27 September 2008

Seoul: Olympic Park (and a blast to the past)

As usual, my Seoul sightseeing continued today. My agenda for today: more of the Jamsil area and its Olympic facilities, particularly Olympic Park, built around a 2,000-year-old earthen fortress. I know the area well - because I once lived in the area, and again made it my home during my 1994 visit.

I have arrived on the east side of Olympic Park, which is served by Line 5 (Purple Line) on the subway. Here's a pricey Chinese restaurant featuring a Xi'an terra cotta warrior replica.

During the 1988 Olympics, only Lines 1-4 were operational, and Olympic Park did not have subway service. Getting here required a long walk, or a bus ride, from Jamsil Station on Line 2, generating many complaints from foreign visitors.

Gymnasium 1 was built in 1986, for the Seoul Asian Games that year, which was the warm-up to the 1988 Olympics. This facility hosted the gymnastics competition - the final Cold War matchup between the USSR and the US - during the Olympics. Since then, it's hosted various events, including concerts by the likes of Metallica, Linkin Park, Christina Aguilera, Celine Dion, and just about any other major foreign performer who visits South Korea (except megastars like Michael Jackson and Sir Elton John, who used the Olympic Stadium instead).

South Korea hosted another Asian Games - 2002 in Busan. Incheon will hold a third, in 2014.

Gymnasium 2 was also built in 1986. It hosted fencing events for the Olympics. Lots of children around today; for them, the 1988 Olympics are no more than a chapter in the textbook. On the other hand, I remember the era so well, because I lived very close by between 1984 and 1988, leaving for Los Angeles just short of the Olympics. I still remember the construction frenzy in the area in the 1980s - and the preparation of this park.

Both Gymnasiums 1 and 2 feature fabric roofs that allow natural lighting during the daytime.

The gray apartments in the distance were the Olympic Village, housing the athletes, and now normal residences. They still carry the logo of the 1988 Games.

Nice sculpture in the foreground.

The swimming pool, which was not completed in time for 1986 Asian Games, but did see use for the 1988 Olympics. Diving events used an older facility next to Jamsil Olympic Stadium, however - and that's where Greg Louganis hit his head against the diving board, not here.

The painted lane in the middle is used by the park's shuttle train, named the Hodori Train. Hodori was the name of the baby tiger who was the mascot of the 1988 Olympics. He occasionally also appeared in a female form named Hosuni.

There are over 200 sculptures throughout the park, from international artists, installed for the 1988 Olympics. This one is titled "Knife Sculpture," by Gunther Uecker of Germany, and symbolizes the human damage being done to the Earth.

The picturesque Lake 88, with a traditional pavilion in the background.

Before this place became Olympic Park, this was an ancient fortress, built around the time of Jesus. This shows the pits where residences once stood.

This scale model shows an educated guess at what the residences would have looked like.

The residences' storage pit.

The earthen fortress wall, with a wooden fence in front, reconstructed based on wood fragments excavated here.

The fortress is named Mongchontoseong ("toseong" means earthen fortress), and is generally believed to be Wiryeseong, the original capital of Baekje kingdom, which lasted from 18 BCE to 660. Wiryeseong was used as a capital until about 475, before neighboring kingdoms sacked it and forced Baekje to relocate its capital further south. The late 4th Century was Baekje's peak, during which it was able to sack the capital of its rival Goguryeo, located at Pyongyang, and kill its king in a battle.

Mongchontoseong was rediscovered in 1916, but was not excavated until 1983, when it was developed as part of the new Olympic Park. Excavations continued into 1989, and revealed many new facts about Baekje.

This Asiana Airlines 747 repeatedly made low passes over the park. I am nowhere near Gimpo or Incheon Airports; this plane must be flying from Seoul Air Force Base, located just to the south in the suburban city of Seongnam, which occasionally hosts civilian aircraft chartered by the President for his overseas trips. Unlike the US or Japan, South Korea does not have a dedicated aircraft for the head of state. Seoul Air Force Base also hosts aircraft belonging to foreign heads of state; when the President of the United States comes this way, the Air Force One lands there.

[Update 9/28/08: This plane was practicing and testing to prepare for President Lee Myung-bak's Russian visit. The next day, this plane flew to Moscow with Lee on board.]

