Monday, March 12, 2007

The Missing Year - Goodbye, Soul City


The Great South Gate -Gwanghwamun- Cultural Treasure #1


Danpyong - or Leaf Fall, is another special season in Korea. Whole web pages are devoted to places, times and dates when the best foliage displays can be seen. Mothers tenderly lift up their children so that they may touch the changing leaves. It is a lovely time to be in Seoul, but it is tinged with sadness too because I know that soon like the autumn leaves, I will be gone.


This is by no means the first time I have been in Seoul, but usually I've been here on business, whereas today I am just another tourist. I am on one of those buses that lets you get on and off all day and stops at all the tourist attractions. The city is lively, youthful and friendly. There are a lot of universities here and although it is one of the most densely populated cities in the world - only Tokyo ranks higher, I have never felt safer walking around a town at night.



Street Procession. Scenes like this are commonplace in Seoul


Following the crowd to ancient palaces

I start out from Gwangwhamun and follow the crowd to the first of many palaces. They are wonderfully anachronistic amid all the glass and steel.Their beautifully landscaped gardens are veritable havens of peace in what is the commercial, cultural and political hub of Korea. As usual there is beautiful painting and woodwork and every building tells a story.


Pretty in Pink -Changgyeongung Palace is set in beautiful gardens

Ancient trees in danger of toppling are not chopped down in Korea, they are lovingly supported and added to the catalogue of living treasures

Long queues outside WHA listed Gyeongbokgung Palace. This is only the front gate. You have to be part of a guided tour to see this huge palace, so I tag along with a group of blue shirted boy scouts


Richly decorated surfaces at Gyeongbokung Palace

Not all the palaces are painted. This restrained version inside Gyeongbokung was a place of study and meditation

Entrance to the Secret Garden. There is also a lovely water garden here.

Koreans understand the importance of grand entrances and gates - even the toll gates are impressive in places like Gyeongju, but I am also rather partial to these more modest ones


A young mother waits patiently while her son plays with autumn leaves outside one of the palaces

The sound of industrial strength drumming draws me to the Nanta Theatre. The show is a spectacular combination of traditional Korean music, story telling and performance, set in a commercial kitchen. I won't tell you any more, but I promise you will have a good time. It is getting dark when I emerge, so I head off to Insadong for bit of night shopping. This is a collection of tiny art and craft shops, antiques, coffee shops and restaurants in one of the oldest parts of town. There is talk of putting all these shops into one big complex, but I hope it never happens as a lot of the atmosphere would be lost.


What's Cookin'? The fabulous Cookin' Nanta Show
I am not going to tell you too much about this, but I guarantee that you'll come away feeling good.

Little shops like this make shopping in Insadong a pleasure

Afterwards I go to one of the three German taverns to find out what all the Germans are doing here. There's just been another one on television promoting Daegu. I'm surprised to find that it is well patronised by Koreans tucking into Bratwurst and Sauerkraut, which is I suppose, not all that far removed from Kimchi. I spend the rest of the evening talking with a Welshman, an Englishman and a German. If that sounds like the beginning of a joke, let me assure you that it was a hilarious night which made me realise how long it's been since I 've been out at night and had a good laugh.

In memory of Christoph, friendly host of the Baerlin Tavern

Afterwards I am escorted back to my hotel by a young student who wants to practice his English. He is tall, gorgeous and looks like Gong-gill in "The King and the Clown. " Contrary to the image often portrayed in Western movies, Korean men are chivalrous and, I suspect, romantics at heart.

Not everything in Seoul is beautiful. With around three million cars, air quality leaves something to be desired and though there are more sky scrapers here than in any other Asian city, there are no doubt many ugly and substandard buildings, not to mention the hideous tangles of powerlines which keep showing up in my photos. In the morning there are homeless men clustered around the subway stations and as old traditions break down, older folk are not as assured of security and respect in old age as they used to be.

The newspapers report that subway drivers now need counselling because of the growing number of suicides on the tracks. Once it was only the occasional student who had failed his exams. Now it is increasingly the elderly.

Another disturbing sight is seeing a legless man wheeling himself around the market on a low trolley and playing a battered cassette recorder in order to solicit change from passers -by. This happens on the subways too. Although I am sure their lives are more interesting than say, being stuck in an institution, it seems to me that some people have been forgotten in the headlong rush for individual prosperity and material wealth.


Not everything in Seoul is beautiful to behold

On a more positive note, I also read in the papers that large corporations such as Samsung and SK Telecom are doing quite a bit of community service and that the city is starting to address environmental issues such as clean air, more green space and the effects of rapid and unplanned development. They already have No Car Days in Seoul - odd registration numbers one day, even ones the next.The recent restoration of the Cheonggyecheon Stream with its historic bridge, which were long buried under a freeway, is a perfect example of what this city can do, once it puts its mind to it.


Meanwhile, there seems to be altogether too much emphasis on shopping, so I wander down to the Han River for a cruise, once the nearest thing to a honeymoon Korean couples could afford. There is an air of faded glory about it. Today it seems to be mostly business men and graduation classes who take their leisure on the river.

The trip downriver to Namsan Island to see the site where the romantic drama "Winter Sonata" was filmed, is unfortunately booked up, so I take the shorter cruise upriver. Every bridge tells a story and all along the river, people are skateboarding, riding bicycles and jogging. It looks just like the scene in the movie, The Mutant, before the monster comes.

My last image of Korea though, is of a little boy standing on the water's edge holding a long string of kites reaching to the heavens. Korea means sky. Somehow that image gives me a feeling of hope and joy.


A big harvest moon rises slowly over the city as I board the Gongju Express one last time. I am reminded of the words of the C17th century Poet of Danyang, Yun Seon -do:

"You ask me how many friends I have
Water and stone, bamboo and pine
The moon rising up over the eastern hill is a joyful comrade
Besides these five companions,
What other pleasures should I ask?"


Thank you Korea for having me and thanks to all those Koreans - too many of you to name, for a wonderful year!
Special thanks to all my students too for teaching me so much.

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