By The Nation
The future and the past mingle amiably in a city that never seems to squander chances to be better
WINTER IS genuinely chilly in Seoul, and residents and tourists in their vibrantly hued coats make the South Korean capital look like a colourful fashion runway as they stroll among the shops and offices.
With the temperatures below zero, a walk along the new kilometre-long Seoulle 7017 promenade isn’t leisurely. You have to keep up a decent pace to stay warm while sightseeing.
The walkway is a former traffic flyover linking the two sides of Seoul Station that was closed a few years back, deemed unsafe for the increasing numbers of cars and trucks. But, instead of tearing it down, the city fathers turned it into a landmark “sky park” decked out in floral displays.
Park Ong-ju, leading a herd of Thai tourists around, says the name Seoulle 7017 combines the city’s moniker with the Korean word for “main street”, the year 1970, when the flyover was built, and 17 for the number of intersections it crosses and 2017, the year it was reincarnated.
“The city government reinforced the old structure and landscaped it as a floral garden floating in the air,” Park says. “Lots of people come here to hang out during the daytime and admire the flowers.”
You do feel like you’re floating in the air on the promenade, but you’re still surrounded by soaring skyscrapers, an amusing feeling amid glances downwards at railway lines and the glorious, vintage Seoul Station itself.
The project was inspired by New York’s High Line, another marvel of urban conversion, and its garden is lined with more than 2,000 kinds of blossoms and plants. At night there are light shows to keep the spirits lively.
It runs from Manli-dong district to the Namdaemun Market, a hike of about an hour, which ought to get the tummy ready for some of the fantastic street food on offer. The venerable Gwangjang Market is the place to go, with its food bazaar crammed with stalls selling bindaetuk (crispy mung bean pancakes), teokbokki (stir-fried rice cakes in fiery chilli sauce), sundae (sausages of mung bean noodles and pig-blood curd) and gimbap sushi treats.
Sprawling across two floors and packed with people, the market has 5,000 shops selling fresh seafood, meat, vegetables, kitchenware, handicrafts, souvenirs, traditional medicine, textiles and clothing.
After your meal, head down old shopping street Insa-dong to visit the Museum Kimchikan, which explores the history of Korean cuisine. You might even start getting hungry again as you enjoy the interactive exhibits of kimchi-inspired art and the kimchi storeroom.
In one room you can watch a video about the tradition of kimjang, in which village women gather to preserve vegetables in seasonings and spices and storing them in earthen jars.
A museum guide says kimchi has been made for 3,000 year and there are more than 200 kinds. The varying ingredients include morning glory, spinach and ginseng. Early on it was made with nappa cabbage mixed with pumpkin. Chilli, first cultivated during the Goryeo Dynasty, was soon used as seasoning and “that’s why kimchi is red”.
“Napa cabbage is soaked in salty water for eight to 10 hours. Then white radish, scallions, garlic, ginger, chilli and fermented krill are added for flavouring. White kimchi is blended with rosewater and stored in an earthen jar to maintain its freshness and create full favour.”
A single gram of kimchi contains 800 million lactic-acid bacteria of seven types, along with fibre and vitamins, all good for the digestion.
A pair of British artists has set up a photo studio in the museum. You pose for a picture while saying “kimchi” – which produces the same prize-winning smile you get from saying “cheese”.
In the storeroom, where the temperature is kept between 3 and 5 degrees Celsius, are more than 100 kinds of kimchi produced in towns around the country. Kimchi from Jeju, an island travel destination, is made with oranges, sweet potatoes and cucumber.
You can even attend a cooking class to learn how to make kimchi from classic recipes.
In Bukchon Hanok Village in the north of Seoul, which celebrates a heritage dating back to the glorious Joseon Dynasty, girls wearing tradition hanbok costumes pose as gracefully as supermodels.
The surroundings in this 600-year-old hamlet are stunning – Gyeongbokgung and Changdeok-gung palaces, at least 100 traditional houses, and a mountain behind and a river in front, as if arranged by a feng shui master.
Park says Bukchon Hanok has always been an upmarket residential district for aristocrats. “In recent years the government has helped the residents repair the old houses so they retain the unique aspects of Hanok architecture.”
The homes are mainly stone, wood and clay and in some cases the owners have opened art galleries, teahouses and guesthouses.
Back downtown, there’s the new Starfield Library with 50,000 books and magazines, occupying two floors of the Starfield Coex Mall. It has three 13-metre-tall bookshelves holding South Korea’s largest selection of magazines – more than 600 titles from home and abroad.
“Coex Mall used to be the biggest exhibition hall in Seoul,” Park points out. “Starfield, operated by Shingae, has rented and renovated it for retail and the library, which has been an overnight success – especially among young bookworms.”
Planned events keep the place hopping, including poetry readings, Travel Tuesdays, art exhibits and children’s entertainment.
Way up in the Lotte World Tower – South Korea’ s tallest and the world’s fifth-tallest building – is Seoul Sky with its spectacular panoramas. The observation deck is 478 metres above the ground and furnished with ceiling-to-floor windows.
It’s easy to escape the urban bustle without actually leaving metropolitan Seoul. The new international business district Songdo, established on reclaimed land on the coast and serenely suburban, is drawing entrepreneurs and tourists with its own attractive array of office buildings, malls, schools, posh homes and top-class golf courses.
“Songdo is built on 600 hectares, with all the earth trucked in to reclaim a segment of the Yellow Sea off Incheon,” says Park. “It’s full of stars and millionaires. An elevated highway connects to with Seoul and Incheon International Airport.”
Songdo offers a 20-minute pleasant ferry ride from Central Park to look at its beautiful lake and landscaped gardens adorned with sculptures and imitation wooden houses. The popular TV series “Goblin” was filmed here, as well as pop star Psy’s “Gangnam Style” music video.
The writer travelled courtesy of the Korea Tourism Organisation.
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