The Heart and Seoul of Korea | Daily News


The Heart and Seoul of Korea

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which straddles the 38th Parallel border between North and South Korea. The base for this day trip is invariably the capital of South Korea, Seoul. A unique blend of the East and the West, the past and the present, no visitor to South Korea should leave without spending a few days here.

The story of Seoul can be traced back as far as 18 BC, although humans have occupied the area now known as Seoul since the Paleolithic Age. The history of the city of Seoul dates back approximately 2,000 years, to when Wiryeseong, the capital of Baekje, was located on the banks of the Hangang River in the southeastern part of what is now Seoul. Development of the city began in earnest once it was appointed the capital of the Joseon Dynasty (1392 - 1910) in 1394. The framework for modern-day Seoul began to emerge as the construction of electrical facilities, railroads, streetcar tracks, parks, waterworks systems, schools, and hospitals commenced at the end of the 19th century with the opening of the port. However, Seoul soon came under the influence of Japanese colonialism (1910 - 1945). After Korea achieved independence in 1945, the city was officially renamed Seoul Metropolitan City. However, as the Korean War broke out, the city fell into ruin.

Global megalopolis

In the 1950s, Seoul rapidly grew out of the ashes of the war and, supported by rapid economic growth, it advanced to become a global megalopolis in just half a century. While it took a century for many European countries to industrialize, Korea accomplished the same in less than 30 years. Today, home to 10 million people, Seoul is a smart city with good physical and digital infrastructure and a showcase for Korean advancements in technology.

Seoul has such a variety of attractions that it is difficult to think of one place where you should begin your journey of discovery. My first stop is an unusual one, yet one which will give you an idea of what Koreans are doing to protect the environment. Yes, the Seoullo 7017 Skygarden is a unique garden in the sky that you can traverse from end to end to gain a sense of the natural world.

Pedestrianised viaduct

Located in the heart of Seoul, a true plant village has been realized on a former inner city highway in an ever-changing urban area accommodating the biggest variety of Korean plant species and transforming it into a public 983-metre long park gathering 50 families of plants including trees, shrubs and flowers displayed in 645 tree pots, collecting around 228 species and sub-species. In total, the park will include 24,000 plants (trees, shrubs and flowers) that are newly planted many of which will grow to their final heights in the next decade. Seoullo, the Korean name for Skygarden translates to ‘towards Seoul’ and ‘Seoul Street’, while 7017 marks the overpass’ construction year of 1970, and its new function as a public walkway in 2017. The pedestrianised viaduct next to Seoul’s main station is the next step towards making the city and especially the central station district, greener, friendlier and more attractive, whilst connecting all patches of green in the wider area.

Once you are done here, why not indulge in a bit of history ? Gyeongbokgung Palace in the heart of the city was the first and largest of the royal palaces built during the Joseon Dynasty. Built in 1395, Gyeongbokgung Palace was located at the heart of newly appointed capital of Seoul (then known as Hanyang) and represented the sovereignty of the Joseon Dynasty. The Korean government has invested much time and effort into rebuilding, restoring, and maintaining the palace for future generations. These efforts include work to rebuild and restore the buildings that were destroyed during the Japanese occupation. Visitors to Gyeongbokgung can also visit the National Palace Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum of Korea as they are located on the palace grounds. Established in 1945, the National Museum of Korea is the country’s largest museum for Korean history and art.

If you want to taste life in Korea in the ancient times, nearby Bukcheon is a picturesque village featuring over 400 traditional Korean houses called Hanok. The village features small cafes, restaurants, and shops offering handmade crafts and souvenirs.

Then you should head over to the Seoul City Wall, which looks like a miniature version of the Great Wall of China. The Seoul City Wall was originally built in 1396, surrounding Seoul during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). The wall stretches for 18.6km along the ranges of Bugaksan Mountain, Naksan Mountain, Namsan Mountain, and Inwangsan Mountain. The wall stands at average heights of 7m to 8m high.

Along the Seoul City Wall, there once stood eight gates that were originally built between 1396-1398, but only six remain standing. This is one good way to take in the views of the city. Visitors also opt to visit the close by Bukhansan Mountain Range to discover an amazing view of the city during both the day and at night.

Urban renewal project

For a different take on the same theme, head over to the Seoul Stream called Cheonggyecheon, an 11 km long modern stream that runs through downtown Seoul. Created as part of an urban renewal project, Cheonggyecheon is a restoration of the stream that was once there before during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The stream starts from Cheonggye Plaza, a popular cultural arts venue, and passes under a total of 22 bridges before flowing into the Hangang (River), with many attractions along its length.

If you want another view of the city, head over to the much more modern N Seoul Transmission Tower. Namsan Seoul Tower was built in 1969 as Korea’s first integrated transmission tower beaming television and radio broadcasts across the capital. Since opening to the public in 1980, it has become a much-loved Seoul landmark. The tower’s main attractions include multi-colored digital art projected onto the tower at night, a digital observatory, a roof terrace, the HanCook restaurant, then. Grill restaurant, and the Haneul (Sky) Restroom. Namsan Seoul Tower’s mountain surroundings on Namsan Mountain have made it a popular place to unwind for locals and tourists alike. But if you want to meditate a bit, the one place to go is the Jogyesa Temple. The chief temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, Jogyesa Temple is one of the most important in the country. The temple was founded in 1395, at the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty. Dedicated to deceased kings and queens of the Korean Joseon Dynasty, Jongmyo Shrine in Seoul is another cultural highlight in the city. In 1995, UNESCO declared the monument the oldest preserved, royal Confucian shrine.

If you want something tangible to take home as a souvenir, there are three places to choose from: Dongdaemun market, Myeong-Dong and Namdaemun market. These are all centrally located and one can find everything from flea market bargains to upmarket goods. The largest traditional market in Korea, Namdaemun Market is the place to shop for cheap goods, as well as fresh, local fruits and vegetables. It is also a popular place to try your way through Korea’s snack food culture. Insa-Dong is another area well known for its shopping area and classy yet affordable restaurants.

No visit to Seoul can be complete without making your way to Lotte World, Seoul’s largest recreation complex with the world’s largest indoor theme park, and an outdoor amusement park called ‘Magic Island,’ and an artificial island inside a lake linked by a monorail and shopping malls. Lotte World also has a luxury hotel, a Korean folk museum, sports facilities, and movie theaters. There cannot be a better way to end your visit to Seoul, a fun filled city replete with history and culture.

(The writer visited South Korea as part of the Jefferson Journalism Fellowship of the East West Center, Hawaii)

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