My time in Seoul so far has been full of surprises, even though a lot of things have been destroyed and rebuilt, the city has expanded so quickly. There is definitely no shortage of markets, restaurants, free museums, palaces and temples to see, so I tried to fit in a little bit of everything.
Day 03: Korean War Memorial and National Museum of Korea
I spent a long time walking through these exhibits, it was fascinating to learn about centuries of history and war. There were three floors of displays and there was a good mix of artifacts and stories. The Korean War section was very interesting, they had lots of videos and letters from world leaders at the time and it really showed the struggle that divided the country.
In the pre-20th Century section, they had models of warships, including my favourite, the turtle ship. It was one of Commander Yi Sun-sin’s legacies, although he didn’t invent it, he refined it and used it in his strategies. He had an undefeated record of 23 battles with the Japanese navy, including a battle when they outnumbered him 133 to 13.
The National Museum of Korea is two subway stops away and it’s huge. It took a few hours to check out the three floors, but it was peaceful to sit in the Buddhist sculpture section at the end. Although I’m not religious, I have good memories of going to the temple with my parents when I was a kid. I guess it’s just comforting to see the serene faces and be reminded to take time and be still for a while.
Before returning to my accommodation, I stopped by the Namdaemun Market for some exploring and dinner. It’s lined with food vendors and so many different stalls, most of them stocking cute things like Pokemon or other things that I was tempted to buy. Luckily the food section contained photos, since I’d made the mistake of ordering a fiery hot soup at lunch earlier. It’s quite nice to walk around the city at night, since there are always people around it feels safe.
Day 04: DMZ and City Hall
I took a tour to the DMZ, which is a 4km wide stretch of land that marks the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea. Interestingly, people are allowed to live there, which has three main perks: a house is provided, exemption from mandatory military service (~2 years for males) and tax exemption for farmed produce. The downside is the 6pm curfew and there’s no vacancies for new residents.
The drive took about an hour and after we had our passports checked, we entered the DMZ. To be honest, there wasn’t anything that stood out to tell us we were in this strange place, it was just a surreal feeling. Considering the Korean War wasn’t that long ago (1950-53), I felt sadness for the tragedy that fell on the country, but there were so many statues and messages expressing South Korea’s desire for a unified Korea.
Obviously we weren’t free to roam around the area, but we were able to walk through the first 400m of the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. So far, South Korea has discovered four tunnels dug by North Korea, ranging from 40-110km. The 3rd tunnel was painted black to look like an abandoned coal mine and luckily they gave us hard hats, because it very narrow.
From the observatory, we could look through binoculars to peek into North Korea, unfortunately it was raining and it was hard to see anything. I caught glimpses of what looked like a town, but I wondered if it was real or not.
The last stop was the Dorasan Train Station, where they have built the railroads and stations, for the day that Korea is unified again. Currently the train just runs to Seoul a few times a day, but maybe one day this train to Pyeongyang could be a reality.
Afterwards our tour guide dropped us off to get lunch near City Hall and at first we were all really quiet, we were hungry and busy eating, but also collecting our thoughts of what we saw during the day. It probably raised more questions, since we can’t really see the other side of the story or really understand the notion of an actually divided country. We had some lighthearted conversation after that and parted ways, mainly looking for indoor activities to avoid the rain.
I walked past the The Deoksugung Palace while the guards were changing over and decided to have a look. It was used by the prince in the 16th Century, but the King temporarily lived there when the other palace burned down. A lot of the key structures in Seoul were damaged or destroyed by wars and occupation, but it’s impressive to see how well they have been rebuilt and preserved.
Next I went to the Seoul Museum of Art which had an exhibit for Ahn Sang-soo, a famous typographer/poet/designer who is known for his work with Hanguel (the Korean alphabet). Each piece was so aesthetically pleasing and it was very relaxing to take a seat and admire his work. Since it was such a cold day, a lot of the markets were wrapping up early, so I found some dinner and had an early night too.
Day 05: Palace Quarter
I started with the largest Palace, Gyeongbokgung Palace, it was built in the 14th Century, but it was destroyed in the 16th Century and several buildings were burned down again in the 20th Century. Nowadays it looks good as new, with a few restorations in some of the smaller buildings. A lot of people hire Hanbok costumes, the traditional Korean dress, to take photos around the grounds. It was selfie-central and it was hard to find detailed information on the buildings or history,
The Palace is made up of so many buildings and it’s a bit hard to see, but the picture below shows the rough layout. There are three gates out the front, the main hall in the middle, the living quarters at the back, service buildings on the right and buildings for guests on the left.
At lunch time I went to Insadong, a street with lots of shops for handmade crafts and plenty of different foods to try. The cold noodles were a surprising treat, they’re glassy, but you need to cut them with scissors because they get stuck together and you can’t tear them with your teeth. It sounds weird, but it was very enjoyable.
Next up was the Changdeokgang Palace, it’s hard to tell the difference between the designs, since this was also built in the 14th Century. But this is unique because the layout isn’t square like the other palaces, it’s shaped around the natural topography of the area, so half of it is a giant garden and the rest of the buildings flow into each other. With lots of corridors, the King could move between the different sections without having to put his shoes on. I managed to catch the English speaking tour and learned nifty things like the floor heating system which is prominent in buildings in Korea today and makes being barefoot indoors even better.
The last stop was Bongeunsa Temple in the Gangnam district. Although the surrounding buildings belong to the high tech companies like Samsung, this temple has been in the same spot for over a thousand years. Unfortunately it started raining again, so I took shelter on one of the porches and listened to the rain for a little while.
Day 06: University Quarter
This whole area was pretty cool, there was a longboard festival in town, with loads of music and people gathering all over the place. The district is filled with shops, places to eat, arcades and bars and was just an exciting place to see.
The skylines here are really fascinating, there are plenty of skyscrapers and high rise apartment buildings, as far as the eye can see. But the design of the structures changes in every direction, it quickly changes from ultra modern, to traditional and everything in between. Even though the spring season is still 3-15 degrees each day, the flowers blossoming across the city brought people out in droves.
I went to visit the N Seoul Tower with one of my dorm friends Ky, she’s from Malaysia and it was her last night in Seoul too. It was quite a cold evening (for me at least), so I was surpised to see how popular it was on a Sunday night. There were plenty of people taking selfies, thousands of love-locks on the railings and city lights in all directions. With 10 million people living in the city, you could see all the massive apartment blocks out in the distance as well as parts of the old walls which have been restored. The rest of the night was just packing and mentally preparing myself for tomorrow’s big ride.