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Story Chris Wyman


This story is also published here with the original pictures.

In early October 2004, I traveled to Seoul, South Korea to present a paper. Since I was in the middle of my first semester teaching, I could not take too much time to travel around Seoul sightseeing. However, I was able escape to see a bit of town right before and after the conference.

One of the striking things you notice walking around downtown Seoul is the juxtaposition of the modern and the ancient. Pagodas in the middle of the road, palaces across the street from highrises. The number of American fast food joints is also a bit frightening.

Above, cars drive through the intersection in front of Kyongbokkung Palace. Kyongbokkung is supposedly the "best" palace in Seoul. Unfortunately, the first day I was wandering around, it was closed. so, instead Matt and I wandered down to another Palace, Changdokkung Palace. Interestingly Changdokkung only allows visitors on guided tours, so we bought our tickets ($2.50) and waited around for the next English tour. While we were waiting, a "changing of the guard ceremony" took place. And they were searching for a gulible tourist to hit their large drum. Guess who got conned into it? That's right. Me. At left, you see me dressed up in the strange guard uniform. And on the right, I'm standing in front of Changdokkung Palace and the drum.

It was pretty amusing, seeing as when the lady came up to ask us if anyone would be willing to participate, Matt obviously didn't want to do it, so he was awfully quick to volunteer me. I thought it would be an interesting experience, so I accepted. The ceremony wasn't terribly exciting, and you could see the faux mustaches on the other members of the "guard." Overall, I'd rate the ceremony as "cheesy," but for a free thing you can just walk by the palace (where nobody lives, incidentally), it wasn't too bad. After the ceremony, which really went on a bit too long as well, we queued up to enter the palace for the tour -- which was really why I was there anyways.

Mostly Changdokkung Palace is gravel and stone coated courtyards surrounding wood-framed palace structures. The painting on the roofs is amazing. Especially since it's quite intracate and (obviously) hand done. Considering the number of buildings, it must have taken forever to complete.

About halfway through the tour, we stopped at the "secret garden," which is really the only green spot inside the Palace. But...Wow. The garden is absolutly amazing! Definitely worth the $2.50 for admission to the palace and tour just for the garden. I wish my photos could do it justice...

The secret garden was a couple structures around a tiny pond, with a bath house (now a bathroom) and a boat house. The entire area was enclosed by a wooded region in a tiny valley, with the hill terraced up to the buildings on the rise.
The pond was surrounded on three sides with a broad walkway, with plenty of room for people to lounge near the pool. Also, a gazebo was situated a short distance away. They also had a very interesting sun-dial, that I found very cool.

So when Matt and I were wandering around Seoul, there were lots and Lots and LOTS of policemen. Enormous numbers of them. For instance, as we were walking up to intersection in front of Kyongbokkung Palace (the first picture, above), there were literally 3 or 4 blocks with hundreds of policemen. The first picture was taken looking through the only 4-foot gap between two police busses for a block on either side of the palace. I thought it was just kinda strange until I realized we were walking next to a building with a cop standing back to the wall, facing the steet every 5 feet (almost shoulder-to-shoulder).... Shortly thereafter I realized what building that was -- the US Embassy.

Then I was less amused and a bit more worried.
Anyways, Matt got all excited and wanted me to go take a picture of the cops, the protesters (which we saw at a plaza two blocks from the embassy), and the busses with cops filing out of them to recieve their riot gear. I told him: "Matt, if you want pictures of them, you can go buy a disposible camera. But I won't pull you to safety when the mob starts beating you up for being obviously American."

So the picture of cops, above, was from later on in the day when we wandered by a street protest (on the right). These wierdos were wandering up the street, stopping every five feet to bow down on their knees for a few seconds, after which they'd get up, walk another five feet and repeat the process. The cops followed them two-by-two up the road. An exciting job for them, I'm sure.

They weren't nearly as exciting as a mass, anti-US protest, but Matt still wanted pictures, so.... Here they are, Matt.

Although, I must say wandering around with someone else made the trip lots more interesting (in some ways) than walking around by myself, though of course I gave up some flexibility. But at least, he was willing to travel my way a bit -- walking around Seoul on foot basically all day. So I got a good feel for downtown Seoul, just like I got a good feel the year before for London, Paris, and Brussels.

One of the things I like doing is stopping by random city parks you find along the road. It's interesting because you never know what you'll find and you get to see citizens in their natural environment (not tourist traps). On the left, you see a monument we ran into in one of these parks. It was all the way at the back of the park in this plexiglass case to protect it from the elements. I would have loved to get closer to look at some of the amazing detail. Wow.

Another interesting thing about parks in Seoul is that during the day hundreds, if not thousands, of elderly people gather in every single city park. So much so that it's often difficult to walk. It seems like parks in Korea really serve as a social gathering place, much more so than in the US, and particularly for the elderly.

Later in the week, Brian, Steve, and I also wandered around Seoul sightseeing a bit. That was fun, especially since they both have a different style of travel than Matt, which changes the flavor a bit.

Since neither of them had seen Kyongbokkung Palace, we decided to go back there and have a look. It was very impressive -- and very large. It was neat, because the place was filled with literally thousands of grade school children taking in their country's history.

