Seoul: old times, new times, dangerous times, tasty times

Seoul: old times, new times, dangerous times, tasty times

After the wash-out that was Busan, I was determined not to make the same mistake twice.  So I gave myself a week’s notice and pored over Seoul’s accommodation options before choosing one with universally excellent reviews and the promise of a beautiful breakfast.

I had high hopes but low expectations and it was with some surprise that I discovered that my guesthouse was nestled deep in the heart of Bukchon Village: a higgledy-piggledy district of alleyways and single-story hanoks, the oldest part of Seoul, and bordered by two palaces and three mountains.

Casual hanok at the side of the road in Bukchon Village
Casual hanok at the side of the road in Bukchon Village

Such was the location that despite being right in the centre of the city, I could see misty peaks from the window as I ate my breakfast.  And as I did so, I could only think one thing: why would anybody choose a hotel over this?!

The view from the window at Oncle Andre's guesthouse
The view from the living room window at Oncle Andre’s guesthouse

My host was Oncle Andre: deeply versed in the history of his beloved city, up-to-date politically and eager to share his views; kind, attentive, and incredibly welcoming.  His guesthouse was a single-story hanok in keeping with its neighbours and I actually had my own room; albeit just 190 x 172 cm.  The tiny space was possible because of the traditionally Korean sleeping arrangements: a bed on the floor.  Don’t worry, hygiene freaks: with the taboo of wearing shoes indoors, Korean floors are always squeaky clean.  The base is a thin mattress which is rolled out each night, and a blanket or duvet on top of that.  Perhaps because the beds are so incredibly firm in Korea, after two weeks of rock-like mattresses I didn’t find sleeping on the floor too hard at all, and thanks to the wonderful ondol (underfloor heating), I was toasty warm.  In fact I slept the better at Oncle Andre’s than I had anywhere else on this trip so far and the only thing which prompted me to drag myself up each morning were the breakfasts.  So good, I’m mentioning them AGAIN.

Oh go on then, since you ask, here are three mornings’ worth of happy times at Oncle Andre’s:

Most people travelling to Korea arrive first in Seoul.  Since the construction of the KTX, or super high-speed train, it’s possible to reach most parts of the country in just a few hours – if you have the money to pay for the faster connection.  But only certain cities are connected this way.  Some are still on the old lines.  And others don’t have a train station at all.  So although many people, including some I met, use Seoul as their base, popping out for day-trips and returning every night, they miss out on huge swathes of the country.  If you’re coming to Korea, don’t do this!  Explore everything!  It’s far easier than you’d expect and THE FOOD IS SO GOOD.

Equally, for those spending a few days first in Seoul and then heading out to other locations, it must come as a bit of a shock.  For me, arriving in the relatively untouristed Gangneung, I was thrown in the deep end of locals not speaking English, fractured transport connections, and out-of-the-way attractions.  By comparison, the practicalities of navigating Seoul were a walk in the park.

Korea, unlike anywhere else I’ve ever visited, has managed to stride into the technological future whilst hanging on to its traditions quite vehemently.  They form an unyielding part of the nation’s identity, even as it transforms into one of the world’s economic powerhouses.  But suffice it to say that Seoul is really the primary beneficiary of this economic boom, and it is the true face of Korea’s astonishing technological achievements.  The other cities and towns I visited were quaint, atmospheric, charming.  They were undeniably cleaner, more efficient, and better-run than any other Asian city I’d visited, but the technology was generally limited to being able to pay bus fares with smartphones (and the fact that every grandparent brandished the latest Samsung).  My eight-year-old Rough Guide was still relevant and largely accurate, even in terms of prices.

Old vs new in Seoul
Ancient temple, modern office blocks

But arriving in Seoul was like I’d flown to a different country.  When I stepped out of the central train station, it was to a host of skyscrapers, neon signs, vast office blocks as wide as they were tall, and a gigantic building immediately in front which was emblazoned from top to bottom with a moving image of cartoon people walking, endlessly.  Here, too, were street food hawkers and mobile phone cover shops, but on an infinitely larger scale, and yet here, too, it was clean and orderly in a manner which I had never previously encountered on a city of this scale, this far east.  And here, almost everything was written in English – and Japanese, and Chinese . . . European and American tourists in Korea paling into insignificance next to the prevalence of their Asian neighbours.

