Thursday 22 February 2018

Gangnam Style: The life and Seoul of Korea

Picturesque: From his hotel room on the 24th floor, Jamie Blake Knox had panoramic views of the city of Seoul
Picturesque: From his hotel room on the 24th floor, Jamie Blake Knox had panoramic views of the city of Seoul
Kimchi and pasta
Korean market
Korean tea

Jamie Blake Knox

Jamie Blake Knox takes a sojourn to South Korea, its kaleidoscopic capital, and the Demilitarised Zone bordering North Korea.

It was early morning when I arrived in Seoul.

I had flown with Turkish Airlines, overnighting in Istanbul en route. I noticed on my drive from the airport that we didn't seem to pass any old buildings. Instead, the landscape was dotted with modern skyscrapers and vast new construction projects. I learned later that most of the older buildings had been destroyed during the Japanese occupation of the country - and in the bitter Korean civil war.

I was staying in the Park Hyatt Hotel, in Gangnam, one of the most fashionable districts, which is famed for its shopping precinct and range of entertainment venues, and most recently immortalised in the irritatingly catchy - "Gangnam Style" by PSY. The Park Hyatt was originally designed as another high rise office block, but, due to an economic downturn, it had been converted into a hotel. This had created a number of distinct challenges for its design team, the intriguingly titled Superpotato.

They had risen to the challenge, and each room combines a high degree of comfort with cutting-edge functionality. Before I hit the town, I couldn't resist the opportunity to swim in the hotel's stunning infinity pool, perched high up on the 24th floor, where I could absorb panoramic vistas of the city and the mountains which cradle it.

That night I went out with an old friend from school in Dublin.

I hadn't seen Kyung Won Lee for some years, but we were able to pick up more or less where we had left off. We began the evening with some drinks in the luxurious Timber House bar. Over a few beers, I told Kyung of my plans to visit the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) the next morning. Like most Koreans, he had completed his compulsory national service after University, but he confessed that he had never visited the DMZ. In fact, he was perplexed by my wish to do so, and perhaps even a little disturbed. I had forgotten that the DMZ is less than an hour's drive from Seoul, and is a daily and inescapable reminder not only of Korea's violent history, but of potential conflict in the future.

The following morning, I made my way to the Lotte Hotel, where I joined the Panmunjom tour bus to the DMZ. The tour guide scrutinised all our outfits and even our footwear. There is a very strict dress code set out by the Joint Security Authority (JSA), and smart and presentable clothing is mandatory. Given the very sensitive nature of the current political situation, we were given a lengthy and detailed breakdown of what was considered to be acceptable behaviour. We were also advised that any photography was strictly limited.

Our first stop was to the War Memorial of Korea which is dedicated not only to the War of the 1950s, but to the entire military history of Korea. As a result of this remit, it is colossal. Exhibits range from small, but touchingly fragile personal effects of lost family members, to an entire captured North Korean ship. It was only as I was walked along the memorial which contains the list of many thousands of names of those who died in the conflict that I truly began to grasp the full enormity of the Korean War. This was not simply a sideshow in the Cold War, but a massive conflict which claimed over three million lives - including some Irish soldiers. It was also clear that its legacy continues to exert its influence in contemporary Korea.

I could easily have spent the whole day exploring the memorial. Unfortunately, we were on a tight schedule, and we were brought back to our bus after just an hour. From there, we drove to the electrified boundary fence at Imjingak. Unification Park is dedicated to all those families who were divided by the war and there are coloured ribbons containing messages tied to the fence in the hope that one day families that were separated by the war will be reunited.

Driving along the Freedom Bridge - over which 130,000 South Korean and Allied prisoners of war crossed to return home after the Korean War - it is hard not to reflect on the many thousands more who never made it back. At the military lines at Panmunjom, a soldier boarded our bus and checked our passports before waving us through into the DMZ. It was like entering through some form of time warp. I felt as if we had been returned to the grimmest days of the Cold War. As our bus drove we got our first proper glimpses of North Korea. I had supposed that the whole area was closed, but both sides have 'peace villages' in sight of each other's side of the DMZ. In the South, there is Daesong-dong which is mirrored by the North Korean village of Kij-ong-dong. Each town has a huge flagpole, and each has tried to outdo the other. At 525 feet, the Northern currently towers over the 328 feet one erected by the South.

