On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me –
Twelve drummers drumming.
I bring you drummers from South Korea, which is appropriate. It’s September, and they’re celebrating Chuseok, which is a sort of secular Harvest Festival. But it fills the place in the calendar that Christmas does here. It’s a time to spend with family and friends, to exchange gifts, and generally to have a good time. Bring on the drummers and dancers!
There are moments when you have no fewer, and no more than twelve drummers before you. But you’ll have to keep your wits about you.
And that’s it. The end of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Tonight’s the time to take down the tree, tidy away cards and decorations … till next year. It’s all over unless you’re Spanish, or from a range of Latin American countries, in which case you’ll be celebrating El Dia de los Reyes, or Los Reyes Magos, when the Three Kings visited the infant Jesus. A great excuse for a party!
Who doesn’t enjoy a bit of window shopping? And perhaps particularly in parts of South Korea, which can offer a few differences from the high streets that many of us are used to. Let’s start in Busan. in Bosu-Dong Book Street (보수동 책방골목 문화관). There are books, and only books on offer – but of little use if you’re as slow as me in decoding hangul script.
On our first day in South Korea, in Seoul, jet lagged and in need of a gentle day of orientation, we mooched round the markets area. And we found not only whole shops, but whole streets dedicated to shops selling just one product: it might be string. It might be elastic bands, or electric cables, or empty cardboard boxes to be filled with other products. or even gift-packs of a product beloved of Koreans since American soldiers had been part of their lives during the the Korean War – spam. We arrived in time for Chuseok, the festival that’s the time for families to get together and exchange gifts, as we do at Christmas – though historically, Chuseok was more of a Harvest Festival. Trust me, the perfect present for your granny is some gift-wrapped spam. And jumbled in among these workaday products are streets of jewellers’ shops. Come window shopping with me.
That man making his choices from among the books on offer is Just One Person from around the World, enjoying browsing and deciding whether or not to buy, just as we all do, wherever we live.
Today I’ve decided on a virtual visit to South Korea, a country we visited four years ago when our daughter was working there. I’m not – on the whole – going to take you to national monuments this week. We could go on the metro – there’s a station in the featured photo, just as clean, high-tech and efficient as you probably expected. Some metro stations are so extensive that you have to catch a train from one platform to the next when you need to change lines.
Let’s walk the streets of Seoul, where the very first thing that will strike you is the astonishing tangled knitting that is the overhead electrical wiring. We could visit the market area. Whole streets are devoted to the sale of just one product – rubber bands say (yes, really!), electrical wiring, cardboard packaging … or even spam. Since the Korean War, Americans – and spam – have enjoyed an enviable reputation. In a country where western tourists are still not all that common, we often profited from being thought of as American. In among all these workaday offerings are spacious and elegant jewellery shops – whole department stores devoted to nothing but that. We popped into one – and popped right out again.
Towards lunchtime, we could peer into tiny kitchens, and watch meals being prepared, packed up, and stacked onto trays. They’ll be delivered to workers in shops and offices on bikes, or on the heads of purposeful delivery women, who’ll later collect the empties.
But let’s glimpse through a window from in one palace, at least: Seoul’s Changdeokgung Palace. You can read a short account of the troubled history of South Korea’s cultural heritage here
And now let’s travel south to South Korea’s second city, Busan: a coastal city and port, and Emily’s home for that year. It has one of the biggest fish markets in the world, Jagalchi Fish Market. You’ll rarely see anywhere so many fish gathered together in one place – I posted about them here.
I’ve a feeling I may have an occasional South Korean season coming on, and maybe next time in glorious technicolour. Thanks to Sarah at Travel with Me for putting the idea into my head, and to Jude, whose photo challenge this week constrains us to think of the urban environment. Country Mouse hasn’t been to town for weeks,
You can’t beat East Asia for power lines. When we arrived in Seoul for our South Korean adventure three years ago, we were stupefied by the skyscrapers, charmed by the traditional hanoks. But what we couldn’t take our eyes from were these.
Are there enough lines here for you Becky? Hey Jude? How about you? It was your post that put me in mind of these beauties.
1592 was a terrible year for Korea. The Japanese invaded. They raged through the land destroying all they saw. They burnt ancient temples and state-of-the-art palaces as well as ordinary homes. Little was left.
Imagine an England in which every cultural icon was destroyed in WWII – Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, York Minster, Salisbury Cathedral, Chatsworth….. that’s the kind of morale-destroying disaster Korea faced in 1592.
Rather than accept these losses, Koreans rolled up their sleeves and built everything again, on the same site, and to the same design. Not just once, but in some cases several times, as a consequence of later invasions and revolts. Unlike our own historic buildings, these structures are made not from stone or brick, but from the wood from monumental long-lived trees with statuesque trunks and mighty branches. These palaces and places of worship are carved to traditional patterns and painted in an accepted range of colours with time-honoured designs and images. To our eyes, these palaces and temples look fairly similar. But once we overheard a group talking – ‘Look, anyone can see that’s twelfth century: not a bit like the 15th century style we were looking at earlier’.
