18 October 2017

Seoul, South Korea

The Sungnyemun Gate is the great south gate of the walled city of old Seoul in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), and is Korea’s ‘National Treasure No. 1’, its unofficial name is Namdaemun Gate. The gate was destroyed by fire, started by an unhappy Korean, in 2008, so what you see in these photos is a restored version. It may not look particularly great to you, or me, it is important to the Koreans. The restoration project, took five years, involved 35,000  artisans, workers, historians and scientists, and cost $23 million.

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It is unfortunate that the person chose to set fire to this, because, until it burnt to the ground, this was Seoul’s oldest building. Built in 1398, the gate managed to survive the numerous Chinese and Japanese invasions,  the Japanese particularly liked setting fire to buildings when they invaded, and these fires destroyed most of the temples in the city. This gate has performed many functions, apart from being  the entrance and exit to the walled city, it’s a place for a farewell party, a place of public punishment for rebellion, and a bell pavilion.

In the same area and in complete contrast to the gate,  the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, designed by Zaha Hadid, was  completed in 2014. The building, just seen in one of the photos, is covered in over forty thousand aluminium panels. It has exhibition spaces, a museum and an outside space, which when I was there had this LED flower installation.

Bukchon Hanok Village, has over 900 hanoks, ‘hanok’ is a Korean term for a traditional house. Korean architecture considers the position of the hanok in relation to the land and the seasons, and ideally is built with the mountains at the back and the river at the front of the property.

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The natural materials used to build the hanok are environmentally friendly and recyclable,  soil, clay, timber, and rock, hanoks are built with the aim of not causing pollution. All the hanoks in Bukchon are lived in. Modern buildings have been constructed around the village, and from a viewpoint one can see the old tiled roofs of the hanoks juxtaposed with the newer property.

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View from the top of the Bukchon Village

This hanok is a permanent exhibition home, showing the layout of a typical home. A heating system unique to South Korea, the ondol heated rock system, keeps the hanok warm in the winter and the wide front porch keeps it cool in the summer.

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Myeong-dong Cathedral is the most iconic cathedral in Korea, it has symbolised Korean Catholicism for 118 years.

The cathedral is, not surprisingly, near Myeong-dong Street, this street is Korea’s best known shopping district.  Korea has what it calls, ‘mobile tourist information centres’ and these are dotted around the city. I came across one at the hanok village and also in the middle of the pedestrian area of the shopping district. They are usually in pairs and at least one speaks English, they are extremely helpful, polite and knowledgeable, and can easily be spotted in their uniforms.

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When I emerged from a restaurant in the early evening, the pedestrian shopping area had transformed into a street market. Rows of stalls had set up in the middle of the street, selling everything from food to clothing, it was the food stalls I was most interested in.

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Little loaves of bread with an egg on top and baked in an oven were popular, as were what Koreans called scallops, these were prised out of what looked like giant, mutant mussel shells, chopped up and cooked before being smothered with cheese and flame grilled by a blow torch.

If one wasn’t sure what type of food the stall holder was cooking, there was often a clue, in one case, toy octopuses hung from the stall.

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This woman is making cinder toffee, with just a tiny little cup over a flame, in the interest of research I did a few samplings of this, yummy, and only 50 UK pennies.

I can’t finish this post without writing about a temple. There are lots of temples to visit in Seoul. Today it’s Changgyeonggung Palace.

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Changgyeonggung Palace was built in the 15th century, burnt down by the Japanese in the 16th century,  rebuilt in the 17th century, then set fire to in a revolt and rebuilt in the 18th century. In the 19th century the inner courts were destroyed by fire and rebuilt, then the command post and printing office burnt down and were rebuilt. In the 20th century, palace buildings were demolished to build a zoo and botanical garden.

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In 1983 the site was reinstated as a major palace compound and the restoration of the palace began. Despite it’s turbulent past, it’s rather a restful place now.  The octagonal seven storey stone pagoda was made in China in 1470, it was bought from an antiques dealer in 1911, and placed by the edge of the large pond.

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