A day in Seoul
It’s obviously quite difficult to get a good handle of a city when you are only spending the briefest of times there. Including the travel time there and back, a day is actually a bit of a stretch of the imagination. I did, however, get to see a lot of the city by foot and was able – if only through the narrowest of straws – to slurp up some of the atmosphere.
The first thing I noticed, on arriving in the city, was that it was crowded with soldiers, all of whom were young-looking. I don’t know if this is a common sight, or if our trip coincided with a leave from duty, but you couldn’t look anywhere without being faced with another camouflaged uniform. The train to Seoul, which was also half filled with soldiers, was a comfortable and – more importantly – cheap journey (we used a rail pass for foreigners that cost less than £35 for a return) that took us around two hours. This train, unlike the ones we took in Busan, luckily did not smell like urine and actually rivalled the Japanese Shinkansen (Bullet train) in terms of comfort (if not speed), which is no small feat. It was also vastly cheaper.
Many people have said to me, when asking about visiting places like Singapore, Hong Kong and Seoul, that a major city is a major city, with little to no difference between them. To a certain extent (in Asia at least) I think this is probably true. I don’t completely agree, though. Seoul certainly had its own identity, whether it be the quaint local restaurants, the area of trendy artwork (Insa Dong) that literally neighbour the financial and shopping districts or the Korean food stalls that are dotted around everywhere.
A note on the obsession with World Heritage sites: OK, this has been a source of rancour for a while now. In a desperate search for quantifiable quality in the World, some organisation or other has taken it upon itself to highlight certain sights that deserve more praise than others. In my experience, this elaborate seal means nothing, and both of the World Heritage sights in Korea were entirely underwhelming. I actually know Japanese people who plan their holiday around how many World Heritage sights they can see in one trip, such is the faith that they put into the list. There is much more culture and interest to be gained from wandering around a city or town than there ever could be from being herded around like cows and fed the reasons you should appreciate yet another piece of ageing stone. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I often find that the sights that are less lauded tend to have the better atmosphere and more organic feel.