Korea: Entry 1

21 June 2003: Seoul, Korea

Subject: Korea


I've been in Seoul for a week now which has given me plenty of time to explore in and around the city. I'm staying with Andrew Ward, who is a friend from Manchester and has been the Financial Times correspondent here for the last year or so, and his wife Jayne. They have a flat that is maybe a tiny bit bigger than my place in Cambridge was i.e. just about big enough for two but hardly for three, so I am grateful to them for putting up with me.

Seoul is a big city - more than ten million people - but I think that most of them live in high-rise buildings so the city is not as big in terms of area as it could be. It has a very extensive and efficient metro and bus network, and lots of signs and information is at least bilingual (often quadrilingual), so it is easy to get around.

Korea doesn't have a very happy history. They were occupied by the Japanese not once but twice, most recently from 1910 to 1945, and they still seem to be recovering in some respects. For example the Japanese built a building for their governor in the shape of the Japanese character for "Japan", deliberately positioned to obscure the view of one of the old palaces. They've only recently demolished it. At the same palace the Japanese demolished many of the palace buildings and many of those have been rebuilt in the last decade or so.

So in Seoul they have quite a lot of historical and cultural sights, but many of them are either recently rebuilt or restored. Also, to my eyes, there is not a great deal of architectural variety in these old buildings. "If you've seen one, you've seen them all." They mostly have a stone foundation (Seoul is surrounded by granite hills providing excellent building materials), wooden walls and a huge roof made of logs topped with ceramic tiles. Here is an entrance gateway at Gyeongbok palace showing most of these features:

And here is a nice pagoda-in-a-lake, also at Gyeongbok palace:

As well as looking at some of the old palaces in the city centre I've taken a couple of trips into the surrounding area. First I went south to Suwon, a city with a UNESCO-listed wall around it. It was built in the 1790s and restored in the last couple of decades. It follows natural high ground for much of the way and is quite scenic, with big gates, watchtowers and even a river-gate.

Then I spent an afternoon hiking in the Bukansan national park, which is just North of the city centre. There aren't many cities in the world that have 800m mountains so easily accessible. A bus can take you to the park entrances from where paths lead up onto the peaks. Most of the ground is wooded with granite outcrops on the tops. Sadly there isn't much of a view as there is a lot of "fog" (i.e. air pollution). There are lots of Korean hikers and I have much respect for them having seem the sometimes quite scrambly routes that they were tackling. I'm looking forward to seeing some more mountanins further afield this week.

Hikers need maps and, unlike plenty of other places I've been to, there are lots of good maps readily available here. But apart from the needs of hikers there may be another reason: it is impossible to find your way around without one! The streets don't really have names and instead addresses give a neighbourhood name (a few blocks) and a building plot number. These numbers are allocated when the buildings are built so are not in any useful order. So you really need a good map with a large scale (Seoul street atlases have a scale of 1:5,000) that shows these numbers in order to find anywhere. A side-effect is that unless you can't expect a taxi driver to find somewhere given only the address. I thought that Costa Rica had a disfunctional system - they have few street name signs and no numbers - but this is much worse. Anyway it means that the maps are good and, for example, every metro station has a good map of the surrounding area (only problem: North is probably not at the top) as well as a 3-D map of the station itself.

So I'm planning to see some more of the country now, probably heading down to Chirisan mountain national park in the south later in the week. But first I have to find some suitable camping food!