The Alleyways!

The day started out with a long stroll through the neighbourhood around the hotel. It was meant to be a short stroll, but I couldn't find the place I thought I was having breakfast, and got fascinated with the area. The longer I stay in this area the more I like it: you can buy food or clothing at bargain basement prices - or the height of fashion and cost - all within a couple blocks. I like to have a choice.

I ended up at a different place recommended by the hotel: Lina's - they do sandwiches, desserts, and coffees. Although literal "coffee" doesn't seem to be on the menu there or anywhere. You can have an Americano, espresso, cappuccino ... but not a coffee. I had a club sandwich (which came stacked high with a fried egg and pickle) and an Americano for breakfast. And on the way back I finally found the place I'd been looking for in one of those deviously small alleyways that won't fit a car ...

I can't really tell you what Korean chains and companies are common (except Lotte - that's recognizable because they spell the name out in English and they're very common), but there are a lot of chains we recognize: Starbucks, Burger King, McDonalds, Dunkin' Donuts. And there are coffee places - I think there are more coffee places per capita here than in Canada, which is saying something.

Last night (every night!), the sidewalks in this neighbourhood sprouted impromptu restaurants - street vendors with little tables, all under massive plastic sheeting tents, half on the sidewalk half on the street. It happens every night, although the tenting is only for the rain. It makes the already awkward sidewalk almost impassible, and all the pedestrians walk on the street - it's a good thing the cars aren't all that common (odd for Seoul). My comments about the unusability of the sidewalk applies almost entirely to this immediate neighbourhood: this small strip Makers Hotel is on is particularly lively and unusual. We'll get to that later.

photo: Less than a block from my hotel - the evening of the 18th, not rainy

people on red plastic stools at small tables, eating on the street

Arriving in Incheon airport from Japan, I of course thought first of the airport I just left: Incheon is a lot like Narita, modern, well organized, high tech. And the incredibly extensive subway system here invoked further comparisons to Tokyo. But as soon as I popped out of the subway, this neighbourhood reminded me of the controlled chaos of Hong Kong: high tech, but some guy with a hand cart is still hauling the garbage (and probably not often enough). And then evening came and the street vendors popped up all over the sidewalk and street, and I was transported back to Bangkok - or possibly even Mandalay in Burma. We define places by the other places we already know, and in the end each has its own specific character. And this one has proven pleasantly difficult to pin down.

As I always do, when I was preparing to come here I combed through the guidebook and selected the places I wanted to see. There are a lot of things on the "Must See" list, but one it particular stood out: Cheong-gye-cheon. Cheong-gye-cheon is a stream that was buried around 1960, and recently (2008?) excavated and artificially enhanced (much to the frustration of conservationists who howl about the thousands of gallons of water diverted to feed it - I'm not saying they're wrong). I'd seen it in a couple of movies - to my embarrassment, one of those movies was "Woochi: The Demon Slayer," a ludicrous but highly entertaining fantasy/magic wuxia thingy. I thought it was a really beautiful space, this sunken stream over sculpted concrete. But the movies didn't give the full picture: only the head end is quite so concrete and artificial. It runs for nearly 2km, and past the 200 metre mark it's got trees and reeds, water plants, carp, and stones. Still artificial, but even more attractive (at least to me). I tried to walk a part of it yesterday, but the entrances all had big banners (in Korean, that I couldn't read) blocking them. Today I walked about half of it, and I know why they'd blocked the entrances: it's very clear from the state of the plants (bent) and the wreckage that there was a lot of flooding from the rain. And by the time I got to the top end, I'd worked out that what the wreckage I was seeing was mostly the same kind of paper lanterns I saw at the temples: they must have been set near the stream, and had been swept away / down stream in the flood. That aside - just a lovely, lovely space to have running through the heart of downtown.

I tried to find the Plateau Gallery, which was supposed to hold a copy of both Rodin's Gates of Hell and the Burghers of Calais - two of my favourite sculptures in the whole world. But no joy, I couldn't find the place. So I went to the next on the list, happily only a block away: the Seoul Museum of Art. It's surrounded by roaring streets, but it's literally in the middle of a block, surrounded on all sides by other buildings and is amazingly quiet with a nice garden out front ... They told me - in broken English - that the Plateau Gallery is no more. Their lack of English (or more correctly, my lack of Korean) prevented me from asking: where the hell did those two sculptures go? They are NOT SMALL. The Gates are something on the order of three metres wide by four metres tall, and the Burghers are perhaps four metres by four metres by three metres tall and (apparently, according to Wikipedia) just shy of two metric tonnes in weight.

I enjoyed the Seoul Museum of Art, although there weren't really any pieces that stood out to me.

