March 24, 2017-April 1, 2017
Tip #1: Planning on visiting all the palaces? Buy a Combo pass.
Tip #2: On Monday, most of the museums and cultural centers are closed.
Tip #3: Don’t forget a power adapter.
I’ve rarely limited an international visit to just one city, but Seoul had more than enough to experience within its massive limits to fill the trip, with one day’s exception for a subway trek to Suwon.
Among all that development, I was never quite sure if I was in the center or not. It all felt like the hub or heart even after a subway ride or walk from one end of the city to the other. Obviously certain neighborhoods are known for certain things. The World Cup Stadium near Digital City where soccer is played and games at OGN take place are distinct from Gangham or Insadong, but each felt like they could be the heart of its own city rather than just pieces of a whole.
Within this wide swath of space, of course, are some impressive cultural sites. Being the history buff I am, the palaces and shrines were top on my list. Of the main five palaces, Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, Deoksugung, Changgyeonggung, and Gyeonghuigung, I found the esthetics of the Nakseonjae Complex, a smaller set of royal living quarters within Changdeokgung, the most appealing. The brown-on-white construction grabbed me more than the colorful greens and brighter decorations of the fancier royal buildings. Many of the shines, like Jongmyo, the one built in the Suwon palace of Hwaseong Haenggung, and the Secret Garden’s hideaway buildings such as a country-like palace set deeper within nature, also share that visual characteristic and calmer décor.
Natural color was starting to bloom as well. Plum trees buds were developing during the trip, although a week or two into April and the real floral show would have been more striking. Still the earliest of these pink and white flowers hinted at how colorful these shrines and palace grounds would become. Pine trees, especially the older ones, bent and warped by time, provided an evergreen touch along with a sense of age and history.
People also added to the scene. Many of the palaces encouraged visitors to wear hanbok, traditional Korean clothing. Even though one tour guide suggested the choice of outfits were more of a fad for non-Koreans, the presence of human beings walking the massive courtyards, stone pathways, and narrow alleys in more traditional clothing provided a lively layer against the static buildings.
At Hwaseong Haenggung, a palace in Suwon, mannequins filled some of the rooms in a demonstration of how each could have been used. While the unblinking, plastic figures were a little creepy, the exhibits provided additional color and examples of functionality that made the grounds come alive a bit more than the other spaces where rooms were left vacant.
Descriptive plaques were present at all the main sites to help the visitor understand what they were seeing. Each clearly conveyed context as well as what had been destroyed, rebuilt, or moved. I appreciated these statements not only for the awareness each provided in the provenance of the site, but in making the turmoil of the carefully crafted and curated spaces more apparent. With how much has been rebuilt and the extent of modern Seoul, it made it harder for me to imagine how much destruction has occurred throughout the city’s history. No place seemed to have escaped unscathed but that was hard to tell given how much has been recreated or built upon. Many newer buildings also dwarfed the grandeur of the mountains that had led to the location being chosen for the Korea’s main city. A few of the rocky peaks stood out but all seemed more like a backdrop rather than a looming presence, mirroring more the screens that sat behind royal thrones rather than looming influences.
The choices to move and rebuild left me appreciating the culture that each site represented, but also a little disconcerted about what was being presented. In some cases, it felt like the recreation of a desired past rather than one with all its flaws and complications. Informational plaques that disclosed issues or conflicts quickly counter such details with sentiments of national unity and support for Korean culture. One of the most striking examples I saw was at Cheong-gye-cheon, a recovered central stream that had been buried under concrete and construction and recently recovered. I paraphrase here but the plaques mention those who disagreed with the rehabilitation of the area but who then came to understand that their sacrifice helped the entire nation. And indeed the plaza, walkways, and stream are beautiful, especially at the start where there’s a waterfall and further down where a depiction of an entourage traveling to Suwon is conveyed in tile. The quick plaques quick shift from disagreement to unified vision however, stuck with me, especially as further downstream the route becomes a little more haggard and overgrown, or perhaps that was simply early spring.
That downstream area around the Heunginjimun, one of the city’s main gates which are all really neat to see even when backdropped by a Marriot, as well as the Dongdaemun Design Plaza provides another example of this kind of contorted tip to history while supporting a clear shift to a focus on the future. At the DDP, especially, stone flood gates from the original wall and unearthed living quarters provide the foundation for the lights from a Japanese-era stadium which shine on a field of silver LED roses and a massive structure where a modern craft/farmer’s market sits on rolling pathways leading into a mall of stores. All of those pieces are lumped together but the unique architecture and the shops inside seems to be what’s highlighted and meant to be celebrated.
Like many places, the DDP had a museum. One note for anyone planning a trip to Seoul is that many museums and other sites tend to be closed on Mondays. Plan accordingly!
While the DDP’s museum was closed during our visit, others, including the National Folk Museum of Korea and National Museum of Korea, were stellar and free. The breakdown of Korean culture within the Folk Museum, and the exhibits illustrating major life events, how commodities get made with a video demonstration of women taking plants to thread to clothes, was enjoyable. Outside, life-size exhibits let you walk through traditional homes, see street cars from the 1960s, and walk among statues brought in from other areas of the country.
Similarly, the National History Museum of Korea provided the beginnings of life and culture on the Korean peninsula and the exhibits walked chronologically through the centuries and various dynasties that have claimed the land for their own. The influences of China and Japan, not unsurprisingly, were found throughout but whatever the topic, there was a steadfast nationalism conveyed in the descriptions of items and events. I was surprised when the historical narrative ended at the end of the 19th century. We didn’t have time to make it to the War Museum, but perhaps more about the invasions, colonialism, and occupations as well as current situation with North Korea are provided in that setting.
