Six days in Seoul
Who's saying what
When I was fifteen, I spent ten months living in South Korea. To my adolescent mind, the colloquialism “the sticks” was the most appropriate way to describe the small city where we lived, although on reflection, the Australian, scrubbish undertones of the word are probably ill-fitted to describe an agricultural city nestled somewhere amongst the base of the mountains that constitute South Korea’s largest national park, Jirisan.
From this far-flung locale in the deep south, the northern capital of Seoul hovered on the periphery of my restless consciousness like some unchartered fantasyland of neon tinted efficiency, of cosmopolitanism, and of something to do other than the repetitious venturing to Buddhist temple complexes (I am a brat, I know).
Eight years later and still starved of Seoul, I booked a one-week stopover on my way back from another place. Inevitably, Seoul surprised and delighted in its magnetic, deeply intriguing conglomeration of traditionalism and formidable progressiveness. It literally seethes with people and experiences that spring up in the unlikeliest of places.
I never expected to be yelped at and invited to share sachet coffee with a man with a makeshift hut on the way up to a temple, nor share chilli daubed boiled molluscs with some people I met in the line to a smoky bar with Eurotrash lighting. But if you’re into it, chances are they are too, and if you throw yourself in headfirst and try not to flail too much, Seoul is likely to open itself up to you in a pretty spectacular way.
For young travellers, I would recommend Hongdae, the district close to Hongik University. I found it kind of reminiscent of Brick Lane of London’s East in it’s cluttering of windy, inconspicuous streets stuffed with vintage stores, chic cafes, concept stores and underground bars. Expect to see boutiques like A.P.C. (Hongdae hosts one of five A.P.C. stores that exist in Seoul—I think that’s more than there are in Paris) bordering gelato bars, tacky jewellery shops and street food vendors.
The architecture is also really interesting in its mix of traditional wooden eaves and more blockish, newly constructed buildings. Predictably, it’s also a pretty fashionable district, which may explain the abundance of photographers stalking the grimy streets with large cameras and a pre-prepared poser in tow.
Other areas in Seoul beat to a similar youthful eclecticism. The area just to the north of Anguk subway station in Jongno-gu boasts an ample peppering of contemporary art galleries, ranging in size and scope, which are accompanied by idiosyncratic eateries and interesting side streets.
Korea has a strong contemporary art scene that’s apparent in its multitude of small galleries, but for those in search of the bigger institutions, try the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, housing everything from incredible, centuries old ceramics to works from modern masters. The gallery is puzzlingly perched above a motorway, which if you follow a little down the road, will lead you to a seven story Comme des Garçons flagship store housing its very own Rose Bakery (an English tea shop originally of Parisian origin).
The lavish extensiveness of a seven floor Comme des Garçons store is pretty representative of Seoul shopping in general, i.e. there is a hell of a lot of it...it’s kind of as if no-one knew quite when to stop.
Go to Apgujeong for specialised boutiques, concept stores and surprising finds (think underground Cheap Monday gallery in a backstreet filled with rubbish), or check out Dongdaemun market for a flabbergasting array of everything imaginable (my finds of the day included studs for shoes and jackets and very, very fresh kimbap: a kind of Korean sushi roll without the raw fish).
This brings me to Korean food, which is generally excellent if a bit of an acquired taste. My best Korean meals came from fairly nondescript looking places, whether it be a bowl of steaming, dumpling filled soup or stone pot pork bi bim bap (a self-mixed meal of rice, vegetables, sesame oil, egg, chilli sauce and a meat of your choosing).
Try are rice cakes (tteok) sold by street vendors or in small shops, either stuffed with sesame seeds and honey, shot with chestnuts and persimmons dusted or with bean powder. The second floor of the Noryangjin fish market is well worth a visit— it’s replete with restaurants serving up the fish served on the floor below. Busan Ilbeonji is particularly good and serves chilli crab soup with included side dishes including shredded jellyfish and a whole smoked fish.
I would also wholeheartedly recommend a trip up to the DMZ, the 4km no man’s land that separates South Korea from the Communist North. Trips are only possible via organised tour, an eerie, produced venture in which patrons are shuffled from place to place via an antiquated bus. I found it half dull, half surreal to see such an explosive issue treated with such detached monotony, an example being when our perennially grinning tour guide indicated in her bubbly tone how to identify North Korean territory by the absence of trees: “one reason, North Korea is very poor! Second reason, deserters can be seen and shot!!!”
Other attractions of the area include the tallest and second-tallest flagpoles in the world (the product of a flag height competition between the opposing states), the third infiltration tunnel and the unreasonably tall, young and lanky South Korean soldiers generally milling about (comprising the tallest 1-2% of all recruits, apparently).
My one regret from the week was that I didn’t bring anyone to share it with: sometimes I was so incredulous, or things were so cool or so strange I wished there was someone else there to partake a similar wide-eyed wonder. It’s easy to feel lonely in such a gargantuan metropolis, but on the other hand, the place is stuffed with so many secrets and miscellaneously occurring potentialities its difficult not to feel utterly absorbed by Seoul and its inexplicable pull.
All images via Shutterstock.