on…Seoul

Posted: 17/03/2011 in Travel
Tags: , , , , ,

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I realised last week that after nearly a month in Jeonju, it is the longest time I have spent without going extra Urbana, as the Italian buses would say. I certainly never went more than a month in Italy without visiting a nearby town.  Last Summer in England was also one of constant upheaval with working and trips to Durham, Southampton, Edinburgh, Manchester and London. My reasons for needing to ‘escape’ were by no means associated with my current location, I have already grown to love the daily rhythms of my Korean home town. On the contrary, travelling to a new place usually gives me a new sense of appreciation for my home, whichever home that may be at any given time. Due to the benefits of Christmas vacation I had a 5 day weekend, with this in mind I took off early on Wednesday morning for Seoul, New Year’s weekend is also a mad rush here so I thought it was wiser to spend weekdays in Seoul rather than the weekend.
After much Seoul searching (pun intended) I got a cheap train, the Seoul train (pun intended).  From the four or so classes of train mine cost about 9 pounds to travel the 3 and a half hours to Seoul. It’s a reasonably long time but with my mp3 player and a constant view I was able to keep body and Seoul together (pun intended).  As is customary during  journeys in foreign lands my designated seat was next to a fairly rotund woman who was thoroughly asleep. On trains, planes and buses the World over I usually end up next to the wild kid, the twitching sociopath or the rotund narcoleptic who doesn’t let you into your designated seat. I transplanted to a couple of other places but as the carriage filled up steadily through the various Korean cities I was eventually forced to confront my destiny and wake up the sleeping lady. I showed my seat number from my ticket and gesticulated to the empty seat; she said ’65’, in English, then she welcomed me as if I was late for a friendly supper with friends. The rest of the journey passed without incident. When you don’t speak a word of the native language there is not much danger of being snared into a conversation and having to bear your Seoul to someone (pun intended). I’d only had about 4 hours sleep so I kept drifting off to the passing snowy mountains out of the window.
The scenery was all new to me because my first journey down from Incheon to Jeonju  was by nightfall, this gave me the pleasure of seeing a pretty mountainous country in full wintry sunshine. Everything was still snow-clad but some of the hills and mountains looked a little ugly with brown pointy trees protruding through the snow, like a hedgehog in the final stages of leprosy. South Korea is about 70% mountainous, the rest of the land is used for cities and rice cultivation, I didn’t see any livestock of any kind on my whole trip but I presume there are many pigs, they really like eating pigs here. In a land where so much of the  terrain is difficult they need to use every scrap of flat land for high rises, factories, freeways and any other dynamic infrastructure scheme which is flavour of the month. Once a place uses every parcel of land they start slicing bits of mountains off. Despite my negative attitude to the encroachment upon the countryside, I can say that on the whole what I have seen of South Korea is fairly open and spacious, even as you approach the larger urban areas. I was expecting great industrial swathes of greyness like you might find between Milan and Torino or Manchester and Liverpool, luckily the mountains prevent this. I think that when you can see the vista of a mountain at the end of a busy street you always feel a bit less hemmed in, this is even true of the bigger cities in Korea.
I travelled through some of the suburbs of Seoul with a mixture of excitement and apprehension, I have read so much about the place that I really wanted it to be good and live up to my expectations of mega city madness. As skyscrapers came and went through the flickering bridges, tunnels and stations I knew by my timing of the journey that we were still not near Seoul, but it looked very Urban and Metropolitan. One of the suburbs has a population of over 1 million, it’s called Suwon and it’s Park ji Sung’s home town. Park Ji Sung has become a great friend of mine in Korea as the only point of reference for where I am from is Manchester, and inevitably Manchester United. It takes great patience and the use of a decent map to explain that I’m actually from a smaller historic city 1 hour north and my team is the consistently average Blackburn Rovers. I feel sorry for any Koreans trying to explain where Jeonju, or Daegu is to people in the UK. I only found out about Suwon because my recruiter found a job for me there, luckily I never got it and ended up in a place I really like. I hope to visit Suwon one day and have a ‘look at what you could have won’ moment.
