Tag Archives: Seoul

Seoul – Vibrant Capital of South Korea

“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.)

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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.  

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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.  

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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!

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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.   

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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.  

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Oh, yes is there any wonder I have this big smile on my face? In actual fact this evening out was to celebrate my companion’s birthday and I got away with it, drinks (four beers) included for just under $40 Canadian.  Imagine that anywhere in Vancouver, or Toronto, or anywhere else in this country, you’d be dreaming.   
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Notice the bucket at the top right hand? It’s for the purpose of getting rid of empty shells and whatnots.  Ara cautioned me not even to think of leaving before I had filled mine as she surely would hers.  A vigilant staff kept an eye out and hustled over with more of everything.   I assure my friends, I’m not shilling for this restaurant rather I’d urge you when considering making a trip somewhere other than the usual, put South Korea at the top of your list.  The people are invariably polite and kind, it boast of an ancient history, a sophisticated culture, a great cuisine and scenic sites to enjoy in or out of Seoul.  Moreover, you won’t bust your budget, I promise.  In fact, if Canadians in the business of tourism, government agencies or providers would take the time to see how it’s done successfully, this country’s ailing tourist industry would surely recover in quick time.   A ferocious stupidity  is in oversupply in complacent British Columbia, with astonishing arrogance fed by ignorance, it’s hardly likely to happen in this century if ever.  (Incidentally these last comments come under the heading of ‘How NOT to influence friends but rather to win enemies.’ )  
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Seoul has one of the youngest population anywhere on the globe.  Major corporations and government agencies attract workers and recent university graduates.  Evenings after a day at the office, as young people are prone to, they go out choosing from numerous eateries or to relax with a drink at local pubs.
 
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I suppose there’s no harm in yet one more example of fine eating at a great price; this eatery specialized in barbecued meats, lamb shishkebab particularly delectable.  
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It was also a fun place with a chattering ambiance and laughter in the air.  Hanging above every table a clever contraption would be lowered to an appropriate height and it  effectively sucked out the smoky air.  
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My predilection for food and eating must be left aside, oh, except for one last photo; as a coffee aficionado I must share this most delicious cappuccino, perfect in taste and presentation.  I’ve been attempting to duplicate if not the appearance at least the taste with my own Italian coffee maker but not even close, as yet.  
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Finally, after leaving my friend (poor girl) to return to her office I finally had the time necessary to visit the last must-see on my agenda.  I’m not suggesting there weren’t many more such to see in Seoul but I was on my last full day and so off to the ancient  king’s palace.    On my way I noticed several folks who were demonstrating against the indiscriminate killing of birds of all feathers, chickens and ducks included.  There was a recent outbreak of bird flu and the government was wisely using preventing measures however these nice people were concerned the effort was going overboard, at least that’s what I sort of understood.  Notice the numerous city buses in the background.  

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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.  

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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.   

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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. 

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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. 

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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.”

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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.  

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Also on this great avenue, a government ministry office with lots of security too; it’s not a simple world anymore.
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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!

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Rain or shine,  each and every day, from ten a.m. to 3 p.m. a splendidly attired royal guard parade to the sounds of military music and a colourful  changing of the guards takes place with great pageantry to the delight of onlookers.
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Mount Bugak as a backdrop and the Street of Six Ministries outside the main gate the daily parade by resplendent palace guards reminds onlookers of past glories.  
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In the background a fine structure originally built for the leisurely pleasure of the Royal family and retinue.  The pavilion has been reconstructed exactly to former dimensions and design and is designated as National Treasure No. 224.  
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No commentary need be added to the knowledge and fine workmanship required to recreate buildings to their original splendour.
 
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 The Imperial Throne Hall – National Treasure No. 223
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In front of the Folk Museum on the castle grounds I came across an interesting statue display of the Zodiac according to Oriental lore and here I am in front mine, the dreaded Dragon.  Yeah!P1100722
And so, I’ve come to the end of yet another photo essay dedicated to the praise of ‘The Land of the Morning Calm.’  Indeed, throughout several postings I have without stint heaped positive commentary on this fine country, but I stand by all I wrote because I saw and personally experienced;  it is sincere and in keeping with my journalist’s credo  objectively described.  Once we get past admiring the God-given scenic wonders, the ancient history, the cultural achievements and the friendly and ethical conduct as I experienced it on a daily basis  is an accurate reflection of the  superior quality of its people.  I’ve mentioned it elsewhere on this blog but any one who is looking for a great travel adventure on a limited budget, South Korea is the place for you.   For my part I’m already plotting a return with a longer stay.  
The International Airport at Incheon is state of the art, handling huge passenger and commercial traffic with cool efficiency; it is considered by many international organizations as travellers, me included, as the best in the world .   The buildings are vast and airy, spotlessly clean in keeping with all such Korean venues; the long distances between check-in and departure gates are easily managed by long moving sidewalks.  Notice the skating rink for kids to while away time before departure.   
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At this juncture it’s appropriate since she took the photo to give thanks to Ara, my hostess, travel companion, guide and translator.  Her considerable knowledge of Korean history and culture, her good humoured nature and generosity no doubt contributed mightily to the enjoyment I had throughout my stay.  Merci beaucoup ma chère amie.  Gamsa-hamndia!
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I’ll be seeing you soon, blowing bubbles, yep, big, enormous bubbles.  It’s guaranteed awesome, don’t miss the fun!  Annyeonghi-gaseyo!

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.