”Conscious that any visit these days could be my last, I’ve made a point on this sweaty saunter down memory lane of revisiting & photographing places & landmarks that I’ve photographed many times over the years. I’ve also gotten acquainted & photographed landmarks that weren’t even around when last I was. Dynamic Seoul – a city slogan – indeed.”
Image || Remnants of sunset as seen from the Jamsil Bridge over the Han River, Seoul. July 25 2017.
It’s good to be back in Seoul. It’s my first time here in two-and-a-half years, my longest hiatus from the Korean Peninsula since first visiting the so-called Land of The Morning Calm way back in late 2003. Of course there’s very little that’s calm about Seoul, one of the world’s largest metropolis and a 24/7 hectic mass of humanity that I know all too well; I called it home for many years. Conscious that any visit these days could be my last, I’ve made a point on this sweaty saunter down memory lane of revisiting & photographing places & landmarks that I’ve photographed many times over the years. I’ve also gotten acquainted & photographed landmarks that weren’t even around when last I was. Dynamic Seoul – a city slogan – indeed. And while there’s very little of Seoul – & Korea – that would surprise me these days, the city, and even after all these years, can still impress if you wander it with a camera in hand, as I tend to do when I’m anywhere other than home. Real home, that is.
Selfie shadows by the walls of Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul, South Korea. July 26, 2017.
Republic of (South) Korea Overview
Republic of (South) Korea
Region – East Asia (dMb tag: East Asia). Capital – Seoul. Population – 52 million. Official Language – Korean. Currency – South Korean Won (KRW). GDP (nominal) per capita – US$27,500 (26th). Political System – Presidential republic. UN Member? – Yes (admitted September 1991). G20 Member? – Yes. Size – 100,295 km² (one-fifth smaller than North Korea, its northern & only neighbour, and slightly smaller than the US state of Kentucky). Topography – Mostly mountainous; a hikers nirvana, over 70% of the country is covered in largely uninhabitable mountains. Climate – Hot & sticky summers, bitterly cold winters. Formation/Independence & Brief History – Independence from Japan, who annexed the Korean Peninsula in 1910 ending centuries of dynastic rule, on August 15, 1945, thereafter the peninsula officially divided by the US & the Soviet Union at the 38th parallel. The Republic of Korea declared on August 15, 1948, 3-plus weeks before the September 9 formation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a.k.a. North Korea. The failure of talks to unify the peninsula sparked the 1950-1953 Korean War, with the communist-led North invading the South. This ended in a military stalemate, the formation of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) and the signing of an armistice (but no peace treaty). UNESCO World Heritage sites – 12. Tourism Catchphrase/Slogans – Imagine Your Korea. Famous For – Sharing the world’s most fortified border with its troublesome & aloof northern neighbour; cosmetics; electronics (home to Samsung, the world’s largest electronics firm, & LG); internet connectivity; cars (home to Hyundai & Kia); K-pop & the Korean Wave; ajumma power; Psy’s Gangnam Style; its cuisine (kimchi & BBQ) & communal eating; soju (a clear, colourless distilled beverage liberally drank in shots); noribang (karaoke rooms); hospitality. Highlights – The buzz & palaces of Seoul, a.k.a. The Soul of Asia; Jeju Island; Gyeongju; Seoraksan National Park. South Korea Titbits – Rising from the ashes of the Korean War, a multi-decade economic surge, termed the ‘Miracle on the Han River’, means that today South Korea is the world’s sixth largest exporter (it ranks 1st in worldwide mobile phone shipments, 2nd in shipbuilding & semiconductor sales and 5th in automobile production). Not bad for a country that has been officially at war since 1950; after many failed bids, South Korea’s PyeongChang will host the 2018 Winter Olympics; pre-empting the future & echoing the wish of the South Korean populous, the country’s constitution officially recognises the Korean peninsula as one country; the world’s first country to fully transition to high-speed Internet (in 2005), today South Korea boasts the world’s fastest internet speeds; although largely insular, Korean society is truly one of a kind with its own language, script (hangul), food & culture.
Myeong-dong Metro Station, Seoul, South Korea. July 8, 2008.
What follows is a roughly chronological look at some of the pictorial highlights of this latest visit to a hot & steamy summertime Seoul.
No matter how well you think you know somewhere it’s always likely to surprise. Seemingly new legislation in progressive South Korea means there must be a certain percentage of car parking spaces allocated to women, marked out here on the campus of Seoul’s Konkuk University in pretty pink paint. The world gets madder by the day as Korean feminists delight. Honkuk University, Seoul, South Korea. July 17, 2017.
