I flew back from China for the last time via Seoul, South Korea. I had two reasons for this: I’d never been there, but my American colleagues in Jinan usually flew via Seoul and recommended it as a place to visit; the law in China had been changed regarding what could be taken on a train or bus, specifically excluding knives of any kind. Over the years, I had built up a small collection of expensive Japanese kitchen knives, and I didn’t want to part with them. Given that meant I couldn’t get a train to Beijing or the subway across the city or train out to the airport (my normal route), I was left with the the option of an internal flight to Beijing, with the almost inevitable three-hour delay (plus the need to spend a night in a hotel in Beijing to make allowance for that), or the alternative of an international flight to Seoul, which would probably be on time, plus a few days in Seoul before going on to London (via Doha), it really seemed like the better option. (The price was about the same for the flights.)
It started raining just after the plane landed, and by the time I’d taken the subway to the area where my hostel was booked, it was coming down like water from a tap. It was also very dark – not much in the way of street lighting. The map at the subway station was completely ambiguous (it was impossible to tell North from South), and I wound up walking along beside the river looking in vain for the hostel. I eventually went back to the station and asked people in the street. It didn’t actually take long to find someone who spoke English, was friendly enough to call the owner of the hostel on my mobile, and point me at the place itself (just a hundred-odd metres away on the other side of the river). It might be worth pointing out that there was no-one in the hostel itself. I finally got in and dragged my 23kg suitcase up the narrow stairs to the fourth floor (no lift). Inside the tiny room (smallest I’ve ever seen), I had to take as much out of the case as I could and find places to hang things up to dry, since the case itself was waterlogged. Fortunately, it wasn’t too late in the evening to go out again, find a supermarket, and buy a couple of beers. Never has Bitburger tasted so good (and I like Bitburger), and thanks to that, I managed to get some sleep, with the window open and the airco fan on in an attempt to dry off some clothing, while it continued bucketting down outside.
In the morning, the sun was shining, although rain was forecast for later. As the hostel was fairly central, it was possible to walk to some of the tourist sites, which I did. Unfortunately, while creating this page, I have found it very difficult (practically impossible) to find the places I visited on a map (and I’ve tried several maps). It wasn’t quite so impossible to find the way around on the ground, though I didn’t stray very far from the centre of the city. Even when I changed hostel – I needed an extra couple of nights, but the first hostel had no vacancies – I wasn’t so very far away from the first one.
On my first full day in Seoul, just out for a walk locally, I came across Unhyeongung Palace (to be honest, I did see a small sign and followed it, but I knew nothing about it before that). This turned out to be quite pleasant, as there was almost no-one else around and even traffic noise was much reduced.
The first hostel where I stayed was on the street by Cheonggyecheon Stream. I mentioned that the room was very small, but there was access to the roof, and it was pretty much surrounded by tiny shops and street markets. If I hadn’t been so wet on arrival, and slightly feverish for the two or three days I was there, I would have enjoyed it more, I’m sure. The stream itself is a tourist attraction, as is the market.
Korean food is very popular in China, and one of my colleagues in Jinan was a Korean-American, so I’d sampled various things before ever getting to the country. I ate in the market near the first hostel a few times, at lunchtime or early evening, because it was good and not expensive; basically variations of Bibimbap mixed rice (the link goes to a very good website for Korean food in general), which is so simple, versatile, and tasty that it is possible to eat it almost every day and not get bored. Another time, I went to a barbecue restaurant, which was very popular with the locals (though it seemed expensive after China). The meat was extremely fresh – being delivered and passed into the kitchen for preparation immediately (actual cooking was done by the customers themselves at the tables).
I visited one of the “Five grand palaces of Korea” – Changdeokgung (lots more tourist information here: Changdeokgung) – where admission is free to those wearing a Hanbok (traditional Korean clothes – which explains why so many people were doing just that), but quite expensive for others, I thought.
I also visited Deoksugung Palace, almost opposite the city hall, including Seokjojeon and a western style garden, designed by British Architect G.R Harding, within the palace grounds, and was walking around when, to my surprise, my visit was interrupted by a procession of people in traditional Korean costumes, carrying ancient-style weapons, and playing something like music on traditional instruments. It was the ceremonial changing of the guard. After walking around inside the site for a while, they proceded beyond the gateway, where the ceremony proper took place, under the eyes of a number of tourists, who – unlike me – seemed to know that this was going to happen.
Across the square was the city hall, where there was an exhibition downstairs, and access to the roof, from which I took a few pictures.
Seoul was just too much for me – too busy, too much concrete, too much traffic, too many people, and far too much commerce, so I was quite relieved to head to the airport (where I was amused by mispronouncing the name of the local airline) and get out of there.