Touring Seoul......the sequel
Seoul Travel Blog› entry 4 of 6 › view all entries
Since we'd worn the tread off our feet the previous day, we decided to do the obligatory tourist thing and take a motorized tour of the city. Our concierge at the hotel was very helpful and set us up with "The I Love Seoul Tour Company." At $38 a pop we were looking forward to an interesting day of history and sightseeing. Unfortunately, we fell short of achieving either goal.
Our tour bus carried about 30 people and though comfortable, it was difficult to actually see anything out of the windows. We sat very high up in the seats and what little bit of window we had was obscured by a lovely set of homemade purple curtains. As a result, we were forced to slump down into our seats in order to peer out at the sights from under the ruffles.
Our guide was a lovely lady of about 30, who energetically described our surroundings as we hurtled through the city streets. Unfortunately, her grasp of the English language was so poor and her accent so heavy that we soon lost interest in the nonstop, unintelligible babble. This gave us the opportunity to focus on the interesting layout of the businesses within the city.
We were fascinated by the way that businesses are "clumped" together by theme. That it to say, all the pet stores were side by side, covering several blocks; motorcycle dealerships competed with their neighbors by placing all their merchandise on the sidewalks and in the streets, resulting in hundreds of colorful bikes as far as the eye could see.
Our carriage slowed to a stop at our first place of interest, the Deoksugung Palace. The history of this Palace goes back to the late 1500's when it was occupied by King Seonguong's brother Prince Wolsan. Unfortunately, all palaces in the city were burned down during the invasion by Japan at this time so the buildings at Deoksugung were used by the King as a temporary palace.
Since we couldn't read the Korean script describing the pictures of the most recent royal family to occupy the palace, we amused ourselves by making up stories of King Fred and Queen Wilma and the rest of their "tea cosy" clad family. Of course I had to flaunt authority by standing on the staircase reserved for Kings, where not even Queens were allowed to tread! I expected a samurai sword to come out of nowhere at any moment to deliver swift punishment for my sins.
We stretched our legs along the Cheonggye Stream, a tributary of the Han River, which runs through the middle of the city. In years past, before it was cleaned and rejuvenated as a tourist attraction, the women of Seoul spent countless hours scrubbing their laundry against the rocks that jutted from the now, crystal clear water. An interesting "shell" statue stands probably 100 feet in height near the stream's waterfall, commemorating the dedication of the rebuilt site.
We made a quick drive past the "Blue House"......more like a blue blurr, really. This is the Korean equivalent of our nation's "White House" , with dozens of police on every corner leading up to and away from the area. It appeared to be more accessable than our own seat of government and I was surprised that our bus was allowed to approach so closely.
To complete the circuit of "Church and State", we made our next stop at the Jogyesa Buddhist Temple. Upon first sight, it looked more like a Korean used car lot, with thousands of colorful paper lanterns hanging outside the entrance and conveniently over the half dozen cars parked in front. This Temple is the major Buddhist Temple of Korea and is situated in the city center of Seoul. The compound houses several Halls, one, which contains the Buddha Triad, three enormous Buddha statues where worshipers pray and burn incense. There is also a bell pavilion which rings morning and evening to call the faithful to hear the words of the Buddha.
In front of the Great Hero Hall stands a seven story stone pagoda which houses the relics of the Sri Lankan monk who carried it there.
The last stop on the tour was supposed to take us to the shopping area of Itaewon but since we had plans to inspect the artsy, antique area of Insadong in the afternoon, we decided to return to the hotel where we could refresh ourselves before what would no doubt be several more hours burning the tread.
We discovered that taxis are quite inexpensive in Seoul, even for a jaunt across the city, and we usually spent no more than $3 or $4 to get where we wanted to be. Even though Seoul is a jumbled up, crowded city, nothing seemed too far away and transit was easy to find. I had read that Insadong was "the place to be" if you were looking for traditional tea rooms, galleries, Korean trinkets and the like. We were not disappointed. It was laid out much like a "university" town with a single, main street full of shops and restaurants and numerous small alleys or lanes branching off the main thoroughfare containing more of the same. It was a young, neopolitan crowd of every ethniticity and I was no longer out of place with my Western looks.
We walked for miles, up and down the street, poking our heads into this shop or that until we finally gave in to cups of coffee and sweet pastries.
Ignoring our aching feet, we walked out of Insadong to parts unknown. In a city with so many sights it is difficult to stop walking when there is "just one more thing" to see around the next corner. We wandered into Pagoda Park where we found another ancient sanctuary within a hectic, modern city. The six hundred year old stone pagoda, which was now housed within plexiglass walls, was an enduring testiment to the generations who had come before. People, young and old, sat around the interior perimeter of the park, absorbing the solitude, thinking their own thoughts and escaping, if only temporarily, from their own worry worn lives.
An elderly man, crouching on the pavement nearby, painted traditional characters of the Asian language with a slow, practiced hand while onlookers paused to watch a moment and then move on.
We soon found ourselves in the middle of what I could only describe as the "old boys" part of town. Much like the diners and coffee shops in my own country where you might find elderly men reminiscing over a "cup of Joe", we found dozens of old dears sitting at makeshift tables, talking and arguing, while a variety of tempura, sausages or other things on a stick were being fried by vendors on the street. A nearby park was heaving with these "old boys" gathered in groups, discussing their life's events for the umpteenth time.
As we tried to move past the mobs, we created our own unintentional scene, as the only Westerners in a sea of Asian faces. All at once, I was pulled to a stop by an elderly gent, sporting one tooth in a friendly smile. "Where you from?" he slowly asked. Once I'd gotten over the shock of being questioned, I smiled back and said, "America. We are from Arizona in America." He dropped my arm and immediately pulled up his shirt to reveal a large silver belt buckle with an American Eagle etched on the front. "America!", he repeated, as he proudly displayed what might have been a gift given to him from an American soldier during the Korean conflict of the 50's. He patted my arm and said haltingly, "You be careful" Then he disappeared in the crowd as quickly as he had first appeared.
Forgotten, were the aching feet and exhausted feeling of moments ago. I suddenly felt "connected" with this city and its people, who's language I could not speak. Then I remembered the only Korean words we had learned earlier from the hotel desk clerk.............kam-sa ham-i-dah, as it sounded to me. Thank-you. But it was too late to say the words.