A look at the lush grass, with the northwestern wall of the fortress in the distance. If I didn't know it, I wouldn't have realized that this was an ancient fortress. Aside from the wall, nothing remains of the fortress, at least on the surface, as it is so old.

The expanse of grass is interrupted by a rice paddy, with a scarecrow and some bells to protect the crop.

All the grass, trees, and lakes here reminded me of other urban parks I've visited, particularly New York's Central Park and London's Hyde Park.

Looking at the southwest corner of the park. Across the lake, there is a small amphitheater in front, where a band is giving a concert. To the right is the flag plaza, with the flags of all the participating nations of the 1988 Olympics. Behind the amphitheater is the Peace Gate, the official entryway into the park. The subway system's Line 8 (Pink Line) stops at the gate, and is one stop away from Jamsil Station.

There is a sculpture garden here at the park, south of the Peace Gate.

Here is another 1988 sculpture, depicting a naked man and a naked woman running together. It was done by Lazar Gadaev of Russia. I am pretty sure that Christy Cole, over at Christy's Art Blog, would love the guy's penis.

I have finished my tour of Olympic Park, and am heading southwest toward a nearby complex of Baekje tombs. As I started out, I spotted this green VW New Beetle. The New Beetle is very popular among young, affluent South Korean women, though the Mini Cooper is now outselling it.

I took this photo because the protagonist of my novel, Sarah Radcliffe, is supposed to drive this exact model and color, back home in San Francisco. She buys it to establish her identity as a flight attendant with a salary - and as a woman.

Three of the ten tombs at the complex. It was a long walk.

Of course, the church spire in the back tells a lot about Seoul today. This part of the city has a Protestant church about every 100 meters.

Entrance to Tomb No. 1. It's locked - though can be opened by request when groups visit here.

This tomb complex is now surrounded by many apartment complexes, which were built starting in the early 1980s. The lower, 12-story apartments to the right were built in 1984 by Hanyang Construction; the building in the dead center was my last home in Seoul, from completion until I moved to Los Angeles in 1988. The higher modern apartments to the left were built by Samsung a few years ago, to replace an earlier complex, built in 1980, which had consisted of coal-fired 5-story buildings with no elevators. I stayed at that old 1980 complex with my grandparents during my 1994 visit; my grandparents moved to Seongnam later that year, and have passed away since.

The tomb complex is one place to commune with nature. Here, butterflies and dragonflies fill the sky, as a stray cat runs away from me.

As this is a historical relic, jogging is strictly prohibited.

Now that I have arrived in my final Seoul neighborhood, I decided to hang around - and to re-create my commute to my elementary school. Here is the playground that I once played in. Behind it are three entryways to the apartment building; the middle one led to my unit. I was almost looking for my father's 1979 Hyundai Pony here; it seemed like it would still be waiting for me in the parking lot just behind the playground.

I didn't find my father's car. But I did find its successor - Hyundai's newest car, the i30. Hyundai's European models are being renamed alphanumerically; the Atoz city car is becoming the i10, the slightly larger Click is i20, the next up Accent will be phased out, the next up Elantra is the i30, and the large Sonata will be i40. The US will get this car as the 2009 Elantra Touring.

This gas station didn't exist when I lived here, but I took a photo to see the local gas prices anyway. A liter of gasoline will set me back 1,796 won (about USD $7/gallon), a liter of diesel will be 1,674 won, and a liter of kerosene (lighting fuel, not automotive) will be 1,327 won.

This alleyway was part of my commute. It's cleaned up considerably in the 20 years that have passed. Below the trees in the distance lies a new playground; it was a muddy dirt lot when I commuted here. Behind the trees is an industrial women's high school.

Behind me is a boys' middle school (South Korean secondary schools are usually sex segregated) that I would've had to attend, had I stayed here (ick).

This cathedral was in construction for most of the years I commuted on this route.

Note the statue of a Korean saint in front. Many Korean Catholics were beheaded by the royal government before the opening of the country in 1876, and when Pope John Paul II came this way in 1984, many were canonized.

I have arrived at my elementary school. It was, and apparently still is, known for its great little league baseball team; in fact, there is a baseball practice going on. Nearby signs were recruiting new players, with uniforms and other equipment to be furnished by the school at no cost.

