Ok, that's not the extent of my observations. A few weekends ago, Jon and I went to Seoul for a long weekend (yet another national holiday). His cousin, Megan, lives and works, as an English teacher, in Seoul. Or, I should say, outside of Seoul. We took the bus up Friday morning, a nice 3 1/2 hour bus ride, and got there around lunch time.
Seoul is, like I said, a big city. It has a lot in common with most big cities in the world and not as much in common with the rest of the country. It is, however, a great place to visit in its own right. It's clean, and has an interesting mix of modern skyscrapers and ancient palaces. The weekend we went was the beginning of the fall "HiSeoul" festival, which is a festival a tourism board of Seoul puts on with every season, mostly to highlight music and the arts.
The first day, we walked down the river which runs through the middle of the city. It used to just be a yucky stream, overgrown and overlooked. A few years ago, some forward-looking member of the local government turned it into a long, nicely-maintained park. It has sidewalks on each side, nice greenery and random sculptures here and there, both in and out of the river. For example, there were dozens of umbrellas hanging on wires across the sky above one portion of the river. There were also stones in the shape of a spiral in the river.
Along the river there were other art projects going on...like a mural in black and white of the city with magnets people could move around and make their own art. There was also a yellow, transluscent globe kids could go inside and draw on/write messages. I'm sure there was meaning to this, but it was all in Korean. So I only got the surface meaning.
That afternoon we went to the biggest bookstore I have ever seen! The English section was about the size of an average bookstore in the States, and better stocked. They had fiction and every category of non-fiction, including the textbook I used in my Foreign Policy class in college. And a good selection of Learn Korean books. I purchased the first book and workbook in a series from the National University, after quite some time spent considering my options and the attempted help of a Japanese and a Korean woman. In the course of the conversation, the Korean woman found out where I was living and asked "WHY?!?!?!" Apparently to the residents of Seoul, a city of 600,000 is the countryside, a backwater town where there is nothing to do.
On the way to the bookstore, we looked across the street and saw a huge line of police officers in riot gear waiting to cross, headed in the opposite direction. We were a little worried, but figured it wasn't a big deal. Maybe another protest about beef imports. We decided to head in that direction later to find out. Turned out they were just headed to a heavily populated area to work on maneouvering through crowds-- they were just recruits.
That night, we went out to Itaewon with some of Megan's friends. Itaewan is the area around the huge American military base. One of Megan's friends described it as 'the place things go to fester,' and after going there, I definitely agree. This place was seedy, and full of dirty alleys, sketchy bars and fast-food joints. And drunk foreigners. I'm sure that in the day it's a little better, and there are more American restaurants etc than I've seen elsewhere in Korea, but unless you are SERIOUSLY craving American food that you just can't find anywhere else, or make yourself, its not really worth going there. Except to go to the bar called Bungalow. It was sweet....island-themed and chill, there is a room inside where the floor is covered in sand (you take off your shoes and socks) and the only chairs are hammocks and swings. Very fun, but maybe not so well thought-out in the details, since a person in a swing will clearly want to swing, and the more you drink, the less you can control your impulses...and swinging results in smashing into the table, spilling drinks and/or ramming the table into the shins of the person across from you. Yes, that happened to me....I wasn't the one swinging, I was the one getting the table slammed into me. But it was ok, because I'm kinda surprised I wasn't the one swinging, and because the guy bought me a drink to make up for it.
The next day we went to some old palaces, and then eventually wandered over to Insa-dong, which is the more traditional, artsy area of Seoul. There are traditional teahouses and restaurants, and a lot of traditional crafts and antiques stores. The main street is closed to traffic on the weekends, and is full of vendors and people browsing. It was my favorite spot in Seoul. We went to a great restaurant, and a really cute teahouse. The teahouse was very cute, small and eclectic. It had amazing tea, and tiny house-trained birds flying around inside. The table Jon and I sat at was actually a small tub with goldfish living in it, with plexiglass over the top.
Sunday morning, before catching the bus back to Jeonju, we went to a Buddhist temple in a suburb of Seoul. It was the first temple we had been to, and I loved it. It was actually quite the compound, with a main building and many smaller halls hidden away among trees, rocks and hills. Being in the middle of the city, it was an oasis of calm and nature. There were a lot of Koreans there, meditating and offering prayers. There were also monks walking around in their gray and beige robes and shaved heads. It was very interesting for me, since I have been interested in Buddhism for a while, and this was the first time I'd actually seen "buddhists in action.' :) I'm not sure which sect they belonged to, and the specifics of that sects beliefs, but like most religions, all Buddhist sects share the same basic principles.
So, like I said, Seoul is a big city. It is clean, and has a great blend of modern and traditional, but it's HUGE. Too big for me to ever live in, but nice to visit for a weekend. All in all, I was glad to be back to Jeonju on Sunday afternoon, with enough time to grab a coffee and relax before another week of work.