Interestingly, the school children were all very excited to see us. Likely they rarely see a pale-skinned Westerner (we confirmed this in the subway, which was a uniform sea of 5'6" people with black hair). All the children wanted to try out their English, so every time we walked by a class -- every 20 or 30 feet -- they'd all cry out "Hi! Hi! Hi!" and wave at us. Which was pretty amazing for the first 20 minutes, after which it started getting very, very old.

Of course, Brian had an answer. He'd been practicing some basic Korean on the 15 hour flight, so he could say "Hello" back. It was amusing the first time he responded in Korean. It was a group of 15 year old girls, and they all looked shocked, and began giggling.

On the left, you see one of the multitude of stone pagoda-like statues (which have a real name that I can't currently recall). Outside the Palace, there was a large garden containing various stone statues sculptures, and these pagoda-statues. Evidently these have been transplanted from all across Korea for safe keeping.
While we were wandering around in this surrounding garden, a bunch of older students came up to us and made a little camera motion, like they wanted us to take their photos. We nodded, not seeing any problem with it. At which point about five other kids from the group ran over, stood next to us, while the first student took our picture! Very odd. We must really be curiosities.

Kyongbukkung Palace really is amazing. The palace is so very large, all filled with highly decorated buildings, with neatly manicured lawns and gardens. The picture above is of the structure I think of as the "throne room." There's a big throne in the center of the single, ornate room.

The rest of the buildings aren't terribly impressive on the inside. Many of them are separated into small, roughly 8 foot by 8 foot rooms, which evidently served as living quarters. These are small, barren rooms, rasied off the ground by a foot or two -- the heating evidently came from below the floors. Sometimes a hallway ran along one side of the rooms, but often the rooms were connected in a long chain with both sides facing courtyards on opposite sides.

I think the thing that impressed me the most were the gardens, as you can see on the right, and below.

As we wandered around the palace, there was one 13 or 14 year old student who was more excited to see us than most. Perhaps he just really wanted to try out his English. He came up to us and talked for maybe 5 minutes when we first entered the Palace and were trying to get our bearings. He probably would have been perfectly happy talking to us all day (though it was difficult to understand his meaning on occasion), but a number of his friends decided he was pestering us and physically dragged him away. Kind of funny, but also a bit of a relief. Though he kept trying to speak to us while being dragged away.
Of course, we ran into him a number of times later. The second time, he was very interested in getting us to take a photograph of him. Not of us, not of us with him, just him. I'm not sure why this mattered so much.... Anyways, I agreed finally, to make him go away. Plus since it's a digital camera, I figured I could always delete it later (though I still have it). He seemed to claim he wanted a copy and wanted to get it via e-mail, or perhaps he just wanted an e-mail pen pal. Once I gave him one of my (at that point) spiffy, new business cards, he seemed very much impressed and left. Strange.

At right, is a garden near the back of the Palace complex. I particularly liked this structure in the pond.

There was also another pond, with a rather large island in the center. The pond, building, and bridge was quite picturesque, especially with the mountains in the background.

Although, I am a bit confused as to what the building in the center of the island would have been used for. It wasn't really big enough for anything useful, in my opinion. Maybe it was a fancy "tool shed" to store various implements used for keeping up the palace grounds.

Overall, I was very impressed with the Korean Palaces. But them I'm a sucker for castles and palaces.

After visiting the Palace, we wandered around, grabbed some food, and decided we were going to head to Seoul Tower to see the city from the air. A very touristy-type place to go, and a contrast to the mobs of school children at the palace. But being a cheapskate and a dedicated pedestrian-tourist, I convinced Brian and Steve to walk to Seoul Tower. Partly because that way we'd get to see some other interesting things without making multiple detours to and from subway stations. I thought it was great. I think Steve didn't appreciate it so much after the fact, and I'm not sure about Brian.

Anyways, we got to wander through Namdaemun Market. See if you can point out Brian in the mass of humanity. You should note this was one of the many branching side-roads in the market.

Wandering through any of the Korean marketplaces is a very interesting experience if you've never done so. There's "sections" of the market, where all the stores are devoted to the same things. For instance, there was a "water heater" section in one market I wandered through (about 5 stores next to each other that only sold water heaters), Namdaemun Market had a children's shoe section, an art supply section (complete with styrofoam replicas of various Michelangelo statues), a microscope section, and of course thirty "cheap trinket" sections. Odd. It was certainly interesting to wander around and see the selection of goods. I don't know why people told me I should bring an empty suitcase to bring back all the stuff I bought.... Maybe I'm just not that attached to (cheap!) trinkets. And I don't really need a microscope, or a lifesize replica of some statue.
We finally got to the tower, quite tired from the walk. Especially since the tower is situated on the side of a mountain. Luckily there's a cable car that you can ride most of the way up. We took the elevator up to the top of the tower, and ate at their rotating restaurant. It was a bit on the pricey side, though not as bad as it might have been. But it was probably worth the extra couple thousand Won for the view. Unfortunately, it was very smoggy while we were up in the tower, so we couldn't see very far. But except for a few green parks and palaces, (like the mountain where the tower was), the view was all city. In all directions. For miles and miles.

For my first trip to Asia, I really enjoyed it. Quite different that the US or Europe. I'd have preferred to have a bit more time to look around -- but a loss of flexibility is the price you pay for having a stable job. Hopefully I'll get a chance to go back relatively soon for a more prolonged visit.

Anyways, thanks for reading.
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