KIMCHI || Korea is a tough place for vegetarians. Famous for its communal BBQ dishes (chopsticks at the ready), meat & fish dominate the menu. However, every dish, even breakfast, comes with rice & kimchi, the joke being that vegetarians in Korea survive solely on a diet of rice & kimchi (& tofu, the devil’s food). Made of vegetables, mostly cabbage or radishes, that are salted, seasoned and stored in sealed containers to undergo lactic acid fermentation, it is nearly always red (red = spicy), always served cold and is about as Korean as Psy, Hyundai & Samsung all rolled into one big gimbap. It took me a long time to warm to this stuff (& Korean food in general… the early years were tough), but now I can’t get enough. Yeoksam, Seoul, South Korea. July 18, 2017.
A selection of some more Korean food (& drink) delights.
FARMER’S DANCE || I watched a few high school students on this day practice a traditional Farmer’s Dance. It was neat, even though they were missing the cool headgear (ribbons anyone?) & even cooler costumes normally worn by participants (it’s hot & sticky enough I guess). Lots of noise & leaping around in circles yada yada yada. From ancient times, when Korea was heavily reliant on the yearly crop to feed its people, the dance was a kinda send-blessings-to-the-gods-for-a-bumper-harvest-or-we’ll-all-starve-to-death ritual. It’s not really practiced today in uber-futuristic Korea, except to keep the tradition alive to placate tourists. Farmer’s Dance practice on the grounds of DWIMS, Gwangjin-gu, Seoul, South Korea. July 19, 2017.
LOTTE WORLD TOWER || This wasn’t around when last I was in early 2015. It’s certainly hard to miss it today. Presently the world’s 5th tallest building, the 555-metre-high skyscraper opened in April 2017, its form of a slender cone with gently curved sides towering well over all in its vicinity, not to mention anything else on the skyscraper-heavy Seoul skyline. Like any supertall skyscraper, its 123 floors house a mix of retail & office space, residential units, a luxury hotel and, of course, the requisite public observation deck. Lotte World Tower in Jamsil, Seoul, South Korea. July 25, 2017.
LOTTE WORLD TOWER || Dusk at the base of Lotte World Tower in Jamsil, Seoul, South Korea. July 25, 2017.
HAN RIVER SUNSET || It had been very muggy & close since arriving back in Korea a week previous. This day was somewhat clear, meaning it was absurdly hot; it seems I picked an especially hot summer in which to return to Seoul. It also meant there was a sunset, the tail end of which I caught this evening while strolling across the Jamsil Bridge spanning the Han River en route to check out the Lotte World Tower. Seoul, South Korea. July 25, 2017.
CHEONGGYECHEON || Until it was restored in 2005, not long after my very first 2003 visit to South Korea, Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon Stream was nothing but a neglected waterway hidden by an overpass. Not so today. Stretching for a few kilometres through the centre of the city, this strollable eco haven is one of my favourite parts of Seoul, not to mention a great place to bring a camera after dark. The Cheonggyecheon Stream in Seoul, South Korea. July 26, 2017.
More Cheonggyecheon captures.
JONGNO || My favourite district of Seoul, Jongo is original Seoul, the district from which the present-day megalopolis grew. Historic & commonly referred to as the face and heart of Korea because of its important roles in the politics, economics, culture, and history as the capital city, it is also the location for the main place complex of the early dynastic rulers of Korea. It’s also a district of neon-lit lanes full of restaurants & bars, making it one of the city’s most popular recreation districts. In the neon lanes of Jongno, Seoul, South Korea. July 26, 2017.
GWANGHWAMUN GATE || I’ve photographed this many times over the years, Gwanghwamun Gate, the restored main gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace, the largest & most important of Seoul’s Five Grand Palaces of the Korean Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). Gwanghwamun is a Seoul landmark and a symbol of the city’s long & often troubled history. It has gone through multiple periods of destruction and disrepair: it was first built in 1395; destroyed during a Japanese invasion in 1592; reconstructed again, along with the palace itself, in 1867; was moved from its present location in 1926 by the Japanese (the Japanese occupied Korea from 1910-1945); destroyed again during the Korean War; rebuilt in 1963; & underwent a complete almost-4-year renovation before being unveiled in its present glory on August 15th 2010, Korean Independence Day (from the Japanese, of course). Gwanghwamun Gate, Sejongno, Seoul, South Korea. July 26, 2017.
The Gwanghwamun Gategate marks the southern entrance to the palace grounds and is located at the top of Sejongno, one of the busiest & most symbolic streets in the city of Seoul. Here are a few more capture from this night in the vicinity of the gate and along Sejonjno.
