26 September 2008

Seoul from Above - and more

A whopping fifty pictures from this crisp, beautiful, crystal-clear day in Seoul.

I am heading for N-Seoul Tower on the subway, where I saw this ad, from a women's univesity. It proclaims the seat below as "preferred seating for a high school senior" - because a high school senior in South Korea has no life, dedicating all his/her time and effort to preparing for the college entrance examination. Getting into a prestigious school (any university in Seoul) will improve one's employment prospects. Getting into a super-prestigious school (Seoul National, Yonsei, Korea Universities) will improve it even more. And it all comes down to one's score from the exam.

I transferred to a bus which is taking me up to the summit of Namsan. Here is an unusual building, with a traditional Korean roof on top.

I am at the summit, about 250 meters above sea level (downtown Seoul is under 20 meters above sea level). Here is N-Seoul Tower, with a suspended human-shaped decoration at the bottom. The middle portion has restaurants and observatories, and are another 100 meters above me. N-Seoul Tower used to be touted as "the tallest tower in Asia, the third tallest in the world" - which is a stretch, because that includes the height of Namsan as well as the tower itself.

Some locks at the base, signed and left here by visiting couples as a lasting sign of their love.

I have arrived at the observatory level. I am about 350 meters above the rest of the city.

Looking west, I can identify Seoul Station on the left, the National Library (the domed building) on the right, and the Hilton Hotel in the middle (black building).

Looking northwest toward my favorite European cities, with distances noted. The upper-level observatory marks direction and distances to major world cities, and also has a souvenir photo shop.

Looking further west. Under the hill on the left, Gimpo Airport is visible; I could see some airplanes landing there as well. Until Incheon Airport opened in 2001, the small, crowded Gimpo was Seoul's gateway to the world. Now, it's a sleepy domestic airport, but still the second largest airport in South Korea. Strangely though, all my arrivals and departures at Gimpo have been on United Airlines (of course, before the Incheon Airport era).

The middle right shows Seoul World Cup Museum, whose square roof with round hole echoes the shape of a Korean shield kite. It hosted the opening ceremony of 2002 FIFA World Cup, as well as the first match, which saw Senegal beat France 1-0. I will get there later in the day.

No luck seeing Incheon Airport and the Yellow Sea today.

A look at downtown Seoul. Due to height restrictions and hurried postwar reconstruction, most of the architecture is pretty cut-rate. The center left has a white building with a red "LOTTE" sign; it is the original Lotte Department Store, and behind it are two buildings of the Lotte Hotel.

This is an alternative way to climb Namsan - the cable car. It involves less walking, but is very expensive at 7,000 won (USD $7). My bus only cost me 700 won (USD 70 cents) - actually even less, because I had a free transfer from the subway.

Looking northwest. The rocky hill on the right is Inwangsan, where a shaman shrine, Guksadang, is located. To the left is a valley, along which runs the old road leading to North Korea and China. On that road, a gate once stood to greet Chinese envoys visiting Seoul to collect imperial tributes from the Korean royal government; it was replaced by the Independence Gate in 1897 when Korea became an empire, and the gate still stands today.

In the distance, Seoul's northwestern suburbs such as Ilsan and Munsan are visible. I am not sure if I can see as far as Kaesong, North Korea, in this photo, about 40 miles out.

A look at Bukhansan, which is a national park, and forms the northern boundary of Seoul.

The blue-roofed traditional house in the lower left is the Blue House, home of the President.

That forest in the middle contains three royal facilities.
  • The long building in the front portion is Jongmyo, a Confucian shrine housing the ancestral tablets of Korean kings.
  • The left rear portion is Changdeokgung, the best preserved and the most beautiful of Seoul's five palaces. I visited there last weekend.
  • The right rear portion is Changgyeonggung, a palace that was downgraded to Changgyeongwon, a garden, by the Japanese, who also added an amusement park, a botanical garden, and a zoo there. The Japanese additions were removed to the suburb of Gwacheon in 1983, and Changgyeonggung was restored to a palace shortly thereafter.
Jongmyo and Changdeokgung are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The traditional houses in the middle form the Namsan Traditional House Village. The grassy area to the southeast has a time capsule, which was buried there in 1994 to mark the 600th anniversary of modern Seoul's founding. It will be opened in 2394, the 1000th anniversary. The time capsule also has congratulatory messages from mayors of Seoul's sister cities around the world.

Looking northeast, showing a typical scene of modern-day Seoul, a tangled mess of high-rise apartments as far as one can see. Somewhere near the middle of the photo is the National Medical Center, where I was born; it can't be seen in the photo, though, hidden by much taller buildings.

Looking east - toward my later and current hometowns in the US.

Still looking east. In the upper left is the Jamsil district, my former home. Jamsil's Olympic Stadium can barely be seen in the dead middle. The skyscraper to the right is the World Trade Center, with COEX Mall, my destination yesterday, underneath.