A better look at my school. I had re-done this commute during my previous Seoul visit in 2005, at which time the old buildings, the very ones I had studied in, still stood. Now, they are gone, replaced by this ultra-modern building. The school's capacity seems to have shrunk as well; while population growth, thanks to all the new apartment complexes nearby and high birthrates, was a major problem when I attended this school, today birthrates are too low in South Korea, because raising and educating a child in this hyper-competitive society costs too much. Class size during my time averaged 60 students; today, it's more like 35.

A modern concession is the parking area in front for the teachers. A white Honda Civic also tells me something new about modern-day South Korea; small cars are starting to gain respect, to a point where there is actually a demand for small, overpriced imports (in the past, all imports were big, gaudy, and gas guzzling). The Civic is one of four models officially sold by Honda here; the others are the Accord, the CR-V SUV, and the Legend luxury sedan (known in the US as Acura RL). In addition, the Odyssey and some Acura models are brought in second-hand from North America.

When I lived here, and when I stayed here in 1994, I had to take bus no. 812 to Jamsil to take subway Line 2 to the rest of the city; that's why I consider Jamsil to be my "home" station on the Seoul subway system. The no. 812 bus still runs, though after the 2004 reform of the Seoul bus system, it is now known as no. 3314. In 1996, the subway system expanded, and Line 8 was opened, with a station right in front of the school. It's 2 stops to Jamsil, 3 stops to Olympic Park's Peace Gate, and 8 stops to the east side of Olympic Park (of course, with a transfer to Line 5 at the 5th stop).

A look south from my elementary school. The water tower in front is part of Garak Market, which was built while I attended school (I could, in fact, observe the construction progress from my classrooms). The apartment buildings beyond were built much later; back when I lived here, rice paddies occupied those areas.

The original Nambu Beltway crosses this boulevard at the intersection below the trees. This sector of the beltway was built while I lived here. Today, another beltway, the Seoul Outer Beltway, built in the 1990s, exists, just outside the city limits; it is designated as Expressway 100, and collects toll at several points. It works a lot like the Capital Beltway in Washington, DC, and the M25 Orbital Motorway in London, though those roads are freeways.

And here's how I remember my life in this area - and my childhood - coming to an end. On my last day of school, sometime in sixth grade, my class held a farewell party for me. At the same time, I cashed out my savings account at the local NH Bank (Farmers' Cooperative); the account had been required by the school curriculum, to teach kids how to save. While all of this was going on, my father sold his Pony to the US Army. The next day was the ride to Gimpo Airport, so that I could take my first-ever flights: United 58 (now United 884) to Tokyo-Narita, then United 90 (now United 890) to Los Angeles. Those flights not only took me to America, but to adolescence as well, as the half-year difference between South Korean and American school years meant that I would jump up to seventh grade - and junior high.

A platform sign at the subway station in front of my elementary school. It uses the unique design of SMRT, the city-owned operator of Lines 5-8. SMRT is different from other operators (Korail, Seoul Metro) in that its trains are shorter (6 cars on this line, 8 cars on other lines, as opposed to a more typical 10 cars), and in that its stations tend to have fewer entrances and exits, usually only one set of turnstiles.

Again, Line 8 is the Pink Line. This reminded me: when I visited this neighborhood in 2005, I vowed to return next time in a traditional Korean dress. That didn't happen today. Next time, I really wanna come back, maybe in my trademark "CODEPINK" miniskirt suit, to match the signs of this station. (Or at least the trendy stirrup tights with a cute tunic sweater.)

I proceeded to Jamsil, then transferred to Line 2. This is the parting shot, as I cross the Han River on Line 2. On the left is the skyscraper of Seoul's World Trade Center, with COEX Mall underneath. In the dead middle is the Jamsil Olympic Stadium. In front is Jamsil Bridge, part of National Highway 3, running from Sacheon on the south coast to Wonsan in North Korea.

I spent this evening learning a few more things about life in South Korea. First, Samsung is the nation's major nonunion shop, and this much I had known already. However, I am told that Samsung does have organized labor, though it's not called a "labor union." Samsung's philosophy is twofold: (1) if workers try to unionize, it will do everything to prevent that, even resorting to closing up shop and relocating overseas, and (2) it will pay workers well enough that unionization should hopefully be unnecessary anyway. Second, I got a suggestion that I take the KTX bullet train to Mokpo, in the far southwest of the peninsula. While Mokpo doesn't have noteworthy sights, the port city's atmosphere will itself be worth the day trip.