Now it’s off to Korea, our 35th country since we left the U.S. two years ago and the first completely new country for both of us since Liechtenstein 10 months ago. This has been high on our list of “must see” countries for years, but as recently as a month ago we still weren’t going to fit it in while we were over on this side of the world. Then the earthquake in Nepal blew up our plans, so here we are.
What to say about Seoul, our first stop in Korea? I’ll admit, it was somewhat disappointing. The city has been a huge economic success over the last few decades and has grown at exponential rates; today it has over 10 million residents. It’s a city increasingly known for technology companies like Samsung and as a center of modern design. I was expecting a lot, and maybe that was the problem.
To be sure, there were some great parts to the city. My favorite was Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art which was, for me, just about a perfect museum. It consists of three buildings, each designed by a different “star-chitect” (a word I just learned from Mark). The museum itself is a work of art, each building separate yet harmoniously integrated. One consists of traditional Korean art, another a mixture of Korean and international modern art, while the third building is the Child Education & Culture Center that houses special exhibits.
Besides the beauty of the two components we toured, what we loved was both the scale of the exhibits and the useful and interesting information provided. We’re just too familiar with museums that show 5,000 shards of old pots that I’m sure are important but, if you’re not an expert, they’re just not that interesting. At Leeum, the permanent collection consisted of a much smaller number of brilliant pieces. As a result I learned more about what was there (I’ll admit, I’d never heard of “celadon“, but I loved it) and how or why it was unique.
A perfect museum.
There were two great walking/running/hiking areas that I loved. One is Cheonggyecheon, a beautiful stream running right through the city center just a couple blocks from our hotel.
The stream had been covered up for decades by an elevated highway, but a $400 million urban renewal project tore the highway down and opened up the area (shades of the Big Dig!) in 2005. Apparently the water that now flows through the landscaped urban oasis is pumped in at great expense from elsewhere, generating plenty of concern among environmentalists, and there was lots of controversy about removing the people and small businesses that had congregated along the stream/highway over the years. Still, without knowing the merits of the various issues, it’s a great place to run in the morning or promenade in the evening.Amusingly, we walked down it a few miles on our first full day in Seoul, enjoying the gentle beauty. When we figured we’d gone far enough we just randomly turned inland toward the city, in the general direction of our hotel, and found ourselves in the meatpacking district. We felt like we may have been the first tourists ever to amble through the smelly, bloody mess.
The other adventure highlight in Seoul was Namsan (South Mountain) Park, an 860-foot peak just south of the city center. I hiked up to peak and walked around the area, but my inspiration was the Happy Legs running group I saw out for a run. Not just any running group, they were a mixed group of blind and sighted runners. The visually impaired runners were typically tethered to sighted runners who led them gently over the undulating hills in the park. I love my morning runs, but watching runners help someone who is blind run on a hilly trail was pretty impressive.
Seoul has some great historic temples and palaces, as you would expect in a city that has been a capital for centuries, so we went to see some of those. And we’re starting to get used to Korean cuisine and all the great little dishes that are associated with any meal. Still, I left the city somewhat underwhelmed. Somehow the city never came together for me, though maybe it’s expecting a lot to understand a city of 10 million on a five-day stop. I never saw the great design elements in the architecture (except for the Leeum museum) I was hoping for, instead seeing a lot of soul-less 1950s and 1960s buildings.
The good news is that we expect to spend a few more days in Seoul at the end of our time in Korea, in part because we ran out of time to tour the DMZ on the border with North Korea. Speaking of which, we were here when news came out that the ruler of North Korea, Kim Jung-un, had the country’s Defense Minister executed – killed in front of hundreds by anti-aircraft fire – for showing disrespect by falling asleep in a meeting he attended with Kim. This guy is a freak. A dangerous and honestly scary freak.