Monday, July 24, 2017

Between kingdoms, kimchi and K-pop

Hello and welcome to colourful Seoul! The second last part of my journey through Asia. :)

Preparation for Buddha's birthday at Deoksugung Palace

As I mentioned in my last post, flying short distances overnight is incredibly tiring. No time to sleep, and we were stuck right before the airport while a horrible song was playing over and over again. Grrr! At least it was by far not as hot as in the South East. We could finally use our winter coats we brought along all the way. ;)

We reached our Airbnb* on the afternoon of March 4th and while we waited for our friends Alizée and Tiffany, with whom we shared the place, we were so exhausted that we slept through the day. In the evening, we managed to go out looking for some yummy Korean food (more on the food theme later).

So the next day we were eager to make up for the lost time and headed out to the area around Yonsei University, one of South Korea's top three and also the place where most of Korean exchange students at Keio are studying.

Statue of the founder, Horace Grant Underwood, before Underwood Hall

View from the campus stairs

Memorial statue for comfort women during Japanese occupation. There is a lot to say about Japanese-Korean relationships and the inability to admit war crimes, especially now that these statues are highly debated. Are Koreans still mad at the Japanese? Maybe so, nevertheless, they love Japanese food and announcements in train and public places are held in Japanese as well

The university quarter is a hip neighbourhood with pupular cafés and shops. In fact, every area is full of them. In the city whose population density is double that of New York, café culture is big and shopping malls even populate the underground - some of them open through the night. Drinking coffee, eating and shopping is the youth's favourite pastime according to our Korean friend Becky, whom we met for a quick cup in Seoul.

But tradition is equally big in South Korea's capital. As you will see, there are palaces, temples and traditional villages at every corner, side to side with grey urban monsters.

One of the many palace gates in Seoul

Encounters of two kinds

While we were visiting the city centre, we noticed a lot of white tents grouped together in front of city hall. They turned out to be protesters in regard to the corruption scandal around the former South Korean president Park Geun-hye  happening at the time, although we did not know whether they were protesting in favour of or against her. In case you missed it: The lady, among other misdeeds, abused her power to help a friend by pressing companies to donate huge sums to her foundations. Several people died during the demonstrations surrounding this affair. In the end, Park Geun-hye was suspended and arrested earlier this year and is still in trial. 

While we were on the square, an elderly Korean men approached us and asked in English if we heard about the president. He then proceeded to rail against the Western media apparently portraying her unfouvarably, and said: "She didn't do anything wrong. She did just a little bit wrong (showing "a little bit" with his fingers), but apart from that, nothing". There you have it: The Western media is lying. Geun-hye did just a little bit wrong, but is it worth calling her corrupt because of that? ;) 

Square in front of Seoul City Hall (left) where we were almost recruited as president supporters

This was not the only time we encountered especially communicative people in Seoul. On one evening in Myeongdong, the street food, shopping and nightlife area, a Korean student in a group of friends started talking to us and asked where we were from and how long we were staying in Seoul, the typical questions. His attention was especially for Alizée, and when he heard we were staying for only five days, he suddenly looked extremely sad and said to her: "But I was going to tell my mum I finally found my future wife!" The guy almost started crying and hugged all of us before we left. I'm still not sure if he was drunk, crazy or just desperate. But according to Alizée, it was not the last time this happened to her in Seoul...

Myeongdong at night

Speaking of people in Seoul, they - again - generally speak better English than in Japan, but while we thought Seoul would be otherwise pretty much like Tokyo, we found at least one significant cultural difference: South Korean citizens, or at least the ones we met, cut down a lot on smiles and politeness. We had a very ironic moment when we found a brochure in the tourist office advertising the campaign Korean Smiles, that declared the years 2016-2018 the years where South Korea was supposed to show its most friendly face and make visitors fall in love with the country. Meanwhile, during our five days in Seoul, we have not seen a single smile. When you enter a store, shop assistants always greet you with "Welcome to [shop name]", but otherwise, you are either ignored or followed around so closely and constantly (especially in clothing shops) that you eventually lose all interest in buying things.

