the seoul of asia
The soul of Asia is captured by a buzzing city in a booming country: Seoul. Five days in this intense urban jungle gives you a taste of South Korea. One that makes you want more. More dishes from the awesome Korean kitchen. More hip and happening fashion. More green and striking architecture. More time with the friendly ‘Seoulmates’. More knowledge of its rich history and culture. And perhaps a bit less of the tension you feel when standing eye to eye with a North Korean soldier in the Joint Security Area…
Accommodation: Bright Gyeongbokgung Apartment – www.airbnb.com/rooms/1155217
The apartment is totally centrally located, has a spacious feel to it, is clean, smartly designed and had nice perks including an iPhone with internet to keep you company and lead the way on your journeys through Seoul.
Another benefit of renting this light apartment is the owner, Skye. Honoring his name, Skye is like a clear summer sky: sunny and bright and very dedicated to make the start of your trip one to remember. After spending 4 nights at Skye’s apartment you will know 2 things for sure:
1. You pull a Schwarzenegger, meaning you’ll be back.
2. When you’re back, you’ll for sure rent Skye’s place again to call it your home away from home.
Bright Gyeongbokgung Apartment
Day 1: Settle in, visit Korea’s most famous palace and your hanok neighbors in Bukchon
After you have landed and admired what in 2014 has been chosen as the best airport in the world, you take the Airport Rail Express to Seoul, switch to the subway and get out at Gyeongbok Palace Station from where you walk a few minutes to your new home (of which the owner has provided you with a pdf booklet that will make sure you arrive safely and much, much more).
After you have closed the iron door behind you, have admired the light apartment and picked up the complementary iPhone with internet and GPS, head out for your first taste of the splendid Korean kitchen. You will find plenty of choice around your place, since this area of Seoul houses not only the president (in the Blue House) and the US embassy, your neighboring the wonderful Gyeongbokgung Palace as well as Seoul’s most beautiful hanok quarter: Bukchon.
The best thing to get rid of a jetlag a.s.a.p. is to just go with the flow, stay in your own part of Seoul, do some sightseeing (after lunch) and head for bed after 21:00.
But before you hit your pillow and after you have had your first of many awesome Korean dishes, you can visit Gyeongbokgung Palace, Korea’s most famous royal palace.
Like so many (all) old structures in Asia, the palace has burned down several times. Built in the late 1300s and reconstructed ever since, the palace offers you an insight into Korea’s architectural traditions and court customs. The palace is closed on Tuesdays but in that case you should still be able to walk its spacious walled grounds. Grounds that often form the stage of performances of Korean music, plays and other cultural events.
After you have visited royalty you head over to ‘the common people’ who in the old days used to live in so called hanoks, traditional thatched roof homes with picturesque courtyards, which have become quite scarce in booming Seoul.
Bukchon fortunately has been saved and with its galleries, narrow streets, courtyards, small bars, restaurants and beautiful architecture, it is place you must visit for sure.
Walking through the streets and over the hills of Bukchon, it isn’t hard to imagine life in Seoul centuries back. In case you do not stay in the neighborhood, the easiest way to get to Bukchon is to take subway line 3 to Anguk Station and take Exit 3.
Day 2: Walking the lines
Seoul’s Central Park isn’t a park but a 5.8-km (3.6-mile) stream that only recently has resurfaced again. While it’s just off Sejongro – one of the busiest boulevards in Seoul – Cheonggyecheon will provide you with some peace of mind that is most likely very welcome after your first acquaintance with the Soul of Asia.
The river – a somewhat exaggerated word for a 5 meter wide brook caged in concrete – offers a serene experience, waterfalls, a lot of greens and many Koreans who are very happy with the city’s decision to turn Seoul into an example of eco green urban jungle dotted with design, architecture and gifts like Cheonggyecheon.
In case you walk along Cheonggyecheon from the new architecture icon the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (worth a visit when you like architecture and fashion since it is the centerpiece of Seoul’s famous fashion district) towards your own neighborhood, you can immediately exchange the subterranean like walk along the river for some uphill climbing on Bugaksan, the peak behind the President’s Blue House.
There are several trails that take you through reconstructed 15th-century gates along Seoul’s old fortress wall. From the top of the 342-m (112-ft.) hill you find yourself gawking at the city you only 1 or 2 hours ago had totally forgotten existed when you walked along the Cheonggyecheon.
Eventually you will bump into Seoul Fortress, which you can tour when you have made a reservation at least a week in advance. In case you wonder if you are the only one hiking these trails, do not go in the weekend when flocks of colorfully dressed Koreans ‘constipate’ what can be a relatively quiet walk on a weekday…..
Day 3: The eerie border with North Korea
When on July 27 1953 the thunder stopped, 4 million voices forever kept silent. The sun, half hidden behind the smoke of a thousand guns looked at the land it left behind the evening before. It was covered in blood, red and raw. All that remained of an ancient culture was rubble. The sun rose over two wastelands, crushed between the jaws of the cold war.
Sixty years later the debris has been cleared and the sun been set free of its chains of smoke. But its warmth has not reached the hearts and minds of all people yet. Cause while the Southerners sit around an economic bonfire, their brother and sisters up North still shiver from the terror, hunger and cold of a war long past.
