Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Race Through Dark Places

Saturday - Deoksugung, Seoul Plaza, Cheonggyecheon, Namdaemun

We left Busan early Saturday morning with the wind and rain from the periphery of Typhoon Man-yi battering us, and travelled up to Seoul in almost deathly silence at speeds approaching 300kph on Korea's equivalent of the bullet train, the KTX. The weather improved and then it was bright sunshine all the way to our destination. From Seoul Station we took one stop on the underground to the City Hall (Jung-gu) area where the British Embassy is located. Once we'd found it, we looked for a motel - our searches beforehand on the Internet had not yielded any results. But while there were motels to be found beyond the plush hotels of the main road running by City Hall itself, their shabby appearance and locations - down narrow back streets amidst massage parlours - eventually saw us checking in to the New Kukje Hotel next to the tall 'Seoul Finance Center' (SFC) building at 120,000 won a night. We'd been trudging around for well over an hour in the heat and the moral of the story is to plan things out beforehand. People we stopped to ask directions were nervous, cold or just downright unhelpful, and I missed what I perceived as Busan's friendliness.

The SFC makes a virtue out of the two floors of underground restaurants beneath it, but with prices (by Korean standards) to match the yuppie aspirations of those who worked above it we found a KFC across the road instead; by this time our desire to eat was entirely functional and the expensive meals could wait until they'd be more appreciated. I think I've become used to paying Busan prices. After lunch, we visited Deoksu Palace (Deoksugung) (entry cost: 1,000 won - not everything here is expensive) next to the British Embassy before crossing the road to Seoul Plaza in front of City Hall where an event was taking place, people enjoyed the weather on the grass and children sought relief from the heat in the fountains.

A short walk down the road took us to the famous Cheonggye Stream (Cheonggyecheon). While the project has been controversial, it is also clearly popular judging by the considerable crowds it was attracting. We walked some distance down it as the daylight faded, before turning around and walking back in the dark. Along the way were a mix of old and new bridges, one with an art exhibition underneath, a jazz band on a bridge, fountains, waterfalls and artwork. Many of the locals whiled away their evening sitting on the banks with their feet in the water, and underneath the Citigroup building we joined them, finally finding some relief for ourselves as well.

From the stream we sought out the equally famous 'South Gate' Sungnyemun (aka Namdaemun). While using the nearby subway we also discovered something that isn't on the tourist maps - a cardboard city of homeless people bedding down for the night - shocking in itself and perhaps all the more so for its proximity to City Hall and the many embassies located in the area. I snatched a quick photo, but we were not of course welcome and needed to leave quickly.

We'd planned to have a nice meal under the Finance Center Mall, but the sight of the homeless made me lose my appetite for such indulgences. Inexplicably, all the small restaurants and diners along the road back seemed to close at ten or eleven so with midnight approaching we retired to our hotel with no more than a bag of crisps and a can of beer.

Sunday - Insa-dong, Tapgol Park, Unhyeongung,
Cheonggyecheon, Seoul Finance Center

After breakfast in at a reasonably-priced Singaporean toast place in the Seoul Finance Center, we headed towards a traditional Korean craft area in Insa-dong, first stopping by Tapgol Park (free entry) which is famous for being the origin of the 1919 'March 1st Movement' calling for Korean independence from Japanese occupation. Various monuments in the park tell of the struggle against the Japanese. The Park seems to act as a focal point for those old enough to remember the occupation, and they gather here to talk or simply to sit. The Park also contains National Treasure No.2 and Tangible Cultural Property No. 73.

Later we went to the Japanese Cultural Center next to another palace, Unhyeongung, to get their side of the story but it was closed. I didn't care for the
architecture at Unhyeongung but the insides of some of the buildings were set out to show what life was like for the privileged in its day. A photography club armed with digital SLRs and a model made it a little difficult to negotiate.

