IT’S FIVE IN THE AFTERNOON, and I’m standing in front of the futuristic Dongdaemun Design Plaza. The temperature hovers around the negative teens and chilly winds further aggravate the cold – a further test of my resolve. I’m looking at the structure’s beautiful yet weird architecture – something like a spaceship that landed in the middle of a city – in one of the busiest areas of Seoul.
I’ve arrived in the South Korean capital a few hours earlier and dropped my bag at a house in Insa-dong, the city’s geographical center, where I will be basing myself for the next two nights. Soyoung, the owner of the house, which she rents out via Airbnb, has suggested a couple of things I can do on my first day in Seoul.
I’ve done one of those, which is to try a restaurant near her house. Now I’m trying to get into grips with my new environment. I chose to start my walking tour by going south to the Cheonggyecheon – a public recreation space that cuts through the street dividing Insa-dong and the area just above the shopping district of Myeong-dong – and heading east towards Dongdaemun. I figured since I’m not familiar with the subway yet, I’d walk first and avoid overspending on fares.
It turns out I underestimated the cold and by the time I arrived in Dongdaemun half an hour later, I’m shivering to the bone. My hands feel like they’ve been holding ice for a few minutes now and it’s starting to blush. I rush to a street stall selling mittens and end up spending 2000 won for a pair. My first unexpected expense.
The winter temperature doesn’t dampen my spirits completely, though. I end up spending an hour more in the area before walking back to Insa-dong to have dinner and rest, anticipating a lot of walking in the days ahead.
IN THE PAST DECADE OR SO, South Korea has become more popular internationally with the hallyu phenomenon sweeping across the globe. Korean music, movies, TV shows, and other cultural icons have become household names, spurring interest among travelers to visit the country. But as far as Asian countries are concerned, South Korea is still largely unexplored. Beyond the fascinating city of Seoul, and coastal Busan to some extent, I realize I don’t really know much about the country.
South Korea as a country began with the partition of the Korean peninsula after World War II, with the Soviet Union occupying the northern part and the U.S. occupying the south. The two Koreas would go on further separately after the Korean War in 1953. North Korea would languish in the Communist era and become an isolated state. On the other hand, South Korea would at first plunge into a dictatorship and financial hard times before turning into a highly democratic state with one of the world’s largest economies.
Seoul in particular is teeming with activities; locals and tourists alike are spoiled for things to do whatever the hour is. Markets and stores cater to every budget, restaurants serve local and international fares, and numerous attractions provide physical activities for the athletic. Yet for all the glamor and the pop culture associated with the city, it’s still a place steeped in tradition.
At the center of Seoul, about a short walk from where I’m based for the next two days, are three of the city’s most popular attractions – the Gyeongbokgung, the Changdeokgung, and the Bukchon Hanok Village.
I start the next day with an early walk through the Bukchon Hanok Village, an area of narrow streets lined by hanok (traditional Korean houses). As Seoul sped towards progress during the so-called Miracle on the Han River, many of these houses were replaced by glass-and-concrete structures, and it seemed the hanok in Seoul were completely on the way out. But the city decided to save them and the area remains a lovely reminder of Korea’s past among the increasingly modern landscape.
As I explore its maze of alleys, I pass by a souvenir store. The lady inside the store greets me and invites me in to look around, offering me a cup of hot tea and letting me sit beside the electric heater. A few minutes later, I’m carrying a bag of Korean figurines and nail cutters. My second unexpected expense.
An hour later I exit the village to the east and walk to the Gyeongbokgung. One of Seoul’s most popular sights, Gyeongbokgung is the largest of the Five Grand Palaces and the oldest, with construction in 1395, just as the Joseon Dynasty started. It was destroyed by the Japanese, first during the invasion in 1592, and then during the Japanese occupation in the early 20th century. Restoration efforts have been ongoing since 1990.
My next destination would have been Changdeokgung east of Bukchon, but it’s Monday and the palace is closed, so I return for some lunch at Insa-dong instead before going further south to Namsan.
