Updated: Jun 30
Sleeping at hostels has always been a 50/50 split between normal and absent. Guess which one it was last night? They had the same bedding as my hostel in Skopje.
Breakfast is a great opportunity to meet new people, as well as talk to some of the few I had not met the night before. There were an unusual amount of German and Dutch travellers for whatever reason. Then again, in my experience, that shouldn’t have been too surprising. They do seem to get around a lot.
In classic fashion, I had no plan aside from making it down for breakfast at 9, but after a few conversations over a cup of tea and some Frosties, a few of us decided it might be nice to follow Kelly (who is from Houston originally but is now based in Seattle, which she much prefers because of the hiking and the trees. She also likes to camp) on her visit to a few streets, palaces, and food markets. By 10:30, no one else was ready, so just her and I left together.
After living in Hong Kong for half a year, I have so many names for the Underground that I'm almost disappointed that there were none for Seoul’s/ The few stops from Hapjeong to City Hall had an unrealistic number of universities too. On balance, I think the MTR is smother and less complicated to navigate, but that’s enough about that.
When we emerged, the day was the perfect pairing of Autumn coolness and clear sky. The sun was hot on our backs, but the air was cold. Kelly’s plan had us walking to each place on the list: Gyeongbokgung Palace, Insadong Street, Bukchon, Changdeokgung, Gwangjang market, and then anything else. It was a packed schedule, although it never felt like we were rushing.
Almost as soon as we had started to walk, we were blocked by a ‘changing of the guard’ ceremony where it looked like the soldiers had dressed as every colour of the rainbow. The drummer terrified me when he hit it the first time.
“This is what’s so weird about travelling. You feel like you always run into cultural events randomly when you aren’t even trying to,” I remarked. Kelly agreed.
Gwanghwamun Square has massive statues of men holding swords and a kind old giant about to read a bedtime story. About the base of the row of fountains that run between them are a series of quotes from historical Korean figures. Most were fairly good as pithy quotes, of contradictory when read together (die for your country, but never give up your life unless completely necessary) but one quote seemed to Kelly and I a bit too underdeveloped to require a quote. To paraphrase;
“I cannot see the envoy right now; I am in a meeting with my clan.”
Likely it has some deeper meaning about the priority of family and clan over state, regardless of importance, but on first impression it really did just sound like they were saying, “hold a moment I’m on the phone.”
Unfortunately for us, though as expected by Kelly, Gyeongbokgung Palace was closed, so we walked along the main road to find our next stop. Kelly hadn’t relied on maps specifically to help her, since she also liked to get lost in new places, so we wandered in the general direction of where Changdeokgung Palace should have been and hoped for the best. In this way, we didn’t mind deviating to explore side streets when we felt like it. In fact, at one point we turned down Insandong Street without even realising where we were.
The street was where I began to pick up on some of the memories from my last visit. I saw the booth with K-pop idol merchandise; we went into the square where, 5 years ago, I’d had my picture taken with a big Christmas inflatable. This time, I got the opportunity to walk around the rest of it too.
Kelly and I explored up and around the floors surrounding the square out of curiosity, and it turned out to be very reminiscent of King’s Court on Carnaby Street. Any empty space of wall was covered with graffiti, writing and pictures. I openly wondered how many people carry pens and pencils with them in order to spontaneously doodle on walls like that. One of the pillars has a bushel of paper flowers, all of which held unique messages from different people over the years. Only a handful were in English. They were all very cliché: “I love Korea/Jeremy x Samantha/ Looking for a good time? Call xxx-xxxx-xxxx,” that sort of thing.
Around this area we had to cross a sunken courtyard with a very confusing theme of dinosaur heads and pigs. No idea why it was so popular with a bunch of teens. Apparently, it was some kind of playground inside? If you’re confused, join the club, it’s full of dinosaur heads.
On the other side of the main road were some women in traditional dress headed east, which we took as a good sign we were on the right track. But even though we were determined to see the palace at some point before the day ended, we were also easily distracted by pretty streets that led away from the target destination. The most enjoyable was the Bukchon Hanok Village; a part of Seoul that has had its architectural style strictly preserved in a traditional style. It may have been Kelly’s intention all along to head that way, but it seemed like a mutual investigation at the time. There were many flags flying as bunting across the almost entirely pedestrian street, though the countries repeated and were by no means complete in the representation. Near the start, we explored a purpose-built replica of a traditional house, which had wooden walls and lots of open space between rooms. Who would have every guessed, however, that they had plug sockets in 1850s Korea, who knew?
I’d brought an orange with me from Yoomin’s house the night before and taken it with me when I left the hostel to eat. So far that day, I hadn’t. We went into one of the small meeting rooms in the house. Three of the walls were windows (I wonder how scary it would be at night). I asked Kelly sternly to sit down at the low table. I placed the orange on the table.
“I think it’s time we discussed this. I found it in your room. Don’t lie to me Kelly, I know.”
“...you don’t want the orange, do you?”
“I really don’t, can you take it from me please?”
The descriptions about the building sounded more like advertisements than anything else, from the way they were written. Not the most important detail, but nice to know for later.
Back out on the street, Seoul’s preoccupation with coffee shops became a full-blown addiction. All the way up the street were alternating independent artisan coffee shops and art shops. Every. Single. Shop. It was as if there were only two businesses that were given planning permission because somebody t the city planning office or whatever was super annoyed that they had to travel between art galleries and their favourite coffee spot for longer than 20 seconds. Even so, I can’t deny I liked the aesthetics of it. I would be the sort of person to hide out in one of the shops to write, or work in one of the art galleries.
Each time we tried to cut left or right, they were dead ends; though very pretty dead ends it has to be said. They prove people did actually live in these fancy old houses. The one door with barbed wire was less charming to look at, but that’s to be expected.
Finally, we got to the top of the street, and the hill it was built on. It was nice to pause and look back down the way we came, to see the skyscrapers in the middle-distance of an old world frame.
On an unmarked stand, brochures advertised a week of culture in Seoul that was coincidentally happening right now! I looked inside one of them, but it was all in Korean. The only thing in English on the brochure was the line ‘Seoul Culture Week!’ Why even have English at all if that’s literally all there is? Now I’ll never know what I missed out on.
Now we turned right, towards where we would, ideally, very soon, find the palace we had been looking for, and although we could see trees and a large stone wall, I couldn’t help but accidentally try to break into someone's private property because it had a pretty old façade. How is an ignorant foreigner meant to differentiate accessible old houses from private old houses?
We walked parallel to the stone wall until we found an entrance. More small art galleries (one shoe shop whose coloured shoes were arranged in a gradient) passed us by, and I revealed the small fantasy I had of running one: a big floorspace with only 3 or 4 art pieces inside, and otherwise an all-white interior and floor-to ceiling windows at the entrance. Kelly said she always liked the idea of being a baker: making bread and cakes as often as she wanted, as much as she wanted. A little bakery all to herself. She also has no interest in becoming a baker or baking bread in general. Small fantasies are like that.