Originally published in: Highbrow Magazine
Nestled between eight mountain ranges lies an Asian metropolis rivaling the population of New York, the culture of Tokyo and the backdrop of Denver.
With a population greater than NYC, at over 10 million inhabitants, and divided by the Han River, Seoul sits as a beacon of economic growth and Korean pride.
Just 35 miles from the North Korean border, Seoul technically straddles a still active war zone. Despite its name, the demilitarized zone (DMZ) is the world’s most heavily militarized border. Manned around the clock by American, North and South Korean soldiers, the area is a constant reminder of North and South Korea’s shaky relationship. On April 23rd, North Korea threatened to reduce the nearby capital to ashes by ‘unprecedented peculiar means’, according to MSNBC World News.
In the shadow of this heavily fortified border, however, Seoul’s steel towers stretch into the sky as a testament to swift economic progress and a growing significance in the 21st century. Despite its frigid neighbors, the metropolis is warm, inviting and exciting.
“Gangnam Style” is not solely an infectious tune taking the world by storm. Gangnam district represents wealth. Land south of the Han, including the Gangnam district is brighter, faster and shinier. Key international offices such as Google, IBM and Toyota reside here. With expensive real estate and affluent residents, IT companies and Korea’s banking and finance sectors also call Gangnam home.
Shops & Stops
Seoul encompasses a strong reverence for culture and traditions, while also leading the world’s top cities in economic output. Dongdaemun and Namdaemun Markets, South Korea’s largest and oldest shopping markets respectively, draw thousands of tourists. While the markets cater to traditional shopping, the Myeongdong district of Seoul draws shoppers and tourists seeking mid to high-end retail.
No visit to Seoul would be complete without a visit to one of its most popular foreign shopping districts. Itaewon, with its prime position in the heart of Seoul and near a US military base, boasts a diverse marketplace full of foreign food shops, restaurants and Korean souvenirs. Between the plentiful (and authentic) Mexican, Pakistani, Turkish and Indian dining establishments and the historic “Hooker Hill”, Itaewon blends tradition, tourism and diversity.
A short and steep hike from Itaewon stands Namsan Tower, officially CJ Seoul Tower. The communications and observation tower sits atop Namsan Mountain and is the highest point in the capital. More importantly, however, it has become a monumental step for Korean and tourist couples. Lovers who make the hike often reach the top to insert a lock somewhere in the sea of locks present. Next, couples thrust the key over the edge of the platform into the mountainside. Besides a touching gesture of “unbreakable love”, Namsan offers an awesome view of the city.
The easiest, albeit crowded, way to maneuver the city is the subway. Seoul’s train system is fast and extremely reliable. With English translation and fully equipped 3G and WiFi, Seoul’s subway system moves over 6 million passengers daily and was named one of the World’s Best Metro Rail Systems by Yahoo Finance.
After being jostled underground, the smells of Seoul above ground can tempt any palate. Hunger is easily satiated in the city. Seoul residents pressed for time can grab a quick bite from a street vendor right outside Seoul station or along Itaewon Street. For the equivalence of $5 or less, hungry bellies can partake in grilled meats, rice and fish cakes, and an array of tempura treats.
For a US soldier and Korean hybrid dish, budae jjigae, a quick train ride to Gangnam will take you to Songtan Budae Jjigae.
Following the Korean War, food was scarce. This caused the people to become inventive and use what they had and could acquire from surplus food supplies on area US army bases. Koreans had ramen, vegetables and spices. Soldiers had hot dogs and spam. The union of these available resources created this stew of onions, hot dogs, beans, spam, ramen, garlic, chili peppers and kimchi.
The megacity is nestled in the center of a peninsula. With such proximity to the sea, open markets are prevalent. Noryangjin Fish Market, the city’s largest marine market offers more than 66,000 square feet of wholesale products ranging from flounder to giant squid tentacles. For chefs needing less quantity, Chungbu market near Euiljiro station (exit 4) is perfect for groceries and fresh seafood.
According to Mahatma Gandhi, “ A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and the soul of its people.” Throughout it’s history of occupation and war, South Korea has held fast to its traditions and taken pride in its culture. A tourist can witness a festival or performance on any given day. From the annual cherry blossom festival to musical performances in the country’s traditional garb, hanbok, Seoul balances both tradition and an embrace of encroaching western influences.
The luckiest tourists catch the city in spring at the height of cherry blossom season. Whether biking along the Han or grabbing a bite of tteokbokki, rice cakes in spicy red sauce, Seoul is alive in an array of sights and sounds.
New York City may be the city that never sleeps, but Seoul definitely never stops moving. Quiet moments are a rarity, but should be cherished. Soon, the smog will settle. Small, elderly women, with bent backs, will stoop to set up their street stands. Men and women will board the morning’s first trains only to immediately nod off en route to their companies or universities. It will be another long day…and an even longer night.