Seoul Korea

Seoul Korea: Shopping, War, and the Quirky Art of Fine Living

Korea is a country that few people really know much about. There's the war, of course, occasional cross-border skirmishes and the impenetrable dividing line between north and south. It's certainly been a tough life for this little country perched on the edge of China and Russia. But when you land in Seoul that all seems a million miles away, even though the border creeps to within 30 miles of the city.

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Seoul is home to about 11-million, soaring to 15-million if you include the suburbs. It's a sprawling place where you can spend several hours a day in traffic, even though the roads are wide and driving standards are politely Asian rather than a free-for-all.

The Koreans have some aspects of living down to a quirky fine art. Like heated toilet seats that you really appreciate when the temperature plunges to below freezing. I was a little startled when their warm-water sprays switched on to take care of ablutions from two different directions, but it certainly leaves you with a warm, fuzzy glow.

Service is also tip-top outside the department stores, where parking attendants wrapped in glorious bright red coats wave the cars in and out of gaps, giving a solemn, courteous bow to every driver.

Getting around is easy too, because Korea is remarkably English. Road signs and street names are dual language, many shops and restaurants advertise their wares in English, and the average Korean speaks far better English than the average English speaker converses in Korean -- or any other language.

Seoul is a city of gleaming golden skyscrapers, and the number of building sites shows it's still expanding even though it's been the capital for 600 years. Yet even in the older quarters sadly almost nothing has survived from ancient times.

One exception is the Blue House where the president lives in the shadow of Dragon Mountain. It's officially known as Cheong Wa Dae, but gets its nickname from the 150,000 blue tiles on its roof, each individually baked to make them strong enough to have endured for hundreds of years. The president's home is scarcely 16 miles from the border with North Korea, which keeps the guards permanently on their toes.

Seoul has a target of doubling its number of visitors to 12 million a year, and the city is jacking itself up nicely to handle the influx. Efforts include making sure the hotels are affordable and trying to improve traffic flow. An extensive subway and easy-to-understand bus routes let you zip around to museums, art galleries, parks, palaces and preserved cultural villages that try to capture the ancient way of life. You can catch a tourist bus to the major sights, or take a leisurely boat trip along the Han River.

Tourists leaflets are everywhere, and my group eagerly grabbed one called I Love Shopping. I couldn't find one called I Hate Shopping, because in bling-filled Seoul that doesn't seem to be an option.

There are massive malls and bustling street markets, and in a fitting tribute to Seoul's capitalism there's even a Currency Museum to which admission is free.

One leaflet recommends a visit to Seodaemun Independence Park, built on a prison site where patriots were martyred by Japanese colonialists. The prison cells and execution building have been restored so you can "experience what it was like to be imprisoned and tortured."

Thanks, but I suddenly prefer shopping.

Take a day trip to the demilitarised zone to get an overview of a part of Korean history that still shapes the county today. The propaganda spouted by the guides can prove highly entertaining too. However, the cultural villages can be a tacky disappointment, but capture a way of life that's fast disappearing.

If you scratch below the surface of Korea the war still shapes the national psyche. Ten million people have been split from their families by the north-south dividing line, and the demilitarised zone is a routine feature on tourist agendas.

Despite efforts to reunify the nations, guides are still leading tourists through the underground tunnels that riddle the land around the border. Both sides spin the same propaganda, with the North and South alike claiming the other side dug the tunnels ready to stage an invasion if hostilities escalate.
Seoul Korea
On the food and drink front Korea is an intriguing blend of westernised and traditional. There are more than 200 Starbucks, even though this is not a nation of coffee-drinkers. Ginseng yes; caffeine no.

As I strolled around the city I grew uncomforatable to see posters on shop windows wishing us Happy White Day. It was no alarming sign of racial discord, our guide assured us. Blacks and whites may slug it out in other countries, but it's not the colour of their skin that makes enemies of the North and South Koreans.

White Day is a harmless bit of fun when men give white candies to their girlfriends. Another month everybody will wish you Happy Black Day, and women will cook black noodles for their men. To make sure nobody feels left out, people without a partner get to celebrate Happy Friends Day later in the year.

How any sad person with no lover and no friends consoles themselves while the rest of Korea celebrates is a mystery. Maybe they join the displaced foreigners in McDonalds, so they don't feel like the only lonely soul in a city of 15-million.

If You Go

South Korea can get bitterly cold in winter, and my idea of winter clothes proved no match for the snow and biting winds. Better to go in spring or autumn.

Seoul is a shoppers' delight, and cheap by western standards, although the quality can match the cheap prices. Travel around Seoul by the underground trains or extensive bus route.

McDonalds, Haagen-Dazs, and other familiar chains also pander to tourists and ex-pats who crave a break from the noodles and sticky rice that appear for every meal.

Food is everywhere. Every other shop is a sandwich bar or a deli, a Chinese restaurant or a pizza place. And when you want to eat Korean there's a bewildering choice. In one dreary-looking shopping centre we were led down to the basement to the smart and gleaming Zizzy restaurant, where a buffet was full of fascinating delights in intriguing shapes, colours and tastes.

My colleagues raved about the sushi, declaring it the best they'd ever tasted. It was certainly fresh, because we watched the chefs rolling it.

The fried pork was exquisite, and half a dozen other dishes were also delicious if unidentifiable. Only the desserts were a disappointment, because no matter what colours and flavours you add to sticky rice, it always tastes insipid.

Perhaps the only way to give sticky rice any flavour is to dip it in kimchi, that icon of Korean cuisine - pickled cabbage in chilli. The Koreans are so devoted to it that even in western-style eateries a bowl of kimchi is served with your meal. If you get addicted, there's a kimchi museum where you can marvel over the pots and bowls used to make and store it, and as a final treat you get to prepare your own.

Where to eat? On the street, with markets selling intriguing food that's always fresh because of the high turn over.

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Lesley Stones is a former Brit who is now proudly South African. She started her career by reviewing rock bands for a national UK music paper, then worked for various newspapers before spending four fun-filled years in Cairo, where she ended up editing a technology magazine. Lesley was the Information Technology Editor for a daily business newspaper for 12 years before quitting to go freelance, specialising in travel & leisure writing and being opinionated about life in general. Her absolute passions are travel, theatre, the cinema, wining and dining.

Photos by Paul Symonds - for, and by Lesley Stones

Updated: October 7, 2016

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