Before departing for Seoul I was given some very basic, and characteristically discreet warnings from a Korean friend living in South Africa. He warned of throbbing masses of people unafraid to bulldoze me out of the way should I veer wide-eyed off the beaten track and stifling, unbearable humidity and the smell of pollution in the air throughout the city. He also suggested I wear a suit and tie at all occasions should I wish to be taken seriously. The combination played in my mind as I boarded the long-haul flight from Johannesburg, and I imagined myself bouncing helplessly between commuters, sweating profusely in a dark suit and feeling faintly nauseous from the toxic oxygen I was being forced to breathe. Not to mention the fact that, throughout this charade, I would be about as inconspicuous as a ballerina in a rugby huddle.
Very soon after arriving in Seoul I knew that my friend had been over-cautious. In fact, of Seoul’s 13 million people, at least half of whom I am sure I walked past in my week-long stay in city, not a single one came close to bumping into me. The heat was bearable, at times pleasant. And the pollution, while evident, seemed no worse than it is in London or Paris. The closest I came to my feared scenario was, when too busy staring at my metro map, I failed to see a hoard of bespectacled teenagers flocking towards me from a nearby bar. One of the drunker ones stumbled terribly and came very close to brushing against my shoulder.
Seoul is without doubt the most sophisticated city I have ever experienced. Apart from the superb courteousness of the people, the city has managed to find a harmonious balance between its deep cultural heritage, epitomised by the plethora of palaces and monuments dotting the vast metropolis, and its rapid need to modernise in tune with the countries meteoric rise to global economic prominence since the late 1980s. It is not uncommon to find yourself standing in an ancient 16th century temple gazing through the roof cracks at a 60-story neon and glass skyscraper.
While there are simply too many attractions to list, there are a few that should not be missed. The street markets are phenomenal, especially at night – when fluorescent lights flicker to life and it becomes possible to buy just about anything you may need, from the latest Hollywood blockbuster to gargantuan jars of ginseng and the finest ‘Itarian’ leather shoes. Of the many recreation areas, Nam San Park is by far the best. Sitting in the forest of the wonderfully tranquil park, watching old men training at one of the many free open-air gyms, I had to remind myself that I was bang in the middle of one of the world’s largest and most advanced industrial nations.
But it is the food which makes Seoul really exciting. The saying ‘you are what you eat’ has never seemed as true as it did in Korea. Fresh, spicy and healthy food in moderate portions, always served with water and several delicious vegetable side-dishes, creates happy, light and healthy people. With happy, light and healthy children, all of whom live in a happy, light and healthy city. I never thought it was this simple. If you eat a single meal in your hotel in Seoul you have missed out on a potentially life-changing culinary experience. Wander down any alley and you will find several small, unobtrusive family restaurants serving the most fantastic food – and for a fraction of the cost you would pay for a Big Mac. Most menus are only in Korean, so ask for one with pictures and point at whatever looks the best. You can’t go wrong.
A huge effort has been made to beautify Seoul, to improve the lives of its incessantly hard-working inhabitants and to offer more to its business and tourist visitors. From the litter-free streets, which are often lined with trees and fragrant, well-kept flowers, to the all-night markets and the man-made river snaking its way through the downtown CBD, the effort pays off, affording tourists with an experience which, if you’re up for it, may well change your life.