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Seoul By Easy Stages

Here is a metropolis traumatized by World War II, the Korean War, ruthless dictators, famine, and the never ending threat of a certain "rogue state," just a few miles up the road.

Here too is the crucible of the Asian economic miracle, of a dazzlingly rapid catch-up with Japan and America, of a million stories of hope and fortitude.

The city itself reaches for the sky, all new age condominiums and glitzy skyscrapers. Down on the streets, people hurry about their business, inspired no doubt by the whiff of kimchi, the national dish of pickled cabbage, mixed in with gasoline and borax.

For the discerning tourist, what may look at first glance to be nothing more than steel and glass, turns out to be a treasure trove. Temples, museums, and uniquely Korean attractions are waiting.

Orientation

The ancient Chinese believed a city should always stand protected by walls, to the North, to the East and to the West. But the South should be free, allowing the natural chi of the Earth to flow in to enrich the life of its citizens. Centuries of colonization by the Chinese of the Korean peninsula must have rubbed off on Seoul's city founders. The capital of South Korea nestles in the pocket of a ring of small mountains, to the North, the East and the West. The south lies open to the rest of the country. On a smog free day these sandy-colored peaks criss-cross the horizon like teeth.

Despite broad avenues and expressways, Seoul suffers the same traffic gridlock common across developing Asia. Don't despair, beneath your feet lies a comprehensive subway system linking most parts of the city and suburbs. If the rush hour crush of hundreds of commuters into airless compartments seems daunting remember the experience of one female teacher from the UK. So overwhelmed by the crush, she fainted. The Koreans around her made a space and freed up a seat.

Moreover don't be surprised if a seated stranger offers to hold your briefcase or bundles of shopping. This is a common courtesy among a people often dismissed as rude. Studying station names can also be a useful introduction to hangul, the Korean script.

First time visitors to Korea may have been wrongly informed by the TV series M.A.S.H. Funny as it was, M.A.S.H. was filmed in California. Korea lies on about the same latitude as the United Kingdom. Summers are stuffily hot with a mini monsoon. (Look for the silvery dust left on your shoes by the rain, who knows what pollutant that is!) Autumns are alive with browns and golds and reds, but pleasantly warm. Winters are brutally cold! As soon as that icy wind starts blowing across from China, run out and buy all the winter woolens you can! With the Spring, temperatures quickly begin to rise again.

Places to See

Kyongbokkung Palace

This is a huge complex of ancient, palatial pagodas. Famed as the best example in the land, Kyongbokkung is reminiscent of Beijing's Forbidden City . Its style is typically Korean, somewhere between Chinese and Japanese. Multi-tiered wood buildings rise from the flat cobbled courtyards, each a kaleidoscope of colors and angles. Not far away stands the National Museum, the best place to acquaint yourself with Korean history and culture.

Another palace well worth seeing is Ch'angdokkung Palace, which includes Piwon, the secret garden. Taking the tour through this ornamental garden is like walking into a Chinese landscape watercolor: enchanting!

The 63 Tower

Billed as the highest tower in north Asia, this giant's wand can be seen from all over the city, pointing to the heavens. In the morning, as far away as Itaewon-No, it looms against the skyline gleaming with all the colours of the sunrise. The 63 tower is a good spot to begin any Seoul itinerary, as up on the observation deck, a 360 degree view of the city reveals all places worth visiting, only in miniature. A reasonable walk from the nearest subway station, once there an exterior glass elevator rockets you up to the clouds.

Pukkasan

This beautiful and compact mountain stands on the outskirts of the city. The picturesque hike up the hillside afford plenty of views of green valleys so it is hard to believe that Seoul and its dome of pollution lurks behind the far side. On a good day, be prepared for flocks of Koreans, decked up in Alpine walking gear, complete with lederhosen and walking sticks. While this may seem odd to foreign eyes, Koreans believe firmly in being correctly dressed for every occasion.

Ascending and descending should take the best part of the day. On top of the summit linger for a cheap, delicious plate of Kimchi polished of with makkoli, the milk-coloured rice wine strong enough to blow your socks off!

On the way down, take the mountain path to your right. This leads you to a portal guarded by two fearsome stone demons. Entering though, you may be tempted to proclaim, "Lo, yonder lies Shangri-La," as before you a huge, mysterious pagoda appears like magic. If you are really lucky, go on the Buddha's birthday (in September) when the temple and surrounding walkways will be decorated with a billion oriental lanterns. The richness of their hues is almost bewitching: yellows, pinks, blues and reds, purer than anything you've ever seen. As dusk falls, each and every one of the billion will be lit up, burning a memory into your retinas you'll never forget.

Another scenic city mountain walk is Ehwa mountain behind Ehwa Girls' University.

Insa-dong

At the end of the terrible Korean War, Seoul lay in ruins, entirely flattened. Only the station and this neighborhood, Insa-dong had survived. Hence, today it remains an island of old, terracotta roofs, of traditional architecture amid a sea of modernity. Fittingly, it has become the artists' quarter. Wander the tree-lined streets, window-shopping at countless art shops, for example, calligraphy, Chinese style watercolors, and all the other handicrafts Korea is famous for.

Several exquisite tea rooms are located here too. One of the most beautiful has birds flying free around the alcoves and beams, (keep that mug of cinnamon tea covered!), paper walls, and glass table tops capping aquariums. The famous Korean vegetarian restaurant is also here, tucked snugly up an alley. Wild garlic and ginseng salad are two of the items on the exotic menu. For those fascinated with Buddhism, look out for the occasional religious shop, where you can buy Korean Buddhist music, pictures, incense etc.

Seoul Olympic Stadium

An interest for sports fans, the 1988 stadium is open to the public, complete with Olympic museum. Sitting out on the seats, you may fancy you here the cries of triumph echoing around the vast amphitheater. Maybe the ghosts of the event that put South Korea well and truly on the world map are still invisibly replaying their greatest moments.

Namdaemun and Its Market

The name means South Gate, and is the most famous of the four ancient pagodas that long ago served an gateways to the city. Namdaemun has become one of the symbols of the city. A stone's throw away is the Namdaemun market, where just about everything on the Korean peninsula can be purchased. This includes all the handicrafts, Celadon pottery, paperwork boxes, lacquerware, masks, puppets, woodwork, endless treasures to dazzle you. Remember to bargain!

Itaewon

Itaewon No or Itaewon Street is known for its mix of the sleaze and the cosmopolitan. The main street is crowded out with clothing shops, fast food joints, bars and black-market outlets. It leads right up to the gates of the largest American army base. So in the evening, especially weekends, it throngs with off-duty GI's, not to mention English language teachers and tourists. Come here for bar crawls, international shopping, illicit currency deals and hookers.

D.M.Z.

The ironically named Demilitarized Zone happens to be the most armed, barb-wired, patrolled border in the world. Here is the last border between a hard-line communist country and a thriving capitalist one. Asia's Berlin wall, this strip of landmines and barricades stretches coast to coast. Not surprisingly it has become quite a tourist attraction. However you can only visit on an organized trip, this is, after all, still a potential flash-point for World War Three. The trip includes visits to an American base, Panjummon, the "Peace" village, and a view across the border to the grassy wastelands of North Korea.

Published on 10/14/01

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