By the time we were brought to the Bridge of No Return - where soldiers from both sides were allowed to choose which country they wanted to live in - I felt quite overwhelmed. As I looked through the cheap trinkets on offer in the souvenir shop - which include 'I LOVE THE DMZ,' T-shirts - I found it hard to know exactly what I made of this surreal place. But I felt a great feeling of relief when I left the DMZ far behind me.

Daehangno is at the other end of the spectrum - a vibrant district of Seoul that is bathed in neon and lies close to some of the city's art colleges. It was like hipster heaven, and was awash with scores of niche shops, market stalls, boutiques, restaurants of all kinds, and a seemingly innumerable number of "cat cafes" - for the uninitiated, these are where people craving feline attention can go and drink tea surrounded by dozens of moggies. Situated nearby is Parc, a small restaurant which specialises in traditional Korean food. I ordered a bento box of fresh grilled mackerel with wild chive sauce and seasonal vegetables with kelp. It was served with two of the staples of Korean cuisine: a light miso soup and kimchi, a spicy fermented cabbage dish to which I was fast becoming addicted. Fully sated, I wandered around the maze of streets, stopping occasionally to sample some of the excellent local craft beers and rather potent Soju.

The following morning, I went to the Changdeokgung Palace which is located at the foot of Mount Baegaksan. This palace was begun in the early 15th century during the Joseon Dynasty, and it is designed in accordance with Confucian principles of space. I thought it was an exceptional example of how architecture can be integrated and harmonized with its natural topography. The palace buildings are largely constructed of wood, and they were also heavily damaged during the Japanese occupation. However, they have been lovingly and meticulously restored, using traditional methods and materials. The gardens are havens of calm and tranquillity. They are planted with a range of walnut, white oak, zelkova, plum, maple, chestnut, yew and gingko trees. Walking past the lotus pool towards the pavilions, it was easy to forget that I was still only a stone's throw from the centre of one of the most frenetic cities in the world.

There was just time before my flight home the next day to visit the 1,700-year-old Jeondeungsa - the oldest Buddhist temple in Korea. It is located at the top of the picturesque Jeongjoksan Mountain, and consists of a series of ten ornate wooden buildings in a variety of architectural styles. They are all brilliantly coloured and in spite of the turbulent nature of Korean history they are still decorated with perfectly preserved delicate carvings and 800-year-old paintings. The level of detail in some of these carvings is exquisite; there are dragons above the doorways and mysterious gurning faces on the rafters. The temple itself is dedicated to enshrining family ancestors and there were scores of white and coloured lanterns hanging from the ceilings. It is now possible to stay in this working monastery; in 2002 in time for the World Cup the Korean Cultural Organisation opened it as a way for foreigners to gain experience and knowledge of Korean culture and Buddhism. The monks I encountered were friendly and open and thankfully translators are provided. After a simple but enjoyable vegetarian meal in the canteen I was invited that evening to ring the giant temple bell, which I gladly accepted. The thunderous sound it generated reverberated right through me.

In the last century South Korea overcame domination from an aggressive neighbour and emerged from the ashes of its painful past as a vibrant and successful country. Perhaps it is something we can all learn from.

Getting there


Places to stay Park Hyatt- The Grand Hyatt-

Places to visit Korean Furniture Museum- It is important to note that this museum is by appointment only, reservations are required. Jeondeungsa Temple - It is possible to stay in the temple; prices start from 60,000 Won (€48.50) per person per night. DMZ Tour company: The cost of the tour to Panmunjeom with lunch included is 75,000 Won (€60) per person.

Take three


Si Wha Dum: This unique restaurant refines and distils traditional Korean cooking to produce new, exciting and innovative dishes. The ingredients used often appear deceptively simple and understated, but create combinations of astonishing variety. One dish simply entitled 'when pasta meets Kimchi' shouldn't have worked, but introduced a range of flavours I hadn't encountered before.

Market place

Gwangjang market: This vibrant market is teeming with people shopping for ingredients, fabrics and other things. The food stalls are incredible, they offer a bewildering variety of seafood both dead and alive and other Korean delicacies. The food is cheap and very popular with locals. I had some mandu (dumplings) made from pork, tofu and spring onions which were accompanied by spicy kimchi and were simply perfect

Tea for one

Therapy café, Bom Dong, Hongdae. Located in an unassuming suburb this unusual tea house has its own doctor who specialises in oriental medicine. Upon consultation, he devises a specific tea to treat whatever ailment you may have. I must concede that I was sceptical at first, but not only was he friendly and entertaining but the tea was delicious and genuinely revived my spirits.

Sunday Indo Living

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