The lower left is Seongsu Bridge, one of Seoul's numerous bridges, built in 1979. It is noteworthy, because it collapsed due to shoddy construction and maintenance in 1994, killing a number of commuters. It's since been rebuilt, and its collapse was a warning call to the South Korean construction industry to slow down and do its job properly. Subsequent inspections resulted in one of Subway Line 2's railroad bridges, dating only from 1984, being torn down and rebuilt between 1997 and 1999.

The collapse of Seongsu Bridge is most often compared to the August 2007 collapse of I-35 Bridge in Minneapolis, also the result of inadequate maintenance due to lack of funding.

Looking southeast. The shiny black large building in front is the Hyatt Hotel.

On the left is a wide bridge, dating back to the 1960s. It was originally known as the Han River Bridge No. 3, but is now called the Hannam Bridge. On the far shore of the bridge is the starting point of Expressway 1 to Busan.

The Han River has two eight-lane freeways running along it - one on the north shore, the other on the south shore. The southern one is called Olympic Expressway because it was built shortly before the 1988 Olympics.

A look south, at Yongsan Family Park and the National Museum of Korea (the very large gray building in the center). This park was long occupied by foreigners - first the Japanese, then the Americans.

On the far shore of the river, just to the right of the bridge, is the National Cemetery, the final resting places of many South Koreans who fought in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Notable dignitaries, including former dictatorial Presidents Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee (as well as their wives), are buried there too.

The suburban city of Gwacheon, where Changgyeonggung's amusement park and zoo moved (as well as some government ministries and departments), is beyond the tall mountains to the far south.

Looking southwest. The bridge on the far left is Han River Bridge, which was the only bridge on the river until the 1960s. The middle bridges are the Han River Rail Bridge, again, the only railroad bridge on the river for decades. The far right shows the golden spire of the 63 Building.

Further west. This shot shows Yeouido, a once-sandy island on the river that is now full of skyscrapers. Its nickname is the "Manhattan of Seoul" due to its notable lack of single-story structures.

The blue-domed building in the center is the National Assembly. To the left, just to the right of the leftmost bridge, is a park; it used to be Seoul's first airport, then later a paved square used for military and other parades.

The lower level has a Korean restaurant, called Hancook. It's very expensive; the lunch special is 22,000 won (USD $22). I didn't go in.

I went to the lower level, which also has a snack bar and a souvenir shop. The views continue. I am again looking northeast, for a better look at Hotel Shilla (the red building), built in 1979 and the preferred accommodation for VIPs and foreign heads of state. The building on the right is the National Theater.

Looking east again. The middle patch of greenery is the new Seoul Forest. Slightly farther away to the left are two patches of greenery. The nearer one is Children's Grand Park, built by the Park Chung-hee government as a propaganda tool to showcase the level of love Park's wife had for the nation's children. The farther one is Achasan, home to a fortress - and two luxury hotels (Sheraton Walker Hill and W Seoul Walker Hill).

The lower level windows explain the various sights of Seoul visible in each direction. This window explains the significance of Itaewon, my next destination.

My snack for today is very European, consisting of Swedish-baked Anna's Biscuits (4,000 won, or USD $4, and familiar from my stateside IKEA visits) and a can of Amsterdam-brewed Heineken (5,000 won, or USD $5).

I came back down the tower, to see this practice of martial arts, in preparation for the actual performance at 3PM. I didn't linger around to see the real thing, however.

Around the tower were 20 decorated hearts as part of a temporary special exhibition. As evidenced by the thicker clothing of the people in this photo, it's brisk today. This heart has an ostrich and a turtle; again, I dedicate this photo to fellow blogger DiAnne Grieser in Seattle.

Another heart. This shows the world - and I am on the Pacific Ocean side.

Smoke signal stacks near the tower. These sets of five stacks were located at key hills across Korea, and the number of stacks burning indicated a quick way to relay the status of border skirmishes.

Here's another time capsule, buried in 1985 by Joongang Ilbo, a daily newspaper that is published in the US as the Korea Daily. This one will be opened in 2485.

I took a different bus route down from the mountain, ending up to the south in the touristy shopping district of Itaewon, which historically served the now-closed US Army base next door, but now serves tourists from throughout the world. Here is the entrance gate.

An old-style alley at Itaewon. Notice the souvenir shops and tailors - and all the signs are in English only. Itaewon is neither Korean nor American, but a strange mix of different cultures from the world.

Many shops in this neighborhood offer plus-sized clothing, to fit the bigger American bodies. Haggling is to be expected here.

One of the souvenir shops has this selection of T-shirts with Korean motifs. The red ones hark back to the 2002 FIFA World Cup - and the Red Devils, who are known for their wild trademark cheers for the South Korean soccer team.

The North Face has a store here, as do many other foreign brands. To the left is the entrance to Seoul's main English-speaking Protestant church; it also has services in Chinese.

Hard Rock Cafe is in the foreground. It is contrasted in the back by traditional Korean restaurants.

Itaewon is one place in Seoul where foreign faces - particularly black and white faces from America and Europe - are everywhere.

A more recent phenomenon is the tendency of South Asians and Middle Easterners to also gather at Itaewon, since the opening of the Seoul Mosque in the 1970s and the massive arrival of Muslim guest workers in South Korea from 1990s on. I didn't plan on visiting the mosque, but decided to take a walk in its direction anyway.

