I don't understand it, so don't ask me why, but for some reason, Korea's capital city has decided that it needs a facelift. Here's the official line:
To boost the spirit of Seoulites and enhance the dynamic image of the nation's capital, the Seoul Metropolitan Government has adopted a new slogan: Hi SeoulThe somwhat cynical english teacher might also mention that "Hi" is about the level of conversation most english students can handle, however long they attend our academies, or whatever level of English their meaningless TOEIC scores claim they have.
Officials said the new slogan aims to deliver Seoul's bright and friendly message to the world.
The local government held the Seoul Slogan Contest for two months. The number of entries totaled 7,283, which including 110 suggestions by foreigners.
Officials said they opted for 'Hi' a familiar greeting that shows the city's friendly attitude towards the world, while it suggests Seoul's aspirations through the homonymic expression 'high.'
Still, once I heard that the city had adopted "Hi Seoul" as its motto, I was irresistably drawn to explore this warm and friendly metropolis, and hell, maybe even experience some of the 'Hi' culture for myself.
The first thing to get used to in Seoul is the sheer number of people. Sure, Korea is generally crowded, but living in rural Changwon I've been shielded from the worst of the population density. Worming my way through the expansive lines of the Seoul Metro, I suddenly felt frazzled. Everything was too hectic, there were too many people, packed too densely, and I didn't know what I was doing. Fortunately I was travelling with a friend familiar with Seoul and she was willing to guide me along.
So began my weekend in Seoul. Shown around by a Korean friend I was able to get to see everything I wanted in next to no time and had a whole lot of fun seeing the different areas of this huge city.
Seoul is bisected by the Han River. The North Side of the city contains most of the old buildings and historic palaces etc., whereas the South Side of the river brings you to lots of shopping malls, office complexes and entertainment districts. Not particularly interested in the 'new' Seoul, I went to the northside in search of some history and character. My tour began in the street known as Insa-dong-gil.
Insadong: There's plenty of character to be found here in what's possibly the most "cultural" street in the capital. It's a collection of shops selling traditional items, street vendors peddling all manner of treats, and tourists and locals alike pouring over everythign in sight. Not so bad as it sounds though. It's all really tastefully done, and not the tourist trap I feared it might be. Plus, there were some great caligraphy shops where I was able to stock up on all the supplies I needed to keep in practice after I leave Korea, and it's lots of fun having an expert talk you through the bedazzling array of brushes available.
Also, for a little snack, I discovered a new street food - basically a large lolly of brittle candy, with a shape such as a star or a heart carved into it. So what? So you buy one, and if you manage to eat around the shape, without crossing the lines, you get another one, free! Needless to say, I fluffed it, and the star shape I was trying to preserve ended up more as a triangle than anything else. :-( On the other hand, my korean friend, and guide for the day, ended up with a perfect heart that got us a free lolly! This turned out to be another star-shaped one, which I, naturally, still couldn't manage, ending up with a decapitated triangle.
Best thing about Insadong: A group of confident and happy schoolkids having a laugh as they approached me to help them with their english homework. Their teacher wanted them to interview westerners and they were hanging out in Insadong to find some. This was to be my weekend escape from teaching, but actually, I loved these kids, just because they were smiling and polite and I felt like they were making an effort to overcome their shyness about speaking with a foreigner.
Worst thing about Insadong: Being approached a little later by a group of westerners who initially seemed to need help getting where they were going, but eventually came around to their real purpose - collecting money for some worthy charity or other. Scum! Get out of my way.
For real foreigner scum though, you need to head to the dismal district known as Itaewon. This is where expats, teachers, GIs, businessmen, the wanted and the unwanted in their own countries come to live their lives in the little English-speaking enclave in the middle of Seoul. Welcome to the Ghetto, brothers. Don't ever go there. If for some reason you have to go there, then get out while you still can. It's conventient to pick up international phonecards, or find an english speaking pharmacist or something necessary like that, but if you start to think of this place as nice, rather than necessary, then it's time you stop reading - there's nothing I can say here to help you! Just get out!
Markets: Dongdaemun & Namdaemun
Itaewon is for folks who want to speak english while they go shopping or chow down on western food, but for those who want a more Korean experience, a trip to the markets is a must. I told my Korean friend that I wanted to buy a few little things and she suggested we head to Dongademun. This is the bargain-hunters market - plenty of haggling and cheaper prices than anywhere else within the city. Great, I thought, let's go.
