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Seoul became the capital of South Korea (and Pyongyang of the North) in 1945 when General MacArthur drew his line dividing the Korean peninsula between the Soviet and American liberating forces. Prior to this Korea had been occupied by the Japanese since 1910. The original idea was to get things settled then leave the two countries to reunite, but in 1950 the north invaded the south and things have been decidedly icy ever since.

I went to the Republic of Korea (to give it its official name) in May 2009 for a few days during the Chinese Dragon Boat holidays. From Beijing it was a short hop across the Yellow Sea, to a very different country and way of life. Seoul was far more developed and cleaner than Beijing, yet didn't seem so modern as it was all more or less built by the 80s, whereas Beijing is now at the forefront of cutting-edge progress. I found it to be a strangely charming place.

N Seoul Tower

The N Seoul Tower, inexplicably named but standing on Namsan Mountain in the city centre, it gives great panoramic views of much of the city. The tower often has its height quoted in reference to mean sea level, a fairly meaningless statistic, in an apparent attempt to eclipse the likes of Toronto's CN Tower.

View from N Seoul Tower south across the Han River to another of Seoul's many centres.

South Seoul

Central Seoul

Looking north from the tower to what I took to be the de facto centre of the city, the Jung-gu area.

Shopping Korean-style on Myeongdong. Korea was cheaper than I'd expected, perhaps the exchange rate was just favourable at the time, but I didn't find it to be any steeper than the UK.


Roh Moo-hyun

Outside Deoksugung Palace, opposite the City Hall, people were gathering to mourn the recent suicide of ex-President Roh Moo-hyun. The official story is that he jumped off a cliff, but many Koreans weren't satisfied with this and suspected foul play.

During the frantic development of the city after the Korean War, some mistakes were made, notably an elevated freeway slashing through the city centre and burying one of the city's rivers. Cheonggyecheon (Cheonggye stream) was redeveloped in the early 2000s and now forms a 6km park through the city. This is the western start, which at the time was being blocked in by riot police buses.


Seoul neon

Bright neon on the back streets of Seoul.

Korea remains a strongly Buddhist nation, so we went to visit the Jogyesa temple, which was very colourfully decorated.

Jogyesa buddhist temple

President's House

The President of the Republic of Korea lives in this house with its back to the mountain, facing down to the Han River, considered the best Feng Shui. Our bus wasn't allowed to stop, so this was the best shot I could get.

Seoul's "Forbidden City" is called Gyeongbokgung, and also sits with mountains to the north and water to the south. I really like the cloud patterns here, fitting well with the rooftop.


Gyeongbokgung guard

This lad was doing an excellent job of ignoring me as I repeatedly took his picture in one of the courtyards of Gyeongbokgung.

The Seoul Folk Museum nestles in the grounds of Gyeongbokgung. The palace itself was originally built in 1394, but largely destroyed by the Japanese during the occupation.

Seoul Folk Museum

Chinese numbers

I was surprised to see so much Chinese script in Korea, until I learned that Korean writing was not invented until the 15th century, recognising the differences from Chinese itself which did not lend to their characters. Nonetheless, it is a testament to the influence of China that its script still pervades not just Korean but Japanese culture too. These are Chinese numbers.

A little further out of town is what felt to me like Seoul's "Summer Palace", in much the same way as Beijing's. Called Changdeokgung, it was built by the Joseon Dynasty in the 14th century, and is a world heritage site.

Changdeokgung rooftops


Peaceful gardens in Changdeokgung made for a very pleasant stroll around.

Back in the bustle of the city, at the Jongro Tower, like nothing I'd ever seen before.

Jongro Tower

Sit-in protest in Seoul's Citizens Square

The denizens of Seoul were gearing up for the funeral of ex-President Roh Moo-hyun. Riot police were marching the streets by the thousand, setting up roadblocks in front of which the people would resolutely sit and listen to the callers.

Outside City Hall the square had been previously boxed in by police buses, but was now opened up and filling with protestors. Protesting is like a national sport in Korea.

Korean protestors

Police buses

Other parts of the city were completely locked down, not even this Shogun was allowed through the police blockades. Hundreds of buses were parked end-to-end to block off streets and squares.

I have never seen so many riot police in my life - there must have been over ten thousand wandering the city. There was an air of uneasy calm. Fortunately, if there was any violence, it wasn't where I happened to be.

Riot police


Away from the political action, things were much more tourist-friendly in the markets to the west of Namsan Mountain.

No visit to Korea is complete without the ginseng hard-sell, which they did really quite well. Still, I wasn't convinced, and went home ginsengless.


Korean Starbucks

Over the course of my three days in Seoul, I had a shot at learning to read Korean script, which was surprisingly easy and satisfyingly rewarding. This, I'm told, is the world's only Starbucks without an English sign. It reads "Seu ta beok seu keo pi" or thereabouts, in my slightly ropy Korean transliteration. Great, except I don't drink keo pi.

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Copyright © Ross Wattie 2010