Seoul Searching

BySharif Rangnekar, Seoul
Apr 26, 2010 11:32 AM IST

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

IT IS very rare to find someonetravelling to Seoul. Friends andcolleagues who knew I was headingthere made comments like'South Korea, isn't it?' and 'Whythere?' This reflected the identity problemthat Seoul has in the minds ofIndians, and I could say that about mosttourists across the developed world andlesser-developed regions - perhaps barringtravellers from Japan, Thailand andChina, who are fascinated by Seoul.

The tendency of Indian tourists is tolook to the West; if they look to the Eastit is usually to Bangkok, Singapore,Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong. So theseveral billion won (KRW) spent by theKorean Tourism Board on a 'sparkling'Korea ad campaign was a bit wasted inIndia. And if I were to go by reports fromother parts, the impact is not what theTourist Board sought, although growthhas happened. "Koreans are so concernedwith looking good to 'better'nations that they forget what is goodabout their society or culture," pointedout a blog post by a local.

That sentiment is true. The campaignleft one with little information aboutKorea. Still I was certain that sinceKorea boasts companies like Hyundai,Samsung and Posco, Seoul would reflecttheir existence and success. It did,although my BlackBerry did not work. Ialso feared that food would be an issue.But I needn't have, there was enough tochoose from. I was not sure if there wasmuch to see, but there was plenty.

Prior to leaving, all I was certain ofwas the high cost of an airport pick-up -around US $100 - setting the tone forwhat I thought would be an expensivedestination. Again, I was proven wrong.

Mixed Messages
All in all, Seoul makes for a great touristdestination if you are looking for a blendof history, tradition and urban life, alongwith impressive infrastructure. The cityhas had a fair bit of history - being torndown time and again by wars. This hasleft Seoul in a position much like Berlin,with a mix of old homes and modern hitechconstructions running alongsideeach other.

The real feel of this mix lies in thenorthern side of Seoul which has theGyeongbok Palace built in the 1300s bythe Chosun Dynasty, but razed andrebuilt many times since. It was lastrebuilt in the 1800s, but left with adozen-odd constructions after theJapanese invasion in the 20th century. Itis a must-see to get an idea of Koreanhistory.

Once you are in front of the palace'smagnificent gate, you have a choice ofturning left or right. If you go left, youwill hit Seoul's main boulevard,Sejongro, and a kilometre away aresome of the best shopping destinations.

While the boulevard on the leftreflects the hubbub of Seoul, it also hasthe serene and fascinating under-roadstream - Cheonggyecheon. The streammanages the contrast since it is about 15feet below the road. After a long day atwork, I risked the cold to walk throughmost of the 5-6 km stretch and realisedhow destressing it was, what with thecalmness and sound of water.

The big buy
Once out of there, hot chocolate in hand,I walked in the opposite direction. I wastold by local friends that Seoul is greatfor shopping but until I saw it I wouldnot believe it.

About 500 metres from the palace Ifound Shinsegae's landmark store, whichhas a crazy mix of top-end luxurybrands on all floors, with the basementselling dry fish and other delicacies.What I found different here from otherAsian cities was the mix of good localbrands, European labels (not well knownto Indians) and the usual luxurybrands.

From there, I walked less than 100metres to enter Namdaemun market.This is a wholesale market interspersedwith street stores, selling everythingfrom garments to artifacts, householditems and food. Wholesalers workovernight, often till 6 am asretailers down shutters earlierin the evening in this 10-acre market that got itsname from the south gateof the city. Not too far offis the Myeongdong shoppingdistrict, which has amix of branded stores,restaurants, cafes and thelarger shopping centreLotte - known for its taxfreeshopping.

What was clear is thatKoreans love to shop andwomen are the focus of retailers!At both Shinsegae andLotte, the preference for womenwas more than evident - men's garmentswere on a few floors and mostlyon 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 eggin a steaming hot stone pot) and kimchi,it was past midnight and my feet weretired. At this point I missed the footmassage centres of Bangkok. What Ifound were some late night cafes andbars ready to welcome me. I had neverseen so many cafés in any urban andsomewhat modern city - not even insome of the European cities.

The next morning left me with twochoices - visit Insadong, the arts andcrafts market - or head to the southernpart of Seoul across the River Han.Insadong is perhaps a tenth of what theother markets were. Yet it had all youwanted to see or buy of Korean craftsmanship,including handmade boxesinlaid with mother of pearl. What madethe market distinct was that even makingcertain Korean sweets was consideredan art. I got to see how Koreanhoney turns white and almost into thinstrands of thread.

Moving south, I was told that the costof things go up. It is the modern part ofSeoul with less history to share. So afterthe Westin Chosun in the north, I movedinto the Novotel in the south. This waslike any modern city, with more broadroads than the Big Apple. I was not surewhen or what time people slept as thestreets remained busy till 2 am. And, Irealised, Koreans are known fordrinking on any day and at anytime.

After checking out streetsthat had pillars with displaysand touchscreens attached withcameras (to take your own photo withthe option to email to yourself) I decidedto stroll into the underground CoexMall. It was not half as good as the marketsin the north.

However, this part of Seoul did have alittle history to boast of in the form of anold Buddhist temple - Bongeunsa - situatedat Mount Sudo in Samsung-Dong.Built in 794, the temple is known to haveproduced well-known artists such asChusa.

So was I done with Seoul? Yes, in thesense that I had to fly back. But Seoulleft one with a curiosity to know moreand explore other parts of Korea. Forsure, it's a place to go - either for shopping,exploring history or discoveringanother form of the urban world.

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