My Travel Map

My Travel Map

29 November 2014

Seoul, Part I

Welcome to Seoul; welcome to Korea.
Based on what I already knew about Korea, I expected to visit and find a place I'd like.  I found a place I loved.  The best part about it though is that it wasn't the scenery, history, architecture, or even food that actually won me over (though those all added of course); it was the people and their immensely strong and wonderful character and national ideals.  Over the next few posts, I hope I can convey the reasons why Korea has been added to the short list of my favorite countries.

By Korea here, I'm referring to the Republic of Korea, or South Korea as it is also - and more commonly - known.  I started my journey in the capital, Seoul.  Seoul is a big, big city, with a lot of history and some (not so hidden) gems of peace and tranquility.  It is a hive of activity and like any other great city has more little nooks and crannies of awesomeness hidden all around the metropolitan area than any one person could ever find on their own.  This post is about exactly that though... exploring on one's own, getting out and looking at a place closer to better appreciate the finer details and find exactly what it is that makes you happy.  And Seoul is a great place to look closer.

How many statues do you wander by in a foreign city and not even notice?  If you do notice them, how many do you just leave it at "huh, wonder who that person did?"  Well, I do that a lot... but it was hard to do with this statue.  It was prominently located, and it was huge.  The first chance I got, I looked it up.  Turns out this is a statue of King Sejong the Great.  As an indicator of where the nation's priorities lie, Sejong was a huge promoter of education and he was the one who pushed for the creation of Hangeul, the modern Korean alphabet, and then decreed it be used as the official alphabet for the Korean language.  His acts opened up a new world of literacy and education to common people.

Hangeul (or Hangul) is a beautiful, versatile, and powerful alphabet system.  To the uninitiated, it might look like just another complex set of characters, as are used in China or Japan, but look closer and there is a method to the apparent memorization madness that accompanies character systems.  As an example, let's start with the word Hangeul, which is written 한글.  First of all, you need to know that each block is really a syllable, formed by a combination of vowel and consonant letters.  So, lets look at the first syllable: 한,  which has three letters forming the "h" (ㅎ), "a" (ㅏ), and "n" (ㄴ) sounds.  Next, the second syllable, 글, consists of the "g" (ㄱ), "eu" (ㅡ), and "l" (ㄹ) sounds.  Next, there are some relatively simple rules about how to block the syllables into roughly square shapes, which supposedly originated from the creators of the language using square window panes to limit each syllable as they developed and tested the language.  Letters, and letter combinations within an individual syllable, can stretch or shrink in both directions to suit this purpose.  For example, note how the "l" letter changes shape and position in these two sounds: "lu" is 루, while "la" is 라; or how the "g" changes in these two: "go" is 고, while "ga" is 가.  There are other conveniences of learning such as the distinct types of simple horizontal or vertical lines used for vowels and the more complex shapes used for consonants.  With that all in mind, Hangeul is really quite approachable for anyone to learn... I was able to memorize the alphabet and simple rules and was reading Hangeul about mid-way through my week-long stay in the country.  A great website I found to study is this one, which really makes learning Hangeul quite approachable and fun too.  Of course, I couldn't understand anything I was reading for the most part (though there were a surprising amount of signs that had English words written in Hangeul), but still, I was at least able to make the sounds that were represented.  That is a very strong start and more than I ever expect to be able to do with either of the written Chinese or Japanese languages.  More fun still is the ability to transliterate your own language using Hangeul... allowing you to write some simply coded messages (for example, "banjo" : 반조, "chimney" : 침니, "Canada" : 카나다, or even "meaning" : 미닝).  Basically, Hangeul is a very powerful, versatile, and most importantly, sensible alphabet that allows people to quickly learn how to read and write.  No wonder Sejong the Great has such a prominent statue in the middle of Seoul.

