Jongno Night Life District
Seoul’s a very dynamic city. It doesn’t take long to pick up on that. The history and culture of Korea is both rich and tragic. The past century in Korean history is one of pain and suffering, but also, incredible social upheaval and change. I’m not writing this post as a history lesson, nor do I feel qualified to do so, so I won’t take this thought much further…Yet, the point is: Korea is still a politcally and socially very active and dynamic place. Culturally it’s in a period of great change, where the old and new worlds are in constant interaction. Living in Seoul, it’s not hard to experience these different worlds, within any general area of the city.
I live in Sinchon, a college area of the city and home to three of Korea’s most famous university’s (Yonsei, Ehwha and Sogang). This area is also, as to be expected, well known for it’s night life. Walk a few minutes from my house and you’ll enter massive streets full of neon lights, large tv screens looming over the busy intersection and hoards of young fashionable people walking by. Yet, walk a minute in the opposite direction and you’ll find a small residential neighborhood that seems to resemble 1960’s Korea more than it’s 21st century counterpart. The streets in this neighborhood (Nogosandong) are small and windy, dotted with potted plants lining the walls. Older woman can often be found in this area watering plants or chopping vegetables outside, and you can catch glimpses into miniature living spaces families are living in. Everytime I walk through here, I feel miles away from the modern Korea down the hill.
I’m describing my small pocket of the city, but to me, the whole city feels this way. Around any corner, you can step into a world that feels far removed from the one you just occupied. Seoul is dynamic, and very full of life. My past Friday out was a reminder of this.
After school Friday I met up with my girlfriend for dinner in the Jongno are of Seoul, the old city center. Nearby is Gwanghwamun Square which sits in front of Korea’s most famous palace Gyeongbukgong. This area is also the site of many tourist photo shoots as well as large scale and small scale protests.
Samgyeospal in Jongno
My girlfriend and I were meeting for some Korean barbecue. We’d both gone without Samgyeopsal (thick pork belly, the Korean equivalent of bacon) for a long time and were craving some together. We sat down, talked and drank soju (sweet potato vodka) over meat and an hour later left to walk around. You Jeong wanted to get a new dress for an upcoming trip to Malaysia, so we walked together towards the store and unexpectedly encountered a large protest in the Gwanghwamun area. There were what I’d describe as batallions of police lined up on the side walks, and at least a hundred police buses parked along the street. I’ve seen protests in Seoul, but I’ve never been in the midst of one this size. Since the ferry sinking disaster in April, there’s been a lot of vocal public outcry against the government for their handling of the situation. This protest was about that, as evidenced by the yellow flags, the color chosen to represent the lives of those lost on the ferry. We walked towards the action to get a closer look and people were waving arms, yelling, rocking large flags back and forth and pumping fists. The police were quickly organizing, moving to and fro. The energy was almost too much for me. It was pulsating and wild and we were just standing in the middle of it watching. Meanwhile people were passing the street on their phones, dressed up with shopping bags in hand. For some, this was a night to make a statement, for others it was a night on the town. For my girlfriend and I it was a night on the town with a small detour through a protest.
Protest near Gwanghwamun
We both decided it’d be best to leave the scence and fine some peace elsewhere, so we continued on to find a dress. A few minutes later we passed by Cheonggyecheon stream. Cheonggyecheon is a stream once covered by a large scale road, now a residential park and getaway from the city hustle (my friend Jakob wrote a great post about the project to recover Cheonggyecheon at http://www.jakobschenker.com/all/2013/9/1/korea-stream) . It’s only about 20-30 feet under the street, yet from alongside the river you can feel a quiet and peace you can’t along the Jongno sidewalks. I was struck by the juxtaposition of the quiet calm of Cheonggyecheon and the intensity of Gwanghwamun. In this politcally and culturally rich area, this juxtaposition of extremes is far from uncommon. Yet, to me, the quiet was a relief. Friday night was one night of many in a series of beautiful sunsets, and the effect created a rich red glow along the surface of the river near one of the main underpasses. Looking down the stream towards Gwangjang market, the river had a light green, turquoise glow complimented by the many lush trees and plants flanking the running water.
Women sitting by Cheonggyecheon
After annoying my girlfriend by lagging behind taking photos, I agreed to putting my camera away for a few minutes and just walk. We made our way from there to Myeongdong, one of Seoul’s main shopping meccas, and among one of the favorites for chinese and japanese tourists. That night, as we walked the streets You Jeong said “I don’t think I’m in Korea anymore” looking around at the many foreign faces. She asked “Are you okay being here? You don’t like Myeongdong right?” The truth is, I do like Myeongdong, just in small doses and preferably at night. I find it a lot of fun during the night with all the neon lights and street vendors. Yet, it’s still a lot for me. I’ve never been great with massive crowds and excessive stimulation and that’s what Myeongdong’s all about. Nonetheless I can find it interesting and energizing when in the right frame of mind.
Myeongdong at night
Street Vendor in Myeongdong
Street food, lots of grilled seafood (octopus, squid, fish, etc.)
I’d agreed to tag along that night while You Jeong shopped. It was my gift to her and I promised to be patient. She could tell, however, that I was tired, so offered to get beer and fries afterwards. We wound up at beer and fry joint above the streets of Myeongdong. We were speaking only in Korean all night, so our conversation was more basic than usual but we both had fun. The night certainly provided many things to talk about and was a reminder for me that the city I call home can be very turbulent and wild yet always full of life and energy. I enjoy these things about Seoul.