I spent 5 nights in Seoul, the first in a neighbourhood called Hongdae and the remainder south of the river with a Korean friend who very generously invited me to stay. It was in (well very close to…) an area you might just have heard of…so let’s take a moment to remember..
(Incidentally the picture above is in no way representative of Gangnam style, being neither a typical inhabitant nor, in fact, in Gangnam at all…but more about lovely, woolly, Lola in a minute. Though not much more: I went to a sheep cafe, it had sheep, they were extremely cute.)
So now we’ve got that out of the way..I don’t know how much you know about Seoul, or South Korea [‘loads actually, I’m an east Asian specialist, don’t assume we’re all as ill informed as you!]. But I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t really know much at all (and yes despite knowing a local)- if most of us (lazy westerners) think about that part of the world I imagine the tendency is just to assume it’s basically more or less the same as Japan, or we get distracted by its neighbour to the north and their crazy leaders. I guess now in the era of smartphones you might vaguely think of Samsung (or Psy, for that matter).
However, when I arrived in Seoul, despite the obvious exoticness, it was oddly the place that felt most familiar so far, in a way. [And sorry, grammar gods, for starting a paragraph with ‘however’..]. South Korea is massively urbanised and though I didn’t know a word of Korean (apart from kimchee!)nor a single character of its unique alphabet, Hangul, this is a place that speaks the language of globalisation (although that’s not accompanied by much diversity – almost 99% of the population are ethnically Korean). Virtually everyone I encountered spoke good English, often with a twinge of an American accent. It was bright and clean and felt safe and efficient. And everywhere…So. Much. Stuff. To. Buy. Mind boggling options in the many, many coffee shops. It has loads of skyscrapers and neon like Tokyo, but it felt somehow more open and accessible to the world, whereas Japan feels really..Japanese. Maybe that’s just Seoul – capital cities often do feel like another planet entirely than the place they are capital of. But half the population of this country live in the Seoul metropolitan area, so I think maybe it’s fairly representative…
Korea (all of Korea) has a rich culture and history (not that I’ve acquired any expertise about it..) very much intertwined with its neighbour Japan (and China). In the early 20th century this included a traumatic period under brutal annexation by Japan and culminated, after the end of the Second World War, in its division into North – backed by the Soviets – and US supported South Korea. For the South the rest of the C20 saw various coups and military rulers, but alot of modernisation and economic development. In 1987 a period of stable liberal democracy began, which endures to this day, under the government of the 6th Republic. However, (yes there’s another however) this year a massive political scandal has been unfolding centred around serious corruption allegations against President Park Geun-hye. When I arrived, it had been worsening for several months, with major protests each weekend (~1million in Seoul) and Park had offered to step down, in order to avoid the impeachment that would likely follow. [The SK National Assembly has in fact now voted to impeach her and the Prime Minister is currently acting President]. My local friend told me that, not surprisingly, this is a deeply troubling time for South Koreans – but as a tourist, with no reference point, I wouldn’t have had any inkling of the depth of feeling around the situation. I did stumble across the protest encampment in the centre of the city:
But aside from that I basically just had a nice time touristing around, I have to admit. So that’s probably enough of my intro to Korea for dummies – here are some photos from m ? y Seoul wanderings…First things first, that Sheep Cafe! My Bangkok friend had helpfully filled me in on the fact that not only does Seoul have cat and dog cafes, but it also has a racoon, and a sheep cafe. As people who know me are aware, I’m weirdly obsesses with sheep – in a non weird way – so I definitely had to visit Thanks Nature Cafe, which handily was in Hongdae.
I’m not sure how much sheep love living in the middle of a mega city but Lola and Lulu (or Lala – can’t believe I’ve forgotten..) looked pretty mellow and appeared to be in very good condition. My life would be measurably improved if I got to hang out with sheep on a regular basis, so that’s a win for Seoul right there (or Wales I guess..). I also took the opportunity to try a sweet potato latte as I’d seen them on menus in the city and…it’s potato. In a latte.
Well, I liked it! My only regret is that I never got around to trying the purple potato version..
And then there was some Korean BBQ to be eaten, or as Koreans call it, BBQ:
I though it would take ages to cook on that hotplate but no, a woman came and blazed it all with a blowtorch so no problem. Do you think we have enough food there? These places are extremely popular in Seoul – which is another great food city. (Can’t deny, the food situation improved significantly once I left central Asia behind. Sorry Stans).
The Han river flows through the city – it’s astonishingly wide. I walked across (on a bridge, I’m not that talented) and although I got a bit distracted by a floating island and these flower sculpture things, it seemed to take me days to reach the other side and by the time I did I forgot what I’d crossed it for in the first place.
It all looked very picturesque with maximum autumnal aesthetics all round..
But my favourite thing was the visitors who dressed up in national costume (which you can rent from many places in the city) – you get free entry if you can brave this get up:
It was like time had rewound 500 years, to the 15th century (no I can’t count), when selfie sticks were probably made of wood..
One day I stopped for a light lunch somewhere (my actual err..tiny.. lunch on the left, helpful plastic models on the right):
Car parking in a crowded city, and what looks likes another weird Tesco express hybrid:
Keeping the trees warm for winter; unzipping itself: the Central Post Office building!; ornamental cabbages outside City Hall – appropriate for a country where it’s quite ok to eat fermented cabbage with every meal…
The landscape around, and especially to the north of the river,in the city was unexpectedly dramatic. Bukchon and Itaewon are very up/down hilly kind of areas, though quite different from each other. Bukchon is a bit like a preserved traditional village which has now undergone full hipsterisation; Itaewon is the area where initially foreigners were drawn to so it’s very international (the US airforce base is round there). In Itaewon I also found the city’s mosque. And on Mt Namsan, there’s the ‘N’ Seoul Tower. We did go up it (but I didn’t get any decent photos from the top).
Having eaten Korean fried chicken in Kyrgzystan, I got to eat some (excellent) fried chicken in Korea 🙂 . I could even have eaten Kyrgyz food actually!
Although the Silk Road Kyrgyz restaurant did not look wildly appealing (so perhaps quite authentic..sorry!). It probably wouldn’t have had any tango either – but the rest of Seoul in fact has loads of places to dance tango, one of the biggest scenes in Asia. (I did attempt it but the locals – very good dancers – wouldn’t touch the unknown outsider with their elegant bargepoles..).
And one final strange but fun Korean experience: a jimjilbang! Not in any way as dodgy as it sounds, though if I hadn’t already done my research there’s no way that I would have thought going in this place was a good idea:
Yes a j-bang is a Korean bathhouse. Dragon Hill is particularly legendary so I doubt that they are all such playgrounds of bling, but this one sure was. It’s kind of like a cross between a spa, a teenage pyjama party and an overnight ferry crossing. What’s not to love about that? (Don’t answer). It’s basically similar to other Asian/Russian bathing concepts: you get your kit off, sit on a little stool and scrub up, then hop between various different pools of hot (and cold) water (this bit is all gender segregated, btw). Then you put on a ridiculous little pyjama outfit (which you can just see above and head for the communal floor where there are various themed sauna rooms and a big ‘rest area’ for lounging around in plus cafe/restaurant areas. It’s not expensive at all compared to the cost of going to a Spa in the UK (more like the price of a weekend cinema ticket) and it’s open 24 hours so you actually stay the night if you’re inclined and don’t mind sleeping on the floor (they have some gender specific sleeping areas too). You can party extra for ‘proper’ spa treatments, or do karaoke of course), or if you’re 15, go and hang out on the games/arcade floor. I loved the place! (But then I also love cross-channel ferries..).