Korea is a country of stark contrast.
In Seoul, every city block sports looming high-rise buildings; proud giants standing testament to the recent rise of Korean industry. The history palace of Gyeongbokgung, in turn, looks like an artifact of forgotten centuries. It is not a facade, as the structure’s most recent destruction occurred during the Empire of Japan’s occupation in 1911, but is instead indicative of the technological leaps made in the last one hundred years.
At city limits, perhaps a kilometer from unbroken ground, the stoic edifices simply stop. Very few ramshackle constructions marking the edge of the city, almost as if the concrete structures simply leapt from the ground like trees. An apt metaphor, as one really does feel like they’re standing at the edge of a large forest; so dense and full of life and impenetrable.
The people of Seoul are a homogeneous bunch, as expected, though expectation cannot compare to the reality of some twenty million people sharing a culture, an identity, a heritage. Standing amid thousands of skinny, dark-haired faces, each with traces of individuality (yet statistically insignificant to my untrained eye) it was easy to feel like I had walked into something I should not have. As if this were something private, and I, an intruder.
I feel I should stop now, and apologize. For the delay, for the hiatus, for my inability to be contacted (which to be fair is more a side effect of my environment and isn’t really my fault.) Three weeks later, and here I am reporting: My time in Korea was wonderful. I learned plenty, ate lots of delicious Korean food, learned how to read Hangul, got accustomed to eating with chopsticks, and generally spent most of the time cursing and sweating at my friend Ian as we climbed seemingly every hill possible.
I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to Asia, or a better tour guide and companion. We saw so much, ate so much, and I even helped him find the local microbreweries to help ease his last two months in the country. As I’ve learned in the intermediate time: Seoul is a city of comforts. Their metro runs regularly and is more or less clean. The cost of living is very affordable, as long as you are not interested in property. There is generally available air conditioning, wifi, and accessible restaurants. The alphabet is easy to learn, so you can read just about anything, even if you don’t know what you’re saying (which, trust me, is way more useful than it sounds.) For all the culture shock and the alienation you feel, it is a remarkably easy place to visit, and I highly recommend it.