Over lunch with a Korean friend, I mentioned that I was about to visit Seoul for the first time on business. “You’ll love it,” he assured me, “it’s just like a European city, but much cheaper.”
My first impressions, flying into Seoul’s Kimp’o Airport, bore out what he’d told me. The countryside looked very different from Europe – lots of sharp-peaked hills covered in trees – but with good-quality roads. And getting through the airport formalities was straightforward too; Immigration was a breeze (no visa requirement for British citizens staying less than 90 days), the bags were offloaded in short order (and in the correct order too – so annoying when you’re travelling business class and have to wait for economy to be offloaded first!) and Customs was as straightforward as Immigration had been.
The drive into the city on the airport limousine bus was a bit less smooth, but no worse than in Europe. Traffic was fairly fast-moving, but not too heavy (OK, it was Sunday morning). There was plenty of construction work going on, too, both roads and buildings. You’d find it hard to believe that there’d been a major economic crisis in the late 1990s. The main features on the journey were: lots of groups of high-rise blocks of flats on the outskirts of the city, most of them apparently tied to Korea’s giant multi-industry concerns (the chaebol – you’ll have heard of Samsung, Daewoo, Hyundai and LG); and, rather more hearteningly, lots of very graceful, slender trees, many of them in blossom (for several years Korea has been carrying out a major reafforestation programme). I was told several times that early May is a very good time to visit Korea – avoiding the bitterly cold winter and the hot, rainy summer.
Seoul is a big city by any standards – its estimated population is over ten million. All the same, it didn’t seem that polluted or hectic during my visit (though “yellow dust” often blows across from China) and there were no serious traffic jams that I noticed. Seoul is more like Paris than London, with plenty of wide avenues throughout the city – and more like a European city than a south or south-east Asian one. The narrower side-streets in the older part of town often have no pavements, but don’t really need them.
The people are friendly too. Use of English is not particularly widespread, but people are keen to help you if you look lost. Indeed, students are only too glad of a chance to practise their English skills. While doing some of Seoul’s sights, a colleague and I were slightly taken aback to be approached by some schoolgirls with a digital tape recorder who wanted to interview Westerners in English on their impressions of Korea. (That wasn’t the weirdest thing to happen – two others asked me if they could photograph me looking friendly and hostile for their social anthropology project!)
Getting around Seoul is quite easy if you know where you want to go. The taxis are clean, quick (perhaps a bit too quick sometimes) and reasonably cheap by European standards – about £4 for a half-hour journey. The underground is not exactly plush, but clean and dirt-cheap (30p for a half-hour journey). Most of the road-signs and underground signs are in English as well as Korean. You might find it worth learning the Korean alphabet (Han’gul), just in case. Don’t be put off by its resemblance to Chinese or Japanese characters – it is an alphabet, and easier to learn than it looks at first glance.
The food is good quality, and not that expensive. Korea is probably most famous for its use of garlic, closely followed by kimchi – the salty, spicy pickled vegetables served at almost every meal as a side-dish or starter. Plenty of flavour to Korean food, then! Chopsticks are the eating-tools of preference, but usually made of metal rather than wood or plastic – which makes them a little odd to handle at first.
Unfortunately I didn’t get to see many of Seoul’s sights – I was only there for three days! But I did visit the Kyongbokkung Palace (Korea’s historic seat of power; several ornately painted wooden buildings, and some beautiful gardens), and the Chogye Temple (centre of the largest Buddhist sect in Korea. Incidentally, the monks in Korea wear grey trouser-suits rather than the saffron robes seen elsewhere), as well as driving past the Olympic Stadium a couple of times. And I’m told the mountains around Seoul are good for walking too.
Well, that’s Seoul for you. Definitely somewhere I wouldn’t mind living longer term if I got the chance.