Just like before going to Tokyo, coming closer to the South Korean capital city we had mixed feelings and some fears of huge metropolis. Together with its satellite cities, Seoul is metropolis THE MOST – the most developed, the biggest, the most crowded, the richest in the world. Again, shivers went down our spines at the thought of forcing our way through luxury cars in the shadow of glass skyscrapers and finding our way at endless motorways. Obviously, big cities and especially the capitals generate the costs, what is quite important for us of course. Coming back from the mountains and seeing the Seoul’s outline, we stopped to take the deep breath and headed into the Korean dragon’s jaws…
Seoul absorbed us, but just as Tokyo did, very positively. The city gradually revealed its charm, as we followed it carefully and found out that it has much to offer. We entered the capital suprisingly smooth, because we followed the river Han, that goes through the city. It is hard to indicate where Seoul begins, as the area of it and satellite cities spills all over. We felt the city centre coming, as the number of cyclists grew and the variety appeared by the river. The way of Korean people spend their free time might be described in a seperate post, but it is still worth mentioning. Our initial depiction of crowded, loud and fast pace metropolis was clouded with idyllic view and very well maintained river side area and relaxed people there. Benches, tables, shelters, platforms, playgrounds, outdoor gyms, shops, cafes and hundreds of tents with camping equipment.
We felt as being at the huge campsite, not being in the city centre. Being excited about that we thought that it must be a perfect spot for night and we would just disappear among the crowds of Koreans busy with their barbecue. We cycled into the city to find a supermarket and get our own food camping set, but instead we found nervous drivers, busy streets with buses and taxis. Except river area, cycling does NOT exist, we haven’t seen many bikes out of the special river lanes. In contrast to Tokyo, which is busy with cycling commuters. However, the mission was completed and we very happy to find a place between other tents back by the river. You should see our faces the next morning, when we found out that we were there alone! Even the morning walkers were surprised, just as they would never see a tent there before.
Seoul because of its location by one of the main rivers and between the mountains has once become a strategic point. The history of the city goes back to 2000 years ago, and 600 years ago as the capital city.
Tumultuous events of the Japanese occupation, severe damage during the Korean War and sudden economic growth in the 60’s created the today image of the city. What catches the eye are high apartment buildings, modern offices, shopping malls with huge screens, motorways over the pavements and thousands of people. In the dense crowd though, you can still find many places, that just as oasis takes you to different world. To places of that kind belong five palaces built during Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). We have visited two of them – Gyeongbokgung, the main king residence and Changdeokgung, the second royal premises, together with its wonderful, natural garden. Renovated buildings, with impressive gates, pavilions, halls and yards, show historical face of Korea, that seems to highlighting its cultural identity nowadays. In Gyeongbokgung palace, we visited folk museum, that showed the past and variety of the country in an interesting way. In Japan, we saw people wearing traditional kimonos, also here we met many visitors wearing hanbok, traditional Korean clothes, walking from one palace to another. We wondered by the way, what reactions would Polish tourists raise, if they wore traditional Polish clothes strolling up and down the old market squares in Poznań or Cracow.
We may not be really interested in spending days in museums and considering architecture styles of every building, but we definitely enjoy something without time limit – music! We have asked in Japan about traditional music, festivals or concerts, but winter and constant cycling didn’t help us in discovering the secrets of music at that time. Whereas we appeared to be in Seoul in perfect timing, right when 4th edition of Royal Culture Festival was about to begin. The schedule offered exhibitions, shows, historical reproductions and sightseeing trips in the palaces and Jongmyo temple.
What drew our attention the most, were the music concerts. We immediately arranged our plans according to two events – concert with dance show by the garden of Changdeokgung palace and night concert of traditional orchestra from Gwangju city held in the main pavilion of Gyeongbokgung palace (where the most important banquets took place during the reign of Joseon Dynasty). Traditional music, carrying so many emotions, in such a wonderful scenery, freed in us the hidden music endorphins 🙂
Staying in traditional flavour, one can walk in nearby district of Bukchon Hanok Village. Hundreds of traditional houses there, called hanok, remember the time of Joseon Dynasty. Today, it is one of the most popular historical tourist attraction, still inhabited, although many of houses turned into galleries, cafes, souvenir shops or small cultural centres, with workshops and organised meetings about Korean culture. It might be one of the most popular photo scenes for tourists and those wearing hanbok, so although crowded, still worth visiting to see the modern style mingled with tradition.
On the way to modernity, we couldn’t miss Gangnam! We associated the district with the hit Gangnam Style from 2012, that somehow became world famous and as the first one of k-pop kind was listed at the top of iTunes. It is quite hard to understand the phenomenon of some songs becoming so popular (for instance people being crazy here), but it is also hard to just go by 😉
Gangnam district is a symbol of fashion and luxury. It is full of modern malls, designer boutiques, modern art installations. We had planned to walk around Gangnam to look for futuristic buildings, but instead we found Beer Festival, which was much more in our style 🙂 Craft beers are expensive, both in South Korea and Japan, so it was pleasure for us to try some wonderful local IPA or stout. We were even more interested in hop drink, as after Seoul we were heading to voluntary job, at the recently planted hop farm. We made a basic research though, met the brewing teams and tasted different flavours from various beerhouses. Believe us, even k-pop concert in rainy evening after all that tasting was super fun 🙂
Seoul was not only the tourist attraction for us but above all, the meetings with gorgeous people that offered their help and time. Bike shop BikeLy, as the story begins there, opened its door for us. The owner, Lee, organised the presentation where we showed pictures from Poland to Korean cyclists and he also found accomodation for us with his friends. Talking about Poland was an interesting experience, as we had a chance to change the image of Poland in Korean minds, especially that a group of 9 cyclists will soon ride through Poland, on they way from Paris to Moscov. With sentiment we watched pictures from our diverse and beautiful Poland. Being in touring bike specialized place, we were happy to have our bikes thoroughly checked. They are ready for another thousands of kilometres!
Thanks to BikeLy we got out of Seoul, to calm town surrounded by the mountains and forests, where hearing the frogs ‘singing’ we could relax, prepare our presentation and together with enthusiastic cyclist Misun explore the surroundings. For another two days we moved into the city centre, to Korean artistic family, who hosted foreign guests for the first time ever and we were both excited about that 🙂 We couldn’t probably land in a better place, as Kim, an artist, mountain and traditional music lover took us to Bukhansan National Park for a wonderful trekking. We wouldn’t probably go on our own deep into the Park and would probably reduce our walk to visiting the city walls close to the mountains. When it comes to the walls, there are plenty of stories around them, that we learnt about seeing the Seoul City Wall Museum. The walls and numerous gates have been built since 14th century, they are the landmark of the city now and serve as tourist trails.
Going back to Bukhansan National Park, it is situated in the 25 million citizens metropolis area and to the trail entrance you can get by subway. It’s no wonder that it is the most often visited national park in the world. The main attraction of the Park are granite rocks and many climbing trails, with mentioned historic walls. We were lucky enough not to meet crowds of Koreans (who love trekking and other outdoor activities, like picnics at view points), so we could enjoy the surroundings and quiet places away from the urban jungle 🙂
Living in the huge city isn’t that easy and cheap, as we saw only a tiny part of it from different perspective. However, Seoul made a positive impression on us, at least as a touristic spot. Worth mentioning is that sightseeing there won’t leave your wallet empty. Competition helps to keep the prices of accomodation, transport and food low, many attractions are relatively cheap or for free and the city has really a lot to offer. Who knows, we may come back one day. So far, we have said goodbye to Seoul spending another night at one of our favourite “camping places” by the river 😉