Thursday, September 22, 2011

Seoul Of The Country

Although I had very briefly been in South Korea whilst visiting the DMZ at Panmunjon, if I wanted to get there properly I had to go via China. So back it was to Dandong where I bought myself a ferry ticket to Incheon, Seoul's port city. It would have been cheaper and faster to fly, but I'm wanting to try to travel round the world without having to resort to airplanes as much as I can at least; plus in an airplane you don't get the opportunity to share a giant dorm room with over 100 Chinese.

Travelling economy class in China means something completely different to what we're normally used to. The convivial atmosphere of the large dorm aboard the ferry to Incheon.

Apart from the minor bedlam at embarkation the journey went smoothly and it was fun to see people unpacking elaborate picnics of dried squid, pickles, rice, chickens' feet and other assorted comestibles. There was a light party atmosphere and my immediate neighbours were a trio of card sharks who played poker throughout the night (I know because I awoke at 3am and they were still at it), often with a small crowd of onlookers as other entertainment was rare, although we were treated to an altercation between two middle-aged men which, after a few minutes of shouting came to blows before one was chased on deck. Not quite a Hollywood premiere, but it kept us entertained for a few minutes at least.

The old Joseon royal palace in Seoul. A seemingly tranquil and idyllic spot, but turn round 180 degrees and you can almost see into the windows of the looming skyscrapers of downtown Seoul.

It was a strange feeling to arrive in Seoul. For all the progress in China over the past few years Beijing still feels a little rough around the edges, but Seoul is a far more polished entity, at least when it comes to basic infrastructure, tidiness and traffic - the architectural cohesion of the city is another matter. Seoul was largely flattened during the Korean War, having changed hands a total of four times, and in the ensuing mad dash for development little thought seems to have been given to planning aesthetic harmony, and the tightly packed neighbourhoods are a stylistic cacophony. The only common feature that I can see are the conspicuous "dunces hat" spires of the myriad churches that dot the city. Although Christianity is something of a new arrival in Korea, its history on the peninsula barely 250 years old, since the end of the war it has undergone an explosion in popularity and is now the largest religion in the country. From the old city walls the red crosses that generally top the spires are conspicuous among the city lights, and boy there's a lot of them.

This giant church dominates the city centre of Suwon, close to Seoul. However most Korean churches are rather small yet are everywhere.

As the capital of Korea for the last few hundred years there are is a fair smattering of palaces, royal tombs and the like scattered around town, all with incongruous skyscraper backdrops. A fitting metaphor for the weird combination of conservative tradition and brakeneck, headlong rush into the future that epitomises South Korea and its society. But it is definitely the 21st century hustle and bustle of the world's second-largest metropolitan area that defines Seoul: the heaving mass of traders, shoppers, food hawkers, peddlers and gawkers in the narrow streets of Myeong-dong is intoxicating and slightly scary; half the people on the crowded metro are jabbing away at their smartphones (most of them, even the girls, playing games); scooters dart along pavements, oblivious to pedestrians; and 24-hour convenience stores cater to your every needs at any time of night and day.

The vaguely organised chaos that is the Myeong-dong shopping district in downtown Seoul.

Things seems to go at a more frenetic pace in Seoul, and yet at the same time they're frozen and immovable, perpetuating the division between progress and conservatism. South Korea is famous for having the fastest internet access of any country in the world, with cheap PC baeng (internet cafes) on every corner, and yet everyone seems to be using outdated versions of Internet Explorer which is a real drag on the surfing experience (many websites don't even work properly). South Koreans also work some of the longest hours in the developed world and yet are shockingly unproductive. Ossified working practices, deferential and strictly hierarchical corporate culture and a work environment where peer pressure obliges workers to go out binge-drinking. My host Ho worked for a large company and on most working days I was staying with him he would come home late and drunk after his boss made the team go out for drinks, and then the next morning he would have to head back to the office at 7am slightly worse for wear. From the people I have talked to such is the situation in the overwhelming majority of workplaces in the country. The ultimate irony for Ho was that he didn't even like drinking,

My host Ho might have been working his ass off during the week, but at least his company had free tickets to watch the local team play at the World Cup stadium.

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