Thursday, February 15, 2007

I'm A Seoul Man

Vik began singing “I’m A Seoul Man” in ludicrous Blues Brothers style the minute we got on the 2-hour flight from Tokyo. However, his enthusiasm seemed to wane after discovering that the Bi Bim Bop (a traditional Korean rice and vegetable medley) that he ordered on the plane was laden with beef. The conditions on the ground also didn’t help matters as South Korea’s arctic weather made Japan’s brisk temperatures feel like Maui in comparison. On our bus ride into the city, we were accompanied by a heavy downpour (thankfully, our friend Anuradha had encouraged us to carry along a travel umbrella).

While it wasn’t immediately obvious sitting inside a fogged-up airport bus in the rain during rush hour, Seoul is actually a very captivating city. Aesthetically, the city it reminded us most of was Pittsburgh, although the analogy would only hold if Pittsburgh was 40 times more populous, much more sprawling and totally committed to ending the silly practice of waving yellow handkerchiefs. Comparing Seoul to Pittsburgh may seem like damning it with faint praise, but hear us out. Like Pittsburgh, Seoul is enveloped by undulating, tree-laden hills. Like Pittsburgh, Seoul’s city layout is defined and influenced by wide, prominent waterways. And like Pittsburgh, Seoul is a very underrated, cool city, as we would soon find out.

After making our way to our hotel in Seoul’s Myeong-dong shopping district, we took inventory of the inhospitable weather and put any immediate plans on hold. Exhausted by our frenzied, whirlwind 72 hours in Japan, we took the opportunity to enjoy some downtime to recharge. Kaberi slept for an unheard of 14 consecutive hours while Vik got his fix of American TV by remotely watching Tivo’d episodes of Lost and The Apprentice on the trusty Slingbox painstakingly set up by Vik’s younger brother, Vin, back in DC.

We woke up the next morning -- Valentine’s Day -- to a gloriously-sunny but bitterly-cold day. After checking in with our families back home in the States via our mobile VOIP service (Gizmo Project, not Skype) and figuring out how to safely send Kaberi’s malfunctioning camera back to her cousin Shanku in Chicago for servicing (we settled on FedEx, which cost roughly 10% of the original purchase price of the camera), we had the afternoon left to explore Seoul.

After mentally thanking our friend Yee Won for her endorsement of EMS long underwear, we headed off to check out Insadong, Seoul’s arts and craft district and an area highly recommended by our friends Mae and Eunha. Getting to Insadong took a little time as we found the subway system to be a little more confusing than in Tokyo (primary with regard to navigating the labyrinth-like exits). We were able to manage with our limited language skills primarily because the South Koreans we encountered were remarkably approachable and helpful (in one remarkable instance, two elevator repairmen personally escorted us in succession through an underground passageway to the Lotte Hotel).

In Insadong, we walked the side streets and stepped in and out of small shops specializing in teas, silks, stationery and fans. After taking several breaks to buy hot food from friendly streetside vendors, we bought a Korean tea serving set for Kaberi’s aunt in Delhi. Over the course of the afternoon, we managed to both satiate Kaberi’s shopping yearnings (no easy feat, mind you) and sample an ungodly amount of Korean fast food, ranging from chili chicken on a stick to fish cakes to hot steamed buns. Kaberi’s personal favorite was what looked to be a doughnut hole made of pancake batter and filled with red bean paste. Vik’s personal favorite was a Korean spicy vegetable paratha that he managed to order on three separate occasions. We ended up not having a single sit-down meal in Seoul, choosing instead to snack our way through the city.

At the risk of generalizing, the people we came across in Seoul were decidedly more informal and gregarious than their counterparts in Tokyo. The two cities and countries have a pretty intense rivalry (Korea’s Samsung surpassing Japan’s Sony in market cap recently was cause for national celebration), stemming at least in part from some unfortunate history (Japan colonized and occupied Korea from 1910-1945 and brutally repressed dissent). So, it was a bit surprising to learn that the two countries co-hosted the 2002 World Cup.

Several older Korean men on the subway asked us where we were from (our response, which factored in considerable uncertainty over the South Korean views on the U.S. military presence here was consistently “India”) and what our impressions of their country were. The informality had a flip side, as well, as we discovered on the subway platforms (Vik took a couple of cross-checks from elderly Korean women trying to get past that would have made Cam Neely blush).

Our last day in Seoul was less gusty than its predecessor and, with its crystal clear skies, proved ideal for sightseeing. After discovering that Seoul taxis were very reasonably-priced and infinitely more affordable than taxis in Tokyo (a typical cab ride cost us 3000 won, or about $3.25), we became immediate converts. We were only too happy to pay the 1,200 yuan premium (about $1.50) relative to two subway tickets in exchange for zipping around 20 degree Seoul in a heated sedan. Largely through our newfound taxi habit, we were able to make the most of our remaining hours in Seoul.

We started off our day by taking a cable car up a mountain overlooking Seoul’s student district of Namsan. The lookout high above gave us treetop views of Seoul’s sprawl and the surrounding mountains. Our vantage point gave us a new appreciation for both Seoul’s scale and its aesthetics. From the cable car landing, we walked toward Seoul Tower and came across several Korean guards dressed in colorful period garb. The contrast of their costumes against the vivid, blue sky was magnificent. The guards stood watch over a gate that was restored for its original purpose of sending smoke signals to all of Seoul.

From Namsan, we traveled to the central government district of Gyeongdong to see the royal palace (one of two in Seoul). The palace was originally constructed in the 1300’s by the king who relocated Korea’s capital to Seoul for its fine setting (mountains in the background and the Han River in the foreground). The palace was subsequently razed by the Japanese in the 1500’s, rebuilt in the late 1800’s, once again destroyed by the Japanese during their Korean occupation, and once again rebuilt in the late 20th century, which gives you some sense for the resilience and perseverance of the Korean people. We happened upon the palace during the changing of the guard and the pageantry of the moment was superb. Afterward, we made our way from one palace courtyard to another before finally discovering a magnificent central hall surrounded on all four sides by water. From the palace, we headed back to our hotel to collect our bags and depart for the airport.

1 comment:

John said...

Wow - I know there are many more significant things to take note of, but I love that you have a Slingbox on your trip!

Keep the great writing and terrific photos coming.