Seoul’s attractions aren’t all tinged with the peninsular’s recent fractious history. There’s plenty of stuff to see that doesn’t have a Korean war story, or at least not one that’s made it onto an information board. Exceedingly tall men pretending to guard the old imperial palace for example.
We happened upon the changing of the guard at Gyeongbokgung, a royal palace dating from the 14th century, and heck these guys were tall. Maybe they had platforms on. Actually, I wouldn’t put it past faux-guard recruitment to select the tallest, scariest looking applicants, a similar thing goes on with the for-real guards of the border with the North. But more on that next time, I’ll try to not mention the war for now.
There are plenty of atmospheric backstreets to wander too, away from the pomp and ceremony, particularly to the south and east of the imperial palace. As ever, in a way, the most interesting parts of the city are the everyday, lived in bits. I find reading about the history of a place intriguing, but when you’re actually there walking about, the places where something extraordinary once happened are rarely as absorbing as the places where something ordinary is happening right now.
One of our favourite way s to see and feel the everyday beat of a place is to eat. All of the foods. Our best Seoul food experience was at Gwangjang market, a buzzing, loud, pleasingly gritty, covered market. The centre of the market is packed with stalls serving up all sorts of Korean delights, to customers squashed together on benches along the many counters. It’s particularly famous for its mung bean pancakes. At last, a vegetarian Korean speciality!
The famed pancakes are on the left, and they were crispy, greasy perfection. In the middle is pig foot. Order one and they’ll chop it up for you and serve it with kimchi and dip. I had seaweed wrapped vegetable rice rolls, which were fresh and tasty. Sounds like sushi? Don’t call it that in Korea (Japan’s not too popular here), it’s called gimbap, and it’s completely different (it’s not).
And if you tire of aimless wandering and streetfood grazing, there’s always Lotte World.
Lotte World is Korea’s answer to Disney World, except really small, on an island in a river in the middle of the city, and under the flag of a multinational conglomerate better known for its supermarkets and chocolate. Having a Lotte as a good friend, we were particularly excited to see this.
These pictures just skim the surface of the Lotte related fun available in Seoul. There’s the Lotte department store, the Charlotte theatre, Lottemarts for your grocery shopping, Lotte chocolate to snack on, and for your fast food needs, Lotteria. (Try the mozzarella burger, it’s literally a burger sized piece of breaded mozzarella in a bun, with burger toppings, including cheese. Seriously.)
If you fancy papering a wall of your house with pictures of stuff that says Lotte on it, Lotte, you know where to find us.
And then there’s Gangnam, Seoul’s wealthiest district.
You may be familiar with the popular music title Gangnam Style, or at least the horse riding dance that goes with it. Here is a potted summary, courtesy of Wikipedia.
The phrase “Gangnam Style” is a Korean neologism that refers to a lifestyle associated with the Gangnam District of Seoul. The song and its accompanying music video went viral in August 2012 and have influenced popular culture worldwide since then. By the end of 2012, the song had topped the music charts of more than 30 countries including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain, and the United Kingdom. As the song continued to rapidly gain popularity and ubiquity, its signature dance moves were attempted by many notable political leaders such as the British Prime Minister David Cameron, U.S. President Barack Obama, and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who hailed it as a “force for world peace”. On May 7, 2013, at a bilateral meeting with South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye at the White House, U.S. President Barack Obama cited the success of “Gangnam Style” as an example of how people around the world are being “swept up” by the Korean Wave of culture.
K-Pop (modern Korean pop music) does seem to be slowly but surely taking over the world: its hyper-upbeat, hairgelled tones have already conquered most of Asia.
So, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit Gangnam.
What we did miss, because we didn’t know about it, was the Gangnam Tourist Information Centre. Sounds dull, right?
Turns out you can play K-Pop dress up there, with props, and sets. Sets! Our friend and fellow travel blogger Emma visited the Tourist Information Centre a few days before we were in Seoul. Read her take on it, but in short this is what we missed:
So, oblivious to the fancy dress opportunities at our fingertips, we just gave Gangnam a flying visit. In other words, we went, we saw, it rained, we left. In summary, there are a lot of shiny tall buildings. On our five minute walk we passed a man begging, knelt prostrate with his forehead to the floor, as seems to be customary in Korea. 50 metres further on was a very expensive, very empty steak restaurant blasting It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year out to the street. Getting back onto the subway with us was a family with a six or seven year old girl wearing a pink Harvard jumper.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. The song is essentially a piss take of the Gangnam lifestyle of conspicuous consumption, and the copycat spending of people who aspire to that lifestyle without the income (or more likely trust fund) to support it. I read an illuminating article about the subtext of Gangnam Style, which quotes a Korean joke about women who live off instant noodles so that they can be seen drinking hideously overpriced coffee at Starbucks. Hence the boast in the song that goes something like ‘I drink my coffee in one gulp, while it’s still boiling hot.’
Who knew doing the horse dance had so much meaning?
Actually, eating instant noodles doesn’t have the same ‘slumming it’ connotation in Asia as in Europe, it’s more like having a sandwich. We had instant noodles for lunch our first day in Seoul, eating standing up at the 7/11 noodle making counter. A very authentic Korean lunch. Mine were pizza flavour though, because (surprise surprise) none of the Korean flavours are vegetarian. Over the course of this trip my reluctance to eat instant noodles has utterly dissolved, in fact I’m eating some as an afternoon snack as I type.
But still, eating them every day, for Starbucks? It’s not even good coffee.