Friday, January 24, 2003


World Cup -- Seoul

By Fred Varcoe

SEOUL -- It all seemed so laid-back, back then. It was only 1984 and I stopped over in Seoul for three days on a round-the-world jaunt to check out the hot food and the hot chicks I'd been told were all over the city (and all over you).
Having just passed through Bangkok and Taipei, Seoul didn't seem so special. It wasn't so different from Taipei really. It was big, it was gray, it was smoggy.
And the people seemed OK. Again, compared with Taipei, they weren't so crazy. Getting around town was easy enough by taxi and the streets were OK for walking around.
The food was hot, and so were the women.
As I sat in the Windsor Bar at the massive Lotte Hotel in downtown Seoul, I made eye contact with a woman. Not just any woman. She was, without a doubt, the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She spoke English, she dressed with style, she seemed intelligent.
``I'll come back to your hotel room for $100,'' she purred.
Man, I thought, she IS intelligent.
The flip side of this particular coin was ``Hooker Hill'' in Itaewon. Business was bad. During the course of my investigations as a journalist, and needing some alcohol, I stepped into a watering hole where two young women were keen to make my acquaintance and entertain me with their broken English.
Leaving was tough. It was 3 o'clock in the morning, business wasn't exactly booming, hands grabbed my arms.
``Don't go,'' they pleaded. I ran away before they started offering ME money.
I didn't go there again for 11 years -- and what a difference a decade can make.
Seoul boomed in the intervening years, partly due to the hosting of the Olympic Games in the summer of 1988 and partly due to the astounding economic growth of South Korea. The population of the capital more than doubled to around 10 million in those 11 years, and if the surrounding areas are taken into account, the figure is even higher.
The city itself suffered as a consequence. Pollution is horrific, the number of cars is way over what the city can handle and the streets now teem with people.
I'm walking up a street in the center of town with my Korean girlfriend (now my wife) on my first trip to South Korea for 11 years. A woman pokes her head out of a doorway.
``Prostitute! Prostitute!'' she screams in Korean.
Ironically, no, I wanted to say, but I let it pass. The comment demonstrated, in one way, just how quickly the city -- and the country -- had grown up.
The young Seoul women of today are happy to date foreign guys, while the older generation still can't forget the not-so-distant past when virtually any Korean woman with a foreign guy was on the game.
I have two more encounters on the same trip: Once when a middle-aged guy told me I wasn't allowed to hold hands (with my girlfriend, not him), and once on a bus when I told my girlfriend to sit on my knee. A guy younger than myself came up and said in excellent English: ``This is against Korean culture. This is wrong.''
Well, is it OK if I pay her $100, I felt like saying. Instead, I told him to tell her what correct Korean culture was.
``She's Korean,'' I barked at him. ``It's her culture as well. Tell her she can't do it.'' He slunk back to the back of the bus without saying another word.
Seoul today is not a comfortable place -- and in many ways. The people are not comfortable with themselves, they are not always comfortable with their city and they are not terribly comfortable with the modern world.
Seoul is a modern capital in a country that is struggling to break out of its conservative past. Much of the city is just plain ugly -- row after row of horrible tower blocks shooting 30 stories into the sky. Many of these concrete monstrosities are company housing, designed to be cheap and practical. Innovation, aesthetics and livability are factored out, not in.
And many of the more modern buildings in Seoul look as if they were put up overnight. Basically because they were. My wife used to live in a terrifying edifice that had crooked walls, external wiring and a plug near the shower. Soon after my return to Seoul, a nine-story department store in Seoul just fell down. This was followed by a section of one of the main bridges over the Han river in the center of Seoul (not to mention a gas explosion that killed scores of people in Taegu).
The pace of development outstripped capacity. Speed is Seoul's maxim. A South Korean will always prefer a shoddy job done quickly to a thorough job that takes time. Taxi drivers, bus drivers, any drivers belt around the city with no thought to how fast they are going and certainly no thought to anyone else on the road.
And the roads just can't keep up. New subway lines have been opened recently, but the roads are still jammed. The Koreans have discovered a type of freedom in their automobiles and they are disinclined to give it up. So, while the subways have improved access around town, taking a taxi is not always the most convenient way to travel.
Getting across the river can often be a headache. The Han river splits the city. The south side has been developed over the last couple of decades, while the north side represents the older part of town. They are quite different.
The Olympic Games sports complex is situated on the southeastern side of the city, just south of the river, near another Lotte Hotel and the Lotte World amusement park. While some of the streets are huge, there's still too much traffic and the buildings range from not terribly interesting to downright horrible.
North of the river, the terrain is quite hilly with Namsan mountain and the Seoul Tower dominating the landscape. The northern part of the city wraps itself around the mountain and spreads out from there. While the downtown area has its fair share of high-rise buildings, there are still plenty of low-rise dwellings all around the mountain. As you cross the river from the Kangnam area on the south bank, the skyline is dominated by the shining Hyatt Hotel and an abnormal amount of churches.
Tunnels run through the mountain, easing access to areas on the other side, but these can be chock full of smoke-belching vehicles at peak times (5 a.m. to 3 a.m.). Because of the significant elevation of certain areas, the subway does not reach all areas, so you have little choice but to grab a cab -- if you can.
As you near the city from the airport, you will notice a cluster of modern buildings on an area known as Youido Island. This houses the National Assembly building, TV stations and the Korea Stock Exchange, but the most noticeable building of them all is Seoul's (and Korea's) tallest -- the KLI 63 Building, a 60-storey golden edifice that glistens impressively in the sunlight and offers a commanding view over the river, smog permitting.
While Seoul took an unhappy pounding at the hands of the Japanese, the North Koreans and the Chinese in the 20th century, older areas remain, including a couple of palaces that are well-worth visiting. Of course, older may still mean postwar, but there are still pockets of Seoul that have character, although you can't be think their lifespan is limited.
Perhaps the best place to feel the intensity of Seoul is in its markets. They are open virtually all day and night and are never less than fascinating, whether you're looking for pig's heads, clothes or imitation brand-name goods. At times, it's like being in an Arab souk and haggling for a decent price makes the experience all the more enjoyable (until you find out that you've been ripped off).
Seoul is not an easy city to like. It may have plenty to offer, but the intensity of it all can grind you down pretty quickly. It's not an easy place for foreigners to deal with and requires a lot of patience if you're going to enjoy yourself and have a good time.
And remember, $100 doesn't buy what it used to.


