Heart and Seoul

Secret Garden in the Changdeokgung Palace, South Korea
Lesley Stones

When the outside temperature plunges to below freezing, you appreciate a heated toilet seat. I’m not entirely convinced about the warm water sprays that take care of ablutions from two directions, but avoiding a frostbitten bum is to be recommended. It’s worth going to the loo even if you don’t really need to, because a glowing posterior really does give you a warm fuzzy feeling.

The Koreans have some aspects of living down to a fine art. Like parking cars outside the department stores. It’s quite a sight when parking attendants wave the cars in and out of gaps, bowing solemnly to every driver. I wanted to steal their bright red coats to protect me from the cold. The snow in Korea was a surprise, but when the chill wind blows you remember that this little annex is on the edge of China and Russia.

It’s been a tough life for the Koreans, but a visitor to Seoul sees little of that. About 11 million people live in the city, soaring to 15-million if you include the suburbs.

You can spend hours in traffic, even though the roads are wide and the driving standards politely Asian rather than an African free-for-all. Getting around is easy because Korea’s road signs and street names are dual language, shops and restaurants advertise their wares in English, and the average Korean speaks it very well.

South of the river a new city has developed over the past 30 years. There are a few of those ugly utilitarian 1970s buildings, but now it’s mostly gleaming golden skyscrapers. Even though Seoul has been the capital for 600 years, very little has survived from ancient times even in the older quarters. One exception is the Blue House where the president lives in the shadow of the Dragon Mountain.

The Blue House

Named for its 150 000 blue roof tiles, the Blue House is 25km from the North Korean border, which keeps the guards on their toes.

One of Seoul’s central roads is the wide straight Tehran Street, named in a show of thanks when Iran was the only country willing to sell Korea its petrol.

“Korea has no natural resources so we import everything,” my host explained.

Seoul’s city council wants to increase the number of visitors to 12-million a year by making sure that the hotels are affordable and improving the flow of traffic.

An extensive subway system and easy-to-understand bus routes zip you around to museums, art galleries, parks, palaces and preserved cultural villages. Catch a tourist bus to see the major sights, or take a boat trip along the Han River.

There are massive malls and bustling street markets, and even a Currency Museum with free admission, a fitting tribute to Seoul’s capitalism.

Seodaemun Independence Park in Seoul

You can visit Seodaemun Independence Park, built on a prison site where patriots were martyred by Japanese colonialists. The prison cells and execution building have been restored so you can “experience what it was like to be imprisoned and tortured”. I gave that one a miss.

Get your caffeine fix from any of 200 Starbucks branches. Ironically the Koreans are not a nation of coffee-drinkers. Ginseng yes; caffeine no. Häagen-Dazs, Australia’s Outback Steakhouses, McDonalds and other western chains also pander to tourists craving a break from noodles and sticky rice. And there’s definitely no shortage of Korean food.

We ate at the Zizzy restaurant an a shopping centre basement. The buffet was full of intriguing shapes, colours and tastes. One delicious local delicacy is bibimbap, a bowl of steamed rice mixed with vegetables and gochujang, a chili pepper sauce.

My colleagues declared the sushi to be the best they’d ever tasted. The fried pork was exquisite, and other dishes were equally delightful if unidentifiable.

Only the sticky rice disappointed because it always tastes insipid to me. Perhaps I should have dipped it in kimchi, that icon of Korean cuisine that involves pickled cabbage in chilli. In Korea a bowl of kimchi is served with every meal. At the kimchi museum you can marvel over the pots and bowls used to make and store it.

If you scratch below Korea’s surface the war is still clearly in the national psyche.

Ten million people have been split from their families by the north-south dividing line, and the demilitarised zone is a routine feature on tourist agendas.

On our visit the only apparent sign of racial discord were posters on shop windows wishing us Happy White Day but our guide assured us it had nothing to do with skin colour. On White Day men give white candies to their girlfriends.

A month later the shops declare Happy Black Day and women cook black noodles for their men. Just to make sure nobody feels left out, single people get to celebrate Happy Friends Day later in the year.

How people with neither lover nor friends console themselves while the rest of Korea celebrates is a mystery. Maybe they join the displaced foreigners in the Outback Steakhouse, so they don’t feel like the only loner in a city of 15-million.