Monday, October 05, 2009

Seoul Searching

If the best travel places are the ones to be lost, then Seoul is one of the best place to travel to in Asia. Surely you will be lost, possibly all the time, most certainly for all the good reasons.

Gyeongbok Palace entrance

Imagine a place in which a palace from ten centuries ago is in the middle of the city, at the knee of a mountain and a token subway away for you to enjoy the magnificence of the scale at first sight. Now don't think it could be easy for us to grasp the crisp symbolic alliteration of the architecture or the grandiloquent design of the South Gate. We will miss them, plain and flat, but nevertheless the share size, the magnificent surroundings and the English speaking guide will articulate to us an easy introduction to Korean palaces history.

Changdeok Palace's Secret Garden

Keep imagining, that another succulent and hefty royal palace walls, a stone throw away from the previous ones, are also guarding the North part of the city. And after meandering some time across the Changdeok Palace you opportunistically plunge quietly into the Secret Garden where thousand years prior you foot steps, the King family mastered poetry, archery and painting at a shadow of centuries old pine trees, your breathing quiet down and your eyes open large. The landscape of the Secret Garden is so peaceful that we, tourists are staying out of the beautiful painting afraid to disturb the magical balance, leaving plenty of room for people-free photos.

Bukchon Hanok Village's traditional house

Now suppose for another minute that in between the two palaces lay down two mysteriously idle large blocks of traditional houses in which new art galleries and old restaurants competing for the same front doors to the happiness of urban trekker. Bukchon - Hanok Village has been recently restored to the memory of the city and displays some interesting wooden traditional grounded house on top of ballooned hills, and has nothing to be shy of when compare to the most tourist, next door, yet well preserved, streets in tha' block: Insadong, the Antique Shop Alley as refered to by all brochures. Only busy tourists or frighten explorers would miss the tea-drinking in an alcove, people-watching at a terrace and batteries recharging from street food vendor on the back alleys of the main Insadong road, although easily missable if you not watching with your stomack.

Shaman praying atop the mountain

Korea is apparently the most Confucian nation in Asia, but Buddhism, Christianity and Shamanism are the other religions practice. From the Dongnimmun subway stop, you can hike yourself to the wooded Ingwangsan hill, used and venerated by masters and apprentices Shamans. It's not rare to observe on the way up not only a beautiful view of the city, but also priests chanting to the natural elements lodged in well rounded mountain cracks. An estimated of 40,000 mudang (female shaman) still practicing the ancient offering rituals to attract the good spirits, in exchange of few won. No matters how hard you will look for them, they will hide from you, and will appeared at the corner of the rocks without notice.

Daepo's fishing market

Seoul with 23 millions of soul is the second most populated urban land in the world after Tokyo, compacting 50% of the Korean population at a subway away from Myendong for shopping. Now, that leaves 50% of the whole population in the country side, and on the beautiful shore of the quiet seas. If you have the chance to get lost outside the Seoul center, make your way to one the fishing villages along the coast for a fresh shashimi rest and a lure of soju to easy the chili paste, although easily missable if you not watching with your mouth open.

Mont Seorak view's to the shore

Make also sure to schedule a day trip from Seoul to Mont Seorak national park, designated as a Biosphere Preservation by UNESCO in 1982. Plenty fool of English speaking excursions gather few foreign lost soul to the distant land. The rocky chain is a delight for hikers and mountain lovers. Only in my childhood paintings I would have drawn mountains so perfectly picked, forest so green and rivers so blue. The Buddhist temple at the bottom of the road makes the place even more spiritual for the doubter of perfection on earth.

North Korean guard behind the window at the JSA

Korea was one before some egomaniac conspiracy from a recent history book decided that the 38 parallel was the line to divide a nation in a South and a North portion with a neutral zone in between. The (not so) De-Militarized Zone or DMZ (watch for the mines) was for me an impressive visit; not so much for the place itself (a bridge, a door, a statue, a rusty train, and a tunnel numbered three), but much more a destination to meet with history. Even today 20 years after a wall was stone down in Berlin by million of dreams I still remember the overwhelming feeling of hope that submerged Europe at the time. I wish to witness the same in my lifetime for the two Korea and I will be delighted to walked back to Joint Security Area and see the south blue camp facing the northern grey building from the other side this time.

Seoul Tower at night

Seoul has a tower planted on top of the most central hill of the city covered by a communication antenna at over 200 meters high, difficult to miss in reality. To hide its trace and lose the cheerful tourist, the Namsam Tower (known as it by grand-parents) or Seoul Tower (known as it by parents) was renamed to N Seoul Tower (known as it by kids) but recently officially baptized CJ Seoul Tower after the CJ Corporation (known as it by officials). With four names and one finger to point at my touristic chances to go to the tower on my first attempt are thankfully slim, giving me an opportunity to visit others part of the town not mentioned in any taxi driver GPS. Like a famous Pirate from the Caribbean said once "all roads lead to Rum, and therefore alcoholism", don't give up the night show and second elevator to contemplate the 360 degree lighting experience, the man washroom atop is a delighted reward.

Palm reader booth at night

My explanation for why Seoul is not easy to navigate into is only because Seoul is shy with strangers. That is certainly why you have thousand professional palm readers at each corner, for you to ask direction in your personal life, in your career, but also if you simply lost in the city. In few minutes and for some retribution, the science of hand lines' reading, numbers' combination, and letters' associations are offered to guide you and you beloved ones across the shade of the city.

Myendong neon signs

Don't even think that you could in your night rambles guide yourself with the neon signs which keep calling somebody's name in every part of the city, they won't help you. They are just here to confuse your senses, make you dizzy and force you to look away from them. The intensity of the neon-signs and the overwhelming feeling that derives from them are only strengthen by the absence of public lights, forcing you to put your head down and finally look at your personal space and nearer surrounding. There are not there to appeal to your visual sense but repeal from it instead and compel you to use all the others senses. And that especially why Seoul is a wonderful place to travel to. Seoul makes you use all your senses but your sight.

Street food

Seoul makes you dizzy, spin your head around, converse when you don't expect and stays shy when you need an answer. No need to be frustrated about it. Seoul creates space around you in a place of 23 millions people; what a generous gift to receive from a large megalopolis.