Sadly, Dongdaemun turned out to be more of a collection of hundreds of little shops inside large stores, than what I'd been hoping for. I guess I should have been more honest with my friend. Buying some clothes and camping gear had only been the nominal objective in heading to a market. The real objective had not been to buy goods, but to collect some market experiences. Later I headed to Namdaemun, and this is exactly what I found there. This is Korea, down and dirty. If you want clean and careful, head to Lotte World, or the eye-popping COEX Mall, for a little bout of retail therapy, these places are just what the doctor ordered. However, if you want a little hustle and bustle, a lot of banter and plenty of jostling then Namdaemun is the place to go. Hawkers shouting their offers, and everywhere a riot of sound, smell and sight. For frenetic energy, cheerful bargaining and crusty old Adjummas, this has got to be the place in Korea.
When I asked my students to recommend something to do in Seoul, they told me I should take a look at something called the 63 Building. It's down in the business district, an area that locals refer to as the Manhattan of Korea. I have my doubts, but having previously complained about the dismal state of the architecture in Korea, I thought I'd better give it a look. And I gotta admit, the students were right.
As office buildings go, the 63 Building was pretty, as was the Millennium Tower. In its own way, I also found a certain prettiness in Seoul Tower - the viewing point from which to see as much of Seoul as you can without actually being airborne! Usually I hate viewing towers, (give or take the one in Paris), and wasn't looking forward to visiting Seoul Tower. Maybe it was just the fun mood I was in, or maybe it was having my friend/tour-guide point out lots of the famous landmarks we could see from the vantage point, but all-in-all we had a fun time at Seoul Tower too. I still think the one down in Busan yields a nicer view - but hey, this is Korea, and in Korea, everything in Seoul is better! ;-)
Another thing I liked about Seoul was that cafe culture seemed to have settled in nicely. In the trendy shopping district of Jongno we were able to sit at a streetside cafe, and spent a half hour or so watching the beautiful people wander by. One of the nicest things about this weekend was being shown around Seoul by a Seoulite. I'd taken Seoul-based daytrips before, to the DMZ and to the Korean Folk Village near Suwon, but these are specific destinations, and for a total wander around the capital itself, it was great having an accompanying Korean.
Half way through the day, we bumped into a couple I know. They teach at the same school as me, and just like me, they had made the trek up to Seoul for the long weekend. However, unlike me, they'd decided to take a guided tour of the city with one of the local konglish-speaking tour companies. When I met them I couldn't help feeling a little superior for doing it all independently, and getting the insiders tips from my korean friend, whilst they trotted along with a ragtag bunch of tourists led around the nose by the stopwatch-checking tourgudie.
But that's OK - they probably felt superior to me as they climbed back aboard their comfortable tour bus and whizzed hassle-free to the convienent city tour's next destination. I guess it's just a matter of attitude. I thought they were being mollycoddled, and suckered by a tour agent, and they probably thought I was a scrooge for not spending the minimal amount of money for all the extra comfort. But I pride myself on getting lost pretty much everywhere, and how am I supposed to do that from the back seat of a tour bus?
Anyway, up until that point it turns out we'd visited many of the same sights either way, but what I had planned for the evening was going to beat the socks off whatever they did.
Nanta - or Cookin' to use its english name. Nanta (click through to the english pages) is a musical experience that has to be seen and heard to be believed. Its supposedly the story of four chefs who have to prepare too many dishes in not enough time, before a wedding party arrives at 6pm.
However, that simple story is really just an excuse for what awaits you - a percussionary feast made from only the finest ingredients - knives, pots, pans, clangs, Korean dance, Kung Fu, buddhist prayers and a few magic ingredients; with a big dollop of audience participation for extra flavour.
We bribed the head waiter to get a couple of "royal" seats - front row, centre - and if you're gonna go to Nanta, this is the place to sit. You get hit by bits of flying cabbage, and more than likely you'll be asked to participate in the show - hell, at one point, I even got married!
Trust me. If you only do one thing in the evening in Seoul, this has got to be it!
And that's pretty much it for my weekend.
Hi Seoul, Bye Seoul!