Saturday, October 12, 2013

KR&JP 2013 Travelogue Day 2: Baekje, Joseon, and Jongno nightlife

Korea is also known as the "Land of the Morning Calm". The next morning was, in fact, fairly calm. Until I woke up.

My rather late night, combined with my exhaustion from the flight and first day of touring, meant I slept in a couple of hours later than intended. On the other hand, the view from the terrace of the hostel was well worth it.

I flew out of bed, and scrambled for the nearest metro station, although I had to stop for a bit to watch a traditional samulnori parade that happened to be in the neighborhood -- a little silver lining to my late start.

Clever Seoul logo (L) and mass transit map (R)

I decided that the highest priority was the eastern area. Did I mention how much I love the mass transit in Seoul? It's punctual, clean, technologically advanced, and economically priced -- truly deserving its reputation as the best in the world.

My first eastern destination was the ancient fortified city of Pungnaptoseong, south of the Han river. The earthern ramparts have a trapezoid cross-section, and, apart from some broken segments, stretch a few kilometres to encircle a fairly large area within. The ramparts cut through several neighborhoods, although all of the segments of rampart are marked and protected. The walk around the walls also gave me a good look at life in the outer parts of the city.

This site, however, is no ordinary Iron Age settlement. Pungaptoseong is believed to be part of the original site of Hanam Wiryeseong, the first capital of the kingdom of Baekje. It was during the Wirye era that Baekje reached its zenith -- dominating the Yellow Sea, establishing outposts in coastal China, and even soundly defeating Goguryeo. Indeed, this could be the very place at which Lady Soseono and the future king Onjo ended their self-imposed exile, and ought to be a pilgrimage spot for anyone interested in the Three Kingdoms period.

Not far from Pungnaptoseong and the 1988 Olympic Park is the Bangidong Tombs Park. It's a lovely little hilly park that gave me a little preview of the kind of mound tombs that dominated that ancient Korean tomb-building culture, and of which I would see plenty (from different kingdoms, though) in the next few days. Incidentally, these tombs date from the Unified Silla Period (the era following Silla's conquest of the other kingdoms), a period of which I would see little by way of monuments on this tour.

I now had to make my way back to Jongno, to try and see as many Joseon sites as I could before sundown. Unfortunately, I got caught in a traffic bottleneck. At least I got some good views of the city from the south of the river.

The first Joseon site I visited this day was the Jongmyo shrine, which was the Confucian royal ancestral shrine of the Joseon dynasty, and was originally commissioned by its founder, King Taejo, himself. It's a beautiful place, at which I learnt much about the shrine art and rituals of the Joseon nobility.

My first proper Joseon palace on this tour was Changdeokgung, which was first built by King Taejong. The palace is vast and scenic, with large halls and gates, and many fine carvings.

I also toured the palace Changgyeonggung, which located in the same park as Changdeokgung, and built by Taejong's son, King Sejong the Great (who also created Korea's indigenous featural writing system). It too is quite large, and has a huge courtyard and a nice garden area. The exquisite painting of the structures is worth stopping to examine; there are so many different motifs employed for this purpose.

I hurried to the main palace Gyeongbokgung, which was not too far away. Unfortunately, I arrived a little too late to enter the palace buildings, although I could look around the outer grounds.

(left to right, top to bottom) Ceremonial royal robes, accessories for regular royal robes, royal seal, animal carving, phoenix and dragon from ceiling, royal feast.

Good thing the palace museum was open, allowing me a good look at Joseon royal attire, objects, rituals and art.

One palace was open late, which is why I left it for the day's end. This was Deoksugung, a small but beautiful palace complex in the heart of downtown Seoul, looking amazing lit up at night. It has a beautiful pavilion, a semi-Western-style building for the reception of Western guests, and a nice pond at the back. One of the other Western-style buildings at he back houses the National Museum of Modern Art. I toured this museum too; it's really worth a visit if you like modern art.

Outside the main gate, Ssangyong workers were having a layoff protest cum Catholic mass, which I found intriguing.

Especially intriguing because there was an EDM concert going on right across the street, and a pretty good one too. After listening a while, I went over to Itaewon for the Global Village Festival. There were some good DJs there too, but once it became evident that I would not see any K-pop concerts, I quickly left the very tourist-populated booth-lined street. I am really not interested in traveling halfway around the world to eat something from halfway elsewhere around the world.

Glaring signage (L), and hey, is that Junsu promoting Cass beer? (R)

I headed back to the hostel, and explored the surrounding area until early morning. Said surrounding area, Jongno, is well-known for the nightlife, and I ambled around the food streets, bar streets and entertainment streets for many hours. I noticed a lot of private DVD theaters line the entertainment streets; these seem to be a uniquely Korean form of entertainment. Karaoke abounds, naturally. Also, these places, along with the bars/pubs and other entertainment venues, are usually at the end of a narrow staircase that goes down almost as often as it goes up; there's a lot of basement-level entertainment here, apparently.

Signage is very vivid, and often vertical, as attention is to be attracted from a browser at a distance, taking a cursory glance down a narrow street. Inflatable finger signage is also common, and so are cute mascots (this is East Asia, after all).

(top left) Every train station is well-equipped for a possible gas attack
(top right) Note than the only non-East-Asian, non-English language on this "24 hour" massage place's board is Arabic
(bottom left) A kinky "Bat Signal" hotel room
(bottom right) Many cafes in Seoul are open 24/7 and have free WiFi; from what I saw, I'm guessing that party-goers nap and relax there overnight until the subway starts operating again

It seems that when foreign words are translated into Hangul, extra syllables are added -- perhaps to differentiate them from possible Korean homonyms? I also noticed a very uniquely Korean style of clothing and hair styling. I don't know to what extent it has influenced or been influenced by TV dramas, but there is definitely a correlation. Speaking of fashion, I saw that lot of Koreans wore a sort of long-sleeved, body-hugging sport shirt; I've never seen this anywhere else.

(top left) A rice ball. Note the separate wrapping for the seaweed, which would have been soggy without it.
(top right) A light vegetable and meat bibimbap. My first proper meal in Korea.
(middle left) Cutesy muffin. There's a lot of cutesy food here.
(middle right) Common on the street, rice cake in sweetish spicy sauce, called tteokbokki.
(bottom left) A stuffed bread from one of many gourmet bakeries in the city.
(bottom right) Fried chicken, which is way too common for such a simple preparation. I mean, it's just fried chicken. Like many simple fried meals, it is served with a side of shredded cabbage that HAS to be dressed, even with ketchup.

Restaurants here make frequent use of tabletop buzzers, which I think are a much more dignified, quick and efficient way of getting staff attention than waving them down, or keeping an eye out for them. They also have you pay at the door when you leave, which is, again, far more efficient than the annoyance of requesting a bill, getting your bill, paying, and getting change, each step of which requires a trip by staff to your table. And there's no tipping culture; this is perfect, because the system is based on efficient execution of the process of getting food to your table and taking payment from you.

In the wee hours of the morning, I bid Seoul farewell, grabbing my already-packed luggage from the hostel, and making my way to the KTX high-speed rail station. There, I awaited my Daejeon-bounde high-speed train, washing down the day's experiences with two juices from one bottle (yes, it actually has a partition down the middle).

No comments:

Post a Comment