June 22-26Seoul, Korea
A Korean food stall in Itaewon.
Although a direct flight from Tokyo to Seoul would have only been 2.5 hours, it virtually took me all day to get there. Being on an all-Asia pass with Cathay Pacific had the advantage of being much cheaper than buying most of my flights separately, but it also meant that I had to fly through Hong Kong on every leg; even if my destination was only a quarter of the distance of flying to Hong Kong and back.
Oh well, I didn’t mind too much. It wasn’t like I was in a real rush anyway. But by the time I got to Seoul, after an entire day of traveling – after
the metro and hour train from Shinjuku to Narita, after the 4.5 hour flight from Narita to Chep Lap Kok, after waiting for my connection, after the 3.5 hour flight from Chep Lap Kok to Incheon, and then after an hour bus ride into Seoul – it was already a late night, and I was thoroughly exhausted.
So after I arrived, it was a pleasure to relax in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt for a drink with an old friend from school and some soothing live music by a group from the Philippines. Back in New York, my friend had been a great movie buddy and social compatriot, and so we talked about the difficulties and disadvantages for an expat to live and work in Seoul. Mostly, I think, my friend just missed New York and the dynamic social scene, despite being able to be closer to her family here in Seoul.
It was pretty late now, so after we were done, I got a taxi to drive me down the hill to find my more modest accommodations in the heart of the tourist district of Itaewon, home to a large US military base. For a Friday night, there didn’t seem to be that many people out, but there was a large contingent of American and Korean military police on hand, presumably to control soldiers that got too drunk or rowdy. With them around, I felt safer already. Girls stood in the doors of the empty bars, beckoning men to enter. And a small but steady stream of young people and tourists walked the strip, peering into the empty bars, looking in vain for more action.
Identical white shingled officer housing at Camp Red Cloud.
The next morning, my brother called my mobile and woke me from a sound sleep. He was an army lawyer stationed just outside of Seoul, and he and his girlfriend were going to take me for a tour around the city and eventually back to his place. I got up, showered, and then went for a little walk before they would arrive. The actual strip of bars and shops was really not that long at all, just a few blocks really, maybe just over half a kilometer. It didn’t take too long to walk down and back, look into a few shops, and then return to the wafting scents from the KFC and McDonalds which were tempting me so.
As my brother and his girlfriend both lived outside Seoul, they didn’t really know the city that well, and relied on a good map to get us around. With the broad highways and winding, often confusing directional signs, I felt like we were in LA or another sprawling west coast American city – except of course that most of the signs were in Korean!
After visiting the electronics market and lunch in a traditional-styled Korean barbeque restaurant, we drove up Namsan Peak to Seoul Tower. The drive was pleasant and, despite the overcast weather, the views of the city from the top of the tower were really panoramic. In one sweeping glance, you could see all of Seoul – from the winding river that cut through the city, to the tall office towers of its business centers, the older low-rise residential areas, and the newer more anonymous apartment towers. But even as night fell, and the city lights came on, I felt a strange sense of calm, in contrast to the dynamic busyness of other cities like Tokyo, Hong Kong, or Manhattan.
That evening, we drove north to Camp Red Cloud in Uijeongbu. My brother lived in one of a long row of identical, white shingled houses under a skyline of surrounding hills and concrete buildings. He showed me his extensive DVD collection, and we watched movies in his vibrating easy chairs that he had bought from the PX (Army Post Exchange) – great for playing more realistic video games, he told me.
The next day, my brother set up his barbeque outside. The last time I had come to his house in Texas for a barbeque it started to rain. So I felt kind of guilty as it started to drizzle – just as the coals were getting warm. Was it really me bringing the rain every time he set up a barbeque? Good thing he had a little ledge over the steps of his small house. We cooked from the dry safety of the steps, and I must say, he was a pretty good cook. Probably from lots of practice judging by his refrigerator – filled with hot dog and hamburger buns, water, Gatorade, soda, and Hostess cupcakes. Then there was the freezer – frozen hamburger patties and ice cream. Okay, I guess still better than my fridge, empty save for a bag of frozen meatballs. And who ever said steak with cheese doodles wasn’t a complete meal?
The entrance to Gyeongbokgung Palace.
My last day in Seoul, I made the tourist swing through the War Museum, Gyeongbokgung Palace, and the more affluent area of Gamnam-gu. At the war museum, I was able to see the DMZ up close and virtual (as I didn’t make it out to the real thing). There were also other interesting exhibits showing life and war in earlier times. And there was the outdoor cafe under the shade of one wing of a B52. At the palace, I happened on a film crew shooting a popular Korean soap opera in traditional dress, and a shoot for a wedding magazine.
With only four days in Seoul, I didn’t really get to see that much in detail. Then again, it didn’t seem as if there was much that was all that different from what I was used to. In many ways, the city just seemed a modern Western city, as opposed to a distinctly East-Asian city.
There were differences. At the airport I was surprised at its sparkling cleanliness, but even more surprised when I saw an airport worker scrubbing the floors by hand. At the same time, however, raw garbage in Seoul was often carted around by open trucks, and collected and piled in side alleys and surprisingly open areas. On the streets I saw a mobile phone recharging station, something that even Tokyo did not seem to have. And at the airport, one mobile phone provider was offering really awesome portable wireless web devices; better than anything we had back in America.
Yet there were also reminders of the war and American influences all around – from the general highway layout of the city, to the Western-styled malls and store fronts, to the American soldiers in the streets and the American Blackhawks that flew overhead.
So perhaps, if there were one city in Asia that seemed distinctly more Western than other Asian cities, yet also distinctly proud of its own national heritage, maybe it was this city – Seoul.
For tons more pictures of Paul’s time in Korea and the rest of his Asia Journal, go to his web site.
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