Seoul is the opposite of Cairo. As you recall, we found Cairo to be rather chaotic [ Chaos in Cairo]. Seoul is not chaotic; even the fish market is organized and calm. The only semblance of chaos was found yesterday in Noodle Row in Namdaemun Market. [link: http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SH/SH_EN_7_2.jsp?cid=273760] It was here that we stepped off the sidewalk and walked through some plastic sheeting acting as an entryway and into a long narrow hall barely wide enough for two people. On either side were counter-service noodle joints.
The cafes made the noodle dough in front of your eyes, then cooked it and served it, toute suite. Though not chaotic, it was a bit harried as hungry diners politely stood behind you while you slurped and sloshed your noodles, and were then urged to quickly pay and move on. The noodle soups, both hot and cold, were delicious.
But this blog is not about noodles. Its purpose is to provide our initial impressions of Seoul. First, Seoul is a well-designed city. Second, Koreans are quiet, orderly, helpful, and courteous (except when getting off buses). Finally, Seoul is on the expensive side, eish!
Seoul seems like a city designed with forethought. The city’s architects must have first drawn the city on paper and then built a model and then analyzed and made necessary tweaks. It is unlike ancient cities that continue to sprout upon the ruins of old. Although the city is more than two thousand years old, it was largely destroyed during the Korean War in the 1950’s.
This allowed the opportunity to rebuild. And rebuild they did and they did it well. [Note: Incheon International Airport, the gateway to Seoul was ranked the best international airport in the world seven years in a row 2007-2012]
Every structure begins with its foundation; Seoul is no different. Under one’s feet lies a world on the move. The subway is extensive and it functions seamlessly. There are no “planned” transportation strikes as we encountered in Italy. The subway is exceptionally clean and the signage is frequent and easy to understand. The signs are in Korean and English, and once aboard the stops are announced in both languages. People form lines to board, except for the occasional little old Korean woman who will slip under your arm and snag a seat- not that she wouldn’t have been given a seat anyway. We saw on several occasions riders sacrifice their seat for the elderly or a mother with child.
Certain subway stations also double as large underground shopping malls. We have also gone into what looks like an eight story department store, only to realize that the store has an additional four stories below street level. All of this underground development helps spread out the movement of this cities 10 million people. On the street, the sidewalks are wide (all have runways of dimpled tiles leading the blind from intersection to intersection), and large neighborhood maps stand sentry at each subway exit. Some roads even have attractive round guardrails that separate pedestrians from traffic… with the exception of scooters.
Scooters travel willy-nilly, albeit slowly, on sidewalks or on streets without regard to traffic signals; everybody needs rebels, it maintains balance between order and chaos. If anything Seoul is heavily balanced on the orderly side and this doesn’t allow the frenetic energy found in many large urban areas. Bobbi, the wild child, would prefer a bit more energy.
The bus system moves fluidly, though we’ve yet to master this because the buses do not have English translation. Every ride becomes an unknown adventure. It should be noted that people even queue single-file at the bus stops long before the bus arrives, sometimes to the point of blocking the entire sidewalk. Finally, the streets are markedly quiet. Horns are used briefly and with discretion. This is probably because most of the time everybody obeys the traffic rules. We haven’t even seen a jaywalker.
One last note regarding city design: Most everybody lives in an apartment in Seoul. This wasn’t always the case, but after the Korean War, residential re-development was in the form of apartments, and the few remaining hanoks (traditional houses) are a tourist destination in themselves. Many apartments are smallish- we know our apartment is. As a result, people spend much time outside their abodes. This is the opposite of suburbia America where 3,000 sq. foot homes are packed next to each other on tiny lots. In American suburbs, people relish the time spent in their homes. Most American homes, have “game rooms,” “entertainment rooms,” “exercise rooms,” “office rooms,” “workshop rooms,” “living rooms,” “dining rooms,” “bathrooms,” “cooking rooms,” “sewing rooms,” and “bedrooms.” Americans have no need to go outside, and many don’t.
Koreans, on the other hand, get out a lot. And the city of Seoul was designed to provide for this. We have found much green space in the city: there are walking paths through planted forests and hiking trails in hilly nature parks.
There are also bicycle paths and riverfront parks complete with monstrous swimming pools. Speaking of pools … we have discovered the Korean “bathhouse.”
Bathhouses are basically relaxation stations. They have steam rooms, dry saunas, hot pools, and cold pools. Depending upon the spa, a person can get a haircut, a massage, a manicure/pedicure, and one can even get scrubbed and rubbed in a manner similar to a Turkish bath [Turkish Baths]. There are napping rooms, entertainment rooms full of recliners and a big screen TV (the TV volume is low and the room is dark.), a “light room”, a crystal room, a snack bar, a computer gaming room, and a lounging room for reading or quiet socializing. Only the snack bar, computer gaming room and lounging rooms are coed, which means the rest of time one is showing off their birthday suit; except when sitting in the recliners where one wears the provided pajamas. There is no time limit for how long you can stay, though the price ($8 – $10/person) does go up after 8pm, probably because they assume that you will fall asleep for the night in one of the napping rooms. We love the bathhouses.
