Seoul is one of the largest cities in the world with a population of over 10 million people. It ranked third among the top tourist destinations for year 2010. I was told that the Koreans do celebrate Chinese New Year, and in fact, I was pretty excited to go there on the 6th day of the 15 day celebration.
But I was disappointed. There was not a trace of Chinese New Year festivities in the city. Ms Sun, who runs the hostel that I stayed at said that in Korea, the New Year is celebrated for only three days. And this is not my only disappointment.
My first full day in Seoul begins with a stop at Gyeongdong Market. It specializes in traditional Asian herb, dried and fresh food, and ginseng, lots of them. There are outdoor and indoor markets, and also stalls that sell cooked food. As I do not read any Korean, I pointed at a picture to the person who took my order in one of the stalls. I had wanted a bowl of spicy soup but instead I've got a bowl of soup with pig's blood jelly! This is not for those who are unfamiliar with exotic Asian cuisine. After my meal, I take the train to City Hall, and make a visit to Deoksu Palace, which served as the king's residence twice during the Joseon Dynasty. Located at the center of Seoul, it is very popular among visitors for its beauty and tranquility.
Weather turns out to be nice on my second day in Seoul. I make a visit to the Royal tombs of King Seongjong, and his second Queen Jeonghyeon and King Jungjong of the Joseon Dynasty. The stone figures of civil and military officials are over three meters tall, while the other objects of animals are symbols of strong sovereign power. Unfortunately, I am able to get up close and personal with King Seongjong's tomb only, while the other two are off limit. As the sun sets, it casts shadows off the tree branches onto the ground in the park. It is a pretty solemn sight indeed. Like most major cities, rush hour in Seoul begins at 4 pm. The subway can be pretty crowded, and here in Seoul, the experience can be quite cold. There is not even one trash reciprocator around as I enter the station for Insadong, another popular shopping district. The station is so clean, and the service is so efficient that it is an impossible task for the New York's subway to achieve. And, everyone just whisper to one another. Just a bit too clean and quiet for my taste -- it's like living in a perfect world, a little too prefect for me though.
I had Korean dumplings and rice cakes in Insadong. Delicious! Things are a little pricey, but quality are certainly better. I make a quick stop at Itaewon. I suggest that you walk away from the main road and head to the alleys. Small family run businesses are a common sight, and I could feel the old charm and tradition surrounding the area.
Back in the hostel, I have five LOUD Chinese women in my dormitory room. Oh my gosh!
I visit Changgyeong Palace the next morning. It's a half hour walk from Jonggak station. The palace was added during the reign of King Seongjong to provide comfortable living space for queen dowagers. Back to the Jonggak station, I head to Namdaemun market. This place is huge! It is a traditional day and night retail and wholesale market with underground arcades. Even more, the classy departmental store, Shinsegae is just nearby. You can bargain at Namdaemun from anywhere between ten to twenty percent lower than the asking price. There are some very good quality quilted blankets (queen size) selling for $30 which might be worth considering if you happen to go there. However, you might come across lots of products coming from China which you might want to reconsider before buying.
The weather in Seoul got colder on my last day. I meet up with SungJin, a very good friend of mine. He takes me to his favorite place to eat. We have cold soba noodles, steamed dumplings, and rice in hot pot. Another delicious and satisfying meal! We parted and I head to Insadong again. I see a few more interesting shops this time around. I've got a pair of dragons handcrafted in glass, and a couple of North Korean dolls. Then it is time for me to go back to the hostel to pick up my bag, and head to the airport.
I came to Seoul to experience the market squares which I did. I came to Seoul to experience the food which I did. I came to Seoul to experience the lifestyle which I did. The city is full of charm and tradition but yet, its people seemed monotone; as the city progresses to become a major economic power, I would rather see a more at ease society, and a less structured city, one that is not so driven by perfection.