Bukchon is a pocket of beauty away from the madness; but an area where the Rough Guide finally showed its antiquation.  This corner of the city was lauded as a secret location, known only to the locals, with a few hidden homestays potentially accessible down unmarked mysterious alleyways.  But in 2015 it’s a magnet for the “real traveller”; touristy, sure, but not overwhelmingly, and in an elegant sort of a way: quaint coffeeshops, boutique jewellery designers, independent shops.  These days, guesthouses – albeit still in (legally-enforced) old-style hanoks – seemingly outnumber genuine Korean homes.

This shop, however, is obviously aimed at local Koreans
This shop, however, is obviously aimed at local Koreans

In fact, it’s now one of those areas which enable Starbucks-phobic travellers (myself included) to sleep on the floor, sip ginseng tea, buy hand-painted saucers, and say things like “this is the real Korea” and “I felt like I experienced the genuine heart of Seoul” and “it was just so authentic“.  And here’s the thing: Bukchon is actually all of those things.  Authentic, genuine, whimsical, atmospheric, delightful, historical, olde-worlde, and everything else you could possibly hope to find from an inner-city sanctuary of clean, affordable, genuinely Korean accommodation.  It’s like someone picked up an Oxfordshire village and squeezed it in between Kings Cross and Hoxton.  Who wouldn’t want to stay there?  And who wouldn’t head home bellowing “Ivy-draped cottages!  Rose bushes!  Thatched roofs!  REAL ENGLAND!!!”  In the same way, Bukchon, with its hygienic street-food sellers and carefully-maintained hanoks is absolutely real Seoul.  But so are the avenues lined with neon, 24-hour markets of Dongdeamun, ancient palace of Chongdeokgong (now with Japanese embellishments), soulless suburb of Gangnam, already-passé electronics stores, love motels, room cafés, and frenetic student enclave of Hongik and its surrounding environs.

In fact it was Hongkik where I spent my first day, post jimjilbang, albeit accidentally.  I’d followed a recommendation to a cafe and then realised I was slap-bang in the cool district.  Trendy bars, arty vibes, retro coffeeshops, and truckloads of self-conscious hipsters.

Vintage My Little Ponies! It could only be Hongik (or Shoreditch, or Williamsburg)
Vintage My Little Ponies! It could only be Hongik (or Shoreditch, or Williamsburg)

Within about five minutes of wandering through some side streets, I stumbled across a live band, and a university group doing mass swing-dancing.


And about five minutes after that, I was collared by an eager PR who was working on a campaign to raise Seoul’s touristic profile by giving away t-shirts and freebies to people in return for tweets.  The slogan they had come up with was “I Seoul You” which I tried to be enthusiastic about but really I just did it for the free facemask.  I Seoul You?  I Seoul you what?  I Seoul you expensive electronics and easy access to plastic surgery?

But hark!  It’s not just Androids and nose jobs which makes Seoul so interesting.  It’s the tactile intensity of Korea’s ability to maintain traditions whilst racing ahead.  It’s the sheer visibility of their sprint into the future: glittering skyscrapers, whippet-fast transportation, an intense work ethic; alongside palaces and temples on every corner, a still strongly-observed hierarchy (old better than young; man better than woman) and a slavish devotion to the (admittedly wonderful) underfloor heating which I was told on several breathless occasions in no uncertain terms is wholly Korean, definitely Korean, and let’s just not forget that.

A carefully-preserved ancient well in the centre of Seoul's business district, and its interactive electronic information board in five different languages
A carefully-preserved ancient well in the centre of Seoul’s business district, and its interactive electronic board dispensing information in five different languages

It’s that their futuristic capital city maintains the astonishing lack of racial diversity.  Korea is one of the most homogeneous societies on earth and even here, a enormous city of 10 million people responsible for products used in every country on Earth, it’s rare to see blonde hair.  Meanwhile a black face inspires double-takes.  Even their chain shops are largely Korean rather than western.  In fact when Starbucks opened a branch in Seoul’s Insadong (an area known ostensibly for its art shops but now predominantly the tourist centre), it was only allowed on the proviso that the name was written in hangul.