Next up…the people. The city is quiet. Nobody yells; ok, almost nobody; certainly not like New York cabbies or the expressive Italians. Car horns are used with discretion rather than prolonged venting. Subway rides are muted, restaurants tranquil. After our visit to Noodle Row, we attended an hours-long nighttime parade in downtown Seoul with beautiful lanterns in preparation for Buddha’s birthday; the atmosphere was hushed save the occasional monk troupe chanting and the low murmur of spectators along the streets. This is not to say that Koreans are a somber melancholy bunch; they are not. We see and hear much laughter and lively discussions. It’s simply that people tend to use their “inside voice.”
The people are also very helpful. Twice while trying to figure out the vast network of subway routes, we have had locals approach us and ask in English if they can be of assistance. The first time it happened I was wary, thinking that a tout had found his mark. But when I turned it was a high school girl merely trying to be helpful. Speaking of touts, we haven’t seen any. Along the same vein, sidewalk vendors and marketplace merchants do not bargain. The price listed is a fixed price. Haggling is not part of the deal, or so we have been told, much to our relief.
We also noticed a cultural difference regarding accountability. This came to light in the recent ferry tragedy that claimed the lives of over 300 Korean high school students. A local news station telecast a speech given by South Korea’s president wherein she apologized for the government’s handling of the initial response to the accident. This despite growing evidence that the ferry company overloaded the ferry with 3x its maximum cargo rating. Yes, a government official apologized…this floored us, as it was such a foreign concept. Additionally, the South Korean legislature voted to donate one-tenth of their May 2014, salaries to help the victims of the ferry accident….Impressive.
And what about crime, you ask? It seems to be less an issue than back home. Yes, we were warned of the occasional pickpocket in certain touristy areas, and of a certain industrial district (Gwanak) that has a higher sexual assault rate. But, this is apparently the exception not the rule. A female friend who has lived in Seoul for a couple of years has never had any issues being a single female. In fact, the only place she mentioned that can be dangerous is late night barhopping down by the US Army base where things get a little rowdy. [Itaewon]
What one seldom hears when visiting a country is about the culture’s honesty. Yet, in Korea we have been told two such stories. There is the story of an American teacher who left his tablet in a Korean cab. The cabbie spent weeks tracking the fellow down and returned it to him. Or how about the story of the lady who left her purse on a subway only to have somebody run after her and return it to her, even though it was not the good Samaritan’s stop. Not that crime doesn’t occur; this is after-all a city of 10 million people, but the overall culture of honesty is a virtue to be relished.
Now the downside…it’s a spendy little town. This should be no surprise as Wikipedia states that Seoul is ranked sixth as a global power city and seventh as a global financial center. We are renting a 280 sq. ft. loft in the Gangnam district for $1,500/month.
……And the cost of food!?.. it’s a good time to commit to that New Year’s weight-loss resolution. A 1 lb. bag of dried red beans cost $7.50, and a box of Kellogg’s corn flakes: $7.00 …milk to go with that: $3.00/quart (they don’t even sell it by the gallon). We splurged and had Korean beef last night: $10.00 for eight paper thin slices the length of your finger. I was thrilled when I saw on the beer shelf that an Oregon microbrewer (Rogue Brewery- Newport, Oregon) has made it across the great blue. I grabbed a bottle of the Dead Guy Ale, as it is a personal favorite. Then I saw the $7.00 price tag for a 12 oz. bottle….the sticker shock almost lived up to the label for yours truly.
Paying these hefty amounts can largely be avoided by staying out of the grocery stores; grocery stores are home to the affluent. Street markets and fish markets are home to the working folk. Even here, though, we found that a bag of nine of the-sweetest-most-succulent-delicious oranges we have ever had still cost us $10, and a single red pepper cost $3.00. Nonetheless, there are many small noodle restaurants where one can have a large bowl of ramen and dumplings for $5.00. These places, however, take some searching. For example, we only found Noodle Row thanks to a Korean friend of our American teacher friend who knew which sheet of plastic to duck behind, and I overheard another teacher with seven Seoul-years under her belt exclaim with pleasant surprise, “Oh! An authentic place!” I took it to mean that even she doesn’t always know where to venture to find the best local spots.
This is our first impression and it appears that I have donned a pair of rose colored glasses. Perhaps this will change; perhaps not. We still have much to see and learn. We’ve begun the delve into Korean history with our first trip to the National Museum, a colossal 76 acre complex where we became immersed in the ancient history gallery and only managed to arrive at Korea’s medieval period after 2.5 hours!
Thankfully, entry is free and we have 6 weeks to finish the remaining 2.5 floors of history, art, and Buddhist sculptures….More on those topics later.