So, believe it or not, this was my first visit ever to Korea. Even after a total of 7 years in China, I had never contemplated travelling here. For one, Asia is immense and I had way too many countries in my bucket list - and I'm still missing plenty! - and Korea, being somewhat similar to both China and japan (in my mind), was at the very bottom of the list.
And then, five years after I last set foot in Asia, this work trip came along, and off I went to this place I hadn't bothered to give a second thought to (despite my total love for Korean food, mind you).
Well, these unforeseen trips are the best. It was like my trips to the Philippines, Portugal and Scotland - they had never entered my mental map, and they proved amazing destinations I'd go back to in a lightning second!
So, my very first surprise? As we flew over Korea I looked down and, lo and behold, I kept seeing shades of red and orange everywhere! Could it be true? Was I just in time for watching autumn leaves in full colour? in Korea of all places? I mean, my favourite season in Canada was autumn - I loved the cool temperature, and I absolutely adored the colours of fall. So you can imagine the prospect of seeing red and orange and yellow leaves made my mind race with excitement! My way from the airport to the city, full of beautiful trees in all shades of red and orange, convinced me - no matter what, I was going somewhere to see that.
And that's how, after a door-to-door trip of some 24 hours, I dropped everything at the hotel and set out immediately - lest I accidentally fall asleep - to find a park or any green area to enjoy the Korean fall in my one single free afternoon. And I got plenty, plenty more than that!
My hotel was close to a number of historical sites. Though I wasn't particularly interested in them (all I could think of was trees! red! leaves!), I also knew this was an opportunity that might not repeat itself, so I figured I could do both nature and architecture. And that's how I came across this gate: Sungnyemun (aka Namdaemun). Obviously, I immediately felt home (home as in back in China), as not just the style, but also the idea of a gate like this to enter the city was very close to what I had seen in Beijing. Not the same, of course, but close enough. And it felt good. Funny, eh? Of course, the setting, with all the modern buildings with Korean lettering surrounding the gate, and little details in the style (like the use of certain colours, some patterns), were a good reminder that this was somewhere else. And man did I love that stark contrast of old and new!
But that was just an appetizer. From there, it was just another short walk to my next stop, where I got all the leaf peeping I needed...
There's not much I can tell you about this palace, except that it's from the end of the 16th century, that it was the home of Korean kings and emperors, and quite frankly that I'd say it's a must see. Plus, after seeing Sungnyemun, the gate, I was perceiving more and more tiny details that didn't seem Chinese, but local, like the colours and design of their dragon and flower motifs, or the shapes and flow of the roof charms.
As well, I was super lucky to be there just in time for a change of guard! a traditional Korean change of guard? really? just like that on my first chance visit? a-MAY-zing! Obviously, I lacked ALL context and imagery, but the procession itself, the drummers, the flags... that was one fantastic introduction to traditional Korean culture. And, like the buildings and decorations, at first sight they reminded this ignorant dolt somewhat of China but, on a closer look, you notice the hats, the shoes, the sashes... and you do notice this is something else. Loved it!
But I also got what I was looking for - my beloved fall colours! And I wasn't the only one enjoying them - I'd say most people were there more for the red leaves than for the buildings. And why not? The buildings stand there year round. The leaves? They're a short once a year show! You really can't imagine how much I missed this, and how happy it made me to see it again.
Oh, and did I mention that, when I was about to leave, a group of young schoolgirls asked to have a photo taken with me? I couldn't say no! Cute random encounter, and comfortingly similar to other experiences I had had in China. I know, I know, I could stop comparing stuff to China. But hey, China was home - and a beloved one at that - for many years, so let me be.
Now, that would've been plenty for a day. Especially for the day you arrive after such a long trip and where the time difference is 15 hours. But though I'm usually an advocate for moderation, when it comes to travel and sightseeing... I really can't pace myself! So I kept walking further north, until I reached...
This palace from the end of the 14th century is the largest palace built by the Joseon Dynasty, the last dynasty to rule Korea and the dynasty that left one of the biggest cultural legacies in the peninsula, and is also considered one of the most beautiful palaces in Seoul. And with good reason! This immense complex is packed with gorgeous buildings and towers, has mountains as background, has countless green areas and ponds and canals, and enjoys as much or more attention to decoration as Deoksugung. Look, and nod in agreement:
Of course, by the end I realized I had done the equivalent of landing in Beijing, gone straight for the Forbidden City, and done a full tour of it and all adjacent areas. Just simply way crazy much. And not unlike me to do something like that, too.
Anyhow, that's not all I did on my first day (nope, I could have taken it easy, but this is barely half of it), but I'll make an effort to keep this post series thematic instead of strictly chronological. Seoul, what a pleasant surprise you gave me on my very first afternoon. But I've still got to talk about nightlife, and modern Korea, and odd stuff... A trip of discovery, most definitely.