I ARRIVE AT THE SHOPPING MECCA OF MYEONG-DONG shortly past two in the afternoon. The area is located at the foot of Namsan, a small mountain that once marked Seoul’s boundary before the city swallowed up nearby areas to become the massive metropolitan area it is today. Part of the city’s walls built during the Joseon era can still be seen up the mountain. But the mountain is now more well-known for the modern N Seoul Tower sitting on top of it. The tower was built in 1969 to broadcast TV and radio signals, though now it has become more popular as a tourist hotspot, with an adjacent plaza containing various attractions, such as restaurants, shops, and a park.
A cable car takes visitors to the top and back. I decide to hike three kilometers from one of the starting points at the foot of the mountain, partly to save a few won, and partly to enjoy the wintry trails of the mountain. I pass through well-groomed paths with trees covered in snow, rivers frozen, and viewpoints overlooking the city. I reach the summit just in time for the golden hour to cast a romantic glow on the park.
Shortly before sunset, I walk to the other side of the mountain and begin my descent on a different path, getting to Myeong-dong just in time for dinner. I duck into a restaurant and order bibimbap. I finish my meal and spend the rest of the night exploring the area before taking the subway back to Insa-dong.
I BEGIN TUESDAY with the delayed trip to Changdeokgung. The palace was built in 1405 as a secondary palace to Gyeongdokgung after a complex royal power struggle resulted in the decline of the Gyeongbokgung’s authority. The palace would then become the preferred residence of many Joseon princes, so the palace was regularly maintained. Consequently, Changdeokgung retains many elements of ancient Korea. The compound also features a natural relationship with the site it was built on as it was constructed in a manner that it integrates itself with the environment around it.
While the palace itself is majestic, it’s the rear garden that is the highlight of a visit to the compound. Known as Huwon or the Secret Garden, this sprawling space contains a number of pavilions, houses, ponds, lawns and trees were once the private recreational space of the king. Visitors can only enter here through a guided tour, so I join an English-speaking tour.
After Changdeokgung, I leave Insadong. I only booked Soyoung’s house for two nights, but decided it’s more practical to stay for one more night in Seoul than to travel at night and arrive in Busan at dawn, when it’s very cold and most cheap accommodation won’t probably be open until hours later. So I booked a night in G Guesthouse Itaewon, which has the cheapest price at an online booking site.
The presence of a military base nearby has made Itaewon popular with American soldiers, and by extension, foreigners. Now, the area has become something of a foreigners’ quarters, with a cosmopolitan array of shops and restaurants becoming its main feature – aside from the not-so-desirable reputation for being the rendezvous point for “secret” affairs.
The hostel is just a short walk away from the subway station. I check in, drop for a few moments on my bed on a lower bunk, and in no time, finding myself chatting with the guy from the bunk across. His name is Justin, a Korean-Japanese from Canada, who is in the Korean leg of his round-the-world journey. I mention that tomorrow’s my birthday and that I’m going to Busan, and he asks if I’m willing to let him tag along. I say yes, because I can use a companion and because his fluency in Korean will definitely come in handy.
JUSTIN AND I spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the area of Seoul south of the Han River. We first go to the Olympic Park, a modern recreational space with state-of-the-art facilities built in 1988, when Seoul hosted the Summer Olympics. Right on cue, snow starts to fall as I see a large sign reminding visitors that South Korea once again is on the forefront of sporting events this year. Pyeongchang county in Gangwon province southeast of Seoul is hosting the Winter Olympics.
The skating rink begins to fill with families making the most out of the frigid weather, gliding through the ice as a stream of K-pop blares through the speakers. Justin and I watch them for a while before making our way a few kilometers west to the COEX mall. We hang around for a few hours to warm ourselves before returning to Itaewon for a dinner of barbecue and a bottle of makgeolli (Korean rice wine) at one of the restaurants.
“It’s your birthday tomorrow,” Justin says as he pours makgeolli on his cup, and then mine. He raises his cup. “Cheers.”
I raise mine too. “Cheers.”