You guys, it’s really been forever since we went to Seoul. Like, since then, I got a whole new visa, one that allows me to live in this country without having to make trips like the one we made to Seoul. I started my job. Rob went to America and came back. We also bought bikes, which has been life-changing, and figured out how to order water for our water cooler. SMALL WINS.
I totally meant to write about Seoul earlier. In fact, I did write about it earlier, but then I attempted to save it in WordPress, and it didn’t save — it got erased — and then I wept silently and slammed my computer shut and vowed to never make that mistake again. And then I made the same mistake again, with another post, like three days later. And now you know why our blog has been idling silently.
Anyway, now that I’ve basically forgotten everything, I’m going to try again, and this time with only the high hard points, because I don’t remember any other kinds of points.
Here is my short analysis of Seoul: Modern and international, with charming old architecture tucked into parts of the city, and tons of restaurants. Like, I have never seen so many restaurants in one municipality. I do not understand how they all remain open.
All that said, you should really go here if the outdoors make you feel warm and fuzzy — there are massive parks in the city of Seoul, and they make Central Park look silly. Seoul raises you a mountain in the heart of the metropolis, NYC. Apparently, you can also go rock-climbing, biking, running — anything you want, really. This was a major selling point for our friend Amarynth, a fellow Lucer who’s spending her year in Seoul. She has already made a lot of rock-climbing friends. She also runs, like, an Ironwoman daily (disclaimer: I do not know how far you have to run for an Ironman), and in Seoul, she does this by running UP to the top of that mid-city mountain. I hiked to the top of that mountain and turned purple and felt quivery. Color me impressed.
We only hiked one day, the last day. I immediately wished, however, that we’d skipped many of the other things we did to experience Seoul’s nature, because it’s really unique.
Not that the other stuff was bad — the next best things to do in Seoul are to eat and wander around neighborhoods. As you can imagine, we did a lot of that.
Fellow Lucer Diana and her cousin took us to a pig trotter restaurant 만족오향족발 (not even one single clue what that is in English, but it’s near City Hall, if you’ve happened upon this blog post while attempting to plan a trip to Seoul), where you wrap succulent hunks of pig foot in lettuce with bean paste and garlic. Sort of like Korean BBQ you may have had, only, you know, foot meat is delicious. Pig trotter restaurants are a Seoul specialty, too.
Diana also took us to the Tongin Market, where you can buy a ticket and get a tray heaped with a bunch of different food, sort of like a street food buffet. I imagine, anyway, because Tongin Market doesn’t sell those tickets on Monday, the day we went, so we wandered the quiet lanes and I stuffed my face with tteobokki, which sort of tastes like fatter and chewier gnocchi (or mochi, if that’s a good reference for you) coated in that spaghetti-o’s sauce that’s been hit with a lot of spice. I could probably live on it for a few days. Or weeks. It’s great.
We ordered Korean fried chicken from the banks of the Han River. Then some dude on a motorbike cruised up with our spicy poultry and bottles of beer, which we ate while watching a very expensive-looking light show and watching a very young couple share a “private” romantic moment inside a translucent tent.
We hit a BBQ joint with Irish, Jim, and their twins. We randomly picked one off the street, and it happened to be part of the Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong empire, which also has a location in NYC.
Our Luce crew hit Ojang-dong Heungnamjip, one of the oldest and most famous bibim naengmyeon restaurants in Seoul. Bibim naengmyeon is a cold buckwheat noodle dish made with chili broth and pear. Apparently, it’s actually North Korean. I love bibim naengmyeon, though this version was somewhat milder than what I’ve had in the past.
One of our fearless leaders, David, sent us to a dumpling shop called Bukchon Mandu, located in a busy shopping district called Insadong. As fried food pilgrimages go, this one is totally worthy. People line up outside, where a lady on a fryer makes dumplings by the dozen. Best bet is to get a seat inside and order a sampler; dumplings get stuffed with pork, noodles, shrimp, kimchi, magic…
Amarynth and Diana made sure we had bingsu, which is basically shaved ice with condensed milk and delicious toppings. Available all over Seoul.
We had a multi-course Korean feast, about which I can remember almost zero details, except that it was quite good. A traditional way of eating, I think I remember. Hey, I told you it was high hard points!
We also drank a lot of beer in Itaewon, which is the old American army base ‘hood. There are a lot of Americans there, and a lot of other foreigners in general (also a lot of craft beer — so win). On Saturday night, we felt like olds when we left a bar at, like, 2 a.m., exhausted, only to find the streets crawling with hammer-timed people looking for clubs.
