Heart and Seoul of a land
Korea is an interesting mix of temples, tall buildings and trendy bars
THE POST-1988 FACE South Korea has opened up after the Seoul Olympics
Flying into South Korea is a revelation. You find no particular reason to fly into Seoul where as you do to fly into Singapore, Hong Kong or Tokyo. North Korea and South Korea were not the traveller's map for a long time. The Seoul Olympics changed all that. Post-1988, travel to South Korea took off, to Seoul first, Jeju next and then Busan. The first thing people ask you as you land How do you like Seoul? They ask out of pride that Seoul has arrived as a world city. A visitor wouldn't say I don't like it. There's no reason to.
You can fly into Seoul via Singapore. Six-odd-hours after the journey from Singapore, you will descend hopefully in the night into Seoul's newest international airport at Incheon, an hour away from central Seoul. Night because Incheon and Seoul are brilliantly lit and the long bridge connecting the two is a sight to behold from the air.
Seoul has everything that London and New York have tall buildings, neon lights, wide roads, air-conditioned public buses and taxis, shopping malls, fashion outlets and the ubiquitous cell phone probably carries the best ring tones in the world. Very soulful. The younger lot, if they aren't listening to a CD, are on the cell in the bus, subway, restaurant or while walking. Seoul carries tradition too. Lovely pre-modern South East Asian architectural wonders blend with post-modern structures. The blend is there in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur too, but in Seoul it is neat and tucked in. Singapore, as Merose Hwang, a good Korean-American friend put it, is "too manicured, too perfect. Seoul has lively imperfections".
The Han River from east to west cuts Seoul into two. Jungu-gu is the central district that showcases the absolutely wonderful Gwanghwamun area and the Tapgol Park. Gwanghwamun is a fabulous intersection fourteen lanes meeting each other from two directions. Everything is big here including the portrait of the great Picasso. It is also a historic place for student protests, a major feature of South Korean life. Thousands with candle lights blocking off 14 lanes in protest against the killing of a South Korean in Iraq will make you curious what an intersection that holds so many is like. Around the intersection are the traditional palaces Gyeongbokgung, Changgyeonggung, and Changdeokgung that go as far back as 1004.
Further West are Sinchon, the Hong-ik and Yonsei University, the best student nightlife areas. Sinchon is class. Lights on till 4 a.m., you can eat, drink, dance and walk back home from here safe. You can't count the pubs and traditional wine places here. Two are a stand out: Woodstock, The Seventies is a pub that offers exclusive American rock of the 1970s and 1980s; the wine centre, People's Bar, has resistance writings on its walls and you are invited to write on them to register that you were at the freedom bar. Also what better way to relive history than pouring wine from a traditional bamboo jar? There's another must-do bar: the Karaoke (Norae-Bang or singing rooms) in Sinchon. The bars are crowded just right. Visit the place with Oranje juice and a few colourful singers even if Korean because they sing to their heart's content. Yonsei University at the Sinchon crossing is a delight. Going back 150 years, the University is set amidst pinewoods and peaks.
Itaewon is the neighbourhood in Yongsangu on the south side of Namsan Park. It is home to the enormous American military base and famous for shopping, bars and nightlife. You'll want to do the G Spot, Soho and Trance, the three best gay bars here at night when you'll also see a curious mix of Bangladeshis, Indians, Africans and Americans. The menu in each of these bars is good, but one is startling wine, beer, and women. All these also make up a city, don't they? The Latin bars have youngsters dancing away the South American way. Gangnam-gu, the district on the south of the Han is the most prestigious area to live. Prof. Nah, Yoonkyeong, another friend tells us something interesting. "You find rich women shopping early morning. They have lots of money and nothing to do at home. That is why you see them at shops or parlours." That's another thing. Plastic surgery outlets and beauty parlours reign here. You'll also find Rodeo Street, the richest in Seoul and, Andre Jim, the richest designer here.
Namsan Park, Seoul's main peak, was once the southern extent of old royal Seoul. At the top of the peak is Seoul Tower, third tallest in the world. Jangchung Park is at the eastern end of Namsan Park. The park is well-adorned with magnificent sculptures set out amongst the woods.
And then the Manhattan of Seoul the island of Yeouido. Here is where the KLI 63 Building, Korea's tallest, is located. From the top you see the heart of Seoul the LG Towers, the massive flyovers and the fabulous Han River dissecting the city.
As you move around Seoul, you realise three things about South Korean life. Everyone here wants to live in Seoul. You don't hear English at all and yet the best cell phone in the world is from here. Not a single Japanese car in Seoul, which is less than two hours from Tokyo. How have they managed that? Isn't it worth finding out?
War memorial - The best museum in Seoul that traces the history of war in Korea from the Three Kingdoms period to the Korean War.
Soedaemun Prison History Hall - Resistance against the Japanese is a pride in Korea. The park was built on the site of a former prison where patriotic Koreans were martyred during the Japanese occupation of 1910-1945.
Olympic Stadium - The 1988 Seoul Olympics opened up South Korea. There is an `88' everywhere 88 gymnasium, 88 swimming pool, 88 rent-a-car and even a popular brand of cigarettes called 88.
Inwangsan - a dramatic mountain hike close to the centre of the city.
Dongdaemun market - a large area full of shopping malls open all night.
Daehangno Street - The cradle of Korean performing arts, the off-Broadway of Seoul. Small theatres, galleries, cafes, folk taverns and restaurants are sprawled all over this area.
Insa-Dong - Traditional Korea is here. Get a glimpse of ink paintings, calligraphy works, antique furniture, curios, handcrafts and ceramics.
Temples - In the alleys south east of Gyeongbokgung is the largest Buddhist temple in Seoul, Jogyesa; the shrine Jongmyo houses is the resting place of the ancestral tablets of the Yi Kings.
Currency: Won. Approximately, 30 won is one rupee and 1000 won is one dollar.
Travel: Public bus service, subway and taxis not expensive. Flying into Seoul and back is moderately expensive.
Food: Lots of white rice and vegetables for vegetarians. Plenty of non-vegetarian food.
For more details on eating places, hotels, bookings and prices, check out the Korea National Tourist Organisation's website at www.visitkorea.or.kr
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