Vagabonding field reports: the soul of Seoul

With over 20 million people, Seoul is the second largest urban agglomeration in the world, far behind the endless tentacles of that postmodern monster commonly known as Tokyo. But Korea beat Japan in something his neighbour is famous: in fact Korea is the most ethnically and linguistic homogeneous country in this planet, even with the highest contingent of English teacher who take the opportunity of high salaries and low-cost of life.
No way I could catch the soul of this monolithic giant in only one week of permanence, nevertheless I tried.

Cost/day: 20-25$ a day, without accommodation, but including 2 visit to a jimjibang and dining out every night.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
The way Seoul is built. The metropolis looks even bigger because it’s delimited by the sea and the mountains, crossed by a big river and his affluents and with many parks scattered between urbanized lots. So you pass from extremely dense populated area, with several high-rise aligned next to each other like pieces of domino, to hills and parks big enough you can spend the day hiking, re-emerging into a civilization made of small villages.

The overall feeling was very pleasant to me. Seoul is a micro-world, where nature and civilization are in harmony, a place that gave me the sensation I can spend months simply wandering around before getting itchy feet and start dreaming of a new place to explore.

Describe a typical day:
Walk until I get too tired, than taking the subway for a new part of the city, walk again until my legs begs for a break, stop a couple of hours for my daily fix of coffee and internet in one of the many internet cafe, walk again until I can enjoy dinner in typical restaurant.

In Seoul is never too early to start riding a big bike

Describe an interesting conversation you had with a local:
My friend Yoon, who I met for the first time while living in Colombia, explained me about the strong character of korean people, that always had done face threats from their powerful neighbors Japanese and Chinese and in the last century even the diaspora of the North of the country, make South Korea an island de facto. She also told me how she had to give up on her relation with a latino guy, in a country where interracial marriage, especially for a woman, is still heavily ostracized.

What do you like about where you are? Dislike?
Liked: Seoul airport is awarded as the best in the world and one of the reason is you can spend the night instead in uncomfortable benches on the mattress of a jimjibang for a cheap fee. It was not my only visit to this beautiful concept of Korean bath house. I went to the biggest in the city, 7 floors of pure wellness. I may go to a jimjibang every day.
Dislike: in a big city there is no better place to me for people watching than the subway, but I never felt like in Seoul metro the lack of humanity and a sense of extraniation. Everyone lost in his smart phone, everyone feeling the other like a instead of a mirror where observe himself from a different angle and the world.

Describe a challenge you faced:
Not to react when pushed by people. Like in China, Koreans tend to be rude and impolite when they are in crowds. Nobody will hint at a smile if waiting the elevator with you, no matter if it’s your neighbour since you were born, instead they will cut your way as soon as the door will open. I understand it’s just the reflection of a different culture, but I will never get use to such behaviours. More than once I was pushed out badly and I had to control myself and not to throw them at least some loud insult, when their reaction at the clash was far from a “Excuse me” or “I am sorry”, instead a truce look or the pretension you don’t exist.

You are not allowed to take the subway if you don't own a smartphone

What new lesson did you learn?

I was not even born when Pak Doo Ik turned Korea for italians into as synonym of what Waterloo is for the French, but I remember very well the scandals in Seoul Olympics in 1988: I was 17 and that was my loss of innocence. And to close the circle, the briberies in Soccer World Cup in 2002 were the cause that put the end to the great love of my 30 years long adolescence. This is how I developed a genuine hatred for everything korean in sport. But after I saw how many passionate hikers and fitness people there are in Seoul I made peace with them. Nowhere else in Asia I could see healthy bodies like here. This is one of the countries where people care and practice more sport and I must recognize their results in élite events are not just a product of corruption, but also the natural consequence of sincere passion and hard work.

Where next?
From the most homogeneous country in the world to the most diverse city per square mile I have ever been: Georgetown, Penang.

Posted by | Comments Off on Vagabonding field reports: the soul of Seoul  | July 14, 2012
Category: Asia, General, Languages and Culture, Vagabonding Field Reports

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