Seoul, Korea: The Gift
To make a long and pointless litany short- we weren’t crazy about the idea of visiting Korea. The country was completely skipped when looking for jobs and probably wasn’t even mentioned during “must do trip” brainstorming sessions. See the accompanying video for more specifics; but, mostly we were just very skeptical of Seoul as we base far too much of our understanding on the philosophical musings of Red Foreman. In the end, we did decide to go; it was the transfer point for the cheapest flight we could find and we thought a day walking around would be a nice break from planes and airports. Essentially, the opportunity fell in our laps and we just apathetically accepted it- an addition to the resume of experienced locations and a subtraction from the proverbial “bucket list” (which is presently infinite and non-discriminate concerning geographical and cultural visitations). We were nothing more than lucky idiots. To all the overly nice Korans we met, beautiful women that dotted the environment, and fabulous culinary masters whose crafts we tasted, we apologize. (That being said, Starbucks wasn’t exactly anachronistic of the west- “Coffee Bean,” “Green Leaf”, “McDonald’s,” “T.G.I. Fridays,” etc. actually did seem encroaching and abundant).
As it turns out, Seoul was amazing. An under-appreciated gem obscured by the attention whoring North Korea to the north, the developmentally enthralling neighbor to the west (China), and the quintessentially intoxicating and unfathomable culture of the truest east (Japan).
We started with the city’s northernmost delights. It was an area dotted with museums, intimidatingly beautiful palaces, and school lined picturesque and quiet streets. Though it was difficult, we had to forgo stops at the Korean Chicken Art Museum and Owl Museum, for the cities main palace. It had been sacked a couple times by disgruntled invading Japanese soldiers, but the recreation has gone well and the grounds betrayed neither replication or diminished impressiveness. The buildings were beautiful, wood structures completely covered in Baroque like or Islamic-esque artwork. An inundation of color and pattern. Colorful flowers and dragons and geometric designs covered literally everything. The structures even smelled wonderful- somehow pine scent lingered, even years after being cut and judiciously integrated with all the palace’s hard woods. The palace, and Seoul for that matter, is cast against the beautiful background of tantalizingly close mountains. And, no colors or shapes are obscured by debilitating pollution. In fact, the city is one of the cleanest yet encountered. The obsessive compulsive cleanliness of the 3 am Madrid street cleaners finds its only challenge in the impossibly deterred street cleaners of Seoul, who work day ’round: picking up freshly dropped berries from street lining trees, manually scrubbing avenue partitions and statues, and perpetually replacing non-blooming public foliage- all just how you would imagine too, the deep Beijing squat, tool less manual scrubbing, rice patty hats, and Asian bucket line. It was like watching a Samurai flick.
Though the serene and tranquil atmosphere of the north (a distinctly un-Asian metropolitan environment) is quickly lost upon entering Insa-Dong, the beauty and attraction is not sacrificed. Seoul’s modernity (potentially like Singapore’s?) has not come at the cost of unappealing urbanity. The southern half of the city, where it seems the entire population spends its day (and particularly any commercial employees) is incomprehensibly enjoyable. Somehow, the city combines the (often) unnerving bustle of and Asian epicenter with quality. The center of shopping and nightlife, row upon row, neighborhood upon neighborhood, was literally packed full- a sardine can of service. The towering high rises of commerce bundled buildings that offered 5+ stories of service oriented cubicles: DVD viewing rooms, clubs, restaurants, shops, arcades, etc. It was like Dilbert, Season 2: Las Vegas. A midget “Strip” on neon steroids. I can think of no better analogy than to call it “a box of chocolates.” Beyond this epicenter of entertainment was the city’s shopping center. Myeong-Dong is almost indescribable. The paternal presence of impressive financial buildings remains, but replace night oriented service centers with specialized goods shops. In fact, so many entrepreneurs make this home that malls have been built underground. What seem like typical subway stops, or just sub-terrainian street crossings are actually entrances to cavernous malls- engineering feats that rival the Roman catacombs. Each street is packed with window shoppers confronted with options on three sides- the haggling and product pitches blur, as if Wall Street has met Canal Street, the stock exchange goes China town. The smells almost materialize, obscuring vision and obscuring the leather, cotton, canvas, and reed products. From suit coats to electronic good to aluminum can recycled novelties, all can be found here. Most satisfying is finding yourself cutting off the crowds, slinking down a back alley adorned with drying laundry, stacked dirty cooking utensils from street carts, and extra boxes of product. The images of invisible employees relaxing, eating, or prepping are bonding mechanism and the brief respite from the “stockyard shuffle” and assault on the senses is refreshing.
To stop the descriptions, advice, and anecdotes now seems wrong. There is a personal drive to promote Seoul, as a personal penance for our previous perceptions. And, in fact, we experienced much more that should deserve mentioning- City Park and the Art Museum, the changing of the guard that happened there, an oddly enjoyable breast cancer function, our first beers at an Asian “chino” (OB Blue Beer), our first haggling loss (BulletProofTigerMan almost got bit by this Korean woman for suggesting 1.50 was far too much for a can of brew), surgically superglue-ing a wide angle lens on the Flip at the airport (picture the construction of a camera size bomb [by a Turk and Semitic looking technician]- that’s what we were doing on an exposed airport bench… yea, exciting), our first Buddhist Wat, our first couple times getting lost, introduction to Asian transportation (or reintroduction for “The Fade”) and of course, the wheel chair ridden lady boy singing 80s pop hits at a subway stop. Unfortunately, as means of self-preservation, such details must be retained as conversation incentive upon our return. Please submit any pressing question to out customer service department and check back soon for Episode 2: “The Bangkok Ricky.”
*Link soon to be posted for a humorously educational video blog- Episode 1: The Layover. (Give us a minute, sheesh, class takes up 9 hrs. a day and a playa’s gotta eat!).
*Very happy about the selfless Kenny Rogers plug in the title- we encourage everyone to jam some K.R this Christmas season (And “A Very Brutal Christmas,” by Austrian Death Machine); the season is fast approaching.