And I demolished an acai bowl (basically a fancy and expensive smoothie) because hatefully, it’s the thing I’ve been craving most since I left the U.S. (well, besides Champagne). I don’t even know who I am anymore.
-Getting a blueberry-flavored beer outside the Dongdaemon Design Center. You order this thing from a food truck. They fill the glass from the bottom. BUT HOW DOES IT WORK?
-Checking out the Leeum, which has a sizable collection of contemporary art and an even larger collection of traditional pottery. I was pretty interested in the pottery for about seven minutes, and then I realized our audio tour was saying almost nothing unique about each piece — “This is a plate with nice blue paint. This is a bowl with really good detail.” Too many nicely painted bowls and plates. I learned nothing. The contemporary stuff is a bunch of pieces from the usual contemporary suspects (Damien Hirst, Rothko, Warhol) plus stuff from Korean artists. The piece that stuck with me most is a photo of a bunch of people in a North Korean stadium, minus any flags or logos. Of course, I can’t actually remember the name of the artist nor find a photo of it on the internet, so this information is somewhat useless to you. Also, I think you mostly go to the Leeum for its architecture — three wings, designed by three architects, including Nouvel and Koolhaas. The pottery space, designed by Mario Botta, is one of the best spaces for viewing art I’ve seen anywhere — it’s round, which gets rid of that annoying momentary hesitation that comes from wandering connected galleries and rooms in most museums.
-Wandering a Hanok (traditional houses) neighborhood with Diana as our guide, and then getting invited by a random lady on the street to check out her pottery studio. It was in a basement, so for like, five seconds, we were like, are we gonna get murdered by this nice old woman? But then we met her son and grandson (I think?) and they explained their process and tried to give us a gift. They made really beautiful things, so that was cool.
-Seeing some of the Victory over Japan day celebrations. This is a national holiday, so it was sort of like 4th of July — parade, concerts, general reflection on triumph over evil. We caught a high production-value concert at City Hall. Lots of KPop stars (I think?) and one apparently famous older lady who got major cheers from the crowd when she came out to croon with some young scantily clad lass. Lots of lights. Lots of dancing. Lots of animated video. Blinking bracelets that synchronized to the beat. Pretty impressive.
-Strolling through the palace (pictured at top there), although this was a lot like the Forbidden City in Beijing (of which someday maybe you’ll get to see a photo on this very blog), and it was hot, and we were tired, so we sort of just zombie trotted through the grounds and then left.
-Going to a tea ceremony with Amarynth’s friend who also makes traditional Korean formalwear. A Korean tea ceremony is quite complex — you pour the water through many different pots before the tea makes its way to your cup. We were pretty honored that this woman, who we barged in on in the middle of her entertaining customers, thought we were worthy.
-Staying in yet another hotel room where the bathroom is encased in glass. So far as we can tell, this one did not have a privacy curtain — just privacy frosting around the bottom half. Probably works fine for average-heighted people, but barely comes up to our torsos. We’re the big couple. Traveling in Asia is not for new relationships.
One lowlight: Took a bus tour to try to knock out the major Seoul sites. Turns out, the best architecture in Seoul is not really viewable from the bus. So mostly we paid for a nap in the sun. Here’s a photo from our ride, though!
It was fun to see some of the architectural and linguistic similarities between Seoul and Chinese cities, and to think about the different types of development that have happened in these countries over the last few decades. It was especially interesting to hit Seoul the weekend after we went to Shanghai — both cities have amenities that make them feel like they could be just about anywhere in the world, but each has its own cultural undercurrent.
Rob pointed out that Seoul seems to have Korean-ized many familiar symbols — western restaurants have a distinctly Korean flavor, for instance, making them both familiar and totally foreign at once — which probably speaks to the exportability and strength of Korean pop culture and other cultural symbols (and to this point, I went to a music festival in Shanghai a few weeks after this trip at which the KPop act pulled crowds of fans that started lining up eight hours before the doors opened).
After a long weekend, I’m not going to take on that analysis, because it’ll probably just make me look like a fool, but looking forward to seeing how other cities in this region have been touched by globalization and regional interaction. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that thanks to its unique feel and norms, and the international symbols it’s appropriated, Seoul made me feel like the world is both small and large at once.
Here’s one more photo: