Seoul, South Korea: Observations and thoughts
Seoul Travel Blog› entry 3 of 3 › view all entries
Does Seoul have much soul?
Overall I found Seoul reminded me a great deal of Taipei. Not necessarily from a look perspective, but from an overall feeling and attitude.
I wondered if it has anything to do with the many parallels in the on-going tensions and uncertainty they both face everyday due to their traumatic histories.
Seoul is in South Korea and not that far, about 30 miles, from the demilitarized zone border with North Korea.
In Seoul they have air raid attack drills, as due to the proximity to the border it can be minutes rather than hours from the time fighter planes take off in the North to arriving in Seoul. I even learnt that on top of the fairly ordinary, but tall, building our company’s offices are situated in, has air defense guns.
So although I am not sure how threatened people really feel everyday, there is this underlying sense of threat that must affect the overall nature of Seoul.
It is not an especially attractive city, but neither is it unattractive. In reality the city only became the capital of South Korea in 1948 and was built up in the 1960s and beyond after a lot of damage through the Korean War. This period of the last decade does not seem to have left a very exciting legacy no matter what country of the world one looks at!
Some of the books I read before going seemed to claim it had one of the highest proportions of skyscrapers in Asia but if it does they seem well hidden! It is though a very densely populated city, and ranks up there with the Tokyo and such cities. There are a lot of people packed into the city and surroundings. It is surrounded by hills that may have made the intensity even greater as there are natural boundaries to its city sprawl.
There are over 10 million people living in Seoul, which is about 25% of the total population of South Korea. The Greater Seoul area though has a staggering 23 million people, making it the 2nd most populated metropolis after Tokyo. Although there are a lot of people, and it is supposed to be one of the most densely populated cities in the world, it did not feel quite as crowded and frantic as other big Asian (or for that matter any crowded city) and although traffic can be bad it seems there is very good public transport systems that keeps things running smoothly.
However, despite reported attempts to improve air quality, the city is very smoggy. I was staying up on one of the hills at the Grand Hyatt overlooking the city and Hangang River that splits the city, but you could never see right across the city due to smog. Though the air did not seem that smoggy as you walked around the city.
It is not as cosmopolitan a city, unlike places like Hong Kong or Singapore as nearly all the residents are Korean with very small Chinese and Japanese communities. It so not a very diverse city considering its size of population, and this is probably due to the history and sense of constant threat not making it a magnet for other nationalities.
In addition, probably for similar reasons, Seoul is also not really on the Asian Tourist Circuit and so it is not that great for tourists, unless you have real interest in the more recent history of Korea. The government is trying to promote and develop more of a tourist trade launching and promoting websites like visitseoul.net. However, there is not really the spread of sights and things to do that will capture tourists for that long. Colleagues who are not into history had built in a good few days before our meetings and found after less than a day even on an organized tour had seen what was on offer. Admittedly not in depth as they had not explored the museums and historic buildings just visited them.
For me, however, visiting the recently opened (some time this century) Korean War Memorial and Museum was one of the most fascinating and impressive days I have spent. More about this later, but this is not only a beautiful memorial (set of memorials really) and museum with row upon row of planes, tanks, helicopters and displays.