The City

There's always a sense of anticipation when you enter a new city, but with Seoul it's more a sense of foreboding.
The almost prison-camp styling of the apartment blocks that dominate the south side of the river give you a feeling that you're entering hostile territory.
If the sun is in the right position, the KLI 63 Building can look stunning as can the north side of the river, with its hills, churches, hotels and the Seoul Tower, but the chances are that the smog will be down and the outlook gloomy, so the view won't be as impressive as it should be. At ground level, things don't get much better. The buildings still look gray and foreboding (not to mention dangerous) while the sidewalks were obviously leveled out by a blind, one-legged civil engineer jumping around on a broken pogo stick.
It's not the kind of place that lends itself to walking. Sidewalks apart, it's hilly and the massed vehicles on the road make for uncomfortable breathing.
So you're stuck with trains, taxis and the subway. This hasn't always been a godsend in Seoul, but the opening up of several new subway lines in recent years has made the city a lot easier to get around, particularly for tourists who invariably had problems trying to hail a taxi.
The city is split into two by the Han river. The Kangnam district is the busiest part of the south side, which also has the 1988 Olympic Stadium, Lotte World, the express bus terminal and the Youido island development.
As Seoul is just 50 km from the border with North Korea, not surprisingly, all roads lead south. But the old town, and a lot of the action, is north of the river.
When planes used to fly into Kimpo Airport, the old international airport, they invariably flew up the Han river, enabling passengers to see the city and notice how hilly it was. This is particularly noticeable on the north side. It also means you don't travel in straight lines, horizantally or vertically.
Knowing where you are is not such an easy task. Just when you think you've figured out where you are, you realize that the tunnel you just exited is not the one you came through yesterday. That hill looks familiar, but it's not the one you thought it was. And was that the bridge you came across in the morning? Probably not (it probably fell down).
But it's not impossible to find your way around. The downtown area is flat and laid out in an accessible fashion, while much of the Kangnam area south of the river is criss-crossed by a grid-like road layout that makes getting around a tad easier. One of the problems for your average tourist is the lack of recognizable landmarks. The best idea is to use your Escort Seoul map (available free at hotels and other tourist spots; it's not, as you may think, a hostess provider) and use subway stations and hotels as your main points of reference.
As a rough guide, here are some of the main sub-districts that you may want to visit.

