I wrote this article as a guest post for Ever the Nomad and am re-”printing” it below.
1. Machine shop sign, 2. Bomun-dong
It’s become somewhat of a cliché, when describing large Asian cities, to note the juxtaposition of ancient and modern by describing the cheek-by-jowl placement of old palaces and gleaming, neon-clad office towers. Seoul – like Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Shanghai – certainly has plenty of that. Yet, for some reason, I’d never really been enamored by either side of that dichotomy here. The royal palaces seem far removed from the average Korean’s everyday existence. The shopping districts glitter with foreign imports that I can buy more cheaply elsewhere. Instead, again and again, I’m drawn to the odd, lumpy neighborhoods hidden in alleyways, tucked away in unfashionable districts and cowering in the shadows of those ever-present wrecking balls.
On weekends, my husband and I pick a neighborhood on the map, hop onto the subway and spend the afternoon roaming nondescript back alleys. We pick our way among dwellings snugly perched on hillsides, accessible only by narrow concrete steps. We hunt down neighborhood canteens serving home-cooked stews, tucked in alleyways too narrow to squeeze a Kia sedan. We explore each “-dong” (neighborhood) block by block.
First, a little bit of background. Much of the Seoul you see today emerged from the rubble after the end of the Korean War when, in a flurry of construction, a new, utilitarian and none-too-pretty concrete skyline materialized. The initial building boom wasn’t too well thought out – some apartment buildings and department stores collapsed right after they were erected – but over time something unique to Seoul came into being.
In some neighborhoods, the hanok (traditional one-story Korean houses with courtyards and tile roofs) were bulldozed and replaced with boxy (but then-state-of-the-art), five- or six-story structures where families relocated to start a new life. Other neighborhoods, graced by their inhospitable locations on steep hillsides, were spared the wrecking ball for another day. But hardy residents throughout – mostly grandpas and grandmas, since younger folk have all moved to more commute-friendly apartment complexes – have over the course of the last four decades, adapted their homes to modern living in typical pragmatic fashion. That is, by molding oddly shaped additions out of concrete and corrugated steel, stacking kimchi pots and drying peppers on rooftop patios, and weaving squash vines around doorway trellises.
These days, the remnants of the post-war developments are crumbling and the skyline that’s developing in their stead is a disturbingly uniform forest of apartment buildings differentiated only by their luxurious-sounding brand names – Lotte Caste, Richensia, Hill State. The concrete towers bear little witness to their neighborhoods’ colorful histories, erasing from the landscape the corner shops where neighbors traded gossip while children played in the street. In a rush to turn Seoul into a “world-class” city attractive to tourists and foreign investors, the city government and local developers have been destroying, “-dong” by “-dong”, the very bits of urban soul and everyday life that make this city unique. The constant background soundtrack to our past four years in Seoul has been a cacophony of rumbling bulldozers and whining drills.
Seoul can be a hard place to get to know. For first-time visitors who can’t read or speak Korean, much of the city is indecipherable and seemingly out of reach, so travel guides and tour buses are certainly an easy solution. But almost every world traveler asks, upon landing in an unfamiliar country and settling in at their hotel, “What can I find here that I can’t find anywhere else?” Seoul’s answer to that question lies hidden in plain sight, a few minutes walk from major subway stations but absent from most guidebooks. There’s nothing here to give the following neighborhoods historic designation. One might even say they’re unremarkable, mundane, even boring. But perhaps there’s no better way to get to the heart of a culture than to experience what the local version of “boring” is, for it’s most certainly very different from what you would consider “boring” back home.
During your stay in Seoul, take an afternoon to tuck yourself into an unremarkable neighborhood of Seoul – browse the colorful clutter of a local hardware store, pick up an energizing Vitamin C drink from the tiny neighborhood pharmacy, and thumb through some comic books at a manhwa lending library. Few of the signs will be in English but a surprising amount of communication might be achieved with hand motions and smiling. When you run across a neighborhood market, follow your nose, pull up a stool, and order up some fried seafood pancakes. When the sun sets, share some steamed mussels and a bottle of soju with some friends at a pojangmacha street food stall before taking a taxi back to your guesthouse.