Next up, the Taegeukgi, or the national flag of South Korea.  Looking a little deeper at a truly interesting and seemingly simple yet beautifully complex national flag.  So, the white background is pretty easily understood for purity and peace... that translates well pretty much worldwide.  Now, the four "trigams" in black around the centerpiece yin/yang symbol add a touch of complexity... they arent just simple blocks of sticks.  The four trigams are half of those used in the ancient Chinese book of divination, the I Ching.  They can be used to represent a number of different concepts, from the seasons (spring, summer, autumn, winter), to celestial objects (heaven, earth, sun, and moon), to the base family units (father, mother, daughter, and son) with the corresponding symbols represent each of those four concepts in the same order, respectively.  The philosophical complexity and beauty of just those four symbols needs little more explaining, but deserves plenty of extra contemplation.  Finally, the red and blue yin/yang symbol in the middle represent opposite forces, such as light and dark, male and female, day and night.  Of course, this is even more interesting considering the current state of the greater Korean nation: with its two countries, the communist dictatorship North and the open democracy of the South, facing off across a seemingly unbridgeably divided border.  Pretty crazy and interesting stuff... all in one national flag.

Now, onto some history and architecture.  Welcome to the Gyeongbokgung Palace.  Located at the center of Northern Seoul, this relic, resurrected from the ruin of war, is a beautiful tribute to Korea's style and heritage.  The palace complex was first constructed in 1394, but since then it has been damaged and rebuilt twice.  The first ruin came during the Japanese invasion in the 1590s, when most of the complex burned.  The second came during the Japanese occupation of WWII, when the Japanese used the palace complex as their administrative and gestapo headquarters.  During that occupation, many of the buildings were altered or destroyed.  However, since then, the Koreans are in the process of restoring Gyeongbokgung to its original form.

Traditional Korean monumental architecture seems simple from afar but with complex detail as you get closer and relies a lot on symmetric form.  Not surprisingly, due to a long history of invasions from its larger neighbors, Korean architecture has many similarities to Chinese and Japanese architecture.

I particularly love the gargoyles and statues.

So, why is symmetry so important?  It might have something to do with Confucianism and Chinese influences during the Joseon dynasty, which lasted from 1392 to 1897 and saw the construction of the 5 great palace complexes around Seoul.  Of the 5, Gyeongbokgung is the oldest.

The symmetry strikes you from afar, but up close, it's the detail that really hypnotizes you...

With the architecture at Gyeongbokgung (and other palaces and temples around the country), it is pretty much impossible not to look closer and get pulled in to all the color and detail.  The underside of the roofs are ornately decorated using bright paints, plenty of geometric design, and almost totem or Aztec-like wooden features.

Did I mention the architecture can be slightly hypnotic?

Another unplanned, serendipitous situation occurred when I was at the entrance to Gyeongbokgung Palace: I happened to be there right on time to see the bright and grandiose changing of the guard ceremony.

The bright silks of the guards uniforms and colors in the flags were somewhat hypnotic.  The guards went through a series of drills, with some at a stand-still and others in motion, but all well choreographed.

The backdrop of the palace and the mountains in behind made this a particularly enjoyable show.

I hit the jack pot with this guy.  He placed himself perfectly for where I was standing in the crowd.  I loved the detail in his silk and the shade and light on his face through his hat.

Check out those shields... bright colors everywhere.  And how about those shoes too?  I can't imagine being kicked by those guys, especially considering most of them are probably trained in taekwondo, one of Korea's home-grown martial arts and the national sport, which has an emphasis on kicking.

Bright colors are used a lot in Korean decoration too, both old and new.

This dragon drum was amazing.  Drums are important in traditional Korean music, though this one (if this replica is even functional) would probably have been used for ceremonial purposes.

The dragons on the drum were simple in some respect, but quite complex considering how much they wound around the barrel.

This huge pagoda is the most prominent building at Gyeongbokgung Palace.  It houses the National Folk Museum.  The museum is packed with information on the traditional ways of life in Korea, but I'm told (I didn't get to see the show myself) that the folk performances done outside of the museum periodically throughout the day are well worth catching.

The palace grounds are quite pleasant, but the place definitely still feels like it is new.  The paint is too fresh, the concrete too modern and consistent, the stones too square, and there aren't enough missing roof tiles for it to actually feel like an old place.  Also, I found it odd that you can't enter or even see into so many of the buildings... it makes me wonder what is inside, or if there is anything inside at all.  As with any historical restoration or reconstruction, I hope that the greatest care and effort were put into the authenticity of the details with respect to the original and the quality of construction, so that eventually, these buildings actually will be old and visitors hundreds of years in the future can still enjoy them.

