The D&O Diary’s Asian assignment continued last week with a stop in Seoul, South Korea’s capital city. This was my first visit to Seoul. Turns out, Seoul is a big, amazing city. It is larger than either New York or London and full of interesting and unexpected things.
First of all, right in the center of the city is a series of royal palaces for the Joseon dynasty, which ruled Korea for five centuries from July 1392 to October 1897. The dynasty survived invasions by the Japanese in the late 16th century and by the Manchu in 17th century. The palaces were heavily damaged in each of these invasions, and then nearly destroyed during the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945. It is kind of amazing that anything at all survived. The palaces have now largely been renovated, although work continues. The largest of the palaces is Gyeongbokgung (the “Palace of Shining Happiness”), first built in 1396. On the sunlit autumnal day I visited, the buildings and the vast grounds were full of school kids and young women in traditional Korean garb. Looming over the palace is Bukhansan, the 2,744 foot rocky peak that is the highest mountain within Seoul. As the pictures show, the weather was about perfect. As rotten as the weather had been for my visit to Tokyo, that’s how great the weather was in Seoul.
I also visited the nearby palace of Changdeokgung, another of the Five Grand Palaces of the Joseon Dynasty, part of the Eastern Palace complex. My only regret is that my schedule did not allow me time to visit the other three Great Palaces.
In addition to its great historical buildings, Seoul also has some great neighborhoods. Of the ones I visited, my favorite was Insadong, a tree-lined district of shops and restaurants. On a warm fall evening, crowds of people strolled through the neighborhood. Branching off the main road are a number of narrow alleys, some barely wide enough to walk through without touching your shoulders on the wall. Along the alleyways are small restaurants serving traditional Korean food.
Bukchon Hanok Village is another remarkable neighborhood, also not far from the main royal palaces. The area is full of traditional wooden Korean houses, known as hanoks. Originally this area was home to the high ranking officials in the Josean dynasty. The interesting thing about the area is not only that the houses have survived across the centuries, but they are still in active use. The hilly area also affords great views back toward Gyeongbokgung.
The hotel I stayed in was in another of the interesting neighborhoods, Myeongdong, which is located just a block off the main streets of the central financial district. The area’s narrow pedestrianized streets are lined with stores, including both the ubiquitous global chains (Forever 21, H&M) as well as local Korean brands. In the evening a young crowd thronged the streets, sampling the various kinds of street food on offer – dumplings, cabbage omelets, lobster balls, all kinds of stuff. The amazing street food was among the best I have ever had.
All of these attractions were interesting but the best part of all for me was that right in the city itself is a national park. Just seven subway stops and a ten-minute bus ride from my hotel was the entrance of the Bukhansan National Park, an area of forested mountains covering over thirty square miles. I was fortunate that the day I visited the weather was just about perfect, and the fall colors were at their peak. A rugged, stony path led basically straight uphill to a gate in the city’s defensive wall, sections of which still run along the ridge-top. The hike was about as demanding as I have attempted in a while. There were several stretches where I was scrambling on all fours. I really didn’t have the right clothes at all for a rigorous hike like this. I suspect I am the first person ever to reach the peak wearing a button-down Oxford cloth dress shirt. I have included a bunch of pictures below as it really was an extraordinary experience visiting the park and hiking through the sunlit, autumnal woods.
It took me about five hours to make it to the top and back. After I went back to my hotel to change out of my sweat-drenched clothes, I took the subway back to Insadong for one last traditional meal before I headed home. I found a table in a second floor restaurant overlooking the street where I could watch the crowds ramble by. I enjoyed a meal of tofu and kimchee, which may have been the best meal I had in Korea. The cool tofu helped counterbalance the fiery hot kimchee. As I watched the streams of people while darkness gathered, I reflected to myself that Seoul had proved to be a really interesting and entertaining place to visit – unexpectedly so, for me at least. What a great place.
There was a constant thought in the back of my head while I was in Seoul, though. In the lead-up to my visit, and especially while I was there, I was particularly worried about what could happen at any moment in response to North Korea’s efforts to develop a nuclear missile program. Most of the time while I was in Seoul, I was able to keep these thoughts well to the back of my mind. However, on Saturday night, as I was going back to the subway after my pleasant final meal in Insadong, I came across a loud political demonstration (pictured below). I wasn’t sure what it was all about, but it was very loud and very emotional. The people in the crowd sang patriotic songs and shouted slogans. They waved South Korean and American flags. As I watch the parade, several different passersby shook my hand (I guess I look American. I have experienced this before). I don’t know for sure what it was all about, but the evident sentiment brought home to me that emotions are running high, because of how serious these issues are.
The South Koreans have accomplished so much since the end of the Korean War. They have a built a modern, thriving economy. As I saw for myself, their capital is a world city, with a dazzling skyline, a huge subway system and other impressive infrastructure, and even a great night life. The very idea that a hostile militaristic enemy’s border sits just 35 miles away from Seoul is a chilling thought. The missiles stayed in their silos while I was in South Korea, but the South Koreans have to live with the possibility – no matter how remote — that the missiles could launch at any time. My most important take away from my visit to Seoul is that so much is at stake in the current precarious situation. As our world leaders confront the current tense situation, we can only hope that the Koreans themselves are appropriately considered. They have the most at stake.
More Pictures of Seoul