Overview and History
The Seoul metropolis is the fifth largest city in the world with a population weighing in just over ten million people, however much that weighs.
Its history can be traced back as far as half a million years, well into the Paleolithic Era. Korean history dates to at least 2333 BC, when the legendary King Tan-Gun established the first city. He came from the Heavens desiring his own territory where he could start a kingdom, and he made a wife from a Bear who devoutly aspired to becoming human.
In all seriousness, legends of intelligent beings coming down from the skies and creating humans out of special animals -- these are really interesting stories considering the "missing link" in anthropological history. Which lies outside the scope of this treatise.
By the first century BC, three kingdoms had arisen on the Korean peninsula, Koguryo, Paekche and Shilla. The Kingdom of Shilla united the peninsula in 668 AD and since then Korea has been ruled by a single government.
Hold on, hold on. Between 1392 and 1910 there were only two Dynasties, the Koryo and the Choson. Both of them consolidated their power and flourished culturally, while successfully staving off Mongolian, Japanese and Manchurian invasions.
Later in the 19th century Korea fell into heavy competition with China, Russia and Japan. It was annexed by Japan in the year 1910 and received colonial rule, ending the Choson Dynasty. Liberation occurred in 1945 at the end of WWII but was soon followed by internal division.
At present, the Republic of Korea in the South has a democratic government while the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the North has a Communist regime in power.
Flying into Seoul from another country lands you at one of two airports: the Seoul Gimpo International, or Incheon International Airport. Incheon boasts the distinction of having been selected as the world's best airport for the last four years! That is something to be proud of.
There's a high speed train connecting the two airports and from Incheon you can take a bus, taxi, limousine or even water taxi from the airport to the city.
Traffic congestion is such a problem in Seoul that words like "infestation" may be more apt to describe it. Public transport is a much better choice to actually get your body to a different location in any expedient manner.
The system was designed around the idea of connecting bus lines to the subway system, take that as a hint...
Subway is it! The subway has nine different lines in total and the trains come every three minutes, on average. Beat that!
Commuter rail service uses seven lines to connect to regional cities, and these trains operate with a frequency of every twelve minutes in off-peak times! It's amazing!
People and Culture
Kimchi: eat it, love it. For a quick introduction, kim chi is pickled cabbage or other vegetables. You make it with red pepper and salt rubbed into the raw vegetables and then ferment it all together in a big jar. If you're not from around here you will think it's really stinky at first, but it's one of those delicacies where the taste is totally different from the smell, and it's paradise for people who like spicy food. Not to mention that it's wicked good for you.
Man, I wish I had some right now. Korean food is great, it has two basic categories. One is hot food with lots of red pepper, I mean the whole dish is bright red. The other type is cold stuff like glass noodles, cucumbers and greens. Very yin and yang, you might say.
What else... Seoul is a very safe place to travel and visit. It's got a low crime rate and a very welcoming, friendly population. Even if people can not speak English very well, they will try to help you so bring some paper to write down your questions for things you may need.
The architecture of the city combines modern high-rises with ancient temples and palaces, making for lots of both shopping and absorption of history.
You may catch a street performance if you're lucky.
Things to do, Recommendations
To explore small cafes and restaurants in a cool district of Seoul, go to Samcheong-dong. The name means "Three Pure Things" and it refers to its mountains, water and people. There are many new wine bars and a feeling of secluded charm among the hanok, Korean-style homes.
When you start to feel overwhelmed by the high-tech side of Seoul, head for the woods. You can enjoy walking around the lake in the Seoul Forest, ride bikes and visit the butterfly greenhouse.
The sculpted topiary gardens of Yonsei University will also bring your eyes some welcome relief from flickering digital screens.
Seoul has some really cool museums, small ones devoted specifically to Korean culture like the Seoul Museum of Chicken Arts. This is the first and only chicken museum in the world.
As always, before you go home you need to visit the top of something WAY UP HIGH and take some pictures. Try the Seoul Tower, if it doesn't do the job then call up Icarus.
Text by Steve Smith.