Remnants from the 2002 World Cup

Toy North Korean soldier

Model of the border area with North Korea

View of North Korea from across the river

Approaching the restricted border area

The end of the road, the border of the DMZ

Gyeongbokgung Palace front gate

Inside the palace

Colorful ceiling inside the palace

Decorative roof of the palace

Inner building at Gyeongbokgung Palace

Inner building at Gyeongbokgung Palace

The shopping streets at Myeongdong

Cable car and the N Seoul Tower

The N Seoul Tower

Locks on the fence near the N Seoul Tower

Downtown Seoul

Downtown Seoul

Posing with the teddy bears

The pathway down from the N Seoul Tower

Nightime panorama from my hotel

Daytime panorama from my hotel

N Seoul Tower in the distance

Subway map

Neat artwork/advertising

Causeway and bridge from the airport

N Seoul Tower in the distance

Building at Yonsei University

Auditorium at Yonsei University

Festival of Lights

Seoul, South Korea

Working for Prosperity

November 13, 2009

Welcome my son, welcome to the machine.

What did you dream?

It's alright we told you what to dream.

- Pink Floyd

The first thing that struck me about Seoul on the long, long ride into the city from Incheon airport was the extent and density of the city. The way that I would most aptly describe Seoul is like a bigger and busier Los Angeles. There are a lot of similarities, the never ending traffic and expanse of the city, fancy cars and stylish people, but with the added benefits of a river and vast public transportation system. Luckily the hotel I was staying in was in the Beverly Hills of Seoul, several blocks from trendy restaurants and stores and luxury car dealers like Bentley, Ferrari, and Lamborghini, and to top it off it had the greatest hotel name ever, Human Starville (the panoramic views of the city from the 22nd floor were pretty nice too).

Since I arrived on a Saturday I had Sunday entirely free to see some of the city. The people I was working with in Korea took me out to an observatory about an hour outside of the city were you could see North Korea from across the river. Along the river was a heavily fortified double layered barbed wire fence and periodic manned guard towers watching the border. While the South Korea side was forested the North Korean hills were completely barren, the trees having been cut down for fuel and heating needs. The few visible buildings were merely fake propaganda houses. The gift shop inside the observatory had numerous North Korean goods for sale and we sampled some cold North Korean beer over lunch (mediocre). After the observatory we drove down the road to the heavily guarded checkpoint for the beginning of the DMZ. To enter the DMZ you need to register at least a day in advance and if you are from such countries as Iran and Syria you need some sort of special visa to enter, also, most South Koreans are not allowed inside. At the checkpoint we were angrily told to turn around by the young South Korean soldier.

Having seen one of the more heavily guarded borders in the world we traveled back into the city to see one of the historic palaces, Gyeongbokgung. I’m not sure how much of the palace was original and how much was reconstructed but nonetheless it still gave you an impression of what the city may have been like many centuries ago. To see the contrast of modern day Seoul we moved to the trendy shopping district of Myeongdong, with series of street markets and stores and a 12 story department store that was part Whole Foods, part Macy’s, part airport duty free shop all rolled into one. A nice day of contrasts was finished off with large portions of meat and Soju at a Korean BBQ restaurant.

The working days revealed the traffic of Seoul but also showcased the amazing GPS systems that most people have. The large screens can receive satellite TV and contain detailed information such as the located of speed cameras, speed bumps, and almost real time traffic information.

They completely blow away anything available in the US. An early last day allowed for the chance to see the N Seoul tower and some views of Seoul through the hazy skies. While the city seems to extend forever the thing that really makes it seem large are the apartment complexes. It is very normal to see clusters of 10-15 thirty floor apartment buildings, all identical save for the painted numbers on the side. It is this intimidating density of population coupled with the stifling traffic that really looms over the city and makes it seem overwhelming. The westernization and presence of foreigners in the city is also much more noticeable than Taipei, perhaps due to the longstanding presence of the US military and its bases as well as the accessibility for other travelers .

In addition to the excellent Korean BBQ I had the opportunity to try two less common Korean dishes, live squid and octopus. Taking sashimi to a new level these dishes consist of the tentacles of the octopus and squid, freshly cut from live baby octopus and squid and promptly placed on the plate. The seafood is so fresh that it is still moving, the octopus especially. The plate of octopus arrives from the kitchen squirming and writhing on the plate. The tentacles suction onto your chopsticks and to eat them you dip them into a sesame oil sauce so that they don’t stick to the inside of your mouth. There really isn’t much taste to the octopus but the sensation of the tentacle sucking onto your tongue or the inside of your cheek is truly unique. As for the squid, it doesn’t really move at all but it has a much nicer taste, soft, tender, and delicate, much better than most of the tough fried squid that you find elsewhere.

Overall Seoul was enjoyable, a big contrast to Chicago, much better in a lot of ways yet with many of the additional problems that a population of 10 million and an hours drive away from a war zone will bring. I could have used another few days to see more of the city but anything more than that would have been too much busyness and congestion for me.