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(2011 - Winter Issue)

Writer: and Photography, Cynthia David

On my first morning in Seoul, our guide circled a few suggestions on a map and sent me off into the glorious autumn sunshine, confidentI’d have no problem exploring the vast city on my own without understanding a word of Korean.

She must have known her 11 million countrymen would take good care of me.

I headed down the street, which here meant six to eight lanes of traffic in each direction, searching for the subway station. Twenty minutes later, I asked the first of several locals for help. “I think it will be a 10-minute walk,” she said, before telling me to walk back a few streets, then turn right. “I think it will be a seven-minute walk,” the second one said. Did everyone study the same English book? The third simply pointed to the Cheongdam station entrance just ahead. 

On the map, the world’s sixth largest subway system resembled a bowl of noodles escaping in all directions. Up close, it was remarkably easy to navigate, thanks to colour-coded walls and plenty of English signs, some suspended from the ceiling leading to the nearest (intuitive) ticket machine: “You are 200 metres from the ticket machine, you are 150 metres from the ticket machine, you are 60 metres . . . ” Platforms felt like school hallways, with tracks hidden behind a series of doors, and the next stop flashed across a screen in each car.

Lunch Break 

Namdaemun, my first stop, was so huge, any subway exit put you in the centre of this crowded market. Festooned with flags, it sprawled over four hectares and more than 10,000 shops sold every conceivable household item, from pots and pans to pink silk comforters piled high. In the rabbit warren of narrow alleys filled with restaurants, black iron bowls of meat and vegetables in a spicy dark red broth bubbled on charcoal braziers, ready for the lunch crowd.

Hungry but wary, I decided to join another crowd at a food stall on the main street, where hands reached out for boxes of plump meat-filled dumplings fresh from bamboo steamers. Gesturing with three fingers got me three hot, juicy meat-filled dumplings in a plastic bag for 1,000 won, or about a dollar.

Helpful Guides 

While unfolding the map to plan my next stop, I was approached by two young tourist office guides in red jackets and Tilley-like hats, eager to help in excellent English. According to the booklet of facts and figures they offered, the Namdaemun market attracts 7,000 to 10,000 foreign visitors a day and 390,000 locals. I met two more roving duos that afternoon, and stopped by three tourist offices. One offered free Skype calls, and I found a bus that shuttles tourists to world-famous sites outside Seoul, for free!

In front of City Hall, closed for renovations last fall but swathed in a colourful promotion for the G20 summit, a farmer’s market was in full swing. Pale yellow ginseng roots were popular, and I sampled a new yogurt drink sold in glass milk bottles.

A Royal Setting

Across the street, a crowd gathered at the imposing entrance gate of Deoksugung Palace, one of Seoul’s five royal palaces, to watch the changing of the guard. Solemn young men in broad-rimmed hats and a swirl of navy, burgundy and saffron tunics marched briskly in the square in front of the walled compound, home to kings and princes from the 1400s until 1910. Archers marched with a quiver of arrows strapped to their backs, while the military house band banged drums, crashed cymbals and blew into conch shells.

As the last razor-sharp line of guards marched off, a young man from the tourist office asked me to fill out an English survey. One question asked if I’d found the performance “very wonderful” or merely “wonderful.” He thanked me with a Tootsie pop.

Inside the once-forbidden grounds, a shady lane lined with golden ginkgo trees led to a grand European-style building, home to the national museum of contemporary art. I spent the next hour wandering through a brilliant exhibition of Picasso and fellow impressionist painters from the Albertina Museum in Vienna.

Peaceful Spots

Whenever I tired of walking, I’d sink into a comfortable chair in one of Seoul’s many, many coffee shops for a creamy cappuccino or something more avant garde, perhaps a sweet potato latte. Some of the café names were truly original. My favourites included God in a Cup, Shall we coffee and Reborn Coffee + Hotdog.

Another oasis of calm lies just off one of the city’s busiest boulevards. Cheonggyecheon Stream was an expressway before 2003, when the city began digging up the asphalt to liberate the river beneath. The water flows for nearly six kilometres under more than 20 bridges. At night, young people stroll along the path, past colourful light installations by international artists.

As the sun began to set and my feet began to complain, I arrived in Insa-dong. Artsy little shops, antique stores and traditional tea houses give this popular shopping area the feel of an old village in the heart of the shiny new city. I hated to leave, but didn’t want to worry our guide, who expected me back at 6 p.m. to meet the rest of the group for dinner.

Somehow, with the help of a few more kind strangers, I once again navigated the subway, and miraculously chose the exit closest to my hotel from among 13 possible choices. By this time I was bowing like a pro in thanks, but how I wished I could tell the people I met how welcome they’d made me feel and how much I’d enjoyed my day in their extraordinary city

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