Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Seoul, Korea: Searching My Seoul

Gyeongbokgung (Palace of Shining Happiness)

Normally I would disclose the location of the opening picture, but to add a little suspense I will merely disclose that it is a palace. You can probably deduce from previous blogs that it is somewhere in Korea, but where? The quaintness of it all might suggest it is a rural palace nestled in right below a mountain. What if I told you that this was downtown in one of the most bustling cities on the planet? What if I told you that this picture was taken in the rapidly growing city of Seoul, South Korea.
If you're not a multitasking machine, then don't bother coming to this city. New York may be the city that never sleeps, but Seoul doesn't even know what sleep is. Seoul is simply a mega-city of epic proportions. It is the political, economic and cultural headquarters of Korea, and I would argue that it is the flagship city of the emerging economic powerhouse known as Asia. Seoul has a cool ten million people, and it feels like it. Even the unbelievably efficient transit system can't hide the amount of people that are going from place to place at any given time. However, the citizens of Seoul are never stuck in any sort of productive limbo. They may be stuck underground riding the subway, but that doesn't mean they still don't have an internet connection strong enough to make any gamer from Canada water at the mouth. Oh, and they also happen to get T.V on their smartphones to make that subway ride even easier. You will never be unreachable on your smartphone as reception runs all the way down to your speeding subway car. This is a city in which every second counts, and if you happen to pay your bills on the way home from work on your phone, then you just bought yourself some free time at home. Rather ironically, my Dad sent me a link today about Seoul from an article in the New York Times. It was called "Smart Cities; No Rest for the Wired," and of course it featured Seoul. If you don't believe this city can take down any city technologically then read this excerpt from the aforementioned New York Times article:

"The city is already one gigantic hot spot. Nine in every 10 residents subscribe to a high-speed wireless Internet connection. By 2015, when 80 percent of the residents are expected to carry smartphones or tablet PCs, wireless connectivity will be almost as free as it is ubiquitous: the municipal authorities are installing free Wi-Fi wireless hot spots in all the city's public spaces including 360 parks, 3,200 intersections and 2,200 streets around shopping centers."

Perhaps it is time that I get to my point. What I'm trying to say is that Seoul didn't sacrifice culture and aesthetic beauty for its remarkable technological advancement. The picture at the beginning should suggest that, if nothing else. It is a city that has been a significant settlement for over 2000 years and aims to use technology to have a significant settlement through the next 2000. It is a city that is unable to forget the sacrifices of the past and, simultaneously, the aims of the future. The Greater Toronto Area in Canada marks a vast and populous area. Then, consider that the Greater Seoul Area is the world's second largest metropolitan area with a population roughly that of Canada. From a blogging perspective I am planning on tackling Seoul in a sort of series. I will focus on different major areas within Seoul, and there are plenty of them. I've spent some long and wondrous days (and let's not forget nights) exploring the nooks and crannies of Seoul. I'll start off with the areas that seem to draw me in again and again as if magnetically charged. However, it seems only suitable that I should just focus the first blog about Seoul on the destination that first tugged on my heartstrings on my very first day in the city. Perhaps fittingly, it is called the Palace of Shining Happiness.

Gyeongbokgung Palace is a remarkable complex located in the northern part of the city, but more or less in the heart of it. You walk only a few minutes from Insadong (An area that I will no doubt be focusing on in my next Seoul blog), and find yourself face to face with pristine palaces and fantastical ponds. Gyeongbokgung has been a storied palace complex in Korean history since its construction in 1394. Firstly, it should be noted that it was the principal palace in Seoul in 1592 when the Japanese invaded, and as per usual large portions of it were burnt down. I feel like a broken record at times noting that a precious Korean building was burned down or damaged during the Japanese invasion of 1592. It lay in relative ruins for hundreds of years until an expensive rebuilding project in the 19th century almost bankrupted the government. After all of this effort to restore the buildings to their original form, can you guess what happened? In the 20th century the Japanese, again, did their part to destroy a genuine piece of Korean history by inflicting some further damage. It isn't much a surprise then if I suggest that Korea holds a strong grudge against Japan. The list of offenses Japan has committed throughout history against Korea is lengthy to say the least. Let's just say that Japanese food happens to be my favourite food, but I wouldn't tell a soul on Korean soil. Luckily, after all the turmoil, some 40 percent of the original palace buildings still stand or are being reconstructed. All of them are spectacular in their own right.