3. Ahyeon-dong, 4. Alley
So, without further ado, and before it’s too late – I hear the staccato hammering of a jackhammer taking apart the house next door even as I type these words – I present my “take-the-subway-and-then-get-lost-in-a-random-neighborhood” tour of everyday Seoul…
Line 5 Aeogae Station, Exits 3 and 4 (애오개역)
Although the ground breaking for this area’s latest apartment development is yet to begin, the little neighborhood right outside exit 3 has been almost completely demolished. You might still spy some abandoned shops and gutted houses if you go before the end of 2009. To the east, from the playground of the Hwan-il Middle School, there is a great view of the city’s patchwork of rooftops. Wander in a northerly, uphill direction towards Chungrim-dong to explore more narrow back alleys slated for destruction. Recently posted wheat-paste signs have been advertising a New Town development project, promising compensation for neighborhood denizens who move out of their homes peacefully.
Line 2 Mullae Station, Exit 7 (문래역)
Mullae-dong largely consists of industrial metal shops. There are few residential services here and it becomes a ghost town on the weekends. Go on weekdays to see them in all their noisy, clattering glory. Tucked in this neighborhood are also a few artist studios decorated with quirky murals.
Line 3 Gyeongbokgung Station, Exit 2 (경복궁역)
In every guidebook, Gyeongbuk Palace is listed as a must-see tourist destination. But when you’re done checking it out, take an hour or so to explore this little neighborhood located just a few hundred meters to its west. First, locate Tongin Market to enjoy some rice cakes stir-fried in soy sauce, an old-fashioned snack. Then, work off the calories by exploring the neighborhood just behind the market, a sleepy area with dated storefronts that seem straight out of the 1970s.
Yeongcheon Market (영천시장)
Line 3 Dongnimmun Station, Exit 4 (독림문역)
There are outdoor food markets scattered throughout the city; Yeongcheon Market is but one example. Located south of Dongnimmun Station on the other side of the elevated expressway, Yeongcheon serves the residents of Hyundai and Geukdong apartment complexes nearby. It reaches its peak of activity right before dinner. Pick up a bag of fried doughnut sticks for 1,000 Won, haggle with the produce-selling aunties over the price of lettuce and cucumbers and savor a market experience devoid of tourist touts.
5. Storefronts, 6. Potato flour noodles
Gyeongdong Market (경동시장)
Line 1 Jegidong Station, exit 2 (재기동역)
Here, you can find ginseng, herbs and all sorts of medicinal items that are supposed to give you health, strength and … well, libido. It’s good for just taking in all the interesting sights and smells. Somewhere in here is the best naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles) in the city.
Dapsimini Antiques Market (답십리고미술상가)
Line 5 Dapsimini Station, exit 1 or 2 (답십리역)
Skip the guidebook-touted antique shops in Insadong (overpriced) and Itaewon (fake) and head to Dapsimini Station instead. Even if you’re not going to buy, it’s fun to wander among the dusty shops and look at all the old furniture and ceramics. The market hasn’t been seeing a lot of business lately – many young affluent Koreans prefer to decorate their homes with brand-name imports – so please pick up a little something to help keep these sellers in business. There are a lot of cheaper smaller items, like embroidered pillows and vintage cutlery, that can make nice souvenirs.
Kwangjang Market (광장시장)
Line 1 Jongno-5-ga Station, exit 8 (종로5가)
If you’re looking for a bustling market experience, this is one of the largest markets in downtown Seoul. It’s like a mall for retirees, packed to the ceiling with housewares and clothing available in a full range of grandma- and grandpa-friendly styles. Go around lunchtime on a weekday to people-watch at peak time and to eat some awesome handmade noodles and Korean pancakes. Stall number 21 has my favorite dumplings in all of Seoul.