Part one of a two part memoir from my time in Seoul. This article is a more structured piece informing readers what Seoul and Korea is all about…
The history, the people, the cuisine, the transport, the nightlife, Korea is something of a hidden gem.
It hasn’t been labelled the impossible nation for nothing.
And if South Korea has become known as the impossible nation, that means Seoul must be the impossible city. One in which has transformed itself into a modern, vibrant and thriving city in the face of adversity in just over 60 years.
Korea was a country ruined and divided by war, exhausted and weak by a half a century of forced colonial rule, but has transformed itself into an economic powerhouse and a democracy that serves as a model for other countries. This place has remarkably gone from being an aid recipient to an aid donor in two and a half generations.
Subsequently it has become a birthplace of new ideals of technology, culture, style and design.
Outsiders haven’t always been privy to the fact that Seoul, the capital city of South Korea is in fact a modern, exciting epicentre for business, education and tourism. But that is exactly what it is.
The way in which the people calmly and efficiently go about their business and social lives is extremely refreshing.
Whatever you want and whenever you want it, Seoul can provide it (except on the Lunar New Year, the entire city empties out with literally millions and millions of people returning home to be with their families).
The city of Seoul is by no means flawless, but the way in which the people calmly and efficiently go about their business and social lives is extremely refreshing. and remarkably, a huge percentage of the mammoth Korean population is kind, and they are extremely stylish people.
Whatever you want and whenever you want it, Seoul can provide (except on the Lunar New Year, the entire city empties out with literally millions and millions of people returning home to be with their families).
For proof of this ‘want it now’ culture, look no further than the metro system. Seoul can be thankful for one of the best Subway systems in the world. Benefitting from the fact that it is one of the most modern of subway systems (the London Underground first opened in 1863, more than 100 years before Seoul’s metro in 1974).
But the Seoul metro manages to present cleanliness and composure, as well as totally comprehensive coverage. Paramount safety measures have the entire edge of the tracks walled off with glass so nobody can fall in, which just makes the whole thing feel more like it’s from the future.
It is one of the only metro systems in the world with cell phone service and Wi-Fi access, many of the trains are also outfitted with TVs and are climate controlled. And you have to love the toasty, heated seats in the winter. The system is generally deep underground, so definitely plan ahead if you can’t use excessive stairs and escalators. And the closing time is relatively early considering the city’s obsession with nightlife.
Korean Food and Drink.
Speaking of nightlife.
The drinking and nightlife in Korea is as diverse as it is safe. From rustic and stylish bars and pubs to some of the biggest night clubs in Asia and everything in between, Korean youngsters love to party. And for the most part, they do it responsibly. But drinking and drinking heavily is very much at the heart of Korean socialising.
Hongdae provides an atmosphere that is buzzing almost 24 hours a day, it is unlike any nightlife area in Australia, multiply anything by 20 at-least. Tucked away at the bottom of Hongik University you will be able to find a hof (pub) or a nightclub every second door. Seriously. In this area, the quintessential Korean experience of soju shots and snacks are on show for all. Itaewon offers plenty on the nightlife scenes swell, only in a more western nature, and Gangnam is like jetting off to a new planet, one of style, plastic surgery and clubs all rolled into one.
If you are a foody or not, Seoul is absolute heaven. You can tuck into a delicious snack courtesy of the side street stalls, cook your own delicious meat at the easy to find Korean BBQ’s or settle for a rice or noodle dish. Bibimbap, which literally means rice and vegetables is surprisingly delicious, as long as you’re not put off by mixing your own raw egg into the dish.
Korean culture. K-Pop. Psy.
A great selling point in Seoul is the fact that you don’t have to spend thousands of won to enjoy yourself. Many of the best things you can do, browsing museums and galleries, browsing the underground shopping centres, watching the changing of the guards at Palace, walking the cities fortresses and hiking all come free of charge. ChingChing.
The image of Korea is evolving for the better. Leading this charge is the Korean ‘wave’, the pop culture wave that is more like a tsunami. Such an influence, the Government of South Korea recognizes the Korean wave, and these sexy girl groups and boy bands as a viable way to increase the total exports of the country. In 2012 ratings revealed that worldwide public opinion about South Korea has been improving because of Korea’s culture and traditions. Positive perceptions are being shaped, and rightly so. A lot of that can be attributed to the work of Psy and his Youtube phenomenon “Gangnam Style”.
Psy is leading the charge in helping forge the “modern” image of the Republic of Korea.
Also within this modern image is the fact that Korea has become an epicenter for technology. With Digital media cities, top shelf telecommunication services and fast 4G internet (absolutely everywhere), so it comes as no surprise that 93% of the population (10.5mil) own a mobile phone.
Surprisingly though, is the amount of Samsung telephones in the area. Samsung, born and bred in Korea (Samsung obviously make electronics and telecommunications equiptment, but they also make apparel, chemicals, medical equiptment, semiconductors and ships.)
