My second most recent Asian vacation was to Seoul, capital of South Korea: Asia’s official number one exporter of ‘soft-power’.
I went to Seoul as a stop-over on a mammoth journey to visit friends in Washington DC. It was a chance to visit a new country, albeit one that felt very familiar. Hong Kong is crazy about Korea: K-POP, K-fashion, K-movies and even K-BBQ… The Korean wave has washed right over this city.
One thing that always hits me when I arrive in a city that’s not Hong Kong is a sense of “Wow, there’s so much space! I can see the sky! I don’t want to use my umbrella as a club to clear the crowds.” London, Shanghai, Bangkok… its always the same. Nowhere on earth is as crowded as the centre of Hong Kong, and that’s a fact. But Seoul seemed that little bit more low-rise even than other cities of its size and standing. It’s huge, and I was never under the impression that it was a small place, but it just had so much space to sprawl lazily out along the Han River. The first thing I did was hunt out some toppoki – the rice cakes in a creamy, spicy sauce seen below. They’re basically thick, short noodles, and are complete comfort food.
Seoul was one of the few places to which I have traveled alone, and spent the entire time there by myself. OK, my ‘entire’ time there was all of two days. But still. It’s the sort of thing one should do, travelling alone, if one reads the travel section of middle-brow newspapers, and I’m not against it. You really get to know oneself, you know? Plenty of times I’ve been travelling with someone and wished intensely for just five minutes of solitude. But two days of me is my limit. After two days I start to realise that I don’t want to get to know myself any more, and would like to get to know someone else.
When you are travelling alone you do a lot of walking too. I trekked all over Seoul, along the surprisingly bleak riverbanks and up the tower in Namsan Park, following a stream that runs below street level all the way to Dongdaemun, the city’s ancient eastern gate. My wanderings also took me to a fish market, as my wanderings often do, called Noryangjin because I have a thing for seeing giant squid writhing under a fisherman’s scalpel.
It could be because the K-pop stars all look so plastic, and have futuristic silver hair, and wear clothes that look like what we mere mortals will be wearing in the year 2115, but I expected the capital of this country to be more teeming and gleaming. More in my face. Just a little more… cutting edge. Maybe I didn’t do it justice. Two days were not enough, perhaps. Maybe I’ve just got big-Asian-city fatigue and can’t tell my Tokyos from my Taipeis. But Seoul didn’t quite stand out from the crowd.