These telephone booths seemed glaringly out of place... but I kind of really liked that!  It was so random.  I also really appreciated the modern architecture behind the ancient.

This is a good representation of the colors used on the facades of most of the buildings around the palace: green, rusty red, and hot pink.

And again, the details up close are quite nice too.

There were several ponds around the complex too.  I stopped and sat by this one for several minutes, transfixed by the mountain and that red door.  The mountain is to the north of Seoul and is actually part of Bukhansan National Park.  Bukhansan forms the northern backdrop for Seoul and is actually reachable by public transport, which is pretty unique as most national parks go.  Koreans are big on getting out into nature for hikes and to enjoy the peace of beautiful natural settings, and there are many great parks and natural areas around the country.

I was lucky to be in Seoul in November, so there was the added bonus of fall foliage.

I really enjoyed the fact that it wasn't too difficult to find yourself alone in some of the palaces large courtyards... the place wasn't nearly as packed as I expected it to be on such a nice Fall afternoon.  Maybe the most other people had gone to the national park for some hiking.

I loved the details on the roof tiles...

And there are those gargoyles again too, notice how each one is different.  Also, check out the detailed artwork on the roof tiles.  They were different on each building.

This staircase reminded me a lot of the ones on the pyramid at Chichen Itza in Mexico.  I loved how the animal figures were worked into the architecture like that.

This pond and pagoda were truly spectacular, and I lucked out with the natural lighting when I got there too...

Gyeongbokgung Palace is definitely worth a visit.  It is a beautiful and peaceful place and makes for a pleasant escape from the turmoil and turbulence of the huge city that envelops it.

Back into the city, into the structured chaos.  The area around Gyeongbokgung Palace is great for exploring by foot and taking in some of Seoul's highlights.

On my way over to the hanok village (see below), I stumbled upon this group of people outside a restaurant making kimchi.  I stopped to watch and ended up getting invited to sample the fresh ingredients used to make the fermented staple of Korean cuisine.

I cover more details of kimchi in my post on Korean food, but here I'll focus on the sharing and friendly nature of Korean people.  First of all, let me reiterate how these pictures were taken: I was walking along a crowded sidewalk, when I stumbled upon these folks outside a restaurant, who were obviously preparing a batch of kimchi for fermentation.  I stopped to watch and asked to take some pictures.  The guy in the fleece vest and flannel here, signed to me (he didn't speak English) that pictures were OK and then waved me over to the tray of ingredients seen here in the foreground.  He gave me a bowl and some chopsticks and signed that I should try some ingredients.  He even grabbed the first piece of cabbage and chili paste for me and put it in my bowl.  Another older gentleman was already there eating away.  When I took my first bite, the man in flannel then poured me a bowl of the milky maekgeolli, which is like a rice beer and very tasty.  When I felt I'd had enough (after he graciously poured me another couple bowlfuls of maekgeolli, I thanked him profusely, signed that I had to go, and reached for my wallet to pay.  He refused any cash and just smiled at me.  Apparently, they were offering this for free to any passerby that wanted to come taste their kimchi ingredients and share their alcohol (they were drinking with the visitors)!  I was blown away by the generosity of it all, but I came to find that this generosity is commonplace in Korea.  In fact, it is a cornerstone of their culture.  It was explained to me that family values, friendliness, sharing, and generosity have become ingrained in Korean culture as somewhat of a necessity after thousands of years of invasions from foreign powers.  You can imagine how being able to rely on the kindness and support of people in a neighboring village or town could be critical if your own town was just destroyed by an invading army.   Furthermore, one's family is the most important thing in Korea, and good friends are quickly taken in as members of a family, with titles like brother, sister, cousin, aunt, or uncle being appointed to the unrelated new addition depending on their age and sex (age and sex are also critical aspects of Korean culture... more to come on this below).  I was floored by all of this, especially since so much of it resonated with a lot with me and my own ideals.