Speaking of clothing shops, there was one curiosity in regard to them: Whatever you do, you are not allowed to try on shirts or tops in Seoul. Wondering why, we finally came across the answer: South Korean women apply so much make-up that it's likely to leave stains on the fabric. And it becomes evident if you compare Japanese and Korean faces and realise that Japanese women wear almost nothing on theirs. No wonder Korean cosmetics are so popular around the world. This is not the only un-natural aspect about South Koreans: The country is known as the plactic surgery capital, and apparently, nearly every girl here is gifted an eyelid, jaw or some other kind of makeover once she is old enough to live up to local beauty standards influenced by the West. When you walk Gangnam, the celebrity quarter, you see clinic to clinic all down the road. Last, but not least: Working culture here is said to be even harsher than in Japan.

However, just to be clear: This was not supposed to be a rant on Korean people or culture, but just an expression of suprising things we found there. In Europe, we simply don't experience this amount of social pressure. But what is equally true is that people in Seoul are generally very kind if you ask them for help, and go out of their way to assist. This being said, let's continue with the brighter side of Seoul.

Once a tree hugger, always a tree hugger

Looking for one of the well-known street art areas in Seoul, we stumbled across a lovely street lined with trees covered in colourful knitware. Turns out we came during the Tree Hug Festival - and you didn't have to tell us twice what to do.

Essi loves trees...

...and me too


Our artsy day was just beginning. On our way to Seoul Museum of Art, we already found interesting sculptures before even reaching our destination.

No, the photo is not clinched - the sculptures are

Monkeys or people?

The museum had a special exhibition on Renoir as well as works of Korean artists, especially realists. This included the Eternal Narcissist exhibition by Chun Kyung-ja. The painter was one of the most important figures in 20th century South Korean art. You were not allowed to take pictures inside, but I wasn't aware of this and managed to snap a few before I got caught. ;)

One of Kyung-ja's paintings

Another museum we visited was the National Museum of Korea, following the country's development from prehistorical times to recent art, architecture and literature throughout the kingdoms, dynasties and empires on three floors.

Han River near the museum

Early seashell art

Ancient tiny animal figurines

Pagoda in the museum corridor

Tapir-shaped vessels

Depiction of one of the Buddhist hells (Naraka). There are at least ten of them, each ruled by one hell king, with detailed descriptions how you are punished depending on your karma. It came as a surprise to me that the Buddhists have such afterlife images

Traditional Korean living room

We also paid a visit to the Fortress Wall (Hanyangdoseong), the remains of a city wall built in the 14th century. It was torn down gradually by the government since then and now only offers around 2 km of a walking route through Mt. Bugaksan.

Fortress Wall

View from the wall hill

Following traditional paths

Because our friends had arrived a few days earlier than us, they had time to see almost all of the famous palaces in the city. Few were "left" for us, and one of them was Gyeonghuigung Palace. All of these constructions scattered across the city served as primary or secondary king residences, consisting of several halls for audiences and living quarters. This one was destroyed during Japanese occupation and only reopened in 2002.

Gyeonghuigung Palace front gate (Heunghwamun)

Taeryeongjeon hall holding the king's portrait

On another day when our group split up, Essi and I decided to go see at least one more palace on our own. It was Tuesday and most palaces are closed on Monday, so we thought nothing could go wrong - unfortunately, we happened to pick the only one closed on Tuesdays - Gyeongbokgung. Well, at least we could admire it from the outside and even some people in costumes dropped by for a photoshooting.

They are arriving

Gyeongbokgung Palace

Locals and visitors in traditional costumes are not a rare sight in Seoul, especially in old areas called Hanok villages. You can rent a hanbok, a traditional outfit, for the day and even get free admission to some palaces if you dress up.

Traditional hanok houses near the palace

The last royal site we visited together was Deoksugung from Joseon dynasty in the 14th century, which was originally intended as a villa for the prince. Some halls are built and furnished in Western style, serving the purpose of receiving foreign diplomats. 

