Friday, July 30, 2010

Returning to Seoul after more than 20 years

July 29.

My last trip to Seoul was in 1984 or 1985. I was an invited participant in a “Conference on the Unity of the Sciences,” sponsored by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Other participants and I stayed in the city center. Our hotels were among the very few high rise buildings. There was no underground metro; a Korean Buddhist Temple, surrounded by a tranquil park was nearby. In the morning - about 6 am - I arose and walked around the city in an early December snowfall. The setting was very much like Colombo and smaller Sri Lankan Cities are now - many small shops and eating places in one and two story buildings. I was impressed with the Koreans discipline and industry. They were up early, opening up their storefronts, making tea over small open fires and scrubbing the sidewalks clean of snow and debris. I remember the complexes of underground passages, constructed to serve as bomb shelters during the Korean war. They were still available for that purpose - their unpredictable neighbor to the North remained a brooding, threatening, unpredictable presence. “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung was still in charge, with ‘Dear Leader,” son Kim Il Jong waiting in the wings. However they were filled with small commercial establishments.

What a transformation Seoul has experienced. It is now a city of nearly 20 million, with a public transit system that is more extensive and complex than Singapore (and far more extensive and complex than Washington DC). In the downtown area where I walked as a much younger man, the storefronts have been replaced by modern office buildings, fronted by wide sidewalks (often with bicycle paths). Expensive automobiles fill the streets and there are frequent traffic jams - no Singapore Style (automobile) Certificates of Entitlement or Electronic Road Pricing in Seoul. In the neighborhood where I stayed, near the site of the 1998 Olympics, there were high-rise apartment complexes that were taller and more extensive than Singapore’s Housing Development Flats. They were interspersed with parks, playgrounds and fitness areas but, surprisingly, no commercial establishments or Hawkers’ Stands. Whre are there places for people to shop and eat out, withing walking distance, I wondered?

Surprisingly, the pace of life in Seoul, at least where my limited walking took me, seemed more relaxed than in Singapore. In the apartment complex where I walked, along the streets and in a beautiful park adjoining the Olympic Parkhotel, couples strolled, with mixed couples and pairs of women often holding hands. In Singapore, strolling - and holding hands - are very rare. When people walk, it seems mostly to be with a purpose. And Singaporeans almost always walk fast.

After walking several miles I was getting hungry, Finally I reached the periphery of the housing complex and a bit further on, found a commercial area, including one narrow street fronted by many bars and restaurants. Apart from my hotel, this was one of my few experiences with Korean food. Unlike in Singapore, knowledge of English is rare in Korea, even in areas regularly frequented by tourists. This may partially explain the greater popularity of Singapore as a tourist destination. The paucity of English extends even to most restaurants where menus are in Korean only and none of the staff speak English. Menus do have pictures, as in Japan, but it is hard to figure out what the pictures represent. This makes any meaningful sampling of Korea’s idiosyncratic cuisine, in which varieties of seafood seem to predominate, difficult. One eating place offered live eels writhing in a tank from which one could choose. In the restaurant I fselected on Monday evening, I finally pointed to something that looked like stew. It turned out to be richly varied thick seafood soup that was served in a large earthenware bowl. It was edible - even tasty - but I have no idea what more that half the ingredients were. In general I am wary of seafood when traveling, except in Japan, but experienced no adverse effects.

Another evening I ate with friends at what was reputed to be a popular Korean barbecue restaurant. Interestingly this not particularly pricey establishment sent a shuttle van to pick us up and transported us back to the hotel when we were done. (We did have to get out and give a push, when it got stuck in a pothole exiting the parking lot.) The dinner was OK and we enjoyed each other’s company, however I will not be returning to Korea for the food.

But the friendliness of the Korean people might motivate a return visit. Those whom I encountered, both in commercial establishments and casual meetings might bring me back. What they have accomplished as a nation in 20 years is quite remarkable, though my impression is that they are less concerned about issues of sustainability than the Singaporeans and much less skillful at attracting tourists. This makes the bleak circumstances of their brethren in the north all the more poignant and tragic.

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Blogger pragzz said...

The food is definitely wanting and like you I wouldn't return for the food. But I find now, as I did the last time I was in Korea, that the people are some of the nicest and warmest I have met...FAR more than those I've come across in Singapore. There is also a tremendous dedication to sustainable and green living, as opposed to in Singapore.

In the six years since I was last there, I find that English is more widely spoken, and vegetarianism is a much better understood word. I found tremendous progress in other things as well. While they do speak English in Singapore, little else is as welcoming there as it is in Korea.

10:11 PM  
Anonymous Dormgrandpop said...

In contrast to pragzz, I have found Singapore to be a most warm and welcoming place, though people do walk fast and work very hard. Dormgrandpop

3:59 AM  

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