Seoul is an interesting mix of modern and traditional. I had been expecting something more advanced, more digital and post-modern, more futuristic, and I was surprised to find a city that is actually not that different from Asian cities like Hong Kong, Singapore or Osaka – in a sense, Tokyo seems to remain a neck above the rest.
As soon as the train arrives a few people rush in to grab a seat, sometimes throwing their bag to the spot next to them for their slow-moving partner or family member. That’s what I used to see as I grew up in Osaka, and I still come across, not as frequently though, on some trains. Many people are talking into their mobile phone, and more people are hooked onto the TV show on them. It was one of those – everything looks the same, but a few things look odd; people look almost identical to what you see on suburban trains (with slightly different fashion given the much colder winter and different taste in general), but in Osaka talking on the phone on train is prohibited so it is pretty quiet on trains. To add to my confusion, an uncle or an auntie come from the next carriage pushing a small cart pasted with posters and banners. With their voice clear and loud, they would start demonstrating how good their products are – be it a reversible neck warmer, fleece gloves, polar socks or winter underwear, and there would sometimes be one or two people who hand over a few thousand won and sit back down to their seat with this fantastic merchandise. I wonder if they are together in this, or are they genuinely good buy? The price sure seems pretty good!
Seoul is no exception when it comes to kindness to strangers. I took advantage of my Japanese-speaking host and was too lazy to remember the fundamental phrases on traveling – those you find on the phrase list pages on your guidebook: hello, thank you, tasty. You can meet so many people by being able to say those in the local language. I couldn’t even say that. Sorry, that’s not quite true. I knew ‘Annyeong haseyo’, ‘gamsa hamnida’ (though it sounds to me more like ‘kam-sam-ni-da’), so I got the first two covered. I just didn’t have the tasty and counting like ‘I want one of ((whatever))’. My friend helped me order all the dinners we had together, and I survived by pointing at the menu at a few local places, and the rest, especially in the city centre, people spoke good English or even better Japanese. I was caught not knowing exactly what to say when people suddenly asked me something in Japanese – I’ve been living in English-speaking environment for what’s coming close to a decade now, and speaking in Japanese is a bit awkward for me sometimes.
Some days it was very cold. The lake had its shore frozen solid, and I walked in the falling snow when it was 10 degrees below. In the old days traveling at this temperature would have meant a super-sized down jacket, but the modern technology has changed all that. A few days before my flight to Seoul I went to town to buy a new pair of sneakers and stopped by at Uniqlo flagship store. I was expecting more from the name ‘Uniqlo’s first flagship store in the region’, but at least it had all types of Heat-Tech underwear. This or other similar products by other brands have become very popular in Japan in the last few years and nowadays people are snatching up the Heat Tech that go on discount price on weekends. I got a few different types of shirts (long/short sleeves) and socks. This material is designed in a such a way that it generates warmth as you sweat. I don’t know how it works, but the bottom line is that it is light and comfortable indoors and it gets warm as you move around on the out, while keeping you dry and free from chill when you stop moving. I had a micro-fleece jacket, light down jacket and wind breaker to put on, and I didn’t feel I needed more. My neck was warm under the cheap but fine Muji scarf, and the only improvement I could make before visiting the same condition next time is to find a pair of gloves that hopefully generate the warmth like the rest of my body – the fleece-lined thin leather gloves did nothing against the sub-zero chill.
I guess the officers in Seoul do not really have the polar expedition winter jacket. I couldn’t help noticing those two standing at the doorway of the donut franchise, probably right under the warm air-curtain (for those of you from the warm country – you might have seen the cold air version of this – the air-con duct blowing strong wind at the door way so that the inside air is not lost too much to the outside element when doors slide open – it is VERY warm under it).
Seoul has a pretty good network of trains and buses. And they all share the same ticket system – T-money. You just get one of those ticket card, and tap it as you go through the gate. Yes, the same one you see in those Asian capitals (and less properly functioning in Melbourne, too). I came across payphones also have a touch pad so that you really do not have to carry coins if you are a visitor like me without a working mobile. Save the money on roaming, just get on wifi spot to check on the map and emails, and go to pay phone to make a call for less than 10 yen a call. Seeing the price here and back in Osaka, I realise now how ridiculously expensive it is living in Melbourne. Given its still high interest rate (though much lower than what used to be, it is still much higher than the rest of the world), the price is guaranteed to keep climbing.
It is really at the point where the old is mixed with the new. There is still a potential for becoming well-planned, modern city like some part of Tokyo, or become a mess of quick development like Osaka. Its public transport could use some improvement but is already way ahead of an old design city like Melbourne. It is still a lot of fun to walk in, it is very safe and it is cheap for visitors. There are lots of guesthouses from large to small, and there are traditional sauna bath houses which I was told would be a cheap option for people who are looking for a cheap lodging in town.
It is full of interesting inspirations, if only you open your eyes and look for yourself. But then again, it is always there, wherever you are, if you actually looked.
Still, I would highly recommend spending a few days on the streets of Seoul. With its kind people, good tasty food, street shops, World Heritage architecture, and places where the booming Korean culture is coming from, there is so much to see and do. As for me, spending a week in one city of this size is probably more than what typical visitors do, but I wouldn’t have seen it on a sunny day, snowy, frozen, etc. had I planned it around a single weekend. So I am still glad I did it. I am only very thankful of my kind host, who put me up for a long week and even took me to a few places for meal when I had no idea 🙂