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Published: April 22nd 2015
Hanok Village and Seoul Tower
Here I am, sitting at a public computer in Seoul's infamous Gangnam district south of the Han River. Behind me a noisy group of Koreans and Americans are playing card games and make me wanna send them straight up to Pyongyang for "relax and recreation". I have been in the capital for the last 4-5 days or so, touring pretty much everything that I wanted to see. Unfortunately on my first day here I got a cold so I was a little limited, but a Korean friend of mine showed me around. Always helps to have friends around the blue ball!
Anyway, let's focus a little on the title of this post: The faces of Korea. While some people might argue there are many (surgered ones), after my trip I would like to argue that there are two: Seoul and not Seoul... or in my friend's words: Seoul and countryside. When I arrived in the ROK a couple of weeks ago I started to work my way from Jeju up north and left you with my last blog from the historical capital Gyeongju. Nothing could have been better to show both sides of the Korean medal than what I did
Gyeonggokbung Palace ceremony
after: I spent a couple of days in the Southwestern city of Jeonju, before heading up north to the capital.
While both, Busan and Gyeongju have been a little underwhelming in terms of development and of what I had expected the ROK to look like (Sorry guy, Japan is still out of reach), Jeonju really showed me the rural face of the ROK. Located in the wild southwest of the country, the villages and mountains around Jeongju are commonly referred to as Korea's agricultural heartland and ricebowl. The most interesting feature of Jeongju and its main tourist attraction is the Korean rice dish "Bibimbap", a pretty much mix of everything type of ricebowl in a stone pot. Now, there is a test that I developed in order to see whether or not an Asian place is developed: I call it the "Hello-hello test". If you are Caucasian (or possibly just look non-oriental) and have been to Asia, you might have experienced the "hello-hello" phenomenon.
What I am referring to is your common stroll along a common road somewhere in Asia and random strangers will pass you by and give you a grinning "hello-hello". Now, they don't expect you
Photo Zone... so I had to take it
to answer really, because If you do you figure out they usually don't speak English. The hello-hello phenomenon happens pretty much in all of Asia's developing countries and the rural backwaters of some more developed ones. Surprisingly, the south of Korea pretty much falls into the latter category. My first day in Jeongju I took an evening stroll out of my guesthouse towards the "more modern" downtown area (Jeonju is famous for its traditional houses a little further away). I was surprisingly reminded of a walk in mainland China. No K-poppers, no cutie fairy queens, no blaring k-pop: This was street markets and stinky back-alley territory. While looking for a coffee shop I also got to experience my very own Korean hello-hello phenomenon as passing teenagers gave me a cheeky grin and let the catchphrase flow freely.
I enjoyed Jeonju's rural atmosphere for a couple of days and then decided to head up to Seoul, where I met my friend. When I asked her about my underwhelming impression of Jeju, Busan, Gyeongju and Jeonju she explained me her related point of view: Seoul is pretty much modern Korea. After Tokyo, Seoul is believed to be the second largest urban
conglomerate in the world and growing, even if Korea's overall population is dwindling. In other words, its a place for the young, ambitious, rich, famous, and pretty much anybody else who can leave their hometown to look for their fortune under the bright city lights of Korea's capital.
I have been staying south of the Han river for the last 5 nights in a little place called Gangnam (you might have heard about it...). Gangnam is pretty much all what modern Korea is about. No traditional houses here, no girls in traditional Korean clothes. This is a place for the young and beautiful. Plastic surgery clinics can be found on every corner and adds on the subway advertise how you can "reduce the shape of your jaw by 2 inches". The street food eateries of Jeonju are replaced by the usual western-fusion restaurants found in Asia mega-cities and the States (carbonara with fresh spring egg anybody?). This is where it all happens, this is where the Gangnam style song blaring out of speakers from all over the world came from.
Most tourists do not really bother with the south side of the river anyhow as there are no
Shopping area on the northern side
historical sights of interest. Surprisingly, Seoul has a fair share of under-rated heritage sites on the north of the Han River. Traditional houses similar to what I had seen in Jeonju form small, almost European style alleyways sneaking up the hills of central Seoul, while in the background the hyper-modern Seoul tower dominates the landscape. The capital also has its fair share of royal heritage: Several palaces which remind of Beijing's forbidden city, a secret royal pleasure garden, Confucian schools, all in all quite a good trip for a history buff. Although these are the main attractions of the city, I did not feel that this is what Seoul was all about. According to my guide book, almost half of Korea's population is believed to live in the urban area of what is this mega city. This might explain why, when I was on the subway in Busan, I encountered almost only elderly people.
So, concluding on my experience in this country: The faces of Korea are indeed two: Seoul and not-Seoul it is. Everything most westerners look for can probably be found outside the mass of humanity capital of the ROK. Everything Asians like about Korea (k-pop, dramas,
Changdeokgung Palace gate
cosmetics) are pretty much what Seoul is all about and what Korea is marketing to the outside world. About 70% of inboud tourists to the ROK are Chinese indeed. I won't say which of the two faces is more appealing to me, I leave you to guess 😊 This is it South Korea: it was a pleasure. I missed the salt in your food but had a good time anyhow. If I will be back I will bring my very own marine salt to spice up your kimchi. Heading back to Hong Kong now to FINALLY WRAP UP THIS PHD 😊 Write to you soon folks!
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