Travelling is a bit of a perspective trick sometimes. For my fellow travel mates, mostly coming from South East Asia, Korea was neat and orderly but I, just off the plane from Japan, found it dirty, grey and grim. Not in terms of litter – there are no garbage cans here either – but industrial dirt. It was incredibly overcast when I was there and I could barely make out the ships in the distance, but at least part of that must be smog. As we approached Seoul, evidence of industry was everywhere – all kinds of industrial plants, huge ports filled with massive ships and filling mechanisms. And you can see how much land they’re trying to reclaim. It’s not beautiful at all but it is impressive. Korea has been working away, trying to become a force to behold on the world markets, and this is clear everywhere you look.
In the airport, throngs of women and children in traditional Korean dress welcome the guests of more than one conference while Korean military and police walk through the airport in bullet proof vests, red mirrored sunglasses and uzis. In town we passed a grey swimming pool and a girl waterskiing on the grey waterfront before we pulled up in front of the impressively grey Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP). It’s a gorgeous, modern architectural marvel with not one straight line or angle on the whole building and it is massive – it sits in the place where the stadium used to be. But it is also entirely grey and appears to have no windows, traits that only contribute to the feeling of emotionless futurama. I wasn’t sad to move on.
Finally at Gyeongbokgung Palace we saw some colour. Intricately decorated wood buildings and gates date from 1405. This was the second palace after the first one, built in 13-something, was destroyed. Every surface of the wooden structures were painted in bright colours and I couldn’t help thinking how long it must have taken, not only to do the painting in the first place, but to do the restoration. There wasn’t much to see at the palace grounds other than the walls and buildings but it was my favourite thing in Seoul. Our guide taught us that the Korean language was invented in 1410 by the last king at this palace. It’s a phonetic language, has 27 characters and they are stacked in groupings of 2 or 3. Neat.
For lunch we went to the market area of Insadong. It’s an important cultural district with a network of galleries and tea shops, and I was looking forward to exploring it thoroughly but it turned out to be a tourist trap with almost no merit. I had a nice lunch of bulgolgi with all the assorted kimchi and condiments and found a couple of interesting antique shops in amongst the crappy souvenirs but not much to warrant exploring further.
Our guide spent a lot of time talking about how so much of the country was destroyed after the war and now they are trying to rebuild. His pride was evident when he spoke about the Unesco national treasures and it’s how much money Korea is putting into technology and tourism and construction and industry. That stoicism and determination was something that I saw a lot of in Japan as well… so many temples and shrines that have burned down or been destroyed by an earthquake or a tidal wave or the war (or all of those) and they just rebuild it again and again. There’s no wallowing or thinking about giving up, just getting on with it. My airline magazine had a feature on an historic Korea village in the mountains called Seobaek-dong whose name means “writing the kanji for ‘endure’ one hundred times a day”. That’s not something that we really have the memory or the stomach for in the west, with our quest for newness, but think we can take a lesson from it. Food for thought on my journey back to the new world.