Bri and I were being carted around the city on our first day by Bri's friend Ian who grew up in Korea, but went to high school and university in Canada, studying at the University of Toronto with Bri. It's always fantastic to have an insider perspective on things when traveling through a city. I remember backpacking through Europe and being keen to meet a local who could tell me what sights were worth seeing, and more importantly what sights I wasn't yet aware of. The people are the heart of the country, after all. It's funny to reminiscence now on this first day as, three months later, Ian will actually be coming to the Bundang area tomorrow to visit and take a coveted spot on our couch overnight. Since that first day, a lot has changed actually. I'm significantly more comfortable in Korea in innumerable ways. Firstly, I've had the opportunity to explore Korea in all directions, and I've loved what I've seen. I've met and reconnected with some great friends, some of which I will be seeing this weekend in Daegu. I've also grown a strong and passionate interest in the delicacies of Korean cuisine. Moreover, I can now read Korean quite well, and have a decent vocabulary of words under my belt. Learning Korean is certainly a work in progress, but I've gained an obscure and satisfying devotion to it.

Wandering around Gyeongbokung unwittingly made my mind wander back to my experiences in China in 2009. Specifically, because of the magnitude of Gyeongbokung, the complex vividly reminded me of The Forbidden City in Beijing. Of all the sites I have seen around the world, perhaps The Forbidden City impressed me the most. That is a very bold statement, but if not the Forbidden City, then quite possibly the Great Wall. However, I wasn't comparing the two sites, but rather relishing in the moment I realized I was officially back on Asian soil. Gyeongbokung has an entirely different feel from The Forbidden City, one that is certainly less imposing and intimidating, but more inviting. What I found to be to quite similar was the incredible and meticulous attention to the finer details.

Geunjeongjeon (the building which is pictured third in the set of three above) was the main palace building that functioned as a the headquarters for conducting the state's affairs. A beautiful throne quickly informs the inquisitive traveler that this is where King's were crowned, and considerable decisions were made. It is located just inside the main entrance, and stirs enough curiosity in you to make you stop in your tracks and consult your guidebook for more information immediately. I was also thoroughly impressed with a building known as Gyeonghoeru. It reminded me again of how the water is used to perfectly accent the surrounding structures. It's a large pavillion rested upon no less than 48 stone pillars which looks out onto an artificial lake with several small islands. Not surprisingly, this building was used as an entertainment epicenter for state banquets and the like. I can only imagine that they could throw a party that seriously outmatched any I ever conceived of during my times at Queen's University.
There are so many places around the world that I now have an attachment to. It certainly makes reading the world news a whole lot more enjoyable. However, there are only a handful of places around the globe that I feel are a part of my character and being. The first is, of course, Toronto as it is where I was raised. I love Toronto through and through, and all who know me understand that I am a proud Canadian (and, of course, a die-hard Toronto Maple Leafs fan). Oslo would be the second destination that is a part of me. The Norwegian perspective both honed my love of nature and humbled me. The University of Oslo was also a great international experience both educationally and socially. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I cheer for Norway in the Olympics almost as fervently as Canada. Ireland, and specifically Dublin, also holds an important place in my heart. Dublin was the first European city I visited at the tender age of 16 while enrolled in a summer course at Trinity College. It is where I can trace my ancestry, and also where I realize my love of traveling blossomed like an Irish clover. I can swear that the air is sweet in Ireland, but that could be the Guinness talking.

Seoul is the city which is now joining this number as truly becoming a part of me. I feel energized by the very presence of Seoul. It is a city in which possibilities are endless, and each day can end with a twist bigger than an M. Night Smymalan movie. I'm starting to get to know several areas quite well, and also several people within these areas. I'm also pleased to say that I have still managed to elude "routine," and all the evil that accompanies it. This weekend I am off to Daegu, and the following weekend I finally get to witness the infamous DMZ. The adventures keep on rolling, so I'll keep on writing. Before I sign off I want to send a gigantic thank you to everyone who has been sending me great feedback on this blog, and thus reading it. I appreciate it, and am pleasantly surprised and elated by it. I'll be back sooner rather than later, but until then I'll post a picture with happiness, that although captured in Korea, has no need for translation.

1 comment:

  1. Seoul is definitely a beautiful city! YOu will never run out of places to visit! :)