Youido Island
Basically a modern development and, in some ways, the political center of Seoul. It houses the National Assembly, the Korea Stock Exchange, Seoul's tallest building (the KLI 63 Building), a number of TV companies and accommodation blocks. From a tourist's point of view, the elegant, golden-glassed KLI 63 Building is the focal point, but it's barely worth the lengthy journey from downtown. Seoul Tower makes more sense.

The Han River
Splits the capital in two and looks pleasant enough. You can get a boat ride if you want a closer look, but again, the lack of landmarks and interesting buildings make it a pretty dull ride. On pleasant days, the riverbanks get crowded with families and couples out to enjoy themselves and the approach roads can get pretty crowded. In short, it ain't no River Thames.

Kangnam
Main business and residential district south of the river. Big roads means even more cars, but the traffic does move -- sometimes. The area between Shinsa and Kangnam stations have a number of shops (including Tower Records) and restaurants as well as the Ritz-Carlton and Novotel Ambassador (not to be confused with the Sofitel Ambassador) hotels. The Express Bus Terminal is close by. Further east is Seoul's Convention and Exhibition Center (COEX), which will be South Korea's main media center for the World Cup. The COEX Intercontinental and Grand Intercontinental hotels are nearby. Just a little further east in the Chamsil area is the main Olympic Stadium for the 1988 Olympic Games, as well as a baseball stadium and a couple of smaller stadiums. Lotte World amusement park, a Lotte department store and a Lotte Hotel can be found near Chamsil subway station, while the nearby Olympic Park houses various other venues from 1988.

Apkujong
Part of the Kangnam area, but merits an entry in its own right as it's the trendiest part of town. Or, to put it in the vernacular, it's full of tossers with more money than taste and posers with no taste at all. Apkujong is a little bit Ginza, a little bit Regent's Street, a little bit Beverly Hills. It's where the residents of Seoul go to buy their Armani suits and Gucci accessories. While there is a Hyundai department store opposite Apkujong station, this isn't the center of the area. Head for the Galleria department store -- about a 15-minute walk to the east -- and the main shopping and eating areas are roughly to the south of that. While you will still get your hamburger joints (McDonald's, Kentucky, Hard Rock Cafe, etc.) and family restaurants (Bennigans, Thank God It's Friday), you can find several classy eating establishments, bars and cafes. Of course, there's nothing more irritating than seeing a bunch of clueless dorks with cash pretending they're better than everyone else, but if you can ignore the cream of South Korea's jerks, you can find some decent food in the area. Apkujong is BIG on fashion designers. You have been warned.

Downtown
City Hall and the city center, downtown Seoul is a mixture of the very modern and the somewhat old. New buildings going up are finally giving the area some sort of modern character, but the back streets still contain some of the old Seoul, with small restaurants and shops and the huge markets that attract shoppers from all over the country. If you can't find the shopping you want at ground level, look underground. There are several massive underground shopping malls. There are several big hotels in the center of town and many of South Korea's biggest companies have their headquarters here. Most major embassies are also here. Seoul station is in the southwest corner of the downtown area, near Sungnyemun, the old south gate of the city. Also on the old side are Gyeonbokgung and Changgyeonggung palaces, which are well worth visiting.

Namsan Park
Cutting off downtown from the river is Namsan hill and park, which houses the impressive Seoul Tower. When I first went there, the security guards would take your cameras from you; now, things are a little more relaxed and you can get excellent views of the city if you have the patience to get in and if the smog is not too thick. A cable car runs from near the tower to the downtown side, which is useful if you need to get a taxi as they are not always available at the top. The mountain itself is criss-crossed by three or four tunnels.

