I think that title means goodbye. I am leaving this afternoon for Sydney, and really looking forward to the Australian (Oceanic?) part of my trip. Seoul has been great I am really glad I came. On my last full day I walked through some street markets, along Cheonggyecheon, and up towards Anguk and Samcheong-dong, a super chi-chi area of Seoul with a lot of cute shops and cafes. And then last night I met Jason and Kevin for the best BBQ I have had yet here, near the university in Hongdae, an area filled with shops and restaurants. In fact, when I started thinking about everywhere I had been in Seoul, it occurred to me that it is very easy to get the impression from the built environment that all these people do is shop and drink coffee (and maybe take walks in the parks a bit). There is of course much more to life here (and everywhere) than that, but shopping is definitely pervasive and striking. And this coming from an American.
– There are a surprising number of Christians here. Like way, way more than any other Asian country that I have been to. Churches are everywhere, and so is proselytization. Maybe that explains all the early Christmas decorations.
– Many of the shops and service establishments are tiny and in very out of the way places, tucked into seemingly unfindable nooks and crannies of back alleys and dead ends. How do these places survive and thrive? Or do they?
– Similarly, any type of business could be anywhere, they are all stacked up on top of each other in improbable places and sizes. A bar in a broom closet on the 4th floor of a walk up. A nail salon behind a piece of corrugated metal propped up between two buildings. A church on the 3 rd floor of an office building. A “storefront” made by taking over the side of a public, very steep staircase. (To be fair, this kind of micro organization of space and lack of zoning is the hallmark of many Asian countries I have been to, I just haven’t seen it in a while and it is impressive and disorienting to Westerners)
– Apparently they did away with public garbage cans several years back because people were dumping their private trash there (and thus avoiding taxes related to home garbage pickup), so there is no place to throw anything away. Now what happens in the public space is people will wait for one brave sociopath to drop some garbage, and then everyone feels safe to add to it, creating large public piles of garbage that apparently will then get cleaned up by the city.
– cell phone service (signal) is pervasive here, in every nook and cranny and deep underground. And everyone is always on their (mostly Samsung) phone.
– On several occasions, especially early morning when things are generally quiet, I have come across people repeatedly chanting some sort of prayer loudly while walking down the street.
– I note with some disappointment that the bibimbap I have tasted here does not compare well in quality to the ones I have had in NYC. I am sure I am not finding the right or better places to go, but I would still expect this to be one of the best things you find almost anywhere here, but no. Same story with the BBQ grilled meats, which while better in quality than the bibimbap, are not as good as what I have had at some places in NYC. The only real standout food wise so far has been the street food, most especially the meat and kimchi filled steamed buns I had the other day.
– Soju, on the other hand, is way cheaper here and I love it.
– I have had a great time here, especially with the people I have met. I highly recommend coming to Seoul. However, I feel that 4 or 5 days in Seoul is more than enough to get to know the place.
Last night I was out for a night on the town with a lovely couple here (Kevin and Jason, who were introduced to me by my friend Gabe). They took me on a tour of some of Seoul’s neighborhoods by night, and I realized something fundamental about Seoul that I feel I had been missing before. There are many small interesting areas that are quite compartmentalized and a little difficult to find if you don’t know exactly where they are. Many times I had been very close to an interesting street or area and had not known anything about it, I had been stuck in some charmless canyon of a street with high walls and no shops or street life at all. Kevin and Jason (and their friend Guido who joined us) took me on a stroll through several of these areas, and they were teeming with life (I am sure it being Saturday night did not hurt anything). We walked through Insadong, up in a cute area near the Anguk station (where I had been a few days ago, but never saw this part), along the canal, had dinner and then ended up at a sweet gay bar (which felt more like a restaurant to me, everyone was sitting at tables) in Jongno. As is always the case, meeting up with a local is the best way to discover a place, and these guys were so great to hang out with.
Yesterday (still today for most of you) was a whirlwind walking trek across much of Seoul. First was starting in Itaewon, then heading over to and trekking up through the beautiful Namsan Park to the tower at the top, with great fall scenery and stunning views over the city. After that, it was a descent to the other side, passing through some great street markets and finding one of the tastiest treats I have had here in the form of meat and kimchi buns, fresh and hot from the steamer. From the markets, over to the Gyeongbok Palace by way of a collection of oddly shaped buildings that fill the landscape of the city. And finally, back to my place via the Myeong-dong shopping area. You can check out the whole collection of photos below:
As you may have noticed by now, there are a lot of small things I notice about a place, thoughts I like to collect that are somewhat random and not worthy of a post all their own. Here are a few from this place:
– Strangely, Google Maps provides no walking directions in this city, forcing me to navigate myself.
– I would not call Seoul an especially beautiful city, and contrasting it with Tokyo where I have just been, it is much dirtier and grittier.
– The subway here has some very nice things about it, like protected doors (no suicides here I bet!), and numbered exits that are a huge help in navigation, and for knowing where to meet people outside. They also have a very nice refillable card system for getting around. And the signs and announcements are in English as well as Korean which makes it all very easy to navigate. The direction of the trains is very clearly marked as well.
– There is much more English spoken here than in Japan.
– And unlike Japan, there is a lot of public talking, throat clearing, sneezing, coughing, and general noise making.
– There seem to be a lot more foreigners here than I found in Japan, but it could just be the areas I have been staying in.
– I have never seen so many varieties of coffee shop chain, it is really a battle for dominance.
– I can’t quite put my finger on the overall aesthetic of the modern architecture here, but if I had to sum up in one word, it would be “clumsy”
It is a bit odd getting used to being a solo traveller again. There is something nice about discovering things with a good travel buddy like Ken. Still, I have been really enjoying wandering around Seoul, which is a very different place than Tokyo, despite several people telling me that they found them to be similar. Today I got to know the subway system, which is really top notch, walked around tiny bit in my local hood called Itaewon, then made my way over to the impressive and somewhat creepy war memorial and museum. Although parts of the museum are really great, I find that it glorifies war way too much for my taste. The museum has artifacts and history on every war that Korea has ever fought, and there are a lot of them. The most interesting parts for me were the sections that deal with the Korean War and detail the history and timeline of the events. I felt like I had a much better understanding of South Korea after viewing those. And there are a few very interesting spaces in the building that are worth seeing for the design. After that I went to a cool area of old Korean houses called Bukchon, that had a lot of restored traditional architecture. I have a ton of notes on my impressions so far, but will save those for tomorrow’s post. For now, check out the pics by clicking on the image below:
I bid a fond farewell to Ken yesterday (about 22 hours ago, the poor guy is STILL in transit) and boarded my flight to Seoul, where I now find myself. Once I got in and settled, it was about 6 in the evening, so I took a brief nap before heading out to meet Kevin, Jason, and Uin (super nice friends of my friend Gabe) for dinner in the neighborhood. They took me to a great Korean place where we had things whose names I can’t remember (despite asking at least 3 times) and that now I wish I had taken a few photos of. There were some fried vegetables with a kind of savory pancake thing beneath, there was a spicy chicken dish in a thick broth, there was kimchi and beans and something else. All of it was pretty delicious. In any event, by the end of the evening we had all drank so much delicious soju that I could barely walk. I am staying in the center of Seoul, in a neighborhood called Itaewon, which is very lively and also happens to be the heart of foreign and gay nightlife here. I will head out soon to explore the area and take pictures and report back later on what I find.