When we approached the centre of the metropolis proper there was palpable excitement from the three young boys bouncing around in the seat in front of me, they were pointing out the skyscrapers and naming them, not to instruct me or to showboat, they were simply reeling off familiar landmarks with a sense of wonder, the wonder was contagious. As is customary for me on new journeys I was tracing a line over the map of Seoul with my finger trying to match it with what my eyes were telling me about the real World outside.  After the skyscrapers, mega malls, endless adverts, gargantuan apartment complexes, car parks, bus parks and park parks came the river Han. Nothing breaks up the sprawl like a timeless river going about its business like it always has done. I have a thing about rivers and cities, for me a city’s importance is reflected in its river , a good river also provides a place to walk and breath, a river can bisect a city from within and offer another personality or another viewpoint. The South Bank of the Thames is different from the North Bank. Paris and it’s arty and anarchistic Left Bank is so famous it’s become an adjective in its own right. New York has Lady Liberty looking over and protecting it’s river entry, Manhattan actually has two rivers (the East and Hudson) protecting it from, well, from the rest of New York. Istanbul’s river is the gateway to Asia. I remember first arriving in Rome and being a bit upset about the size of the Tiber, I always imagined a huge foggy river which had witnessed ancient battles and all manner of Roman scandals, in reality it’s smaller than the river Lune in my native Lancaster. If you want to see a decent river in Italy then nothing beats the Po in Torino. As mighty rivers go the ‘Han’ is a monster. It’s actually so big I never even considered walking across it, this means that it’s massive because I love walking over big bridges on big rivers. It was when the train crossed the Han that I realised I had arrived and I wasn’t disappointed. First impressions of places should never be underestimated, usually arriving by train in a grand station is a great way to arrive. Going over the Han and looking at the high-rise buildings disappearing into the distance was a great arrival, a single moment. The Han divides Seoul’s North from its South, most of the important historical things being on the North and most of the frivolous leisure type things being on the South. There is also quite a large island which contains many important administrative functions. From the bridges over the river you can see the expanses of the Olympic park area and the World Cup stadium further downstream (yet to be confirmed as I have not ventured there yet). There are also some immense shopping malls and theme parks quite near the river, containing the ubiquitous luxury hotels and conference centres.
Once I arrived on the North bank I soon realised how huge Seoul really is.
I’ve looked at the figures but nothing can really tell you how big a place is as well as just looking at it, stone cold, face to face city gazing. Looking at the number of people crushing into each other in the metro carriages or in those rotating doors of office building foyers and malls. Despite my romantic fundamentalism when it comes to judging the size of a place  I do have a passion for boring geographical statistics, so here goes:
Seoul has 10 million inhabitants within it’s politically defined boundaries, to give some comparison Greater London has just under 8 and New York about 8.
If you consider the wider Metropolitan area including commuter belts and places economically tied to that city then Seoul is 20 million.
This measuring technique is never agreed upon, but even so, using this scale Seoul is the 2nd biggest Metropolis in the World after Tokyo (32 million) and just ahead of Mexico City and New York (19 million each).
To summarize: Seoul is a very big place.
When I arrived at Yongsan station the sheer busyness was overwhelming. I’m used to big cities and I am fairly adept at working out what to do and where to go, but this was new territory for me. I used to be so confident that I liked turning up to a new city with no map or idea how to get anywhere, my theory being that if a city works correctly the information will be provided. I believe you can do this in most cities but in Seoul Yongsan station it took me a long time to figure out what was going on. It’s a train station, metro hub, shopping mall and concert hall. It’s attached to an electronics megamall and some kind of arena. It has a food court, a mini food court, shops, mini shops, maps, ATMs, automatic ticket machines for the Metro and for mainline trains. The maps are numbered, coloured and named in Korean, English, Japanese and Chinese. There are vending machines selling everything and I had no idea what ticket to get or where to get it from. There are line numbers, train numbers, platform numbers and even knowing my rough direction was no real guarantee, unlike London many of the lines loop back on each other. I looked at some snaking queues then skirted round the station to try to find another place to figure out what was going on. This was information overload on a scale never before seen by my own eyes.