Here’s Seoul’s Changdeokgung Palace. It was first built in 1408 for the Joseon royal dynasty and designed with an extensive natural garden in harmony with the topography of its surroundings. The Japanese burnt it down in 1592. It was rebuilt in 1608, burnt down during a political revolt in 1628, and again by the Chinese Manchu-Qing. Each time it was faithfully restored to its original design. The long Japanese occupation of Korea from 1911 to 1945 saw it heavily damaged yet again: once again it’s been restored, though only about 30% of the original buildings remain.
Against the odds, this palace and its grounds together form a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognised as a fine example of Far Eastern palace architecture and garden design in harmony with their natural setting. This is a fine and tranquil place.
Why go for a good long walk? Well, for the pleasures of the countryside of course. The views, the mulchy paths through woodland and across meadows: all the sights and sounds of The Great Outdoors. But for most of us, there’s another reason too. We want a decent bit of exercise. Get those legs into gear!
It’s no weather for walking at the moment, so in front of the fire, we fell to reminiscing about walking in South Korea. Not the mountain walks to hidden temples, secret waterfalls. No, we remembered walking in the metro systems of those mega-cities of Seoul and Busan.
It was courtesy of the subway that we got from A to B when we were tourists in those cities. Our command of hangul was so limited that the bus had disappeared round the corner before we’d decoded its destination.
Announcements on the stations were helpfully in Korean and English, and you knew which direction the train was heading in, because as it pulled into the station, a tune would play. Outward – one tune: inward, another. One of Busan’s tunes was a few bars from Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’.
But all that’s for when you’d reached the platform – sorry – ‘tracks’. First find your platform. At one station in Busan, I found that once below ground, I still had a whole 750 metres to walk to get to the automatic ticket barrier marking the station entrance.
Some stations were vast, with up to 16 exits spread over a large geographical area. Leave by the wrong one and you could find yourself clueless, or stranded on the wrong side of an impenetrably busy highway. Within the station, distances can be so great that they’ve often installed travellators – not to mention three or even four long steep sets of escalators plunging far into the earth. Or a lift – sorry, elevator – four storeys deep. But it won’t get you out of walking, walking, walking, along sparklingly clean tunnels, unending platforms. No wonder every station has scrubbed and user-friendly public toilets for the weary traveller.
And who knew that stations can have more than one stop? If, for instance you need to transfer to another line at Eulji-ro in Seoul, you may need to catch a train to get to the line you’re changing to. And then there’ll still be a route march to get to the right platform.
If your main interest in walking is to burn off the calories, I can recommend a trip to the metro system in South Korea. Plan a journey from one station to another, build in a couple of line changes, and you’ve more than got your 10,000 steps a day under your belt.
Here’s a photo we took this evening of one of Seoul’s old main city gates, Dongdaemun. Next to it is a street market, several modern hotels and high-rise buildings, endless traffic, shops, cheap restaurants. A real slice of Korean life.
Yesterday, Dongdaemon Design Plaza and Park sounded good. Bits of it were. Most of it was shut.(Chuseok)
The French Quarter at Seorae sounded good. We found a French vet, but most of it was shut too (Chuseok)
Emily suggested lunch at a Department store, Shinsegae. We thought that sounded a really rubbish idea. But we were wrong. Up-market, varied, unusual and tasty foods from Korea and beyond were exquisitely and tastefully displayed. What to choose? It was a delicious dilemma.
After, Emily joined the queue – the long queue – for their famous cheese tarts (think creamy and delicate cheesecake). We were utterly converted.
After, Gangnam for Emily. Malcolm went home, and after I’d gazed at a few enormous sky-scrapers, so did I.
A good, but not at all as predicted day. And today we leave for Busan. There’s a monsoon hurling down out there. Never seen anything like it.
Yesterday was for dancing. Korean dancing. Which we saw at the very wonderful National Museum of Korea – of which more later, when I’m not pecking at a smartphone.
Here were wonderfully clad dancers in the national colours of white, red and green. The men got all the action. Tossing their heads made the ribbons on their heads swirl and circle. They strutted, marched, tapped intricate rhythms on drums, jumped and kicked as the women demurely circled round. The younger men created tottering towers of children above their heads. They thrilled us.
But this afternoon she had jobs to do, and Malcolm still needs to rest.
I popped into Myeondong Catholic Cathedral, as it looked so – well – European.
I now know from the stained glass windows that Jesus and his twelve apostles are European, probably northern European.
I also saw an elderly woman at her prayers. She had a tasselled prayer card. But beside her was her smartphone. She was systematically tapping through it as she completed each prayer. Is this the 21st century version of the rosary?
Only in Korea……
By the way, this shot is of the cathedral by night, as it was when we first saw it.