By Sarah Whiteley
As a lively cultural metropolis that caters for over ten million people Seoul has earned its nickname as the ‘special city’. Sarah Whiteley visited South Korean capital as a solo traveller.
In a bid to outsmart jet-lag, I wanted to make the most of my remaining first day in Seoul by staying awake after 24 hours of travelling. I knew I had to walk around the area to familiarise myself with my new surroundings. I was based in the central district, Jung-gu, and was spoilt for choice as soon as I left the hotel.The centre hosts multiple traffic lanes, touch screen ATMs, fancy cars and high-rises, but within two minutes of leaving the main roads, alleys are lined with market stalls, neon lights and traditional eateries. The people were beautiful; swishing down the streets dressed impeccably in smart business suits or fashionable casual wear. It felt safe, clean and friendly and although I was taking photos of road signs and lampposts, I didn’t seem to draw attention to myself which put me at ease.
Each evening I decided to just circle a new area on the map and then set off to explore it. My favourite evening was involved walking through the area of Namdaemun market. Although it was dark and late, everything was open and people were spilling out from the open shop fronts onto the pedestrianised paths where yet more vendors were selling clothes, shoes, bags, hats, accessories and food. I sauntered from one shelter to the next, watching the tattooists tattooing, the chickens’ feet being cooked, the buyers bartering and the couple laughing until late into the evening.
I booked a tour to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) where South Korea and North Korea meet. The Korean Peninsula is divided horizontally and the border between the two countries has a 2.5 mile wide ‘buffer zone’, the DMZ, which is the most heavily militarised border in the world. This buffer zone was created over 60 years ago at the end of the Korean War to separate the South and North. With relationships still hostile, soldiers on both sides patrol their areas around the clock.The tour was well organised and the atmosphere was tense. Photography was strictly prohibited at certain points and it was deemed essential to walk around in pairs at all times with armed guards as our escorts. At the lookout, we could see into North Korea and Kijong-dong was pointed out to us.
Back in Seoul, amongst the shiny skyscrapers and air-conditioned shops, there were Buddhist temples. They were all very similar; oblong structures, adorned with brightly coloured, intricately designed woodwork, covering the façades and tops of the buildings. Every temple I passed seemed to hum quietly from within; a safe, tranquil place amidst a bustling city. The internal decoration covered every inch of the room and the floor was full of people completing, over and over again, the sequence of standing, kneeling and touching their heads on the ground as a symbol of gratitude towards the Buddha. When I left the temple I checked my watch, only to be amazed that I had been in the temple for over two hours; two glorious soul-finding hours.
I left Seoul after a week, feeling like a more independent and confident traveller in just this short space of time. It had been such an easy, accessible city to explore, despite the cultural and language differences. Full of history, modernity, culture, technology, old and new, Seoul is a wonderful patchwork of eras, lifestyles and people. Somehow these differences mesh together to make it a unique, thriving, exciting city with heaps of Seoul.