An interesting contrast, as I near the mosque: an Indian restaurant serving halal food above, and a transgender nightclub below. Yes, a transgender club near a mosque! This is only the first of at least four transgender clubs I ended up finding in this area. Itaewon, thanks to its Westerner presence, is one part of Seoul where LGBT culture is accepted, and there is even an area, called Homo Hill, full of LGBT nightclubs and bars. I dunno if Homo Hill refers to this mosque area though.

The transgender women who hang out in these clubs are boy-crazy ladyboys who tend to see themselves more as hyper-feminine gay men than as women. A hardcore lesbian like me won't find much fun here. On the other hand, lesbian bars in other parts of Seoul will throw me out because they, too, consider me to be one of these ladyboys. A trans lesbian is an unknown species in Seoul, and certainly has no place to go here.

Even closer to the mosque. To the left is a bookstore selling Islamic books in Korean, English, and Arabic. To the right is a travel agency offering tickets and entry visas to Middle Eastern and South Asian nations. On this street, most of the people around are indeed from Muslim countries. Not many Koreans, and very few Europeans and Americans. I could see plenty of halal grocery stores, bakeries, and restaurants. For a moment, I was no longer in Korea.

The entrance to the mosque, with Korean and Arabic inscriptions. The inscription says: "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is His holy prophet."

Inside the entrance arch, where another Arabic inscription adorns the driveway.

Good Muslim women wear headscarves - and here are a few being sold for 10,000 won (USD $10).

Another building, as I return to the neighborhood's main drag. Again, two very contrasting signs, both sharing the same entrance and the same building. "Jesus-Centered Church" occupies the 5th floor of this building. The 2nd level basement of the same building is, yes, another transgender nightclub, named Gucci.

Even more evidence of foreigner presence. Here is a Russian oriented club near the mosque, with the word "club" written in Cyrillic alphabet.

I have returned to the main drag, and I looked back in the direction of the mosque, to find these twin minarets. Behind me is - you guessed it - yet another transgender nightclub.

Here is a store selling name tags that adorn the desks of Korean professionals and executives. Trophies, plaques, traditional Korean souvenirs, and even model airplanes are sold here. Here is a sample desk name tag - for President Bill Clinton.

Itaewon is served by Line 6 (Tan Line) on the subway system, which also runs to the World Cup Stadium. I decided to take the 18-minute ride there.

The stadium actually contains a small mall inside, as well as a multiplex cinema. I ended up seeing the mall, which looked pretty good. There is also a spa and a health club too.

This small museum, with the admission of only 1,000 won (USD $1), re-lives the memories of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, co-hosted by South Korea and Japan, from the South Korean perspective.

Prior to 2002, South Korea had never scored a win in the FIFA World Cup finals, even though it had qualified every time since 1986. But in 2002, South Korea not only scored its first win - against Poland - but drew the US and defeated Portugal to advance to the knockout stage. The Round of 16 game against Italy was considered the most entertaining of the entire tournament; after conceding a goal to Italy early on, South Korea scored a dramatic equalizer with two minutes left in the entire game, forcing extra time, during which it scored another goal for a sudden-death victory. Equally as impressive was the South Korean fans' cheers (AGAIN 1966) designed to intimidate the Italians, by reminding them of their 1966 FIFA World Cup defeat at the Round of 16 at the hands of another Korean squad - North Korea. South Korea eventually placed fourth, the best ever showing by an Asian team; the previous best was the 1966 North Korean squad, which was a quarterfinalist. Much of the credit for South Korea's success is due to the squad's then-head coach, Dutchman Guus Hiddink, and his Dutch egalitarian system of training.

This stadium not only hosted the opening France-Senegal match, but also hosted South Korea's semifinals match against Germany. Germany won it 1-0, before losing to Brazil 2-0 at the final match in Yokohama.

The three mascots in front represented the 2002 FIFA World Cup.

In the back is a hilly park with wind power plants. It used to be a stop for migratory birds, before Seoul's booming population and economy, and the resulting increase in trash, turned it into the city's landfill in the 1970s. The landfill closed in the 1990s, becoming the park it is today. Yes, that is a mound of trash. Widespread, stringent recycling programs today mean that Seoul's trash production is much less than that of a comparable American city.

Speaking of the stadium, I tried to tour it itself, and it is normally open for public tours for 1,000 won (USD $1) between 9AM and 6PM, but it was closed today, in preparation for tomorrow night's concert by Seo Taiji, a major K-Pop star. I had to suffice with buying souvenirs - a pair of shaman village guardians and a coin set.

This subway poster says that on Saturday, October 4th, a fireworks competition will take place at the Riverside Park on Yeouido, near the 63 Building. This might be interesting.

Another subway poster. On Sunday, October 5, I can see a re-enactment of the royal-era Civil Services Examination. It was the royal government's primary means of hiring servants and officials, and only high-ranking male nobility were eligible. This will certainly be something to look forward to, unless I decide to skip out and take my overnight trip to Busan - or the road trip to Gyeongju.

The end!