SHINSEGAE || One of Korea’s upscale department stores, the main branch of the Shinsegae Department Store near Namdaemun Market in Seoul currently stands where Korea’s first department store, the Japanese Misreukkosi Department Store, used to be in the 1930s. After undergoing remodeling in 2007, it reopened as a luxury shopping mecca featuring all the usual upscale brands you’d expect. Seoul, South Korea. July 29, 2017.
SEOUL METRO || With 20 different lines, the Seoul Metro is one of the largest and most efficient systems of its kind in the world – the tracks of lines 1 to 9, colour-coded lines which serve the city proper, run for some 330 kilometres (205 miles). Construction on Line 1 started in the early 1970s with the system officially opening on independence Day, August 15, 1974. With a tap on, tap off unified transportation fare system, platform real-time updates and both English and Korean announcements & display text regarding each stop, the whole system is efficiency personified. Getting around is a breeze. Riding the metro somewhere under the streets of Seoul, South Korea. July 29, 2017.
More captures from moving around Seoul via the metro.
MYEONG-DONG || Boots, the UK high street pharmaceutical chain, has infiltrated South Korea (what next, Wetherspoons?). But you won’t find toothpaste, razor blades or 3 for 2 offers in here. Oh no. This is Korea so Boots toes the line by offering 4 more floors of cosmetics & skincare products guaranteed to reverse the aging process, as is sold in almost every other store here in Myeong-dong, a pedestrianised shopping & dining hub that boasts some of Asia’s – & the world’s – priciest retail space. Myeong-dong, Seoul, South Korea. July 29, 2017.
DONGDAEMUN || This day was another Seoul sizzler so I probably needn’t have – but did – subject myself to a stroll along a restored section of the city’s ancient walls, the remnants of what was once an 18.2-kilometre-long, 6-metre-high stone circuit that enclosed the city during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). Seen here from the walls is the Heunginjimun Gate, a.k.a. Dongdaemun (East Big) Gate, one of the fortress walls 8 gates, six of which survive to this day. First built in 1396, the present structure dates to 1869 and is designated Korean National Treasure number 1 (along with Sungnyemun/Namdaemun (South Big) Gate, the two largest remaining gates in the city). In the distance is the neofuturistic Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP). Among the largest buildings in Seoul and the centrepiece of the fashion hub district of Dongdaemun, it’s an 85,000 m² city landmark of curving steel, aluminium & stone that houses, among other things, multi-purpose convention & exhibition halls & a museum of design. The smooth-skinned 280-metre-long main building has seven levels, three underground and 4 above, all topped by a ‘walkable park’ on its roof. I’m visiting Seoul long enough to remember the baseball stadium that once stood here. Built in 1925, it was demolished in 2007 with construction on the DDP starting in 2009. Inaugurated in March 2014, the DDP is just the latest present-day Seoul landmark that wasn’t here when I last was. Dongdaemun, Seoul, South Korea. July 30, 2017.
A few captures in and around the Dondaemun Design Plaza (DDP) captured over a few different visits.
BASEBALL || Korean baseball. It’s a different kind of experience. Cheerleaders, cheap beer, fried chicken & lots of noise. Grand slam celebrations at the LG Twins vs Lotte Giants game in Jamsil Stadium, Seoul, South Korea. August 3, 2017.
SIZZLING SEOUL || As previously mentioned, it’s an especially hot summer in Seoul this year. The must-have seasonal accessory is without doubt these KRW10,000 (€7.50) Made In China LED fashion fans; the are everywhere and the sight of Koreans – both men & women, young & old – walking around holding one of these in front of their faces will be an abiding memory of a sizzling summer 2017 in Seoul. Yeoksam metro station, Seoul, South Korea. August 5, 2017.
GANGNAM || My home for years before it shot to worldwide stardom thanks to PSY’s 2012 megahit Gangnam Style, the Gangnam district of Seoul is hip, fashionable and full of beautiful types. Needless to say I fitted right in. Gangnam, Seoul, South Korea. August 5, 2017.
I leave for Beijing, China tomorrow, back behind the Great Firewall. North Korea shortly thereafter. I’m excited, but right now, hours from my latest departure from Korea, I’m melancholy. I’m sad to be leaving South Korea, as I always am. I came back here for purely selfish reasons – because I love Seoul, love Korea – but remnants of the past linger, especially the people & the good-time memories they evoke. Thank you to everyone who made this return so special; it was great to catch up. I love you all. Friends for life and I hope to see you soon in Ireland. The green-tinged red carpet awaits.