Among the Korean trends and culture, is there devotion to home grown company Samsung. Just jump on the metro and you will be able to find everyone literally either on their Samsung (an odd iphone here and there) or asleep.
DMZ and the North
For decades the only things that have sprung to the minds of Australians – and perhaps people all over the world – when asked about South Korea have been images bound up around North Korea, nuclear missiles, military, and war.
That isn’t a fair depiction of this modern country. Although, the battle for space and nuclear supremacy does continue to intensify on the Korean peninsula.
The Demilitarised Zone is a ‘must do’ for anyone visiting Seoul or even South Korea. The history and the stories behind this eery relationship of two countries is something to behold. The DMZ acts as a buffer zone between the two countries on the peninsula and was set up in the wake of the Armistice Agreement in July of 1953. You can walk the North Korean tunnels, peak into propaganda towns, look over the North Korean border and even teeter on the edge of the said border.
Relationship with Australia.
Thankfully Australia’s relationship with Korea is much more peaceful than the one they share with their naughty neighbours in the North.
Australians and Korean people alike are often oblivious to the developing relationship their countries share. From trade and security, to tourism and education. But, about 30,000 Koreans are on working holidays in Australia, and far more visit annually. In 2012, over 447,000 international students were studying in Australia with over 23,000 of those from the Republic of Korea.
And Korea is now Australia’s 4th largest trading partner (two-way trade totalled A$31 billion in FY2012).
Unfortunately, in 2012, a few attacks on foreign Korean nationals in Australia caused widespread outrage in South Korea, with media organizations questioning whether Australia is a safe place to visit. The Australian Government were quick to reject the claims that these incidents were intentional acts of racial discrimination towards South Koreans. Crimes do occur in Australia, as they do in all countries, and said it was important for travelers to be very careful in reaching conclusions that there is a racial element to crimes.
Hard for some Koreans to believe, with so many police around it seems not much criminal activity goes on in Seoul. Other than that, Korea and Australia continue to view the world through similar lenses.
But, compared to Australia, Korea has thousands and thousand more years of (documented) unbelievable history.
Despite its age, Seoul is a city at the forefront of the cutting edge 21st century technology. A group of Palaces and Hanok villages allow for visitors to be engulfed in what were the founding lifestyles of the city. You can get lost wondering these gigantic spaces of land that date back to the 15th century. The pick of the bunch is Changdeokgung, the “Palace of Illustrious Virtue”, which was actually lived in by royal family well in to the 20th century. The secret gardens behind the Palace are as charming as the colour and craftsmanship that the Palace itself offers up.
While the Korean War museum is a ginormous three story museum that predominantly focus’ on the Korean War which spanned from 1950-1953. The place gives a fascinating insight into what the war was like, from a Combat Experience Room and plenty of used tanks, helicopters, missiles and bombers outside.
The history of Seoul can be traced back as far as 18 BC, but humans have occupied the area now known as Seoul since the prehistoric period of human history (Paleolithic Age.) It has been the capital of numerous kingdoms on the Korean Peninsula since it was established. The Joeseon Dynasty (my favourite) traces back to 1394
Korea is not perfect by any stretch. It is common place for anyone, mainly men, to cough hard enough to bring a lung up, before comfortably projecting a phlegm ball out onto the footpath at that any given time. And the table manners of some Koreans also match this mantra, scoffing their food with sounds that wouldn’t be out of place coming from a cement mixer. That might come with chopsticks, in which is of course the Korean eating and serving utensils.
And the sub zero temperatures can really play havoc on any exposed skin if you are not careful, but for the most part the cold air is fairly refreshing.
When it comes to the population, Seoul has more than 10,500,000 people with about 4,000,000 households. That 10.5 million people is about roughly a quarter of the population of the Republic of Korea, despite the city accounting for less than 1 percent of the country’s area.
A day in Seoul by the numbers includes about 251 births, 110 deaths, 196 marriages and 56 divorces. About 32,000,000 people make a trip in traffic and more than 7,000,000 use the subway.
Amoung the Korean trends and culture, is the people’s devotion to home grown company Samsung (did you know Samsung make apparel, chemicals, obviously electronics, but also medical equiptment, semiconductors, ships, and yes – telecommunications equiptment).
With Samsung generating phones (and in the middle of lawsuits with Apple), 93% of Koreans own a mobile phone (the majority are Samsung). Just jump on the metro, everyone will literally be either on their phone or asleep.
S0, if you like partying, food, drinks, stylish shopping or cool cafes and restaurants. Maybe you are more of a traditionalist and enjoy walking tranquil Palaces, temples and hiking. Perhaps you prefer art museums or you’re even interested in developing technology. Korea seriously has something for everyone. All in a clean and enjoyable environment.