Seoul is an old city, with its origins dating back millenia. It became the capital of Baekje, one of the ancient kingdoms within the Korean Peninsula, some time Before Christ (B.C.), a precursor to its current status as South Korea’s capital. However, unlike old cities in say, Europe, Seoul does not look its age. It is a very modern place. From the time your plane lands at the airport, to the time you hit the road, to the time you set foot on the pavement, Seoul feels like the ultimate 21st century city.
BUKCHON HANOK VILLAGE
However, in the midst of avant-garde Seoul are hints of its storied past. There are the palaces, shrines and old city gates, plus they’ve got old houses too. In the area between the palaces of Gyeongbokgung and Changdyeokgung, within the historical district of Jongno-gu, is an old village called Bukchon. It was home to Seoul’s upper class during the Joseon dynasty, and now it’s a proverbial open air museum, where one can at least catch a glimpse of life back then.
The Bukchon Village is a collection of preserved or restored Korean traditional houses, or “Hanok”. Hidden from the main street and accessible mainly by foot, the village is somewhat of an “open secret” within the city. An enclave of history and tradition within “high tech” Seoul.
We arrived Bukchon on a Sunday morning. It was a good 15-20 minute walk from the Anguk station of Seoul Metro’s line 3, and the cool autumn weather also provided an opportunity for a leisurely “exploration” of the neighborhood in Jongno-gu, minus the weekday traffic (and traffic does get intense in Seoul).
Itaewon is the district where our hotel was located, and since this was the last day of this trip, we spent our remaining hours walking back and forth its main road, looking at the various souvenir shops and sidewalk stalls that line buth sides of the road. Sandwiched between the Namsan mountain in the north and the Han River in the south, Itaewon has a sloping terrain, which makes it just a bit more “scenic”.
Itaewon is also known as the most “touristy” district in Seoul. Here you can find shops with English signage in abundance. Walking along the stretch of the main road, you are likely to come across people of various races – Caucasians, Africans, South Asians, Middle Easterners, and even fellow Filipinos looking for souvenirs, plus of course, lots of locals. Restaurants of various cuisines also dot the place, especially a back alley called the “International Food Street”, which runs parallel to the main road. Here you can find authentic Korean food, as well as Turkish, Indian, American, Japanese, Italian, Greek, Vietnamese, and so on and so forth. Though it’s not really a place to go to for that “authentic Seoul” feel, Itaewon is nevertheless an interesting place to drop by on, for the sheer spectacle of people from so many nations converging in one place, as well as to take a break and see something more familiar to your culture.
Itaewon is also one of those places that really come to life at night. Once the sun sets, even the locals troop here to chat, dine, hang-out and drink in the numerous clubs, pubs and bars that are scattered around.
Seoul boasts of one of the world’s most extensive intra-city rail network. With 10 lines, which can take you even as far as the neighboring city of Incheon, the metro system serves as the main arteries of the city’s public transport system. All lines, though not all operated by a single company, have a unified ticketing system, and interconnect at several stations, making travel within the city very convenient. Line transfers may take a bit of a walk through tunnels, but that is a very minor inconvenience, in what is perhaps the most efficient “big city” subway system we’ve tried so far (Hong Kong was good, but I like Seoul’s even better).
We used the metro extensively during our stay. Originating from the Itaewon station in line 6, we could reach virtually everywhere using the trains. Gyeongbokgung and Anguk stations in Line 3 lead to Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung and Buckchon; Jamsil station in Line 2 leads to Lotte World; Jonggak in line 1 leads to Cheonggyecheon; and Myeongdong in Line 4 leads to Myeongdong. Several other notable places we didn’t get to see, like Dongdaemun, Namdaemun, COEX and the Gangnam district, can be reached through the metro as well. With the exception of the bus rides from the Airport to the hotel and back, and to and from the Seoul Tower, we didn’t need to travel by road.
Most destinations only cost 900 KRW (less than 1 USD or 40 PHP), which is reasonably cheap given the convenience it offers (compared to say, Manila’s MRT and LRT, which though cheaper, will leave you feeling a bit “beat up” after a ride). We purchased T-Money cards, prepaid cards that could be used on trains as well as convenience stores, for easy ingress and egress to train stations. The T-Money functions much like Hong Kong‘s Octopus card, where you tap the card on the turnstile to gain entry/exit from the station. Unlike Octopus though, T-Money does not allow a refund of your remaining balance (bummer), but you can use the balance to stock up on food from convenience stores.
INCHEON INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT.
Incheon International Airport serves as the main international gateway to South Korea’s Capital, as well as the neighboring cities. It has two ultra-modern and spacious terminal buildings, connected by an underground train. Judging by the walking distance, from the check in to our gate, it’s not quite as big as Singapore‘s Changi or Hong Kong‘s Chek Lap Kok, but it is every bit as interesting and convenient as the two.
* We visited Seoul last September 2011. All photos taken with Olympus E-42o and Zuiko 14-54mm f2.8-3.5.