Kimchi and Lanterns – Seoul

First stop in South Korea was it’s capital Seoul where some gems like the lantern festival could be discovered.

Highlights:
  • Seoul Lantern Festival 2013
  • War Memorial Museum
  • Gyeongbokgung palace
  • Getting puked on for the first time in my life

I met my friend Maria right at Seoul airport where she had flown in from Bucharest. Being in South Korea both at the same time, we had decided to discover some of the country together before she would go on meeting another friend. We had some days to discover Seoul and although I had a cold, I still managed to drag myself out there sometimes.

We made into the city center by shuttle bus and got settled quickly. Our first Korean dinner was at a local restaurant right away: In a sidestreet, small, crammed with locals, and serving tons of fresh food and alcohol. First night’s dish was a kind of Korean pizza and mussels – along came as to all Korean mains kimchi, fermented veggies of all different kinds and tastes. A couple of guys on the neighboring table were not convinced that our food was sufficient and started to feed us their leftovers (sea snail for example…). The waitress, also eager to show the tourists some local tastes, brought us some sauces and to ensure I would definitely taste them she finally started to feed me (also sea snail……..). When we finished the amount of sea snails and soju (Korean spirit) we went off quickly, dreading more snails – but we were nevertheless amazed by the great hospitality of people.

Next morning, we started sight-seeing by visiting Gyeongbokgung, Seoul’s principal palace. There we came just right to see the change of the guards. It was quite interesting, held in historical clothing and armour, carrying old weapons and flags. We wandered through the empty Palace grounds and also visited the National Folk Museum of Korea. Especially the kimchi-section was a magnet for Maria who loves Korean culture and cuisine. A stroll through Bukchon Hanok Village was next, a part of Seoul with traditional Korean homes. I did not find it particularly interesting though, being quite a long way from the appearance of hutongs in Beijing.

When it got dark, we walked along Cheong-gye-cheon, a newly created stream running through Seoul center. There we found the beautiful Seoul Lantern Festival. No ordinary lanterns, mind you. Special lanterns in the form of people, dragons, phoenixes, ships, riders, or just fantasy forms were to see, all nicely set into the small river. Although it was quite chilly, we spent a long time there walking up and down the river to check out all the different lanterns – and were often amazed by their beauty.

On our way back to our accommodation we encountered a little show-stopper: Standing on the subway door when it opened it was my great pleasure to be puked on. Instead of freaking out, Maria and I laughed all the way home (which was close by then luckily). However, going out was canceled, instead we had to wash clothes. Finally we grabbed a bite to eat in the same alley as the day before, although I only had my rain pants left to wear (the only other long pants I have with me).

Next day I paid a visit to the War Memorial Museum of Korea while Maria checked out some nice quarters. Having always been interested in military history, I wanted to see this special museum. After all this was the first country I visited that was officially still at war.

Surely it can be said that visiting the museum was my second highlight in Seoul (besides the lantern festival). I learned a lot of info I did not know before, for example that North and South Korea were created basically like Eastern and Western Germany: Out of two occupied zones after World War II. Like in Germany, reunification was on the agenda but instead, North Korea invaded the South. Sadly, the museum did not give any information about the role that South Korea had played in heating up the conflict, then being somewhat different from today’s democratic nation.

I did also not know that this was not a war of the US against North Korea (and later China) but that the South was supported by an UN resolution (the UN at this time being quite young still). More than a dozen countries fought under the UN’s banner, besides the US also countries like Turkey, Thailand as well as Sweden and Norway!

After leaving the exhibition about the Korean War I wandered outside of the Museum through dark tangible military history: planes, tanks, boats – it reminded me on the Historical Military Museum I used to work in for a short time. Quite dreadful was the most outstanding piece of military equipment: a B52 bomber, standing massively in the dark night.

During the next day we took strolls through Seoul, trying to find some of the architectural gems. We managed to see one of the old city gates as well as Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a huge concrete curvaceous building made by architect Zaha Hadid. Taking several blocks of space it is not what you would call humble…

I was quite happy that after some days Maria and I left Seoul. I had enough of big cities and it was way too westernized for my taste. We had decided to head for a well-known historical folk village: Hahoe, close to the city of Andong.

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