Itaewon
In Japan terms, the Roppongi of Seoul, Itaewon is the place where foreigners hang out and is within walking distance of the Grand Hyatt, another popular eating and drinking spot for foreigners and Korean social climbers. Itaewon was once heavily populated with American armed forces personnel (there's a large base nearby, much to the annoyance of nearby residents and property developers), but since Sept. 11 they have stayed away. The hill behind the main street is known as Hooker Hill and still has a few sad bars with ``upstairs'' for any desperate customers. The girls are good fun, but at times the pressure to close a deal is a little annoying. Itaewon is best for shopping, eating and drinking. All the shops are geared toward foreigners and you shouldn't have any trouble communicating or finding large sizes (ditto on Hooker Hill). The bars and restaurants run from the slick to the sloppy and you shouldn't have any trouble finding one to your taste.

Taehangno
A lively place popular with students and young Koreans, but perhaps a little less accessible to foreigners. The place buzzes with life and the locals are less concerned with status and fashion than elsewhere in town. It's one of the few areas in town where you can catch live music in a club-type atmosphere and there's plenty of good, reasonably priced eating and drinking establishments nearby. Northeast of downtown at Hyehwa subway.

Hongdae/Shinchon
Two areas almost next to each other where the crowd gets even younger and livelier. Both are near large universities and both concentrate heavily on eating and drinking. Shinchon is definitely the busier of the two, but Hongdae wins out on character and rock 'n' roll.

Tongdaemun
Tongdaemun is famous for one thing: shopping. It is heaving with shoppers day and night and is now extremely popular with Japanese, especially young Japanese women. There is also a run down sports stadium and baseball stadium, near which you can get decent sporting goods cheap. Part of the market has moved indoors into a purpose-built building crammed with small stalls. You'll need a couple of days to get around it if you're a serious shopper. Ask for the leather building if that's what you're looking for; while designs are not always great, if you haggle, the prices are.


Seoul World Cup Stadium

Capacity: 65,000
Completed: November 2001
Distance from city center: 10 km
Running track: no
Home team: none

An absolute peach of a stadium and the Koreans can be proud of having the best stadium in the World Cup. It's pity the final isn't being played here. When you're inside it, it's hard to believe that it can actually hold 65,000 people. It's essentially a purpose-built, single-tier (with executive boxes in the middle), well-covered stadium that offers great viewing from any angle. The whole thing is a work of symmetrical beauty and visitors from overseas will be slobbering with delight when they step inside.
The stadium is on the west side of town near the Han river and is accessible by subway to its own station (World Cup Stadium station), which can be accessed from two directions if you're coming from downtown Seoul. It can also be reached by train from Seoul to Susaek station or by bus (the regular airport bus stops nearby). Taxis are likely to get caught up in terrible traffic jams, so try and avoid them.

Access

It takes around 40 or 50 minutes by bus -- or six minutes in a taxi -- from Incheon International Airport to downtown Seoul. KAL limousine buses travel to various hotels in town and these are probably your best bet even if your hotel isn't listed. Head to the nearest major hotel and take a taxi. There are regular buses that fly into town, but if you don't know your way around, you won't know where to get off and the driver won't be of any help.
If you take a black (luxury) taxi, it's likely to cost you at least $50. The regular taxis were ripping people off soon after the airport opened a year ago, trying to charge almost the same as the black taxis on the grounds that -- get this -- ``the new airport was further away than the old one.'' The regular fare shouldn't be more than $35. After you're initial experience of Death Race 2002, you'll pay at least triple that just to be allowed out. On the rare occasions that I can open my eyes when taking a taxi into town, I have noticed the speedometer hit 160 kph. Stick to the bus.
Within the city, buses are often the most convenient way around as there are many bus lanes to speed up traffic. Unfortunately, it's difficult to know how to use the buses, even with the Seoul Bus Guide Map.
The subway system is quite extensive, cheap and simple to use and there's even a little pamplet available telling you how to use it. It works like any other subway system, so there shouldn't be any problems getting around.
Taxis are not always easy to deal with in Seoul. If you want to play safe, take a black (so-called luxury) taxi, which can always be found at the top hotels.
The regular taxis are invariably driven by country boys with no manners, no sense and a very strong death wish. Just communicating with them is going to be difficult. Try to have your destination written down and always keep some identification from your hotel.
Stopping a taxi can be the hardest part. Quite simply, there never seem to be enough taxis in Seoul. When the economy is good, people use taxis and it is common for taxis to be shared, so don't be surprised if your driver crawls along the kerb trying to get customers. And just because you've persuaded a taxi to stop, it doesn't mean the driver will take you where you want to go. Some of these guys are going in a certain direction and if you're not going in the same direction, they won't take you. Feel free to shout your destination (in your best Korean accent) at the driver if he's kerb-crawling. If you're lucky, he'll wave you in.
Taxis are very cheap, although the luxury ones are probably around a third more expensive. Still, I've traveled from Incheon airport to the Kangnam area for around $40 and I've spent an hour in a taxi for less than $25. Most fares will be well under $10.


