Searching for the heart of Seoul
“You won’t find the cities beautiful, like in Europe,” warned our son, Sam, nine months into a year of teaching English in a provincial Korean city. “But there’s this different kind of beauty here. You might not see it. It took me a while.”
We had 10 days in Seoul.
My wife, Lisa, and I had both wanted to do more traveling now that our kids were out on their own, but South Korea would never have made our top 10 list, or even top 20. In that, we were no different from most. If Americans make the exhausting, disorienting trek to East Asia, they go to China and Thailand, mostly. Not that Korean tourism wasn’t experiencing a boomlet — 12 million foreign visitors in 2013 — but the vast majority were other Asians, Chinese mostly, on “plastic-surgery vacations.” (Not my idea of good fun, but apparently 50,000 Chinese with yuan burning holes in their cellulite disagree.)
That July, 400,000 Asian tourists visited South Korea, but only 35,000 Americans. By contrast, almost 50 times as many Americans would go to Europe that month.
But we wanted to see Sam and share in his excitement about living abroad. As we went online to book flights (expensive and interminable) and hotels (good ones are notoriously sparse and hard to locate on English-language websites), we plunged forward with more grim determination than giddy anticipation.
We emerged from the exhausting odyssey halfway around the globe into a steady rain outside of Seoul’s towering modern central train station. The cabdriver couldn’t make any sense of the Roman lettering on the map I showed him, or, apparently, the Korean script written beneath it. We drove around, seemingly randomly, for half an hour. It was only by chance that, scouring the map, I noticed a small-print number of 11 digits at the bottom, which thankfully the cabbie recognized as a phone number — the hotel’s.
Our room, barely bigger than the beds it contained, was otherwise pleasant enough, with all the modern conveniences you’d expect in a middle-rung American hotel. To us, at least in that moment of pure exhaustion, the perfectly comfortable beds were nirvana.
We’d barely awakened in the morning when my phone emitted an odd chime. This was my son calling on a free app called KakaoTalk, which allowed us to call each other without paying the ruinous Verizon international call or roaming charges, as long as we had WiFi, which fortunately seemed to be everywhere. We were already beginning to discover the duality of Korea: still a developing country in some ways — the congestion, the raw, somewhat slapdash construction that made everything seem grimy, and the chaotic city planning — but way ahead of the United States in others, like a subway system that in size, convenience, aesthetics and low cost made Washington, D.C.’s Metro seem like a series of high-priced donkey carts. Also: a bullet train system that reached every significant city in the Kentucky-size country in an affordable, and quite comfortable, few hours.
Now that Sam, a whiz at languages who’d become quite conversant in Korean in less than a year, was with us, we didn’t have to sweat the communication gaps. We set off walking in the monstrous megalopolis of 25.6 million — the second largest in the developed world. A cool morning breeze vanished well before noon, followed by heat that rose around us in a molten flood. The smoggy air felt like a solid substance to push through as we marched along the slanting sidewalks.
Seoul sits in a bowl, split by the Han River and surrounded by dramatic rocky mountains.
The steep grade of its streets rivals San Francisco, but any comparisons with American cities are inherently misleading. San Francisco is a tiny village compared with Seoul, and its cityscape easily describable. Seoul is an overgrown mishmash, a frantic uprising of glass, concrete, wood and stone, all thrusting out of the earth like an architectural rapture. Six-hundred-year-old palaces sit at the foot of billion-dollar corporate towers out of a sci-fi fantasy, glittering above neighborhoods of dingy concrete apartment blocks interspersed randomly with traditional tile-roofed pagodas and garish shop fronts buried under an avalanche of signage — from elaborate creations of blinking neon to hand-lettered placards bolted, nailed, pasted or draped over every surface. Streets bend and twist into narrow passages winding through hidden neighborhoods exploding with street markets where vendors hawk everything from high-end electronics to stacks of dried, salted octopus.
We spent our first days in Seoul doing the obvious tourist stuff: the impressive centuries-old palace complexes that take up wide swaths of urban real estate, Forbidden City-like; the N Seoul Tower that rises 1,574 feet above the center of the sprawling city, about three times as high as the Washington Monument; the various serpentine street markets and the arts district of Insadong with its tightly packed shops and restaurants in low-rise buildings covered with flowering vines.