Also everyone was busy preparing for Buddha's birthday which was about to happen on May 3rd, and decorating everything with paper lanterns. According to the workers at the palace, they were supposed to cover the sky so all you could see above you were lit coloruful lanterns. We would have loved to stay for this spectacle.

But at least we were right on time for the guard changing ceremony at the front gate:

Oppa Gangnam Style!

Everyone who is interested in Korea has probably heard of Korean pop culture (hallyu): Namely the internationally loved drama and K-pop music. If you would like a little introduction into K-pop, the song playing everywhere at this time was this one.

The place for pop culture fans is obviously Gangnam, which has become well-known through the song by Psy. Alizée and I visited the popular K-Star Road in this quarter, which promised to be a mecca for fans, but actually held nothing but some bear statues dedicated to famous K-pop groups and some tiny shops with merchandise...

... and also the beforementioned plastic surgery clinics

Not in Gangnam, however, you can find the monument for Korean pop culture, probably utterly shameful for its residents but hilarious for tourists. If you remember the Gangnam Style video, you will maybe recognise the COEX shopping center: At its premises where part of the video was shot, Koreans have built a statue in 2015 acknowledging the song's huge international success (it's currently the second most watched video in Youtube). 

It's depicting the horse dance move from the video

On this display, you can play the video. In loud volume.

Because we have not yet walked enough during that day, we took a stroll through Seoul's big Olympic Park and enjoyed the little nature the city has got to offer (although it certainly looks nicer in a warmer season). Its sports arena, which is Korea's largest, hosted the Olympics of 1988.

Alizée enjoying the park view and calmness

Seoul: A foodie paradise 

No post would be complete without food photos. South Korea is known for its variety of great dishes, and I, for my part, was not disappointed. Especially street food is a thing here, and (almost) every meal is delightfully spicy. Let me show you some of the numerous specialties South Korea has to offer:

Mandu (veggie and mushroom dumplings) in the front, Korean sushi (gimbap) in the back, and spicy mandu and soybean sprout soup on the right

This is not Korean, but we cheated on it with Turkish tea, coffee and baklava. Yum...

Korean pancake (pajeon)

Another sort of mandu with kimchi (famous fermented spicy veggies) and a better view of gimbap

Tteok: Cut rice cake in spicy sauce

Various soups and kimchi fried rice with egg and toasted seaweed, which is called bokkeumbap

Curious savoury and sweet egg bun - Gyeranppang

One more pancake, filled with diverse veggies

They have street Mojito too!

Bibimbap, a kind of rice pot mixed with veggies, tofu, sometimes meat, egg and a spicy sauce, and kimchi variety on our last day at Seoul station

Oh, and because I was asked: Since Seoul is so close to the North Korean border, you can actually make a tour there - apparently right to the room where there is a door which leads you to a place where noone can guarantee for your safety anymore. We didn't have the time to travel there, although it would have been curious to see. I heard when you visit you should take care of your appearance, as workers tend to take photos of sloppily dressed or badly groomed tourists to promote anti-Western propaganda in North Korea.

And so I said goodbye to my friends one after the other, while I was staying one more night in Seoul because my flight to Singapore was only leaving the following day. Before I left, however, I got a chance to get to know once more the friendly and helpful side of Korean people. On the way to my last Airbnb in Incheon**, I was struggling to find the way and some employees of a grocery store next to the train station noticed my lost expression, so they offered to help. Together, they tried to figure out the address on the map, while one of them didn't hesitate and offered me a ride on his van. I obviously politely declined, especially because the place was only 10 minutes away by foot, thus manageable even with my huge suitcase, and they already described the road to me in detail. So I left, but soon realised the man was following me to make sure I found the right way. A little creepy, but he meant well and I just laughed and thanked him again. 

In Singapore, I was going to meet my dad and also another member of my family, who was surprisingly working in Singapore, and whom I have not met since I was too little to remember. :) Too find out more, drop by again soon!

Last day at Seoul train station - German spirit?