As I just mentioned, age is immensely important in Korea.  Elders are respected, and verbs are conjugated differently depending on the age (or position in society or at work) of the person you're talking to.  For this reason, asking someone their age is a not at all rude in Korea, and in fact, it is probably one of the first few questions a stranger will ask when first meeting you.  I was told that age also dictates most relationships, with an unwritten rule that the male should be older than the female in traditional practice; I was told it was very, very taboo for a wife to be older than her husband.  The older members of a family are sources of wisdom and highly revered.  Eldest brothers, husbands, and fathers are expected to take leadership roles and offer support and protection in the family unit.  This goes right down to friendships too, where the eldest in a group of friends is regarded as the wisest and responsible for sharing their wisdom with their peers (and even dishing out little extras at meals to make sure everyone is well fed).  At an Insadong teahouse, I met a sociologist from Canada who was studying in Seoul and introduced me to an interesting new dynamic that is forming out of our modern "connected" world.  The Internet has apparently really confused this reverence of age, since you often have no idea how old someone is that you are chatting to in an online forum.  Because of this ambiguity, the younger, tech-savvy generation has actually created a new verb ending (conjugation): until they establish the age of someone they are chatting with, online chatters will use "ya" as a verb ending, which is not recognized in textbook Korean and is a combination of the official "yo" (general polite; for older/higher status people) and "a" (informal/familiar; for younger/lower status people) endings!

Just a short walk from Gyeongbokgung Palace is a small, pleasant district with a high concentration of traditional Korean hanok houses.  The Bukchon Hanok Village in central Seoul is jam packed with these beautiful wooden buildings.  The unique feature of hanok buildings is the wooden ground floor inside, which is heated from small fires below the floorboards.  The combination of wood and open flame seems quite ludicrously dangerous, but these buildings were once the dominant style around the city (and around the country) and have only recently been largely replaced by modern structures with central heating.   The large building seen in the background here is a Buddhist temple.

There are also entire hanok villages elsewhere in the country, which are supposed to be quite lovely.  Hanok buildings haven't gone out of style either, I mean, what's not to like about the invitingly comfortable and cosy ambiance of a warmed wooden room?  The warm interior environment remains a perfect way to comfortably deal with Korea's cold and snowy winters.  While I was there, I ate in several restaurants in both old and new hanok structures and enjoyed some herbal teas in hanok teahouses.  Supposedly, building a new hanok is an immensely expensive endeavor nowadays though.

This little pocket of traditional structures in Seoul was spared destruction, and now it is a very popular place for tourists to stay in a traditional Korean guesthouse.

There were a ton of great small details around the hanok village too.  I just love these little touches of personality that are added to a place.

My first interior hanok experience was in a teahouse along Insadong gil, a lively shopping and dining street in central Seoul packed with great souvenir and antique shops, book stores, niche art stores, and lots of teahouses and restaurants.  This hanok teahouse caught my eye immediately and drew me in for a drink.  If you are comfortable sitting cross-legged on a wooden floor with only thin pillows to pad your bottom, the teahouse was a very inviting place.  The warm floor is glorious and the atmosphere is the definition of cozy, especially once the tea is served.  Korean teas are an inventive blend of natural ingredients, making for some truly unique and potent potables.  Some of the popular ones include chrysanthemum, cinnamon, honey ginseng, wild herb, plum, ginger, and medicinal herb.  I didn't really know what most of the ingredients were in the teas I tried, but they were all really good.  They were beautifully and artfully presented too, in these oversized earthenware cups and always with a sprinkling of the raw flavoring ingredients too.  Most also had a small amount of fresh pine nuts thrown in too, which was an extra seasonal bonus.

Back into the damp chill of the Autumn air to check out another of the five Confucian palaces.

Jongmyo Royal Shrine, the final resting place for over 600 years of Korea's deceased monarchy.  Sticking to Confucian practices and style, ancestral ceremonies were performed here multiple times per year.

The flagstoned courtyard in front of the shrine is huge and disturbingly empty.

I have no idea what exactly this animal is... kind of like a fox and a raccoon had a baby.  It was calmly watching the small group of shrine visitors from the inner corner of the complex, and it was a relief to see that not all relatively large wildlife has been pushed out by Seoul's urban expanse.

The grounds surrounding Jongmyo are a beautiful and pretty large park, which is supposedly very popular during the warmer months.  It is a pleasant and quiet place, offering another nice escape from the chaos and noise of the city all around it.   I would like to get back to Korea in summer, as I heard again and again how beautiful and warm it is then, but it was nice to see Korea in autumn too.   Korea is most definitely a country with four distinct seasons, and from what I can tell, it should bear each with dignity and style, making no part of the year a bad time to visit.

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