Sergio Bersanetti

My Seoul

16 September - 05 October 2022

Corea del Sud South Korea map

Presenting Seoul

Seoul, a bustling metropolis housing roughly 10 million inhabitants, is the capital of South Korea, a populous Asian state with over 52 million residents. What prompted me to spend three weeks in this intriguing city?

To be candid, I have always found the Korean people somewhat unsettling, particularly for reasons depicted in the compelling film ‘Parasite,’ which deservedly won numerous awards a few years ago.

Furthermore, their visceral disdain for the Chinese, while perhaps historically justified, betrays a provincial mindset that irks me.

Despite these reservations, I opted to visit Seoul because I find it foolish to dwell solely on prejudices – i.e., judgments based on hearsay and not direct experience. I usually strive to do the opposite, and though I may not always alter my convictions (particularly when people’s civil rights and dignity are at risk), I am confident that immersing myself in the Korean culture for three weeks will enable me to view their reality more objectively and return home with a more favorable impression of their people and way of life.

I took an Etihad flight with a layover in Abu Dhabi, which presented no unwelcome surprises also because I decided to pack only hand luggage, given my prior experience in Sichuan, where my suitcase arrived three days late on both my outbound and return trips. I packed a few T-shirts, two pairs of shorts, underwear, toiletries, and a laptop for work.

Jihun, whom I met when he was residing in Barcelona before the pandemic, (I lived there myself for almost three years), will lend me any heavier clothing I might need, although I doubt I will require much in September, as he is precisely my height.

Jihun will be working late also on the day of my arrival, as is common for many Koreans. Therefore, I will have ample time to unpack and freshen up at the studio apartment I rented near Nakseongdae Park, a hilly area in the southern parts of Seoul’s metropolitan region.

The first surprise of my Korean excursion awaits me in the bathroom.

Corean studio apartments

Similar to other Asian countries, shower stalls are not commonly used in this region.

Instead, a hose is often attached to a pipe that also supplies water to the sink. The hose is equipped with a knob that allows users to control the direction of the water flow.

 

Korean bathroom
So, when you take a shower, you flood the whole bathroom, but the point is that, being overwrought from a sleepless night and 19 hours of travel, I don’t notice the pipe and while attempting to freshen up my face to wake up I inadvertently drench myself and my clothing in icy water, because the knob was turned to make water come out from the pipe!

Unlike my experiences in Taiwan and Thailand, I notice the absence of a tool to dry the bathroom floor after showering, which struck me as peculiar, and also the bathroom’s cramped size doesn’t make much sense to me.

 
Korean bathroom
Upon his return, Jihun enlightened me about the peculiarities of Korean bathing habits. Many Koreans prefer their baths to be steamy and hot, akin to a sauna. Consequently, bathrooms tend to be small, with copious amounts of hot water on the floor and a tightly sealed door to prevent steam from escaping.

This explains why Koreans often take a scorching shower first thing in the morning and then conduct all other hygiene-related activities, except for applying facial care products, which is done by both men and women outside of the bathroom, before leaving home.

Another unusual aspect of Korean studio apartments becomes apparent when Jihun opens a cabinet next to the kitchen sink and burst out laughing.

 
Korean kitchen

What I assumed to be a pantry for storing canned goods and other foodstuffs turns out to be a shoe cabinet!

Fortunately, the snacks I had purchased from the mini-market below the house while waiting for my friend remained unopened, and we don’t have to dispose of them.

 

First full day in Seoul

After a restful night’s sleep, I’m eager to explore the city and decide to begin my adventure at the War Memorial of Korea, whose admission is free.

Despite the fact that it may seem unconventional to start with a museum dedicated to the brutality of war, I chose it for its convenient location and excellent reputation.

Upon arriving, I’m immediately struck by the museum’s impressive collection of interactive exhibits, which vividly convey the experiences of soldiers who were and are forced to fight in conflicts around the world. For instance, one section of the museum is dedicated to the Vietnam War, complete with recreations of local flora and bunkers.

Another highlight of the museum is its comprehensive displays on the Korean War, which remains an open wound for many Koreans.

 
Although the museum’s content may not be aesthetically pleasing, it is essential to confront the horrors of history to gain a deeper understanding of our world.
 

War Memorial of Korea

One of the most touching rooms of the museum

Jihun told me to wait for him for dinner at the COEX shopping centre, and when wandering through it I come across the most spectacular library I have ever seen, I understand why.

The Starfield Library, which opened on May 31st, 2017, boasts an impressive collection of over 50,000 books displayed on three towering, 13-meter walls, as well as 600 magazines for enthusiastic readers to peruse. A dedicated section to makeup and facial care books reminded me of my location in Korea.

The library’s construction cost a staggering 6 billion won, and its annual maintenance requires an additional 500 million won.

The Starfield COEX, which houses the library, is a marvel in itself as the largest underground shopping mall in all of Asia. 

  
COEX library
As you can see in the following video, unlike the traditional bookshop the Starfield Library is a lively space where popularization is encouraged, as evidenced by a professor delivering a lecture on economics in one corner of the library.
 

