Seoul (26 – 29 September and 6 October 2013)
I refuse to acknowledge that I have been infected by the Korean Wave. I am not a fan of K-Pop. Never have been, never will be.
I did for a time however watch Korean historical drama serials but that is because I enjoy history. Even then I have got quite sick of them because they often revolve around the same themes. The main purpose of these shows is usually to glorify Korean history and culture. Nothing wrong there but propaganda aside these serials are always about how some historical figure went through various hardships and ultimately became this great superhuman. There will always be some nefarious schemes being plotted behind the high walls of the palaces. The king and his officials would be plotting against each other. The king’s women would be plotting against each other and sometimes against the king and their husband himself. The nobility would be plotting against each other. The officials would be plotting against each other. The servants would be plotting against each other. And then China would come along to either shamelessly bully Korea or just be a huge pain in the ass. Ever so often the actors playing Chinese characters would pretend to speak Mandarin but would always be much more fluent in Korean.
But despite all the repetitive storylines of Korean drama, I decided to go see the country for myself.
No, I still refuse to acknowledge that I have been infected by the Korean Wave.
I managed to get quite a good price for a return flight to Seoul, with a stopover in Taipei either way, on Scoot. The budget airline was alright but the flight to Seoul was madness since it reached the city at about midnight. Fortunately there was a bus to the city centre at that hour and I reached my hostel after 1 am.
I made the Changdeokgung the very first place I visited in Korea. This was one of the Five Grand Palaces of the Joseon Dynasty and was made the main one when the original main palace, Gyeongbokgung, was burnt down in the late 16th century. This was a good start to my Seoul visit. It was a showcase of traditional Korean architecture although only a small percentage of the whole complex can be considered original. This palace was badly damaged during the Japanese occupation in the 1900s. Just about everywhere I went in the palace I could visualise some scene in some Korean historical drama serial.
I have to say that there is something very elegant about traditional Korean architecture. And I like the way some of the beams are decorated with those colours and patterns.
Another of the Five Grand Palaces is the Changgyeonggung. This was in fact right next to the Changdeokgung and I think was used as an extension of that palace.
A third palace in Seoul was the Deoksugung. Only a couple of buildings remain in the complex. As with the other palaces in Seoul, this was purposely destroyed by the Japanese when they occupied Korea. This palace was the centre of the Daehan Empire, when Korea entered into a new era. Upon the declaration of the empire, Korea cut off its centuries old status as a vassal state of China and became truly independent. And then not long after that the Japanese came.
In entering the new era with the Daehan Empire, Korea also saw the building of western style structures in the Deoksugung. Emperor Gojong, who proclaimed the empire, built the Seokjojeon and used it as an audience hall and sleeping quarters. Despite the traditional Korean name it is a neoclassical building. The main building was being restored at the time of my visit but its annex was open for visits as a small art gallery.
Perhaps the greatest Korean palace had to be the Gyeongbokgung. This was built right at the heart of the Joseon capital city and was clearly meant to be the centre of power of Joseon. The complex laid in ruins after the fire in the Japanese invasions of the late 16th century but was rebuilt in the late 19th century. When the Japanese came again in the 20th century they almost completely destroyed the complex and built the Japanese General Government Building. Since the palace was the symbol of Korean sovereignty, it was by no means coincidental that the centre of Japanese colonial power in Korea was built in its place.
Starting from 1989, the Korean government began rebuilding the palace complex. Today perhaps almost half of the original buildings have been rebuilt.
From 10 am to 3 pm every day on the hour, a changing of the guards ceremony is held just inside the Gwanghwamun. This however is apparently a new development catered to tourists. It was all pomp and pageantry of course but quite fun to watch for a while.
The fifth grand palace is the Gyeonghuigung. This was completely destroyed by the Japanese and today only a third of the complex remains after rebuilding efforts. I did not visit the buildings but I did enjoy the Seoul Museum of History now standing on its former grounds. The museum tells the story of the city that is known today as Seoul.
Remainders of royal Joseon Korea can also be found at the Jongmyo. This is really the ancestral shrine of the Joseon royal family and is remarkably preserved to this day. The whole idea of respecting one’s ancestors and making regular offerings to them stemmed from Confucianism and is an important part of the culture of peoples influenced by Confucianism. However, Seoul is the only place in the world today where this sort of ancestral shrine can still be found.
Every year in May, an elaborate ritual called the Jongmyo Jerye is held to honour the spirits of the kings and queens enshrined in Jongmyo. This is a continuation of an ancient custom originating in ancient China and practised in Korea since the Silla period.
Not all of the Joseon kings are enshrined in the Jeongjeon or main hall though. Those that are considered less significant, for example if they had been on the throne for only a year or two, are enshrined in a neighbouring smaller hall.
All the paths in the compound have a raised centre portion created specially for the spirits. Even today no one walks on that path and visitors are specifically asked not to do so.
Whereas the ancestral tablets of the ancient Joseon kings and queens are kept in the Jongmyo, their bodies are buried all around Seoul in special mounds. I managed to visit the tombs at Seolleung. Two kings and a queen are buried there. One of them, Jungjong, was portrayed in the most famous Korean drama serial of its time Dae Jang Geum. I have to say that my previous interest in Korean historical drama serials was caused by this one show.
I did enjoy Seoul. It was not an awfully beautiful city outside of the old palaces, but I did have a nice time there. I particularly enjoyed the food and it was wonderful to be able to finally taste Korean food in its country of origin. I had ginseng chicken soup in an eatery that was supposedly decades old and which specialised in that dish. It was not bad. I had a most wonderful spicy beef soup (my all time favourite Korean dish) at the Bibigo outlet near the Gwanghwamun and I was disappointed to discover that the Bibigo outlets in Singapore did not serve that dish.
The only things I really did not enjoy though were my hostel and the toilets. Serves me right for trying to be thrifty but the room I booked, a single private en-suite, was very small. So small that they could only put in a bunk barely wide enough to hold my skinny frame and the end of the bunk touched the door to the bathroom. The shower head was attached to the sink barely a metre away from the toilet bowl. But the room was cheap. And I had a free wake up call service courtesy of some extended family who had booked a few rooms next to mine. They were very punctual. At about 8 every morning the kids would be running up and down the narrow corridors while their parents would be having a family picnic in the hostel pantry.
The toilets in South Korea, even in Seoul, are a cultural phenomenon in themselves. Being a world centre of technology, no one would expect that South Korean toilet flushing systems could not handle toilet paper. Of course that is not to say that no toilets in South Korea could handle toilet paper. However that is more the exception than the norm. So what does one do with used toilet paper? One throws it into the bin next to the toilet bowl. It was something I could not get used to and I was constipated by instinct during the first three days of my visit. Thankfully I had read about this cultural phenomenon before I went on this trip and so the culture shock was not too debilitating.
But I will visit Seoul again since I feel that there are still places there that I had not explored and discovered.