Seoul
Sudden snow, scampering officegoers, sizzling beef and electric energy
Seoul City

Sudden snow, scampering officegoers, sizzling beef, ancient palaces and electric energy

First Published:  KongKong Town Crier, Hong Kong

March, 2002

The snow woke me up. As I looked out of the window, there was no mistaking the tons of fluffy white cotton silently rainign down from the sky. We hurried out of the hotel, wrapped in overcoats and caps and headed out to catch the first snow of the season in Seoul.

Outside the officegoers were scampering across the slippery streets, steam billowing out of their mouths, umbrellas hastily uncorked, faces a mixture of surprise and "oh this is lovely but did it have to happen now" expression that officegoers all over the world have when faced with the elements.

Soon the cars pausing at traffic lights were topped with snow and the treetops and streets had turned vanilla. It didn't take long for workmen to start clearing with their shovels, but we heard later that the only expressway to the city from Incheon Airport was blocked with snow for hours, causing many people to miss their flights.

It was our second day in Seoul and getting colder by the minute. We had just started exploring and had begun to feel the sense of history and survival that engulfs this fast modern city. A testimony to this was the imposing Gyeongbokgung Palace we visited earlier - built in 1395, competely destroyed twice by maurauding invaders and rebuilt every time.

Today the Palace stands with the gently undulating roofs of its many pagodas and wooden halls and connecting bridges. It is rimmed by the clear blue Spring Pool where the watedr flow has been deliberately slowed down to ensure clam reflections of the surrounding pavilions and trees. This beautiful serenity, carried throughout the wide open grounds and passages, breaks violently at one point - where Empress Myeongseong was mudered by Japanese assassins in 1895. Today a mural stands at the scene of crime depicting that bloody night.

In Seoul it is easy to spill out of history and land bang in the middle of modern rush hour. It happened to us in Gwanghamun where we saw the Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung palaces, in all their preserved glory and then got pitchforked into the busy junction of Jongno, jam-packed with honking Hyundais and lined with sleek skyscrapers.

Or when we crossed the three-tiered Sungneymun pagoda (built 1398) and found ourselves in the noisy thronging alleys of Namdaemun market which sells everything from toothpicks to elephant tusks. Caught up in the jamboree of Namdaemun we didn't bat an eyelid at what would have been an extraordinary sight elsewhere: sellers climbing atop soapboxes in fancy dress costumes and shouting out their wares through loudspeakers.

And we were never too far from a mountain. The snow clad peaks of Namsan and Bukhansan peeked out from behind the towering office blocks and shopping centres. The parks adjoining the peaks are poetic, with miles if barren wintry trees and acres of ground covered in snow mixed with dry brown leaves. Quiet havens in a city where you always hear 'Palli Palli' (quick-quick) - the cry of modern Seoul caught up in a rush to take its place among the top cities of the world. Rather sadly, ostriches in the city zoo were reported to be shedding feathers out of stress, perhaps symbolising our modern times.

It was on Day 4 that we came across Nam Mun Chong, a traditional Korean restaurant across the road from Namsan Park. The hostesss poured us a cup of hot barley tea out of a large bellmetal kettle brewing over a floor-standing burner. Without blinking we ordered a Bulgogi.

Soon the side-dishes arrived and filled up half the table. There were four rows of small white bowls filled with cabbage and radish Kimchi (fermented vegetables soaked in salt and seasoned with red pepper, garlic and ginger), diced garlic, Kochujang (red pepper and fermented bean paste), Kanjang (deep flavoured soy sauce), cold radish streaks, bunches of lettuce, mustard leaves, bean sprouts, spinach cakes, a clear broth and a small metal bowl of rice. 

A gas burner with a hotplate top was out on the table and in went a large bunch of finely shredded beef sirloin that had been marinated for hours in sesame oil, soy sauce, pepper, ginger, green onions, garlic, sugar and wine. The beef sizzled away and we threw some garlic into the hotplate and prodded the meat with tongs.

Soon the beef looked ready and took out pieces with our chopsticks, rolled them with garlic inside a large lettuce leaf, dipped the roll in the meat juice that had collected on the edges of the hotplate, touched it up with Kochujang and ate it in true Korean style. Then we sipped some Soju (rice wine) and felt the vibes.

Tastebuds tingling, we explored the bright nightlife districts of Itaewon and Apgujeong and Myengdong, packed with tourists and bars and restaurants, and crammed with cafes brewing lattes and espressos by the dozen. But the real surprise was the culinary underbelly - the buzzing street food scene reminding us of Bangkok. Queues were forming day and night in front of carts selling Paz (steamed sweet potatoes slightly deep-fried, topped with a red seven-ingredient sauce) and Teokk-bokki (fried ricecakes served can't-touch-hot). In the evenings orange-striped Soju tents sprung up everywhere, bursting at the seams with locals out for a high.

Away from all this bustle, in a back alley of antique-crammed Insadong, we discovered an ancient Korean Tea House called Yetchachip where songbirds flitted about a dimly-lit all wood room and a matronly lady served us Double Harmony tea smelling of dates and cinnamon.

And this is why Seoul is such a paradox. Electric energy in its veins, with the fail-safe circuit-breaker of history and culture. Shiny and contemporary but with a happy baggage of tradition.