At the border between North and South Korea mines and barbed wire tear apart families, history, a country. Here, in one of the most heavily armed parts of the earth, love and hate stand face to face. Embodied in two soldiers, one from the North and one from the South. Standing just a few meters apart, they both seem to come from another planet…
….A trip to South Korea is not complete without a visit to the border with the North. Here, on the 38th parallel, you’ll be amazed by what humanity is capable of and shocked by the fragile line that divides madness from sanity. The border, that’s us. Walking on the edge between good and evil. A treacherous walk during which some loose their balance by accident while others leave the right path on purpose.
Reality is probably not as black and white as the average soldier accompanying visitors to the DMZ, would like to think. But he can’t be blamed. Barely twenty, half a world away from home and living and working in a surreal no-man’s land. Stuck between two heavily armed armies in a place called the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
From Seoul, you can visit the DMZ in a day. Capitalism does not stop for mines and barbed wire, it seems to live of it. The choice of tour operators seems to be unlimited, but the best choice for walking through the 3rd Tunnel, enter the famous blue UN barracks on the border in the Joint Security Area (JSA) and let you stare in amazement at a enormous statue of Kim Jung Il in the shadow of a 600 kilo North Korean flag is the leisure organization of the U.S. Army : Koridoor.
Nature meanwhile, takes no notice of the shortcomings of mankind. Luxuriantly it thrives in the DMZ which has become the breeding ground of an Asian bird of hope and peace: the crane. As with everything at the 38th parallel, symbolism too is extreme.
After you have returned to Seoul you can visit the Korean War Monument which is a stroll away from Koridoor’s base at Camp Kim. The monument features both impressive statues and expositions as well as an open air museum of war machines which – this sounds weird – reminds you of a fair with airplanes, tanks, canons and war ships you can climb onto, touch and since they make sound – listen to in shock & awe.
Demilitarized Zone/Joint Security Area/3rd Tunnel visit
T: +82-2-6383-2570 ext.1
Day 4: Gangnam Style and galleries
The first thing you bump into when surfacing at Exit 11 at the Gangnam subway station is a ‘Horse dance’ podium. When you are (un)lucky, there will be someone on stage, ‘Gangnam Styling’. Otherwise you can leave the Psy stage be and start zig zagging through this snobby borough that’s been turned into an international hotspot by a cool clip and catchy song.
Gangnam will remind you of Tokyo. With half high rises, neon and a lot of traffic. But once you leave the main streets and start walking around, you’ll be charmed by the variety of Gangnam. But before doing so, treat yourself to some Korean BBQ at one of the many family restaurants in one of the backstreets.
After you have satisfied your appetite and have said goodbye to your personal BBQ, you can start to enjoy the architectural gems that have been thrown all over the place by well known international fashion brands. But you can also sneak into one of the small alleyways to find a local gallery with Korean art or fashion, standing next to an inviting café and the concrete remains of the 1970’s.
So, do visit this part of town, cause Psy was right: Gangnam does indeed have Style.
After the international fashion and architecture icons of Gangnam, hop into the metro again and take line 3 to Jongno station. Here you find Insa-dong, the heart of Seoul where Korean traditional food, drinks, culture and crafts are represented in countless stores, bars and restaurants. Once (between 1400 and 1900) a street where painters studied, the street is still a center for painters, craftsmen and art lovers with during the spring, summer and warmer months of fall, artists that set up shop along the narrow alleys. This, together with the multiple art events and festivals that are regularly held here makes Insa-dong an attractive destination while in Seoul.
Day 5 Heyri Art Valley
A town dedicated to art, crafts, architecture and culture, that’s what Heyri Art Valley is all about. So for change cars, concrete skies or neon lights won’t surround you. No, close (about an hour’s drive) to the concrete hive Seoul, hiding behind a hedge or a fence is not allowed. Streets are sparely lit at night, cause ‘How else can you enjoy the stars?’ Stars who, in case you’re familiar with the South Korean art scene, you easily bump into while looking up at the sky.
So walk the green lined hilly streets without a honk or a breath of exhaust fumes. Touch the stars. Great your famous neighbors (and landlord) when staying in one of Motif#1’s boutique studios. Spend the day walking around, hopping in and out of countless galleries – like the White Block Gallery and the Chocolate Design Gallery -, bars, restaurants and museums like the Elvis Museum, the Toy Museum and the Museum of Korean ceramics.
All this creativity has been thriving in Heyri for over a decade now. And it shows. Cause architecture and design put a smile on this artist enclave, while Korean culture gives it its character.
Wherever you walk in Heyri, there is always a new experience waiting for you. Another surprise around each corner, another ‘moment of WOW’ inside a gallery, or the next one, or the one after that.
A great way to get a taste of what the Korean contemporary scene has to offer, is to stay in Heyri for a couple of days. The best place to do so is with photographer/writer Ansoo at the Motif#1 artist residence. Here you’ll find yourself surrounded by books and stolen moments of time, captured in beautiful images.
The vibe of lodging and relaxing in one of Motif#1’s boutique studios and stroll the streets of Heyri is best described by this note in Ansoo’s guestbook:
‘Like the rolling hills, we expected to find on our journeys to the South-east, we have been tumbling into experiences and surprises day after day since our arrival in South Korea. After the balanced rush of the city and the imbalanced tension at the border, we found creativity and rest with dear Ansoo, here in Heyri. Thank you for shining your lantern on the hidden path of our travels ahead.’
Artist residence Motif#1
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Heyri Art Valley – South Korea