Observations of Seoul
July 10, 2005
Reviewing the small amount of time I spent in the city of Seoul as a tourist, here are a few random observations on... greenery, cleanliness, motorcycles, westernization, age, TV screens, heels, coffee, and soul (not a pun).
Korea is a beautiful and lush country. But inside the city, there is little green. There was a large park behind our hotel, but it seemed singular in nature. There were wooded temple grounds not far away, and a hillside that was too steep to be developed. But no lots with trees (indeed no houses as I know them), few courtyards, no neighborhood parks. Keenly aware of this, the city has done well in boulevard plantings; small flower shops for the millions of apartment dwellers were numerous.
Overall, the city was quite clean. It wasn't Singapore — I saw a local spitting on the sidewalk with no apparent fear of being caned — but most areas were cleaner than many large American cities. That was looking down. Looking up — well, I did see a spot of blue sky once, on Friday afternoon after being there for just over a week. Usually it was a uniform grey of haze and/or fog. True in the little bit of countryside I saw too. Course, it was the beginning of monsoon season, so a lot of that was just cloud cover (and a fair amount of rain).
One advantage of motorcycles and mopeds seems to be impunity when driving on the sidewalk. Most parking is also done on the sidewalk, so watch out for parked cars backing up!
Overall, the place is "Western" enough to not feel totally foreign. Sure, the food vendors had different cuisine (though not unrecognizable), the cars were all of Korean origin (but with English writing/logos), and most of all, the many, many signs were first and foremost in Korean. But spread the buildings out, thin out the vendors and place them in strip malls, and pretend like the Korean characters were Chinese —and one could be in Houston, along Belaire east of the Beltway. Even down to the humidity and haze. (Most of the shops in this part of Houston are Chinese and the street signs are in both English and Chinese).
I doubt that any building I saw — except parts of palace complexes — was more than 60-70 years old, that is, built after World War II and/or Korean war. Of course, I only saw small slices of the huge city of Seoul; then again, we did spend a lot of time on buses driving through the city, giving some widespread flavor. There seems to have been a first wave of 3-5 story brownstones, some of which look like they could date back to the Japanese occupation. Second wave of high rise, one basically indistinguishable from the next. 60's - 80's I'm guessing. But what do I know?
They like their huge TV screens downtown! Probably all built by Samsung. It has been quite a while since I've been to Manhattan, so I can't say how it would compare for TVs, but can't imagine any other American cities competing.
Many women walk around the streets in heels.
They like coffee as much as anyone, though in my experience weaker than American (I heard outrage at the coffee-tea from a number of Europeans and South Americans). Saw several Starbucks and many more independent vendors.
I never did get a feeling of soul in that place. Oh, and I'm not going for the pun here. Too much concrete and steel for soul. Maybe I'm just not culturally nuanced enough to find it. This is not necessarily in contra-distinction with American cities, many of which have no soul (especially southern suburbs). But that's disappointing nonetheless. Soul was probably beaten out of them by previous occupations.