The City of Seoul Museum also covered more of those areas of conflict and challenges that I found lacking in the grandeur of the palaces or in those instances where plaques suggested to feel a certain way about what it discussed. Photographs of the cramped city buses, protests to 1980’s construction policies, and the hunger that was experienced in the 20th century provided me with a reality check where the impressive palaces, statues, and unique buildings seem to hope to divert your attention. The model of the city also provided a bird’s eye view of the spreading urban population.
One place I thought was an interesting example of this mixed history Seokjojeon Hall within the grounds of Deoksugung, a site that shares the same square with Seoul’s current city hall. The proximity of eastern and western styles and the complications involved in its construction were apparent even in the unexpected tour that swept us up and carried us through the museum. Inside, pictures of people in western attire sitting between Grecian columns balanced those in traditional clothing and the landscapes right outside.
This duality joined similar mixes of 21st century protesters on speak-strewn platforms outside of Gyeongbokgung and the presence of the police around the Constitutional Court of Korea who stood their ground down the street from hanoks within the Bukchon Village. These all hinted to deeper issues underlying a veneer of calm and culture that seemed established for tourists. Many of the sites’ tour guides who noted the protestors, mentioned the impeachment processes that were ongoing during this time, and jokingly noted their Blue House was unoccupied. There was a lightheartedness to those conversations that was unexpected but a welcome divergence from the typical script.
Staying in one of the hanoks of Bukchon Village provided another way to experience the past mixing with the present and a way to glimpse the reality behind what Seoul presented to foreigners. The beams in the roof, the papered walls, the ondul or underfloor heating, the entryway with its open roof and stone-filled floor outlined with benches, and natural wood-against white color contrast, provided a distinct separation from other buildings. The welcome from our host family and their sharing of advice and even late-night origami figurines provided an honestly and warmth that could not be beat.
Around even that surprising quiet back alley home were shops or restaurants. The ubiquity of places to eat or buy something was almost as astounding as the number of buildings. From fancy places to street food, a home-grown store to a global chain, something edible or purchasable appeared anywhere I turned. The amount of consumption possible was overwhelming and everyone seemed to be busy buying or eating wherever it wasn’t strictly prohibited, like in some of the historic sites or subways.
The food was great, from Buddhist prepared meals, bibimbap in a dolsot especially, kimchi, and Korean BBQ to a bakery in Anguk where they made pastries fresh daily and had a great second floor window to overlook the flow of the morning commutes.
As for shopping, which is possible even atop Seoul Tower, the Samsung Digital was a memorable place to play and of course buy if the mood or wallet struck. They had bracelets that could be individually attuned and accessed at various stations. Based on the information it gathered on your choices of shapes and products, the system tried to label you. Both creepy and oddly interesting. I ended up as an Imagination Sommelier for what that’s worth. Other exhibits included a VR roller coaster ride to one providing insight into how technology could be incorporated into everyday life, such as a mirror that could tell you what products to use on your face, how an outfit might look before you put it on, or recipes accessed in your kitchen counter. Some uses seemed more useful to me than others, but that might be the luddite in me rearing a jaded head.
Our treks throughout the city crossed paths with an endless stream of cars, all of which seemed less inclined to give cross walkers the way. We weren’t the only ones on foot, however, as everyone else was exercising, mainly by walking and taking advantage of the numerous paths constructed by any kind of water way. Open-air gyms with step machines and other equipment were also in active use.
Walking up Namsam, the long way because that’s what we inevitably and usually unintentionally do, included groups of young and old geared for hiking along with those in heels and suits. I was surprised to see sight-impaired hikers as well, who used canes and guiding marks on the trails to confidently and independently make their way. Passing by an archery range was one highlight of this walk. It reminded me of a golf course driving range but with men shooting arrows instead.
Namsan’s winding way also provided opportunities to cross the Seoul’s city wall. Descriptions of the different stones laid during different time periods helped provide the scope of the construction. Some sections were more extensive than others and led to
other great gates like Sungnyemun. Hiking the wall around Suwon allowed for a more complete understanding of what would have surrounded Seoul, with a gate to gate circuit, hidden entrances, and defensive areas named after pheasants because of their ability to hide soldiers until the necessary attack. The alleys in Seoul seemed to provide a modern-day version as we’d pass rows of young officers tucked into them, ready to emerge if trouble occurred. Luckily none did, and rain helped make that walk in Suwon, with its massive bell and towers, a damp but less crowded experience than others.
Whatever the outdoor jaunt, what appeared to be smog, or what our host described as micro-dust, left me wondering what everyone, including myself, was breathing. Cars naturally added to the dusty atmosphere, but I couldn’t quite tell where the rest was coming from. Was it blown in from China or North Korea? Maybe more industrial sites outside of the city? I’m not sure. Two days ended up being clearer but the constant not-quite clouds, was unexpected. My host mentioned that it happens mostly during the spring and had unfortunately been getting worse. I can only imagine it might continue to do so if steps regarding pollution and climate change at the local and global levels aren’t taken.
Nevertheless, the city was quite a site, and the bus ride out of Seoul provided a last glimpse of its extent, as well as a bit of the countryside and mountains, both of which I’m certain dominated at one point before clusters of apartment buildings were constructed to house a growing population. The coast, however, visible during this last ride to Incheon, stretched out into tidal flat, met rocky slopes rising out of the waterline, and teased to be visited the next time around.
My first trip to Seoul was in 1988 or thereabouts. I remember little of the actual city. My memories include some place with peacocks, doing a kind of yoga-like exercise that involved standing on my head with family friends, and having a toy mascot of the 1988 Summer Olympics, Hodori.