Subzero in Seoul

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December 26th 2009
Published: October 1st 2017
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We woke to a perfectly clear day -- still some snow on the ground but the sky was very blue and the sun was out. But it was cold! In the teens, F. Both Paul and I woke relatively early (before 6am), but that was still a good night's sleep for our first night.

About 7:30am, we called the kids, then went downstairs for coffee and muffins. We opened Christmas gifts -- what we had brought from home, what Keegan had brought from Irkutsk, then dressed warmly and headed out into the cold.

We wandered down towards Seoul Plaza, where we were rather startled to find an Antarctic exploration display -- a quanset hut, an iceberg (clearly not made of ice), a signpost showing 17,000km to Seoul. We circled Seoul Plaza, then went to Deoksugung, Emperor Gojong's palace from 1897 to his death in 1919 (or, rather, it was his palace until his abdication, then it was his home). The buildings were lovely in the snow, and few people were out, despite it being a Saturday ... we think the cold must have kept away the Boxing Day crowds! The most interesting aspect of the buildings was the fact that they used an underfloor heating system -- the traditional Korean ondol heating ... smoke from a wood-burning fire is transfered through ducts under a masonry floor, which then heats the entire room. We were quite impressed ... given the coldness of the day, today, we were just wondering how they kept these wooden buildings warm enough. Apparently, in the early 1900s, the Emperor's sleeping quarters burned down. The ondol heating system was blamed, but many Koreans suspected arson on the part of the Japanese, who wanted the Emperor to move further away from foreign legations. (Clearly, the Japanese are not popular in Korea.)

The whole layout (about a third of the original palace) was very pleasant, but we had a lot of trouble following the written descriptions. Not that they were not well-written, but each building had a name, at least one seemed to have two names, one of which was the same as the whole complex, and buildings were destroyed, moved, and replaced, and the names seemed to shift. We began to say, "This building ... or another building ... was used for something or another, then it wasn't, unless it still was."

We stopped at a Vietnamese restaurant for lunch -- tasty noodle soup, then returned to the hotel for a brief rest. We viewed some of Keegan's photos from Siberia and put up our feet for a few minutes.

In the afternoon, we set out for Leeum Samsung Museum of Art. We walked to Seoul Station and figured out how to buy Metro cards ... then how to load our Metro cards. (Very easy to figure out the kiosks), then took the Metro (from Point A to Point B, with transfer ... again, lots of English signage and English announcements ... and a very intuitive Metro system). We got off near the park ... and were'nt really sure which way to go to reach the Museum. Paul thought he had left Blackberry at the hotel, so we were trying to use the Lonely Planet map as well as the map from the tourist information kiosk at the airport ... but we couldn't get them to coordinate. We did get lost in the Embassy/posh area of town, which was pretty entertaining. Some gorgeous places, and a great view. Then Paul found Blackberry, and we realized we were going the wrong way ... and the GPS helped us get to our destination.

I loved the Leeum. Beautiful architecture ... very clean lines. It is built into the hillside, but there is a gap between the cliff and the buildings, but the windows are open, and you can see the shale held back by rebar. And a central spiral staircase, like a narrow Guggenheim. We began with Museum 1 -- the old arts. The ceramics are beautifullly displayed in large cases, in darkly lit rooms, with black backgrounds. We loved the early ceramics -- celadon with very simple but lovely ornamentation -- as well as the traditional paintings.

Museum 2 houses contemporary arts, many Korean artists, as well as more "traditional" modern artists like Rothko and Hans Arp ... plus some new works (Damien Hirst's wall of pills). We were all very impressed with a photograph of the mass games in Pyongyang -- from the distance, it appeared to be an abstract repeating pattern, but upclose, it was clearly acrobats on the field, posing in unison, and stands of spectators with tablets. We also all loved a video of cars moving in and out of parking spaces, with hands superimposed, looking like a person was playing with toy cars. Very cool.

From the Museum, we walked to Itaewon district and had a coffee at a stylish little cafe, then walked some more (freezing!) towards the Metro station, past all the open shops. We weren't quite sure what we wanted for dinner ... but we knew we didn't want to go too far, and a curry shop presented itself off in a side street, so we had Indian for dinner.

Then back to the hotel on the Metro. We got off at the Namdaemun Market ... narrow walking street with food stalls (all selling identical food) and clothing stalls running down the center, and watch/camera shops lining the edges. Leaving the pedestrian streets, we had to cross two major boulevards to reach the hotel ... then, tired but happy, we turned in for the night.

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