Since the rain had started again (weather reportage had claimed it would clear, but that happened later than predicted), I looked for further indoor activities. That led me to the War Memorial of Korea (which is really a museum - a very large museum) - because it was Friday, and nearly 1400. But ... the parade ground was under construction/resurfacing, which meant the precision drill show that usually happened Friday at 1400 was indefinitely suspended ... <sigh> They had a National Geographic photo display that I didn't attend, but for some reason I was captivated by the titanium chopstick set (by National Geographic!) that they had on sale ... so I now own titanium chopsticks - with, I might add, come with their own ballistic nylon carrying case ...

photo: One of several large monuments at the War Memorial - is he helping? hugging? - they represent the North and the South

sculpture of two soldiers, one collapsed in the arms of the other

Another thing I did in preparing to come here was read through the history of the country. Admittedly only the history provided by the guidebook, but it's pretty appalling: for millennia they were under attack by the Chinese, the Mongols, or the Japanese, frequently enslaved or occupied ... they finally find their way free, and fell immediately into a military dictatorship (although that part isn't mentioned at the museum) - freedom and democracy is very new for this country (and man, are they making the most of it). So the history of wars in this country is ... depressing. We forget (I forgot) that they are, quite literally, still officially at war. They have a cease-fire, and it has held for 65 years. But the war itself has never officially ended. And the message conveyed by their "memorial" is fairly conflicted: what I came away with, from a couple different places in that very large property, was this: "We want to re-unite with our northern brothers after their treacherous and unjustified attack!" Much of the memorial justified the South's actions (and I'm not arguing: they were oppressed and exploited for centuries) while implying "war is terrible," but they closed out with a large section on "look at all the cool tech we have should anyone ever attack us again!" That's also depressing.

In a theatre near the end of the tour they were playing a movie - "Hacksaw Ridge" of all things. I approve, I guess: if you have to show a war movie, one about possibly the greatest non-violent hero in the history of war is a pretty good choice. Although an American hero (played by a British actor and directed by an Australian) seems a bit odd, but anything featuring the Japanese losing will probably fly in Korea ... Was that out of line? Tasteless but possibly true ... (I highly recommend "Hacksaw Ridge." Look up "Desmond Doss:" he was a Seventh Day Adventist who volunteered for the Second World War AND refused to carry a gun. He carried 75 people out of an active battlefield. I was in awe of him before I saw the movie, and - while it's extremely violent - I think it does the man justice, and I really like it.)

It was with some pleasure that I watched a bloody enormous grey heron perching on top of their building at the end of the day after all that depressing stuff. They have several large and lovely ponds surrounding the building, and the heron had come to visit. Damn those are big birds.

It was 1730 - hardly the end of a hard-working tourist's day. So I looked for another destination that was open late. And landed at Namdaemun Market, which Lonely Planet claimed was open 24 hours. They're probably not wrong, but that's a bit disingenuous: at 1800, a lot of places are closing up shop for the night. About half(??) were still open, so there was still plenty of entertainment to be had. At the tourist information centre there I finally found someone whose English remedied my lack of Korean: he found that the two Rodin sculptures have ended up at Hoam Art Gallery - about 40km outside Seoul. It's right next to Everland, a big tourist draw (although not to me), so easy to get to, just takes a little time. Still thinking about that one.

I bought a mix of "meat dumplings" (after confirming they were pork), which turned out to be even more substantial than I thought - they became dinner. I found the market's "camera street" and enjoyed window shopping - I find I no longer have much of an urge to buy cameras. I have enough film cameras, and digital cameras are astonishingly useless after their day has passed ... The tourist information centre gave me a map of the market, and I'd like to share with you some of the names: "Children's Clothes Street," "Watch/Jewelry Street," "Fashion Street," "Food Alley," "Bedding Street," "Military Uniform Street," "Chopped Noodles Street," Mountain Climbing Equipment Street," "Fish and Stew Alley" etc. It's a very large market! I acquired a Guy Fawkes mask (see "V for Vendetta" if you don't know what that means - excellent graphic novel and - surprisingly - also an excellent movie) because, well, I wanted one and it was very cheap. Although it's going to be hard to get back to Canada in one piece ...

From there I walked the "Seoullo 7017" to Seoulista. Seoullo is Seoul's imitation of New York's High Line. That may be doing one of them an injustice: I haven't seen the High Line. Essentially, a former highway overpass in the heart of the city has been turned into a raised garden / walking path. I didn't get very far along it before I encountered Seoulista, which I had to stop for because they claimed to have "craft beer." Hey, it's easy to distract me. They had about 15 taps, three of which were porters/stouts. Sadly, they don't do flights - although they did offer samples. I ended up with a pint of Magpie Porter, which was fairly good. My problem has been that I haven't figured out where to buy good beer: Korea is apparently brewing a shit-ton of the stuff, but I don't know where they're selling it - it sure as hell isn't at the 7-11, where they sell only piss-water beer. Thus my detour.

From there it was a short walk to Seoul Station - and credit where it's due, Seoullo gets you over one of the widest roads in the entire city in very nice surroundings: the road in front of Seoul Station is 10 or 12 lanes wide, and this offers a better way to cross it. Three metro stops back to the hotel.

And then Alice fell down the rabbit hole.

I've previously mentioned an alleyway near the hotel. There's another directly across from the hotel (they're everywhere around here). Dear god, they bifurcate when you're not looking, and the further you go the more there are. I should have hit a major road - I walked for ten minutes and the major roads are only 100m apart ... It also seems that the further in you go, the ritzier and more fashionable it gets. I found the best in food, clothes and drink ... You can get any price tag you want - super cheap at the periphery, ultra expensive in the ever-expanding interior. Just stop when you hit the price tag that suits you ... I'm a little afraid to explore further, but I think I have to.