Starfield Library

Where culture and entertainment meet

Before closing this day’s diary, I want to tell you about another Korean peculiarity that I discovered today.

Do you have a clue what the purpose of the LED lights at many major intersections in Korea’s major cities is?

 
Floor light in Seoul
If you answered: “To help pedestrians cross the street”, congratulations, you guessed right!

This innovation is especially important in Korea, where many people walk while looking down at their mobile phones. By keeping their eyes on the ground, these pedestrians can use the glowing lights to determine whether they should continue walking or come to a stop at a traffic light.

This fascinating aspect of Korean culture showcases the country’s impressive technological advancements and commitment to safety.

 

Happy birthday to me!

On 17 September I celebrate my birthday, and Jihun proposes to spend part of it in the largest and most beautiful of the five imperial palaces in the Korean capital.

Actually, I arrived in Seoul with two big wishes: to attend a short track practice (the agonistic season has not yet started) and a taekwondo exhibition.

The first wish will not be fulfilled, as the training sessions are not open to the public, but the second one materialises before my eyes on my birthday, as we walk down the wide avenue leading to the entrance of the imperial palace. Young students from a local school are showcasing their incredible taekwondo skills in front of a sizable and appreciative audience.

If you have yet to witness the breathtaking athleticism and artistry of a taekwondo performance, I wholeheartedly recommend that you view the video below. 

 

Taekwondo performance

These boys sure know what they are doing

My day has already been fulfilling, but the true highlight is yet to come.

The Gyeongbokgung Palace, which dates back to 1395 during the Joseon dynasty, was once destroyed by fire in the 16th century but later restored. While much of the palace has been rebuilt, the adjacent pavilion and pond remain in their original state.

Within the palace walls are the imperial throne room and the Sujeongjeon, or the ‘Palace of Moral Government,’ where the Korean writing system known as hangeul was created. You can learn more about this fascinating history later.

As we explore the palace, I can’t help but notice the many people donning hanbok, a traditional Korean ceremonial dress that can be rented from one of the several shops in the area. It turns out that entry to the palace is free for those wearing this attire.

 
On our way home, we come across a peculiar cylinder-shaped construction on a pedestrian bridge.

Jihun explains that these structures are scattered throughout the city, serving as a place to cool off and relax on hot summer days, complete with air conditioning, board games, or musical instruments.

At one such rest stop, Jihun delights me with a performance on the piano, a skill he had picked up in addition to his proficiency on the clarinet.

 

Rest & fun

Jihun relaxing with a piano

Seoul discovery goes on

On the following day, I have the opportunity to visit the Lotte World Tower, a skyscraper that stands as the tallest building in South Korea and the fifth tallest in the world.

The building’s impressive height, which reaches 554 meters over 123 storeys, is a testament to the remarkable feat of engineering and construction that brought it to life.

The tower serves as a multifunctional center, housing both luxury hotels and office spaces and offers several observation points, the highest of which is located on the 123rd floor, at an astonishing height of around 500 meters

 
The elevator ride to the top is a thrilling experience in its own right, with speeds of up to 10 meters per second, allowing visitors to reach the observation point in less than 50 seconds.

 

Lotte Tower Elevator

Fast and furious

The view from the top is truly unforgettable, and a must-see for anyone visiting the area.

 

View from top of Lotte Tower

Don’t come if you suffer dizziness

After finishing our visit in the early afternoon, we stroll around the vicinity of Lotte World Park, a place we plan to explore further in a couple of weeks. As we wander, we hear the distant sound of traditional music and feel drawn to investigate.

This is how I stumbled upon pungmul, a unique blend of music and acrobatic dance that originated from Korean peasant culture. Originally accompanying shamanic rituals, it later became a tool for political protests by pro-democracy groups. Today, it is primarily considered a form of entertainment.

The performances have a comedic tone, provided you understand Korean, of course. The audience is often actively involved aand Jihun, who enjoys these situations and is also the enthusiastic voice that you hear in the video below, quickly volunteered to throw a dish at one of the performers.

It’s amazing that we chanced upon this experience, and even more incredible that it was entirely free.

 

Discovering pungmul

Music, dance and beautiful costumes

Toward sunset, we travel along a small section of the Cheonggyecheon Stream, an approximately 11-kilometer-long canal that flows through downtown Seoul from west to east and is a remarkable example of the coexistence of man and nature in a big city.

 
At dinnertime, we rush to the Banpo bridge, which boasts the title of being the world’s longest fountain bridge.

As soon as the waterworks come to life, the bridge transforms into a sprawling picnic destination, accommodating scores of youthful individuals who come to unwind and enjoy food and drinks.

Arranged along the 1,140-meter-long bridge over the Han river, the fountain sprays a remarkable 190 tons of water per minute, courtesy of 38 pumps drawing water from the river and expelling it through 760 nozzles.

 

Banpo bridge

A bridge like no other

On our way home by subway, we make a stop at Yongsan Station, from whose terrace we get a striking view of the city center.