At the end of one long, exhausting trek in the city’s center we came, unexpectedly, to a temple in a kind of doughnut hole carved out of high-rises. On the dirt plaza surrounding the open-sided structure, scores of Koreans in street clothes were kneeling or prostrating themselves on bamboo mats as a monk sitting lotus-style before a massive golden Buddha chanted in a hypnotizing monotone with rising and falling inflections that reminded me, after a while, of the steady advance and retreat of waves breaking on a beach. We found a place to sit on some steps as the chanting continued, falling into a kind of semi-doze. My thoughts rounded like rocks smoothed by the steady stream of sound. At each pause, I expected the chant to end in an out-of-breath huff, but it never did. After 45 minutes, the monk droning on miraculously, we got up and wandered away, feeling as if we had woken from a dream whose wispy remnants clung like cobwebs.
As our vacation stretched on, Lisa and I began to overdose on Korean cuisine. We weren’t big meat eaters, and the pork and beef that predominated was lost on us. The bottomless dishes of kimchi and other pickled vegetables that accompanied every meal had begun to overwhelm.
Sam was pained to see his parents cringe at what seemed to us an unrelenting cuisine and flat-out refuse such delicacies as still-writhing octopus tentacles. He seemed especially disappointed that we vetoed a visit to one of Korea’s specialty cafes that featured dogs, or cats, or birds — not on the menu, but alive, wandering around freely as patrons ate and drank. He wanted to visit his favorite of the genre, a snake cafe, the mere mention of which might have scarred his mother for life. He made a sour face when we dragged him to breakfast at a Paris Baguette restaurant — a Western chain! — because we couldn’t stomach a Korean breakfast of rice, soup and those ubiquitous pickled vegetables.
We spent our final day in Seoul strolling the ritzy Gangnam district, made famous by that ridiculous viral song, only to realize it was exactly like being in midtown Manhattan, with even-more expensive Starbucks shops. We toured one more World Heritage site — the royal tombs — which were impressive, if you like huge mounds covered with grass. We walked in the preheated oven of the Seoul afternoon.
We meant to wander around until we found a likely restaurant, but we’d waited too long and had grown low-blood-sugar cranky. Sam especially was on edge. It made him tense looking for a place, he said, because he knew we hated Korean food. No matter how much we denied it, he remained unconvinced. Predictably, after we’d passed by a dozen potential eateries — “That’s a chain!” Sam said, horrified, of one — we entered a stretch of no possibilities at all.
I didn’t blame Sam. I knew he was anticipating our departure, anxious that maybe we’d been underwhelmed by his adventure. That we hadn’t been able to make the leap, to see Korea through his eyes. The food was just a metaphor.
But you can’t eat literary devices, and we really needed to eat. I felt our situation teeter on the edge of unpleasantness when I looked down a steep alleyway and saw an obscure door just below street level with a sign in English below the one in Korean that said, “Yakitori.”
It wasn’t Korean — and I saw Sam flinch — but at this point, I was willing to impose.
The waitress addressed us in perfect American English and explained that their menu consisted of five varieties of yakitori, which is essentially Japanese-style barbecued chicken served on a spit. We consumed every platter and washed it down with refreshing Korean sake, served cold instead of warm, as in Japan.
As we ate and drank, Sam visibly relaxed. We began to talk over all the things we’d seen and done, realizing only as we spoke just how astounding they had been. We paid and spilled back out onto the street. It was as if we were actors in a play, and the scene had changed.
Someone had clamped a rose filter on the sun, and the temperature had dropped at least 10 degrees. We climbed the hill and stood on a bridge over an ancient creekbed. Where water once flowed, a meadow had grown up, studded with wildflowers. On either side, the domino-block apartments tumbled against one another, their unpainted exteriors now bathed in a warm wash of pink.
To the east, the city flared skyward in profusion, a garden not of plants, but of human fancy. Its citizens streamed past along the bridge, striding confidently into what would most certainly be the Asian century.
I saw it. I definitely saw it.
Photos by Shin Woong-jae/for The Washington Post