And the multinational coffee juggernaut capitulated!
And the multinational coffee juggernaut capitulated!

On my first full day in Seoul, I headed out from my hostel in the vague direction of Cheonggyecheon, an impossible to pronounce but easy to walk stream which dried up long ago, was paved over and turned into a motorway.

On the way, this happened:

I stumbled across a temple down a side street in Seoul. A woman was crouched in an alcove, surrounded by a sea of flowers, stripping down the leaves. It was quite mesmerising and I stopped to watch. Noticing me, she plunged her hand into the calf-deep mass of blooms, and pulled out a perfect stem of pink chrysanthemums. Her son appeared and gestured for me to take them, explaining that her job was to periodically change the flowers in the temple whenever it was requested; I never learnt who by (nor whether these were remnants of the old display or beginnings of the new). I thanked them profusely and moved to leave but she beckoned me to stay and rifled further through the pile, pulling out a white rose, bright yellow chrysanthemums, two violets, a green-tinged lisianthus. She kept glancing up at the bouquet I was forming to check how it looked. Finally she deemed it acceptable and waved me on my way.

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But back to Cheonggyecheon, bunch of flowers in tow.  The government of a few years back decided to resurrect the lost waterway, breaking up the road and giving it a new lease of life as a natural pathway through an otherwise entirely smog-fuelled urban jungle.  The water itself is pumped in from the local river, but it’s enough to support fish, feed the trees which line it, and serve as the backdrop for a regularly-changing art exhibition.

When I was there, the displays represented Korea’s heritage . . .

Cooking traditional Korean pancakes
Cooking traditional Korean pancakes

. . . their more modern fixations . . .

Gigantic make-up cases for the truly facially disgusting
Gigantic make-up cases for genuine trolls

. . . and, um, some other stuff.

Who the hell knows
Who the hell knows

I mean after three weeks in the country I can tell you hand on heart that if a perforated metal bull and three mid-metamorphosis Transformers aren’t indicative of Korea’s national identity then quite frankly, I don’t know what is.

Along the banks, street food vendors ply their trade.  I met one young man selling potato tornadoes (they take their streetfood game seriously in these parts) who spoke excellent English and told me that he hoped to visit the UK next year, but his parents were afraid to let him go.  Their fear had been compounded by the attacks in Paris, but they already viewed Europe – and the UK in particular – as targets for terrorism.  They were desperate for him to stay in Seoul.

A potato tornado and fearful young man
A potato tornado and fearful young man

Seoul, which is a palpable 35 miles from the border with North Korea.  A country which exudes an ever-present threat, visible in the razor-wire lined beaches, where most people have relatives they’ll most likely never see again, a country which one can reasonably assume is in possession of multiple nuclear weapons and, given half the chance, would deploy them directly at this very city.

Here, they reasoned, was a safer option than anywhere in Europe.

I didn’t really have much to say in our defence, beyond that every Londoner I knew would be busy leading their lives without giving Daesh the slightest thought.  But it clearly wasn’t having much of an impact.  It was the first time I’d spoken to someone who had reversed his plans to visit my homeland due to it being unsafe, and it came with a pretty horrible jolt.  I always thought of “places to avoid” as the countries I cheerfully gallavanted off to on my travels, safe in the knowledge that I could leave whenever I wanted – those for whom the Home Office gave less than savoury advice, which I tended to ignore anyway – that I would be at far greater risk on this trip than I would be at home in solid, reliable, permanent London.  Oh, I’m not afraid to return, nor am I nervous for those of you living there now.  But hearing it expressed in those terms gave me the reality check I perhaps needed; that the world isn’t so safe, that London isn’t a haven, that everybody is looking over their shoulder and wondering what’s coming next.

But this isn’t a reason not to visit, of course.  If I could make it to the DMZ, I reasoned, he could go to London.  I’m not sure it worked, but I’ll always wonder whether he persuaded his parents to let him go.

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