At what point is a place no longer real but instead it becomes a theme-park version of itself? The Korean craft area at Insa-dong crossed that line for me. Predictably full of tourists (ourselves included), and enough Korean trinkets to satisfy all your friends and family back home - or if you're feeling more extravagant, there's an old map hanging on the stairway of one establishment for a mere 18,000,000 won (about £9,700). We bought ice-cream from a Turkish ice-cream vendor - a task not quite as straightforward as it might seem in Korea. Yes, our experience was pretty similar.

Somewhere back near the Seoul Finance Center we encountered a protest against political interference by the Korean equivalent of the National Security Agency in the political process. It seemed from the elderly demographic of the protesters they were right-wingers, though we could be wrong... If the Korean security agencies are trying to get left-wingers elected they must be just about the one in the Western world. Then again, whether you class someone as left or right-wing very much depends on where you're coming from yourself - which in this context is a sobering thought. A photographer - who may or may not have been with them - took photographs of the seated protesters who, in the quest to take good shots myself, I found myself standing amongst. As he raised his camera very deliberately in my direction it was hard to imagine that he wasn't taking a shot at me, so I pointed my camera back at him in return. A little further along the road there was a heavy police presence with patrols and multiple buses. At first it wasn't immediately clear why, but we'd stumbled upon the US Embassy. By contrast the British Embassy had one police car sat at the end of the road.

We'd debated whether to take a ferry along the Han River, but it was getting late and it started to rain, so for a second evening we sat with our feet in
Cheonggye Stream, but under a bridge this time.

As I'd walked around today, I'd noticed more and more apparently homeless people - in the subways and the parks, slumped up against buildings and asleep on benches in the open spaces. If Seoul had any glitz or glamour, the sight of the bedraggled and psychologically defeated underclass gave it a sinister edge, and although we had our 'expensive', and as it turned out, very nice meal in the end in the Finance Center, it was at one of the cheapest places with a bill totalling 26,400 won. What life is like here is beyond my control but it doesn't lessen the sense of frustration.

I took a lot of photographs over the weekend and a number of videos, and spent time looking out for an electrical store where I could buy another SD card, to no avail - in Seoul. There seemed to be a Dunkin' Donuts on every block though.

Monday - The British Embassy

I dare say whatever its problems Seoul is a vibrant and colourful place, and I fear I may have been remiss in my descriptions of its people and places. There was much more to say but if what I have written seems soulless, it is because I had what soul I had left ripped from me by the unseen officials lurking in the Embassy building, and everything else that happened this weekend seems like a black and white film in comparison. There is a problem with my wife's visa application and it is not at all clear that there will be a satisfactory resolution to this story, so today I am facing up to the reality of being made a de facto exile by my own government if I am to live with my wife.

Koreans on the Net have quite a lot to say about their experiences with the British Embassy so perhaps it shouldn't come as a complete surprise, but when it becomes personal and you realise just how high the stakes can be it really hits home.

Perhaps this will all blow over, perhaps it won't. In the meantime, there is considerable emotional distress and much time, like yesterday evening, spent reading Acts of Parliament, the European Convention on Human Rights and legal precedents, because it was not my plan to never be able to return to live in my own country.

Korean keywords: 기차, 여행, , 공원, 호텔, 대사관


Aaron said...

The best thing I've ever said upon leaving an embassy - any embassy - was "that was efficient." Never friendly or fun or pleasant, just efficient. Being an American, I rarely even get to say that.

By the by, next time you head to Seoul, post your plans up on the site beforehand. I'm sure the Seoul-based bloggers could've pointed you to a cheaper hotel and restaurants.

Enjoyed the pics.

Mike said...

Thanks Aaron,

I think our Embassy experience was also efficient - but only in the sort of way that totalitarian regimes execute people. 'Disgraceful' was a word that came to mind a lot afterwards and that was before we got the result.

We were so focused on the Embassy interview we didn't really draw up a serious sightseeing plan, but maybe next time, when hopefully our purpose for visiting Seoul will be a happier one.

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