Seoul, South Korea
The title sums it up – I’ve been drifting through Seoul. In Japan I felt from time to time that I needed to get out of cities, but in Korea the cities I’ve been in have been different enough that I’m just happy being here. Seoul, Gyeongju with it’s disconnected centre and proximity to mountains (that you can walk to – every city I’ve been to in Korea and Japan has had a mountain overlooking it) and Jeonju with its village on my doorstep were not overwhelming.
On Tuesday I got to Seoul on the bus, found the hostel and went to join the Seoul flyers for a track session. I managed to walk the wrong way *to the station from which I had just come* so was a bit late, but the rainy day kept away all but three of us in any case, so I ended up without pacers. 10 lots of 800m (more according to the garmin) at around 2.55 was alright. All on a 250m track, which was odd, and probably enough to confuse Garmin.
Wednesday saw a score of Palaces 2, Museums 2, with the palaces taking the nod on penalties given that the first museum was an in-palace bonus. I stopped for lunch first despite it being not yet 12, but that was a rare sensible decision – too many days I’ve figured it was too early, then yomped around and only realised how I’ve pushed myself when spotting the colour of my pee. Oh yes. I spotted a super cheap sign, managed not to brain myself in the tiny staircase on the way down-they warned me to watch my head when I was on the way back up, but since I don’t speak Korean, I had to turn to find out what they wanted which nearly had the opposite effect. It was a small and full canteen, so I stood around feeling hulking and in the way of tiny Asians for a while before finding a spot and enjoying pork and rice (he kindly told me the Korean name for future reference, it might have been, um, tonbukki) for under £3.
There are five palaces in Seoul, so the correct response to “I went to the palace” is “which one?”, usually followed by “there are how many?”. The first was near city hall, itself a glassy marvel surrounded by skyscrapers and much more the sight you expect in a prosperous country. For 1000won you can wander the gardens and check out the throne room, then check out the museum of modern art – not much abstract here, and they had an exhibition of 20th century Korean art which was cool, very different in style to western art. Historic sights continue in their Trigger’s broom style; all the original buildings, only rebuilt twice! As I left the palace I was just in time to see the changing of the guard ceremony and attendant crowd. There wasn’t a guard when I’d gone in, so at some point there had been an adding of the guard ceremony that I’d missed, mind.
I wandered up to Gyeongbokgung Palace, and waited for an age to cross the multi-laned roads which surround it. The palace is much larger, with a beautiful garden, and had a slightly higher entry price – 3000won (£1.75) – and bigger crowds to boot. It was another national holiday, celebrating literacy and the simplified Korean alphabet, which added to the number of people out. The buildings were similar, and the throne room again had carved dragons in the ceiling, which were my highlight. I sat outside for a while, polishing off a pile of food from the handy Home Plus – or Tesco, if you will, and they certainly do-I’d spotted at just the right time.
That evening I went to find the Flyers again, this time for a mountain run up Namsan. I missed. Checking later, it was only a 10 minute walk, so running 10 minutes down the first road when I knew I had to make a right turn was a mistake. I was at the mountain, though, so had a hilly run looking down over the city. Being a bit lost has been a feature, though, with me heading off to find a shop (to see about a Seoul Flyers running top) the next day and hitting the impossibility of finding door 17 from a station with only 12 exits.
The title, incidentally, refers to the exhibit in my final museum, the museum of Seoul, which shows the development of the city. That phrase is used of the influx to the city in the 70s, which caused problems of sanitation and general living conditions. Now 1 in 4 Koreans live in Seoul, 1 in 2 in the metropolitan area.
Reading: Jon Ronson, Them.