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Seoul searching

Not many of us know much about South Korea. But a trip to its capital will inspire you to explore it.

india Updated: Apr 24, 2010 19:05 IST
Sharif Rangnekar

SeoulIt is very rare to find someone travelling to Seoul. Friends and colleagues who knew I was heading there made comments like ‘South Korea, isn’t it?’ and ‘Why there?’ This reflected the identity problem that Seoul has in the minds of Indians, and I could say that about most tourists across the developed world and lesser-developed regions – perhaps barring travellers from Japan, Thailand and China, who are fascinated by Seoul.

The tendency of Indian tourists is to look to the West; if they look to the East it is usually to Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong. So the several billion won (KRW) spent by the Korean Tourism Board on a ‘sparkling’ Korea ad campaign was a bit wasted in India. And if I were to go by reports from other parts, the impact is not what the Tourist Board sought, although growth has happened. “Koreans are so concerned with looking good to ‘better’ nations that they forget what is good about their society or culture,” pointed out a blog post by a local.

That sentiment is true. The campaign left one with little information about Korea. Still I was certain that since Korea boasts companies like Hyundai, Samsung and Posco, Seoul would reflect their existence and success. It did, although my BlackBerry did not work. I also feared that food would be an issue. But I needn’t have, there was enough to choose from. I was not sure if there was much to see, but there was plenty.

Prior to leaving, all I was certain of was the high cost of an airport pick-up – around US $100 – setting the tone for what I thought would be an expensive destination. Again, I was proven wrong.

Mixed Messages
All in all, Seoul makes for a great tourist destination if you are looking for a blend of history, tradition and urban life, along with impressive infrastructure. The city has had a fair bit of history – being torn down time and again by wars. This has left Seoul in a position much like Berlin, with a mix of old homes and modern hi-tech constructions running alongside each other.

The real feel of this mix lies in the northern side of Seoul which has the Gyeongbok Palace built in the 1300s by the Chosun Dynasty, but razed and rebuilt many times since. It was last rebuilt in the 1800s, but left with a dozen-odd constructions after the Japanese invasion in the 20th century. It is a must-see to get an idea of Korean history.

Once you are in front of the palace’s magnificent gate, you have a choice of turning left or right. If you go left, you will hit Seoul’s main boulevard, Sejongro, and a kilometre away are some of the best shopping destinations. While the boulevard on the left reflects the hubbub of Seoul, it also has the serene and fascinating under-road stream – Cheonggyecheon. The stream manages the contrast since it is about 15 feet below the road. After a long day at work, I risked the cold to walk through most of the 5-6 km stretch and realised how destressing it was, what with the calmness and sound of water.

The big buy
Once out of there, hot chocolate in hand, I walked in the opposite direction. I was told by local friends that Seoul is great for shopping but until I saw it I would not believe it. About 500 metres from the palace I found Shinsegae’s landmark store, which has a crazy mix of top-end luxury brands on all floors, with the basement selling dry fish and other delicacies. What I found different here from other Asian cities was the mix of good local brands, European labels (not well known to Indians) and the usual luxury brands.

From there, I walked less than 100 metres to enter Namdaemun market. This is a wholesale market interspersed with street stores, selling everything from garments to artifacts, household items and food. Wholesalers work overnight, often till 6 am as retailers down shutters earlier in the evening in this 10-acre market that got its name from the south gate of the city. Not too far off is the Myeongdong shopping district, which has a mix of branded stores, restaurants, cafes and the larger shopping centre Lotte – known for its tax-free shopping.

What was clear is that Koreans love to shop and women are the focus of retailers! At both Shinsegae and Lotte, the preference for women was more than evident – men’s garments were on a few floors and mostly on the top floors.

From past to future
By the time I finished with these markets, and a quick meal of a Bibimpop (rice-based dish with vegetables and egg in a steaming hot stone pot) and kimchi, it was past midnight and my feet were tired. At this point I missed the foot massage centres of Bangkok. What I found were some late night cafes and bars ready to welcome me. I had never seen so many cafés in any urban and somewhat modern city – not even in some of the European cities.

The next morning left me with two choices – visit Insadong, the arts and crafts market – or head to the southern part of Seoul across the River Han. Insadong is perhaps a tenth of what the other markets were. Yet it had all you wanted to see or buy of Korean craftsmanship, including handmade boxes inlaid with mother of pearl. What made the market distinct was that even making certain Korean sweets was considered an art. I got to see how Korean honey turns white and almost into thin strands of thread.

Moving south, I was told that the cost of things go up. It is the modern part of Seoul with less history to share. So after the Westin Chosun in the north, I moved into the Novotel in the south. This was like any modern city, with more broad roads than the Big Apple. I was not sure when or what time people slept as the streets remained busy till 2 am. And, I realised, Koreans are known for drinking on any day and at any time.

After checking out streets that had pillars with displays and touchscreens attached with cameras (to take your own photo with the option to email to yourself) I decided to stroll into the underground Coex Mall. It was not half as good as the markets in the north.
However, this part of Seoul did have a little history to boast of in the form of an old Buddhist temple – Bongeunsa – situated at Mount Sudo in Samsung-Dong. Built in 794, the temple is known to have produced well-known artists such as Chusa.

So was I done with Seoul? Yes, in the sense that I had to fly back. But Seoul left one with a curiosity to know more and explore other parts of Korea. For sure, it’s a place to go – either for shopping, exploring history or discovering another form of the urban world.

Food
Street food is a good option for those looking for tempura-fried prawns, beef or pork or even vegetables with corn flour. It is good to try the Bibimpop and the ‘real’ kimchi in its raw or steamed form. You can get a meal from a local restaurant for Won 5,000. If you want to play safe, there is no dearth of cafes and American food chains across the city.

Fact File

Flights: Direct flights from Delhi, one-stop flights from Mumbai and Kolkata.
Visa: See http://www.gate4korea.com/about/about_visa.htm
Currency: The Won (KRW) is the currency in use. 100 KRW is equal to Rs 4.00.
Weather: Seoul has four seasons, making it an interesting place to see depending on the kind of climate you like. The best months to travel are between September and November. But if you are keen on snow, consider mid-December to January.
Language: Most people don’t speak English, though you can communicate with staff at top stores and restaurants. Taxis that have a sticker saying ‘interpreter’ on their side window have drivers who are easier to communicate with. But no guarantees after midnight!
Shopping: For brands, the Lotte Mall has great prices. Shinsegae has luxury and local food. Namdaemun Market is about street shops, Insadong is good for crafts. Several brands are less expensive here than elsewhere.