Our first full day in Seoul had us broiling in our own juices!
Ahhhh the joys of travelling in Korea during a summer heat wave… It was 37C today and what felt like 1000% humidity (probably wasn’t though) – hot enough to leave these two tourists wrung out like a couple of wet rags. Not just because of the heat and humidity though, also because we decided to scorn the air conditioned comfort of Seoul’s subway system and instead walked from one end of town to the other. Luckily the historical centre of Seoul is not that big so we didn’t walk ourselves completely to death.
The greater metropolitan area of Seoul is huge though (over 600 square kilometres); it’s one of the world’s largest city areas and is home to 25 million people. Not quite as big as Tokyo, but definitely big enough to impress us! We saw a bit of the city today and most of it was super-modern, with lots of impressive high-rise buildings and fancy shops. The city is divided across the North and South banks of the Han River, but since most of the historical sights and touristy bits are on the North side, that’s where we’re focussing our attentions (see the map below).
Side note: South of the Han River, directly opposite where we’re staying, is the suburb of Gangnam – made famous by Psy’s hit 2012 pop song. Gangnam is the new, flashy, big-money part of Seoul we ‘re told. Not really our style, so we’re sticking to this side of the river, where our rumpled backpacker clothes and unkempt appearance won’t get us kicked out of any shops.
Knowing it was going to be a warm one we headed off for our day of sightseeing early. We began our trawl through the streets of Seoul this morning in Insadong, the city’s financial hub. Lots of big shiny buildings, big shiny cars and big shiny people. Not too exciting, so we snapped a couple of photos and continued on.
As we continued north through Insadong we reached Gyeongbokgung – the site of the original royal palace of Korea. One of 4 palaces in Seoul, Gyeongbokgung Palace was built in 1394 by King Taejo, the first king of what we now think of as South Korea. The palace was burnt down during the Japanese invasion of Korea (1592-1598), but was rebuilt and restored in the 19th and 20th centuries. Though not used as a royal residence, even after its restoration, the palace remains a symbol of national pride for Koreans as it represents their ability to persevere and maintain their cultural identity through times of invasion and colonisation (the Korean peninsula has an interesting history in this regard;it has been invaded at various times by both China and Japan, and was a vassal state of the Chinese empire for centuries).
The palace is enormous – the grounds contain over 300 separate buildings, each designed to serve its own unique purpose (not all are open to the public). We saw just a fraction of these, focussing on the gardens, Throne Hall and the King’s Residence. All the buildings were huge and beautifully decorated, with ornate end-caps for the ceramic roof tiles and brightly coloured wood throughout the buildings. It’s a very different aesthetic to the highly restrained, minimalist architecture we’ve been seeing in Japan, and definitely shows the Chinese influence here in Korea.
We were very fortunate to be able to witness the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Gyeongbokgung Palace too. This highly ritualised spectacle is repeated twice daily, as it has been since the 15th century. The entire ceremony took about 20 minutes and involved much colour, fanfare and drum-beating. It was great to see, though I must admit that the subtleties were lost on me. I got the general gist though: the soldiers changed shifts.
From Gyeongbokgung Palace we went directly east in search of lunch and Bukchon Hanok Village. This suburb contains over 900 preserved examples of traditional Korean hanok. Many of these wooden houses, with their tiled roofs and private inner gardens, have today been converted into guesthouses, souvenir shops, restaurants and cafes, but a significant number are still home to Korean families. It was great to be able to walk through the narrow streets and enjoy the atmosphere in Bukchon. The whole area is a bit touristy, but still worth the visit to admire the traditional architecture of the hanok. We had lunch at a little cafe in Bukchon and then made our way back to our hotel for a shower and well earned nap.
Once it cooled down a wee bit, we headed out for dinner, specifically seeking a Korean BBQ place. You know, the ones with the BBQ plate, heated by hot coals, right there in the centre of your table. We’ve been to a couple of such places in Aus and loved it, so we thought we’d do the authentic version. It was awesome – smokey, sizzling, beefy goodness (real beef – no guts or gizzards) with more side dishes than we could finish. The dozen or so side dishes included:
- A plain, undressed salad.
- A salad dressed in a sweet sesame dressing.
- A salad dressed in a spicy chilli dressing.
- A sweet pumpkin salad, with sultanasa mixed through
- A bowl of plain pickled cucumber, sliced.
- A bowl of plain pickled cabbage, sliced.
- A bowl of raw onion, also sliced up.
- A bowl of raw garlic, sliced up.
- 3 different types of kimchi.
The idea is to eat a little bit of everything, mixing flavours to create a gastronomical delight. Most of it worked together really well, but the garlic and onion were so full-on! Even once cooked on the BBQ hot plate, they were INTENSE. Not sure what evil species of onion and garlic these Koreans grow around here, but man are we going to keep the vampires away tonight! One of the kimchi dishes was great, not too spicy and adding a nice tartness to the meal; the others were just WAY too chilli-hot though. Man Koreans like their food spicy and garlicky! I don’t know if my stomach can handle it after a month of rather plain, simple Japanese food. Shane tucked in to everything like a legend however and washed it all down with a local brew (Cass beer); we’ll just see what ill effects all that chilli, onion and garlic has on his poor digestive system….
Special note: The many wonders of kimchi
Kimchi dishes are essentially pickled, chillied vegetables. Originally developed as a way of preserving vegetables for the harsh Korean winters, kimchi is now a staple of the Korean diet and appears at every meal here – including breakfast. To prepare kimchi the vegetables are sliced and diced, salted, then mixed with lashings of chilli, garlic, onion, ginger and fish sauce (or dried fish/oysters). The whole mixture is then locked in large earthenware jars to ferment for up to 2 years. Various vegetables can be prepared in this way, with Chinese cabbage (wom bok) being the most commonly used. Tastes better than it sounds, but here’s a question for you: who was the crazy person who first mixed oysters, cabbage, chilli, garlic and onion together, buried it for 2 years, then dug it up and ATE IT?? Crazy Koreans!
Not only is good kimchi tasty, it’s also really good for you! Modern science has discovered that this fermented vegetable mixture is high in fibre, high in B vitamins and vitamin C, and is one of the highest sources of probiotics in the world – there’s more lactobacilli in one teaspoonful of kimchi than yoghurt apparently! Animal studies have found kimchi supports digestive health, is immune-enhancing and even helps lower cholesterol. Who would have thought spicy, pickled cabbage could do all that?! Still don’t think I could do it for breakfast though!