World Cup connections

Incheon -- Take subway to Bupyeong and change to Incheon subway system
Suwon -- Train to Suwon station and taxi; subway to Suwon and bus/taxi; or take taxi direct
Taejon -- Train
Jeonju -- Train
Kwangju -- Train or plane
Taegu -- Train or plane
Ulsan -- Train or plane
Busan -- Train or plane
Cheju -- Plane
Tokyo (for Ibaraki, Yokohama and Saitama), Sapporo, Oita (and Fukuoka), Kobe (Osaka airport) and Osaka are also reachable by plane from Seoul.
Shizuoka and Yokohama can be reached via plane to Nagoya and then train.
Sendai and Niigata can be reached by plane via Fukuoka, Osaka, Nagoya and Sapporo.


Around and about

Markets
Crammed full of Japanese tourists, young Koreans and old hags from the countryside, Seoul's markets can be overwhelming. They are crowded, noisy, smelly (good and bad) and full of stuff you probably don't need (and a lot of stuff you'll suddenly find a need for). Namdaemun and Tongdaemun are the two main markets. Tongdaemun is mainly fashion and sports goods while Namdaemun has everything from clothes (especially children's), to food, to jewelry, to hardware. Both have an array of Korean restaurants and food stalls that are fun to eat at (if you can identify what you're eating).

Myongdong
In downtown Seoul, Myongdong is another trendy shopping area that is popular with young people. It gets very crowded at the weekend and even with a pedestrians-only street, progress can be slow and eating establishments full

Insadong
Old Seoul and old Seoul things, Insadong is a haven of tranquility in the center of the downtown area that specializes in curiosities, traditional paper and writing implements, handicrafts, hand-made jewelry and traditional Korean goods. It's the best place to get souvenirs and a cup of Korean tea.

Royal palaces
Easily accessible and well worth a visit, Gyeongbokgung (palace) and Changgyeonggung are situated at the northern end of the downtown area and give an insight into ancient Korean history and the lifestyles of the times. The two palaces have been rebuilt and/or refurbished over a lengthy period (the Japanese are branded destroyers-in-chief) and are very impressive.
There is a royal museum at Deoksugung.

Lotte World
Korea's very own theme park is hardly going to match Disneyland, especially in size, but it's a decent family entertainment spot and most of it is indoors, so it's also good for a rainy day.

DMZ/Panmunjom
This has got to be one of the most interesting day trips in the world, but be warned, there are several imitators out there. The tour you want is the Panmunjom tour organized by Korea Travel Bureau, which has offices on the third floor of the Lotte Hotel (downtown) and on the first floor of the Hyatt and Shilla hotels. After stopping off at a memorial along the way, you go into the DMZ area, where you are given a talk by an American army representative before heading to the line that marks the border between North and South Korea. You can enter the blue huts where periodic talks are held with the North and you can even step over to the other side, all the while under the gaze of North Korean soldiers peering in through the windows. You are then taken to an observation post overlooking the Bridge of No Return, near where an American soldier was murdered with an ax by North Korean soldiers. On the way out, you can buy souvenirs. Spooky and not to be missed. (Note: Other tours advertise the DMZ but don't actually take you inside, so check that you are on the right tour.)

Korean Folk Village
Cultural center 40 km south of Seoul that illustrates how Koreans lived in the past.