 

Terrace above Yongsan

A pretty view of downtown Seoul

Moving in Seoul

Did I mention the subway? Let me explain how to efficiently navigate the bustling city of Seoul.

To utilize public transportation in any Korean city, a laminated card is required. This card not only pays for rides but can also be used to purchase goods in select supermarkets. While there are options to personalize the card with K-pop artists or Line chat characters, I opted for a simple black design.

With 14 subway lines reaching every corner of the city, it’s impractical to rely on taxis amidst Seoul’s 10 million residents and inevitable traffic  Line 2, in particular, never fails to make me smile with its pre-arrival fanfare.

Priority seats, designated by different colored seats, are strictly reserved for the elderly, disabled, and pregnant women. However, determining what constitutes as “elderly” remains unclear.

Unfortunately, the courtesy displayed by Taiwanese and Chengdu’s Chinese residents does not extend to Seoul’s subway. As soon as an unreserved seat opens up, nearby passengers rush to claim it – often teenagers.

Mention should also be made of the velvet-covered seats, for which there is an unwritten rule: in addition to the above categories, I was told that they are also used by those who are not feeling well. I typically choose to sit there, and so far I have not been asked to vacate, I’m not sure if it’s because I’m perceived as an old or sick man, or an ignorant tourist. 

 

Seoul, city of surprises

During my leisurely walks, I often encounter peculiar circumstances.

For instance, I stumbled upon an unusual white pole with a button, located in different parts of the city.

As you may be aware, smoking is restricted in many areas of Seoul, as signified by the warnings displayed on several pavements. However, the purpose of this “pole” baffled me.

After some research, I discovered its function: in the event of a violator (although I haven’t witnessed any yet), pressing the button on the pole activates a commanding voice reminding the ‘bad guy’ that smoking is forbidden. How intriguing!

 
Another unusual situation occurs on the day when, as I’m walking alone downtown, an unexpected sight catches my eye: peculiar, airship-shaped structures on my right. Intrigued, I decide to investigate and step inside one of them.

Before I can even inquire about the contents of the building or its accessibility, a staff member directs me towards a counter and requests my passport details to be entered into their system. At first, I assume this is for security purposes, but I soon realize that I have been mistaken for an invitee to a conference on sustainable technology developments taking place within those very walls.

Despite the mix-up, this proved to be a remarkable opportunity. I was able to engage in meaningful discussions with the presidents of both a ketogenic supplement company and a vertical greenhouse, deepening my understanding of these fascinating topics.

 
The following picture exhibits the inside of yet another one of these remarkable ‘airships’ that form part of the renowned Dongdaemun Design Plaza, also known as DDP.

This neo-futuristic masterpiece, crafted by Zaha Hadid and Samoo, serves as an ideal venue for exhibitions and conventions while also accommodating an array of design and gift shops. Vast seating areas provide a serene space to unwind and rejuvenate.

 
DDP hall Seoul

DDP and surrounding area

Convention center and more

Seoul here and there

The South Korean Parliament’s legislative branch is situated in the National Assembly Building. Although you can explore the interior, a form must be completed and approved before doing so.

My focus, however, lies on the library adjacent to the building, where the entry requirements are simpler. Instead of waiting for approval, only your passport is necessary at the entrance.

 
I opted for that part of the city to commence my daily discovery as it enables me to revisit one of my most cherished spots in Seoul, namly the park that stretches beside the Han River.

What makes it even more appealing is the presence of cozy outdoor mini-libraries, perfect for a relaxing break in the cool shade, offering a diverse collection of books that one can delve into, including some in English.

 
After trekking approximately 3.5 kilometers through the picturesque park, I finally arrive at my next stop, the towering 63 Square skyscraper. This structure derives its name from its number of floors.

Built in 1985, it stands tall at 249 meters and was once considered the tallest skyscraper in the world outside the United States.

Presently, it serves as the headquarters for an insurance company, numerous financial institutions, and a shopping mall.

 
63 Square building Seoul
After walking an additional 4 km, I arrive at the colossal Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market.

Although promoted as a popular destination for visitors, I sense that the locals are unaccustomed to encountering Westerners, whom they refer to as “the man with big eyes and long nose.”

The absence of other tourists confirms my suspicion, and most of the vendors greet me with respectful bows.

 
On the evening of September 21st, I venture out with Ryu, a Korean friend whom I had previously escorted during his visit to Verona in 2019.

He is spending a couple of days with me in Seoul, having relocated to another city, and since he is a notorious “party animal,” Jihun has passed me off to him to explore the lively district of Sillim, renowned for its nightlife.

 

Street in Sillim

No chance to get bored here

To my pleasant surprise, Ryu introduced me to soju, a Korean vodka with a unique flavor profile that is best enjoyed when mixed with beer in a 1:3 ratio.

For our dinner, we indulge in chicken nuggets, accompanied by cabbage and sweet potatoes, each bite smothered in the delectable hot sauce and heated to perfection on the stove.

The dish is completed with melted cheese, added right at the end of the cooking process, and each bite is accompanied by whole-grain noodles, complementing the dish perfectly.