Eventually some guy came up and started talking to me, when I told him where I wanted to go his friend came up and we tried to find my stop on the huge map on the wall, after some wall gazing I figured out where I needed to change quicker than they did, but I appreciated their help all the same. Two guys helping someone in a European Capital is the beginning of a sequence of events which in most cases would lead to death, abduction, torture or robbery. A complete stranger helping a Westerner in the second biggest city in the World says more about Seoul than I could ever wish to convey in any number of e-mails. I got my train, I got my hostel and I got my sightseeing head on.
The next two days were spent whizzing round on the Metro and seeing as many sites as possible. I intend to go back and do the eating and drinking thing so I was in turbo tourist mode for this trip. The markets of Seoul are immeasurably large, you can go from what looks like a 6 star hotel foyer with large Bentleys parked to an old man turning fish on a home-made BBQ in a back alley, this social transition can happen in the space of 1 city block. One of my favourite places is a stream which runs through the North of the shopping area, there used to be a river here many moons ago but it was built over. When other cities of the world started getting open spaces and cool water features Seoul thought, hang on a minute, was there a stream there? Yes. Ok lets close off half the city pull out the road and get the stream rolling again. This stream, Cheonggyecheonno, separates the leafier temple bound Northern areas from the neon lit hyperactive commercial areas. It is undeniably simulated nature, there are perfectly cut stones and concrete mimicking what must have been a pleasant oasis, despite the loss and subsequent rebirth of this poor stream, I like it. I imagine it’s beautiful at night-time because there are cascades and the water is underlit. I managed a long icy walk along its banks. In 100m or so I saw 7 coffee shops, one of which was the Manchester United Cafe Bar. Next paragraph I think!
Overall, I really like Seoul and I cannot wait to compare it to other cities. By that I mean I cannot wait to travel to other large Asian cities. wanderlust is relentless even in the best of times. Seoul is full of mad energy and a crazy thirst for novelty and fast paced fun. It’s a city of squares staring at their feet on the Metro, but the very same Metro several hours later will be full of thrill seekers spilling into one of the very many ‘Entertainment Districts’. From what I can make out the whole city is an ‘Entertainment District.’ I saw the most eateries I have ever seen in my life, there are cinemas, malls, fast food, slow food, medium paced food, temples, cathedrals, markets, mini markets and mega markets. With all the thrills and spills and  the utter speed of free wheeling capitalism, I thought I would be appalled. I wasn’t. I suspected that on some level I would find everything like a crass theme park of fake fun and fool’s pleasures, as my Lonely Planet told me, the city really is on ‘fast forward’. Unlike other places in the world on fast forward I really think Seoul is both balanced and safe. It doesn’t want to re-record itself. Every place I saw there seems to be the weight of the past looking at the present patiently and knowingly, every super speed broadband satellite map, every multi story mega-mall, every Hyundai traffic jam is superimposed on what is essentially an ancient and noble city. The antiquity of the city is not always easy to see but in the new polished marble metro stations there will be an old lady eating her kimchi from a bowl with her silver chopsticks, her daughter and granddaughter will be watching over the stall selling nik-naks and embroidered cushions. Ancient Confucian looking men covered in grease will be changing the tyres of brand new saloons. Even in a brightly lit underground shopping arcade I saw 20 or so pensioners doing their daily tai chi style exercises. On a final note, if I ever had any doubt about the integrity or superficiality of Seoul then this was blasted away by an ice-cold wind as I ascended the steps of Gyenggokbung station and saw the mighty King Sejong looking on impassively with his back to the Bukaksan peak. I hope the attached pictures I managed to take can say more than my words.
If ever there was a blog sequel it would be for Seoul. I cannot wait to return!

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