Notes from Seoul
No one knows what to make of South Korea. This country has astonished economists across the world with its rags-to-riches transformation. Last month, I visited South Korea for the first time and, as with most first journeys, I started with the capital, Seoul, where I spent a day.
Seoul dances to a rhythm.
At half past three in the morning, I walked up to the ceiling-high windows in my room on the 15th floor. The night lamp’s light quivered in the darkness far below, and in a misguided stab at glamorisation, the artificially lit television tower on the top of Namsan hill continued to dispatch reds and violets and oranges into the tepid night sky at frequent intervals.
The loneliness inherited in a hotel room is a strange accompaniment. First it allows a few moments of quiet reflection, but soon it starts nudging you to gather yourself and step out and explore. A prepared bed would still be waiting when I come back, the silence argues. So after watching the gentle sparkle of street lamps for close to two hours, I decided to walk to the morning market.
Dokkaebi Market opens as early as 4 a.m. and offers a large selection of fresh food for early risers. There were stalls selling octopus, deep-fried somethings, dumplings. There seemed very little vegetarian food on offer, and even though there may have been some, the smell of the sea had cooled my hunger. The market was a frenzy of shouts and chaos was a constant. It was frantic and loud, but an absolutely ideal experience for a first-timer in Korea.
Later in the day, when I stepped out again, the sun was breaking through the roof windows and the streets were fast coming to life. I instantly noticed the proliferation of coffee shops. I was on a street in Itaewon district, and the whole street was punctuated with global coffee brands. I stepped inside one, ordered a coffee and a croissant, and made a failed attempt at conversation with the barista. She didn’t speak English and couldn’t explain why Seoul was crazy about coffee.
“Perhaps it’s the proximity to the American military base,” said a voice in perfect English behind me. I turned around to find another tourist offering a helpful explanation. “Look, right there,” said the tourist, possibly American, pointing through the window into where the street blended into the horizon. “There is the American base, a mile from here. All these coffee shops and brands cater to them.”
Later that afternoon, while drifting aimlessly through Myeong-dong district, famed for its shopping and dining, I again found coffee shops at every corner. I looked through their windows and found them filled with locals and that made me doubt what the American had told me. It seemed to me that the Koreans like to hang out at these cafes as much as their Western counterparts, and enjoy conversations over a cuppa.
Equally hard to miss was the Korean obsession with cosmetics. There’s a cosmetic shop at every corner, each advertising potions and treatments (Get freckles removed! Get skin polished!). And it’s not just the women who are interested; an equal number of ads are plastered all over the city and flashing on neon-lit screens, buses and subways, targeting Korean men. Apparently, Korean men use more cosmetics than the rest of the world’s male population put together.
At dusk, I headed to the Hongdae district, which transforms from a handicraft market in the day to a disco district by night. There are several karaoke bars here where one can book a private booth. Koreans are passionate about karaoke, and it’s impossible to miss these bars marked with flashing disco lights and the beats of K-pop flowing out into the streets.
Jet-lag finally hit me. Though it was only 9 p.m., and the people around me seemed to be warming up for a long night of partying, I hailed a taxi to return to my hotel room. I have promised to go back. To discover this potpourri of a city with its extreme passions — K-pop and karaoke, coffee and cosmetics.