decreed a new and much easier method to write the national language.
In explaining the need for the new script, King Sejong explained that the Korean language was fundamentally different from Chinese; using Chinese characters (known as hanja) to write was so difficult for the common people that only privileged aristocrats usually male, could read and write fluently. Hangul was designed so that even a commoner could learn to read and write and an old saying states, a “A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.”
Almost directly across the wide avenue, notice the US compound was mightily protected with scads of Korean police, barbed wire over tall fences and plenty of security cameras. One can never be too careful these days.
The main gate to the Imperial Palace (Gyeiong Bok Gung) that was originally constructed in 1394 by King Taejo, the first king and the founder of the Joseon Dynasty and expanded by succeeding kings. Owing to its status as the symbol of national sovereignty, the palace was demolished during the Japanese occupation; during their colonial rule (1905 to 1945) it was an official policy to destroy historic buildings and monuments that might keep alive nationalist sentiments of the people. Presently the Korean government is committed to restoring to its original beauty much of the past glories no matter how many decades it might take. As of 2009, roughly 40% of the original number of palace buildings still stand or have been reconstructed. Splendid!