Bracketing my glorious time in Mongolia last month were two short stays in Seoul, Korea. Knowing that flights into and out of Ulaanbaatar could be iffy due to windy conditions, I was happy to arrange a day south of the Han River on the way there and two days on the north side coming home. After my husband’s trip to Korea in the 90s that was full of unfortunate stereotypes (mostly dog and smog), I knew I would not be accompanied there anytime soon, so I had to make this happen on my own. Luckily, I fared much better!
A common theme of the two stopovers was an old/new mash-up – historic structures and streets pushed up against the edges of the very modern parts of the city. Both sides benefitted from the contrast: temple bricks and wood with the patina of time added texture and depth to the glint of skyscrapers in the Gangnam area,
while the blocky, mirrored facades of distant towers made a contemporary backdrop for the monochromatic old hanok houses and their curly-edged rooflines in the more northern, traditional part of the city.
In Gangnam, my hotel was sleek and cool, but at the push of a button, the curtain panel drew back to expose a giant Buddha standing amid lanterns and upturned eaves in the Bongeunsa temple complex.
In Insadong a few weeks later, the tables were turned; my lodging was small and backward, but my view was into the future. There, a morning stroll along the edge of ancient Changdeokgung Palace led me uphill to Bukchon Hanok Village, a 600-year-old urban area from Joseon Dynasty days, which looked out over an array of new high-rises shimmering in the summer haze.
Seoul is a huge city, but its most captivating sights always seemed to be at the edges of my vision: a quiet man on the edge of the urban Cheonggyecheon stream,
artwork on the edges of buildings in Insadong,
the boundaries between fanciful old design and the angular solidity of new architecture,
a glassy line-up on the river’s edge, or a tiny restaurant wedged into a zigzag alley.
Seoul teeters on the edge between ancient temple cuisine and trendy coffeehouses; dank, lukewarm showers and fancy, self-heating toilet seats; gritty fish shops and Samsung’s funky HQ; old men in drab clothing and young girls in full-blown Hello Kitty. I barely dented the surface of Seoul, but in three short days I walked these borders of past and present, ageless and innovative, to find a city looking both forward and back in a most agreeable way.
(Huge shout-out to Shelley, a Seoul resident and blogger at Travel-Stained, who really gave me the biggest edge of all with her priceless advice on where to go and what to see in my short time there.)