Seoul, South Korea: WEEK 26 MAY (spring time in Korea, sunny days 24 DEGREES)
16.05.2017 - 21.05.2017 24 °C
Springtime in South Korea is a perfect time to visit. It is sunny, but not too hot and the summer rain hasn't started yet which brings clouds of ferocious Korean mosquitos (their reputation precedes them). The other plus point is that China has banned its own people from visiting South Korea over the first elements of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system that has been deployed by the US in South Korea. This means no huge groups of Chinese tourists to jostle with unlike Taiwan.
Korea is surprisingly delightful, a sanitised mixture of east meets west. It's the most connected country in the world with ultra fast internet and everyone permanently glued to their smartphones on the metro. The Korean peninsula is split into South Korea, officially known as the Republic of Korea and North Korea, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Koreans are some of the most hard working in the world, until recently there was an official 6 day working week - everyone had to work on Saturday, but this has now been reduced to 5 working days (not that this has really filtered down to the working population). To compensate, many national holidays have been removed, which means that Koreans all go on holiday at the same time of year (don't expect to find a hotel or a seat on a bus/train during these times). Korea still has one of the highest productivity levels in the world with many working a normal 15 hour day and around 8 hours on a Saturday. This has resulted in a hard drinking culture where Koreans let loose and relax with their compatriates in bars that are open 24 hours a day and the drink of choice is often whisky, beer or soju, a cheap clear Korean version of vodka.
Seoul doesn't feel like a capital city at all, yet nearly half the population of South Korea (50 million) live here, packed into a metropolitan area that is the smaller than Luxembourg. It has pleasantly wide pavements, tree lined avenues, an incredibly efficient metro system, narrow tucked away alleys and streets with traditional Korean wooden houses, high rise sparkling office buildings, old temples, leafy residential areas and a bewildering array of eateries. You would never have an inkling that the DMZ and North Korea is just up the highway, 55km away. Seoul is easy to navigate and we were lucky to be situated in a hostel near one of the palace gates at Hangsung University. We could just pop down to the metro, buy a pot noodle from 7 Eleven or cross the road to the 'twigim' stalls that serve snacks.
Our first stop, Gyeongbokgung Palace, is the oldest and most historically important of the five palaces in Seoul. We strolled down dusty paths between delicate tile roofed buildings, beautifully restored, against a mountain backdrop, among the young girls attired in 'hanbok', traditional Korean dress. It is a popular day out for Koreans to hire 'hanbok' (as they get into the palaces free) and spend hours endlessly photographing themselves outside all the palace buildings in many poses. It feels rather surreal to walk among the girls in their pretty princess dresses once worn by royalty.
This palace was the home to the royal family and the Joseon dynasty that started in 1392 and ended in 1910 when the Japanese invaded, which marked the end of the dynasty and the last of the Korean kings. The compound as witnessed many fires, repeated destruction, war and an assassination but has been carefully reconstructed. One of the enduring tales, recounted many times in countless Korean films and soap operas, is the assassination of Queen Myeongseong in 1895, one of King Gojong's wives and an obstacle to Japanese domination of Asia - a precursor to full scale Japanese annexation in 1910. South Korea still feels rather sore about this and demanded an apology from the Japanese a few years ago for her death, but I think they are still waiting...
Bukchon Hanok Village was a pleasant diversion after all the history and a chance to walk down quiet lanes lined with traditional wooden hanok buildings which once covered the entire country until they were torn down during Korea's economic revolution. This small area has been spared the wrecking ball of progress and again many young girls wearing hanbok glide up and down the steep hills in their hooped skirts.
Located in Seoul's business district, Deoksugung Palace was next but to be honest it was rather like walking round Gyeongbokgung Palace. It did however have its own changing of the guard at the eastern gate which was entertaining.
Changdeokgung was the last of the palaces we visited and is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is undoubtably the best preserved palace and was relatively empty when we visited.
Two thirds of the compound is covered by the Secret Garden, which kings and queens once strolled through, although it was lost on me as to why it was 'secret' as there is no hidden door or gate and our guide didn't really explain it very well. I was expecting an immaculate manicured garden but it is the complete opposite, having been left to nature and full of the national trees of Korea (mulberry). It can only be accessed via a guided tour although it was very difficult to understand what she was saying. For ages I thought our guide was referring to 'porn' or could it be 'pawn' as in chess pieces, but in actual fact after ten minutes I realised it was 'pond'! After an hour we gave up and walked back to the 'not so secret' entrance.
We loved Seoul and would have stayed longer, but it was time to find out what Korea was like outside the safety of the metropolitan capital.