Mike Burnz gives us a flavour of somewhere different over the sea. Caution, the following words contain opinions and possibly wit…
What springs to mind when thinking of South Korea? Is it their infamous neighbours to the north led by supreme leader Kim Jeong-Un? Is it the fermented cabbage dish with a spicy flavor and a smell that engulfs an entire room called “kimchi”? Or is it the massive world-class technological corporations that produce everything from cell phones to televisions to automobiles?
Of course, I was exposed to all of that while living in Seoul; however, it was really only the kimchi that stood out. While sleeping in the country’s capital city, just a mere 35 miles from the demilitarized zone, I would forget who lives beyond that line. I lived in the Seoul area for two years and it was amazing. It is truly the city that never sleeps. This is reflected by sleeping bodies just about anywhere and everywhere. Even Koreans can’t keep up. How could you? With bars and clubs open all night every night, everyone will eventually shut down, sometimes even on a park bench.
In Seoul, there are three main nightlife districts. Gangnam (강남) has the posh upper-class clubs where many go clubbing after they complete their plastic surgery procedures. This is where the infamous ‘Octagon’ is located where it prides itself upon being ranked among the top 100 clubs in the world. Itaewon (이태원) is Seoul’s version of a ‘Western’ town. This is where some of the best western restaurants, supermarkets, and of course, bars and clubs are. This also happens to be next to the American army base, so many soldiers frequent here. It’s a nice place to be if you want to feel back at home where everyone speaks English. Hongdae (홍대), however, was my jam. The walk to where the bars and clubs are, was, magnificent as you walk past street performances such as K-pop dancers and musicians. This is the student area, so in effects, the cheaper area, and that’s what I liked.
My favorite daytime activity was to go hiking, and with all the mountains in and around Seoul, I never got bored. The most famous mountain in the middle of the city, Namsan (남산), has the iconic tower at the summit for a centralized view of the entire cityscape. It does not, however, even begin to compare to the much higher peaks around the city’s perimeter. Bukhansan (북한산) is the tallest with the rock climbing summit. Bukaksan (북악산), the locally famous mountain where you need your passport to climb as North Korean spies climbed it in the 70’s to attempt an assassination on the president, and Gwanaksan (과낙산), in my opinion, with the best views of the city, are my personal favourites.
Even if you don’t like drinking and hiking, there is so much else to do. I, with my obsession surrounding architecture and history, loved exploring the city’s palaces and temples. Gyeongbuk Palace is the most famous, and the view of the entrance is quite magnificent, but it is elsewhere that my mind focuses on when reminiscing. The Hanok village in Bukchon (북존한옥마을) is an entire neighbourhood consisting of traditional Korean houses with their tiled roofs, wooden beams, and stone walls. I would just get lost by wandering those alleyways.
After a big night of drinking, you may search a cure for your impending headache and the tightness in your stomach. Considering how you’re in the capital city of a country whose people’s perpetual obsession with alcoholic beverages has enabled them to produce among the greatest remedies for the classic hangover. Haejangguk (해장국), otherwise known as ox spine soup, consists of a bowl presented to you with a massive heaping lump of meat slightly submerged in a delicious broth. Eat this with a side of kimchi and you’re ready to start a new day.
Although it wasn’t exactly my favourite dish, I often found that my favourite restaurants were the pajeon (파전) restaurants. There was either the Pajeon Street, which is an entire street where every single restaurant is devoted to pajeon, or the traditional parts of town which served the famous dish with an authentic setting only the wealthiest could afford a hundred years ago. Pajeon is a relatively simple pancake style dish that often contains octopus. I found it would taste nice once in a while, but you wouldn’t want to eat it every day. My personal favourite Korean dish is ‘Dalkgalbi’ (닭갈비). This is a spicy chicken stew with cabbage, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, and, not included in the original recipe, the wonderful addition of cheese. Although you can find restaurants specializing in only this dish all throughout the city, the best is an hour out of the city in Chuncheon (춘천), where it originates from. That is where you’ll find entire streets with dozens of restaurants with each of them hosting their bright neon lights advertising their unique recipe to this dish.
Seoul, being the mega metropolis that it is, makes it a central hub connecting itself to the rest of the country. I caught a plane to the tropical island of Jeju-do and climbed to the tallest point of the country and visited the famous UNESCO World Heritage volcanic crater known as ‘Sunrise Peak’. The high-speed train is also a 2.5-hour journey to the beach city of Busan. With such a variety of transportation means, it’s easy to get around the country.
Seoul is a wonderful place to be. The people are very welcoming, even towards strangers. The elders may appear hostile at first encounter, but you get used to them. There is always a demand for silence on public transit and your conversation may be interrupted by the random old drunk man wishing to practice his non-existent English skills with you, but you must embrace it with a warm heart. I consider Seoul to be among my favourite cities in the world, and whatever you’re into, you’ll find it there.